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The Steelers are a franchise in transition, and that includes their culture

The Pittsburgh Steelers organization isn’t what it used to be, but is that all bad?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Los Angeles Chargers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers value stability. We all know that. Three head coaches since 1969. No cheerleaders. The iconic hypocycloids on only one side of their helmet. They are known for a brand of tough, physical football and for a no-frills approach befitting the franchise’s patriarch, the late Art Rooney Sr.

Art Rooney Sr. liked traditions. When he was running things, the Steelers would often spend a late-round draft pick on a player from a college in the Pittsburgh area, like Pitt, West Virginia or even a smaller school like Youngstown State. Rarely did those players make the team, but the gesture was telling. Art Sr. believed in giving local kids a shot, and in doing so, he believed the fan base would look upon the franchise favorably. One of his favorite sayings was, “Treat everybody the way you’d like to be treated. Give them the benefit of the doubt. But never let anyone mistake kindness for weakness.” His son, Art Jr., described this philosophy as “the Golden Rule with a little bit of North Side in it.”

More than anything, Art Rooney Sr. established a way of doing things in Pittsburgh that his oldest son, Dan, adhered to once he took over the franchise. There’s a reason the Steelers have won more games than any NFL team since 1970, including six Super Bowls. The “Rooney Way” has proven effective.

That doesn’t mean, however, the Steelers have not faced challenging periods over that time. Fans like myself remember the mid-to-late 80s, as the players from the championship teams of the previous decade retired and the front office struggled to replace them. From 1985-1991, Chuck Noll’s Steelers went a combined 46-60 and qualified for the playoffs just once, in 1989. There was no internet then, no Behind The Steel Curtain, but had there been the calls for Noll’s head would have been boisterous. Drafts busts like Darryl Sims and Tom Ricketts would have been excoriated. Bubby Brister would have been treated like a piñata.

Something similar occurred in the late 90s. Bill Cowher, who replaced Noll in 1992, quickly built a Super Bowl contender on the back of a stifling defense and a power run game. By 1998, though, Cowher’s first core group of players had largely moved on. The 1998-2000 squads compiled a 22-26 record and missed the playoffs all three years. Like Noll, Cowher would have been raked over the coals had today’s blogosphere existed. His treatment would have been mild, though, compared to Kordell Stewart. Stewart, who, had he arrived 15 years later, would have been a wicked read-option and RPO quarterback, was ill-suited as a traditional pocket-passer. He would have inspired a generation of angst-ridden posters railing about his inability to read a defense and his penchant for throwing slants at the feet of his receivers.

The 2021 Steelers are also a team in transition. From a personnel perspective, they have question marks at nearly every position group. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is at the end of his stellar career, and the roster lacks a viable successor. The offensive line lacks cohesion and physicality and badly needs an infusion of talent. The wide receiver group, in which the Steelers have invested several high draft picks, is under-performing. Injuries along the defensive line have exposed its lack of depth. The inside linebacking corps has been severely impacted by Devin Bush’s regression following his ACL injury. The team’s best corner, Joe Haden, will likely leave in free agency after the season. So will starting safety Terrell Edmunds. Only at running back and tight end, where rookies Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth seem like fixtures for the foreseeable future, and at outside linebacker, where T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are a formidable duo, do things seem settled.

Personnel is one thing. The challenge this current group faces goes beyond that. Perhaps no issue brings that challenge into greater focus than the recent dust-up over receiver Chase Claypool’s request that the Steelers play music at the facility to lighten the environment and let players have more fun. Claypool’s comments are stunningly tone-deaf in the wake of the 41-10 drubbing the Steelers received at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals just five days ago. Coach Mike Tomlin quickly quashed the request, suggesting Claypool focus on his role as a player while Tomlin would worry about the climate of the team.

Claypool’s role includes acting less like a clown, which he did by jumping up after catching a pass for a 41-yard gain against Cincinnati, turning towards the Bengals’ fans and doing a vile “wiping-the-snot-from-his-nose” gesture at them, and more like a professional. On the play immediately following Claypool’s catch, he failed to line up properly by covering tackle Zach Banner, who had reported as eligible, and drew a penalty that wiped out a completion to Diontae Johnson. Claypool, while wildly talented, would serve both himself and the Steelers better by working more on his craft and less on trolling fans, getting into petty squabbles with opponents and consuming himself with the extraneous.

His request to play music at the facility drew the ire not just of Tomlin but of veterans Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Heyward as well. Roethlisberger’s comments were particularly telling. They are chronicled in expanded fashion in the article by Jeff Hartman, to which I’ve linked below. Here is a shorter sampling, though, in which Roethlisberger spoke about why there was a long-standing rule about not playing music in the Steelers locker room:

Dan Rooney passed away in 2017. The team is run now by Art Jr, who does not represent the wise, old sage to the players his father did. More importantly, the veterans who were raised on the culture Dan Rooney cultivated are all but gone. Roethlisberger, Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Chris Boswell are the only players who remain from when Dan Rooney was around. They are the only ones who remember the tone that was set in that locker room and on that practice field. Without the presence of Dan Rooney, their ability to pass along the lessons he imparted and the approach he expected is second-hand. The young players in today’s locker room, like Claypool, have surely been told of the “Rooney Way.” Who is there to embody it, though? Who provides the presence that instills expectation?

Some of the BTSC writers were discussing this on our Slack channel the other day when Geoffrey Benedict shared the following thoughts:

Geoffrey is right. It can’t be replaced. But, if it’s deemed important enough, the message can be carried on. Traditions don’t remain traditions simply because people talk about them. They must be actualized. If the standard is to remain the standard in Pittsburgh, there must be someone to enforce it. Roethlisberger will be gone soon. Heyward not long after. Who will carry forward the tradition? Who will set the standard?

It’s not about music in the locker room. Music in the locker room is a symptom of a potentially graver illness. That illness is a lack of leadership and identity rarely seen in Pittsburgh. The transitions that occurred in the late 80s and late 90s were ones involving personnel. But the bedrock of the franchise — Art Sr. and Dan Rooney — remained. As a result, there was always someone to show the players the way and to establish the proper culture. Once the few remaining players who knew Dan Rooney are gone, who will play that role? More than X and O’s, more than who replaces Roethlisberger at quarterback or who plays on the line, this may be the question that defines the franchise as it turns the page on its current chapter to author the next one.