Re-Setting The Steeler Way

It's the season of learning for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as members of the front office and coaching staff fly around the country in desperate search of draft knowledge.

Out on the West Coast the other day the Steelers had a chance to re-learn some of their own traditional philosophy at Stanford.

Even though Stanford doesn't have a prospect with whom Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin needed to have dinner, the Steelers had a man at the school's pro day anyway.

According to one of the best draftnicks in the draftnick business, Stanford won't even have a player drafted in the first three rounds, and that's kind of odd for a team that went 12-2 last season.

Stanford did that a year after losing QB Andrew Luck as the first pick of the draft.

Luck had led Stanford to an 11-2 record in 2011, a year after the school had lost coach Jim Harbaugh to the San Francisco 49ers.

In his final season there, Harbaugh led Stanford to a 12-1 record in 2010, and that occurred a year after Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart had left for the NFL.

I think you're getting the picture.

Stanford wins. And it does so without great talent, and without great coaches, and of course with great talent and with great coaches.

But the point is that not one man has been responsible for this great bastion of academics piling up 43 wins in 53 games the last four seasons.

Stepfan Taylor was there for all of it. At the combine last month I asked the small running back without any speed how it was done.

Not how he piled up career school records of 4,300 rushing yards, 45 touchdowns and 21 100-yard games at 5 feet 9, 214 pounds and a 4.76 40, but how his team was able to marry strong academics and football success even after star coaches and quarterbacks had departed.

"A lot of things," Taylor said. "It starts with coaches recruiting the right players to be in our locker room, and players who want to run what we run at Stanford, and do things how we do. You've got to be a team-first player at Stanford."

OK. The Steelers know this stuff. They've had a model NFL locker room ever since Chuck Noll drafted Joe Greene. The Rooneys stress character, and personnel men such as Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert have been able to marry virtuous character and football success.

But there was a mini-depression in the mid-1980s, and I'm wondering if another one's headed their way in the coming years. I'm wondering if the Steelers are in such a rush to squeeze another title through the Ben Roethlisberger window that they're stretching the boundaries of what they deem to be good character.

It's just a minor worry, but it's one that's been nagging me as their draft classes from the last few years have either deteriorated altogether or are in various stages of aggravated decay.

Then again, the Steelers drafted a Stanford guy in the first round last year. Stepfan Taylor began chuckling when I brought up David DeCastro, and not because DeCastro is some kind of a clown.

No, DeCastro is far from funny ha-ha. He's just funny in a caricature kind of way. He's THAT serious, and no one had better waste his precious time. So people stand back when David DeCastro walks by.

"I've been hearing he's still the same," Taylor said with obvious fondness. "He still says two words, things like that. But, man, when you're playing behind DeCastro, what a great feeling. He'd just run that power and you'd just see him making the big hole and everybody just running out of his way. Yeah, I mean, I can't wait until he gets back healthy again and gets back out there, because he's a man."

That's exactly how the Steelers feel. And the hope here is that they're continuing to look for that kind of leadership, that kind of dedication to the game, in this draft.

"It was up to us to keep the locker room together and tight," Taylor continued about The Stanford Way. "And we do a great job of that, not having any cliques in the locker room or things like that."

Stanford won 9 of its 12 games last season by 7 points or less, and Taylor said that "having a close locker room definitely helped us out a lot, being able to stick together and pull through those wins."

In order to get the right players, his teammate, Chase Thomas, told me the coaches leaned on the veteran players. Thomas said that the vets would give coaches a "yay or nay" after hosting recruits, because "we knew who was a phony and who was a player," Thomas said. "And the coaches knew that we knew."

And once the locker room became secured, so to speak, the snowball continued its way down the hill.

"Young players around the country are seeing that, so it makes it that much easier to recruit," said Taylor.

Again, it's a circle of success the Steelers know well. They've used it over the years to recruit choice free agents. And, really, I insult them today by referring their learning process to a bunch of college kids wearing sweater vests.

But no one's ever too old to re-learn old tricks. And someone has to throw up a caution flag because closing windows can cause rash decisions, which in turn can cause mini-depressions. Ask anyone else who remembers the 1980s.

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