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Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Updated: December 19, 10:00 AM ET
The laughs behind the Steel Curtain

By David Fleming
Page 2

The Steelers' massive indoor practice field stood empty, dark and silent when, one by one, members of the NFL's best defense slipped in through a side door and shuffled quietly toward the only light in the entire building, coming from inside a nearby racquetball court. Linebacker James Farrior was first, followed by MVP candidate James Harrison, massive nose tackle Casey Hampton, a long string of jumpy, chatty defensive backs and safety Troy Polamalu, who untied his long hair as he walked.

Flem File

And once all 14 players arrived, I followed them out of the darkness and into the room where a photo shoot was being set up for ESPN The Magazine. Temporarily blinded by the bright lights, with reality slightly altered by the small, narrow door as well as the echo-chamber effect inside the court, for one surreal second I experienced what it must feel like for a running back to head into the line of scrimmage at the goal line of Heinz Field.

You cover your eyes. You duck. You gulp.

In the background, you swear you hear the unmistakable siren wail and thumping bass from what sounds like Public Enemy's "Shut 'Em Down." The next time you open your eyes, you're facing the game's nastiest defense.

And then, of course, Harrison, the leader, steps forward and asks for a fan so that Polamalu's hair will poof just the right way when the cameras flash. Everyone cracks up. You breathe again.

Of all the wonderfully bizarre situations this job puts me in on a fairly regular basis, this has to be near the top: an hour spent squeezed into a tiny racquetball court with the members of Blitzburgh. A defense that in two weeks could become the first team since 1991 to lead the league in rush defense, pass defense and total defense at the same time as allowing the fewest rushing yards ever by a Steelers defense in the modern era.

In this town, that's saying something.

I mean, the amount of talent crammed into this room was stunning: Farrior, the anchor, with his team-high 112 tackles; Harrison, 15 sacks and seven forced fumbles -- seven; perennial Pro Bowler Polamalu and his NFL-best seven picks; LaMarr Woodley, 11.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a pick; Aaron Smith, former Pro Bowl end with 4.5 sacks; corner Deshea Townsend, who returned a pick to beat Dallas … the list goes on.

Not that anyone has noticed. Hampton set his family up in a suite at Heinz Field for the game against the Cowboys. Late in the first half, down on the field, the Steelers' defense was feeling good about shutting out Romo, T.O. and the rest of the Cowboys. But Hampton's family, which was up in the suite, later admitted it was bored to death and hoping for some more scoring on the field. "We can't win, it's always going to be like that. Offense sells tickets, but a true fan can enjoy what we do," Hampton said before the shoot while sitting at his locker inside the Steelers' locker room. "We've always had great defenses here. The other defenses, the Baltimores, they holler a lot about what they're doing. But we just sit back and do our thing. We just do it low-key."

(By the way, you'll be happy to note that Steelers receiver Hines Ward extracted his revenge on the Flem File for naming him one of the league's dirtiest players by interrupting my interview with Hampton to ask about the worst Christmas gift he ever got. Answer: a red sweater. Long story. Mom couldn't afford much. Thought he was getting a toy or something cool. Etc, etc. The whole thing was very distracting. Well played, Mr. Ward. Well played indeed. Hampton and Ward, who was wearing a pair of bright yellow Crocs, kept laughing about the too-small Kool-Aid-colored sweater for a long, long time.)

Laughter is a sound you hear a lot around the Steelers' complex these days because, in the NFL, laughter is the unmistakable sound of confidence, of swagger, of a team that's rapidly climbing its way up the postseason seeding ladder while the Giants and Titans around them try desperately to hold onto their Mo as it leaks out of their cupped hands like water.

And inside the racquetball court, the Steelers' punch lines hit as hard and as often as their blitzes.

They rapped for the cameras. They flexed. They posed. Smith said he had been working on his Zoolander Blue Steel look all day. And when the players found out the shoot was intended for a possible cover (I'll never tell), half of them jumped down and started doing push-ups to bulk up for the newsstand.

"Smile," the photog yelled to Harrison.

"I don't smile," the 'backer replied.

"What do you think of the super spread that Texas Tech runs?" I asked him a few minutes later during a break.

"Texas Tech? Who's that?" he asked.

Come on, man. Be cool.

"Seriously, I don't watch football when I go home, man," Harrison insisted. "I don't watch ESPN or none of that -- I watch cartoons."

This was his kind of scene, then.

"I'm hungry," someone else yelled.

"Is that a wrap?" someone asked.

Meanwhile, the defensive backs started poking fun at the linebackers, saying they led with their helmets too many times. The linebackers made of fun of the tackles who kept complaining about kneeling on the hard floor. The tackles told the DBs to cross their arms and tuck their hands under their biceps to make them look bigger. When the photog asked for a mean, serious look, the Steelers all froze as long as they could -- like holding in church giggles … then burst out laughing. After each pose, they all ran over to the laptop to see how the photo turned out, then yelled at the guy who blinked.

Honestly, you always kinda hope the great teams act like this when they're out of sight and by themselves, but you never know. And the whole time inside that tiny court, all I could think was: "Wait, wait. This is a team that has won eight games by a TD or less, that's about to play in Baltimore where they've lost five straight, and they don't seem to have a care in the world. … The Titans are in trouble. Big, big trouble."

Finally, the Steelers were asked to pose in black ponchos. The hooded cloaks were pure old-school -- a perfect homage to all the defensive greats who have come before them in Pittsburgh. But the pressure to live up to that legacy must be immense. The reminders are everywhere. Lombardi trophies. Team photos. Statues. Paintings. Hall of Fame plaques. Like the one down the hall the defensive players must walk past on their way to meetings. It's a floor-to-ceiling black and white photo of the first points ever scored in a Super Bowl by the Steelers -- a safety, appropriately enough, registered by the Steel Curtain against Fran Tarkenton in Super Bowl IX.

So I half-expected some of the current Steelers to pause or even flat-out refuse to wear the old ponchos and voluntarily cloak themselves in the history, legacy and expectations of the Steel Curtain.

But none did.

They threw them on without hesitating.

And from where I was standing, it looked like a perfect fit.


30-SECOND COLUMN

When I hear rumors about Cleveland's hope to hire Bill Cowher as the team's next head coach, my first, and only, reaction is: Haven't Browns fans suffered enough?

What the Steelers did under Cowher to capture Super Bowl XL -- catch fire in the final month of the season and ride that emotional wave to four road wins in the playoffs -- was truly amazing.

But does anyone else remember how Cowher did in the five other biggest games of his coaching career? Well, he went 1-4 at home in four AFC Championship Games against lesser opponents and was so utterly flummoxed by the Pats in the last two that I'm convinced Bill Belichick could have won with either roster. Then there was the Super Bowl against Dallas when Cowher was outfoxed by the slightly less than brilliant Barry Switzer.

Let's face it, Cowher was a great beneficiary of the Steelers' magnificent organization. And if he was ever an elite coach, it was, at best, in a bygone era when you could do the same thing every week and just do it better than anyone else.

Maybe it's not all Cowher's fault. Maybe the next round of the coaching carousel hasn't even started, but already I'm tired of the lack of original thought by the NFL's old boys network; you know, the folks who gave us the 100-year-old Wildcat offense and the Norv Turnering of the San Diego Chargers' once-electrifying roster of young talent.

The Browns have a similar kind of team. They really do. And they don't need spit and elbow grease and a good old fashioned kick in the pants. They need a great coach. And great coaching is about brilliant but disguisable schemes, staying one chess move ahead of opponents, about guiding and teaching and motivating good, inexpensive young players to becoming great ones and, mostly, accessing your own roster, and each week's opponent, and customizing your approach and your attack accordingly. You cannot go back to the future anymore in the NFL. And if the Browns try it again with Cowher, it's the fans who will be taking another one on the chin.

FLEM FILE FIVE

Top five actual wild-card tiebreakers paired with five much better tiebreaker ideas (in parentheses):

5. If two clubs remain tied in any tiebreaker step after all other clubs have been eliminated, the procedure reverts to Step 1 of the two-club format to determine the winner. When one club wins the tiebreaker, all other clubs revert to Step 1 of the applicable two-club or three-club format. (The team that benefited the most from blown calls by the refs is eliminated.)

4. Head-to-head sweep: Apply only if one club has defeated each of the others or one club has lost to each of the others. (The team with the highest combined number of onside kicks, fourth-down attempts and two-point conversions advances.)

3. Strength of victory. (Teams from the AFC West and NFC West cannot advance.)

2. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed. (The team with the least teal, purple or orange in uniform advances.)

1. Coin toss. (The team with the fewest off-the-field problems advances.)

FLEM FOTOS


This massive felt diagram hangs above the stairs in the Steelers' practice facility. Can you guess which famous play it depicts?


I had to lean backward against the wall to snag this photo of the strangely brilliant patterns of light and texture inside the Titans' practice bubble.


Either this is one of those deiceinators for the airplane, or we're under attack by George Lucas.

DEAR FLEM

In the crazy, topsy-turvy world of the NFL, sometimes fans just need someone to talk to. So once a week Mag senior writer David Fleming will exchange an e-mail with one lucky (we think) reader. If you'd like to have an e-mail exchange with Flem, click here and pour your pigskin heart out. Go ahead, Flem's listening. This week, Flem talks to a Broncos fan living in New Jersey.

THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: A stuffed reindeer head that sings "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas" over and over and over again every time you squeeze its nose. My children got it from a grandparent who is apparently giving out migraines for presents this year.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship," which has been optioned as a movie. The Flem File will run each Wednesday during the NFL season.