Things stay the same in Pittsburgh

With another NFL season set to open tonight in Pittsburgh, one trait that is evident in the defending champs and other successful teams is continuity.

Updated: September 7, 2006, 11:35 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Change comes slowly here, a city that often measures progress with a kind of back-to-the-future mind-set, where plaid and polyester are really never quite out of style, and time is marked with reference points such as Bill Mazeroski's home run, the Immaculate Reception and Big Ben's Tackle.

People fret about whether the potholes are going to be filled but even more so about whether their beloved Steelers can add another Super Bowl to help fill the trophy case at the team's South Side headquarters. That there is now a fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy displayed there is testament to the resiliency of Bill Cowher's team in 2005, to a marvelous eight-game winning streak that included three playoff victories on the road, and to the fact that the Rooney family knows that the slow-to-change philosophy embraced here isn't all such a bad thing.

"We don't change things just for the sake of change," Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "When you make changes, it means you're starting over again, and we don't think that's the answer. It's not how you win, at least we don't think so, in this league."

So the Steelers have employed two head coaches since 1969. They've got an assistant, Dick Hoak, who has been with the team now for 45 seasons as a player or a coach. There has been one surname on the letterhead since the inception of the franchise. And, oh yeah, the Steelers have the five Super Bowl titles as well, in part because they are among the NFL's most stable organizations.

And in the NFL, continuity counts.

Last week, in previewing the kickoff to the 2006 season, ESPN.com published a series of features on the importance of character and its role in determining the winners and losers in the league. But put continuity, somehow a devalued commodity in the NFL in this era of player movement and the need by some owners for instant gratification, right there with character as one of the most critical components of success.

It's a simple equation, lost in the shuffle of free agency, and obscured by the seeming need for owners to change coaches like they change socks. The more an organization stays together, the longer a team plays together, the more apt it is to be standing on the Super Bowl podium with confetti streaming down around it.

"You look for constants in this league, at least where you can, and that's where you usually find most of the winners, with the teams that are constant," Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb said this summer. "You know, teams that aren't making drastic changes every year, pushing the panic button, and where there is some [degree of] carryover. Those are teams that usually are successful."

Said Miami defensive end Kevin Carter, when asked if the Dolphins can end the New England Patriots' reign of supremacy in the AFC East this season: "Yeah, we'd like to think we can measure up to them. At the same time, they start off, as always, with [coach] Bill Belichick and [quarterback] Tom Brady. And that's not a bad place for anyone to start, right?"

That isn't to suggest, of course, that franchises that have undergone wholesale refurbishing during the offseason won't challenge for a Super Bowl championship. The Dolphins, notably, have a new quarterback and new offensive and defensive coordinators and there are a lot of pundits who feel that Miami certainly can contend for the title. For the most part, however, the early-line favorites in nearly all eight divisions are franchises that maintained stability since the conclusion of the 2005 campaign.

Granted, there aren't a lot of them, with just 11 teams in the league entering this year with the same head coach, coordinators and starting quarterback they had last season. That's an alarmingly modest number of teams that opted to stay the course rather than plot a new direction. But recent history, in terms of playoff wins and Super Bowl titles, has demonstrated that the road to the championship is one that doesn't include a lot of detours.

And this season probably won't be a lot different in that regard.

Of the 10 teams that made head coaching changes, not many are earmarked by the "experts" for the playoffs. There are 10 teams with new starting quarterbacks, and outside of perhaps Miami and Baltimore, you don't often hear those clubs cited as postseason contenders. That's because winning is more frequently tied to the number of changes a team doesn't make than the alterations it does. Dealing in volume, turning over the most crucial positions on a roster and on a coaching staff, certainly doesn't guarantee victory.

"When I look at our team," Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Johnson said, "one of the things that I think makes it so dangerous is that it hasn't changed. Especially on offense, I look to my right, same guys in the same places they were a year ago. Look to my left, same deal. Look in the backfield, same guys. We didn't have to push a lot of buttons, plug in a lot of new pieces, you know? The pieces we had, and still have, are good enough. And might even be better this year. There's definitely something to be said for familiarity."

Indeed, in the NFL, familiarity tends to breed victories more than it does contempt. The most surprising thing is how often that reality is lost on ownership and management in some franchises. The revolving door approach, veteran players acknowledge, tends to set things spinning out of control. Owners who feel that hiring a new coach every three years is going to move them forward usually are still playing catch-up three years later. Panic rarely is transformed into a playoff berth.

"When I was a player, I know what it meant to come to camp every year and be able to pick right up from where we left off the previous year, to not have to go through a lot of change," Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said. "And I've seen it from the coaching side, obviously, and that's why one of the things that we have tried to establish here is stability."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.