Only 15 franchises have experienced the joys and pleasures of winning the Lombardi Trophy. It's an exclusive club for a reason.
What makes it so exclusive is how hard it is assemble the talent, peak at the right time and have the tenacity to win it all. The Steelers, Cowboys and 49ers have five Super Bowl titles apiece, more than a third of the 40 championships.
The reasons for their success are stability, character players, quarterbacks who are leaders and great head coaches who set the right agenda. As hard as other franchises try, it's difficult to capture all of those elements.
Following the most recent Super Bowl, folks were taken aback by a Bill Cowher statement that the Steelers might not have been the most talented team in 2005. He was right. One or two other teams might have been more talented on paper. Although the Steelers were a wild card and a No. 6 seed in the AFC, they would have been the No. 2 seed were it not for some poor performances by Ben Roethlisberger's backup while Roethlisberger recovered from injuries.
Raiders boss Al Davis has said that in certain years, teams can steal a Super Bowl, and that's what the Steelers did. They got hot at the end of the season and put everything together when the odds were against them. The key is to fight adversity, and that doesn't happen if the team isn't filled with character players and the right leadership.
When Pittsburgh lost 38-31 to the Bengals on Dec. 4 at Heinz Field, the Steelers were at a crossroads. They were 7-5. The Bengals, led by vocal wide receiver Chad Johnson, came off the field waving Terrible Towels to announce a new day was dawning in the AFC North, that the Bengals were suddenly the team to beat.
At that moment, the Steelers started to come together as a championship team.
The Steelers had everything in place to make a Super Bowl run. Cowher has been a good enough coach to get the Steelers to a Super Bowl, but now he had a quarterback who could be a difference maker in big games. It's hard to win Super Bowls without a quarterback like Roethlisberger. And Pittsburgh's roster was filled with experienced players and great leaders.
"It starts with organization and it starts with ownership," center Jeff Hartings said. "This is one of the most stable if not the most stable team in NFL history. You also have to have high-character guys, and we have high-character guys on this team. If you evaluate the guys they draft on this team, it's unbelievable how good this team is for character guys. I'm one of the lone free agents they brought in here, so I can tell you how important it is to have character."
Seasons are long, and even the best teams face adversity. Maybe it's an injury. Maybe it's a slump. Maybe it's an off-the-field incident. In a four-month season, everything isn't going to go perfectly, so the leadership has to be in place in coaching and in the locker room to keep the team focused during the tough times.
The Steelers had all the elements in place. Cowher is a bright coach and is loaded with a great group of assistants. Since Chuck Noll turned around the losing ways of the Steelers in the 1970s, the Steelers emphasized building teams through the draft. The Rooney family never overpaid, but it kept a stable foundation. To think that the team has had only two coaches in four decades of football is incredible.
That type of stability and the team's history of success provided the model for assembling the right types of athletes and personalities to win.
"Offensively, the quarterback position has to be a good leader," Hartings said. "Even if the quarterback isn't vocal, he has to be a good leader because he affects everybody. Ben Roethlisberger is unbelievably mature as a player. Then you have to have guys like Alan Faneca and Hines Ward. Those guys go all-out in practice and in games."
When the Steelers were 7-5, they had supreme focus. Cowher said all the right things. Ward, Faneca, Hartings and others policed the locker room to make sure every player was focused on the week ahead.
"I think we've got a lot of guys who have been around the league for a while," Farrior said. "They understand the situation we are put into. When you get your backs against the wall, that's the time you need to step up. The veteran guys on this team do a good job of portraying that message. Coach Cowher does a good job. Guys don't do a lot of finger-pointing."
That's where Cowher helps. A former NFL player, he knows the mind-set of players in the locker room during the good times and the bad times. Players believe in him because he's consistent.
When the Steelers were 7-5 last season, Cowher did his best coaching, and because he had veteran players and great character in his locker room, the players understood the message.
"Coach Cowher has played the game, and he's a great leader," Hartings said. "He doesn't overreact, and he doesn't let us overreact about good things or bad things. Every guy in the locker room has a great deal of respect for him. He doesn't say things that are totally out there to get an effect from the team. When we were 7-5, he told us to evaluate ourselves because we weren't playing as well as we thought."
Because of the character within Cowher's locker room, the veterans looked at their performances and agreed. They had to pick up their games. On the verge of being eliminated from the playoff race, the margin for error was slim. Then the Steelers went on their roll and won the Super Bowl.
These types of stories underscore how hard it is to crack the elite group of franchises that own a Lombardi Trophy. It also shows why teams can repeat. If a team has players with the character to win one, they know what it takes to win another. Bill Belichick assembled the right group of players to win it three times in New England. From Bill Walsh to Noll to Lombardi to Jimmy Johnson to Joe Gibbs to Bill Parcells, they know the types of players and the type of leadership needed to win multiple Super Bowls.
"Defensively and offensively, you have to have the type of leaders who work hard and [who] don't want to let them down as players," Hartings said. "Offensively, you need to be calm and under control. Defensively, you need to be kind of wild, loud and enthusiastic, and we have those type of loud guys on defense."
Without those kinds of leaders and that type of character, it's easy to see why so many teams come up short. The Super Bowl club is about as elite as it gets in sports.