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The week before the Super Bowl, 35-year-old Phil Gennaro, a husky insurance claims adjustor from Monroeville, Pa., a few miles east of Pittsburgh, was counting down the hours to the big game. He's such a Steelers sicko that he didn't wash his white "36" Bettis jersey till the end of the season; he put it on the morning of every game and believed it was part of his job to not jinx the Steelers by wearing something else or by washing off the good karma--and the beer stain on the front.
"If Ben wins on Sunday," Gennaro said, "he becomes our generation's Bradshaw."
Easy now. Those are huge shoes right there. And Big Ben's Super Bowl performance, as it turned out, was not that of an MVP. But this championship team has the same sort of selflessness that the old teams had. Jerome Bettis might be more than nine years older than the man who took his job this year, greenhorn running back Willie Parker. But when Parker scored his first touchdown as a Steeler last fall, it was Bettis who jogged down to the end zone and retrieved the ball from the ball boy, just to make sure Parker would have that keepsake forever. When offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt isolated Cedrick Wilson as the receiver to make the first big play of the AFC title game--a post-corner route that would require a great fake and a timely throw from Roethlisberger--Pro Bowl wideout Hines Ward didn't shout, "Hey, what about me?" He said, "Great call by our coaching staff." After all, Roethlisberger has got the arm.
"Plus," said Bradshaw, "they've got some real headhunters on defense, like we had. We played the 4-3, and they play the 3-4, but the personality of the defense is similar."
What this year's championship team had was the ability to win in a lot of different ways. At the end of the great Steelers run, Bradshaw to Swann and John Stallworth was more dangerous than the running game. As the passing game grew in stature, so too did the confidence of the staff and the quarterback to call anything, anytime. As Bradshaw says, it's amazing what Roethlisberger got done only two years removed from playing in the Mid-American Conference. With the Steelers of the 2005 postseason, Whisenhunt wasn't afraid to call anything. After running the ball on 57% of the snaps in the regular season, Pittsburgh passed on 55% of the first-half snaps during the playoffs. What that showed is the coaching staff's confidence in Roethlisberger. Teams were jamming the line in the playoffs, and the Steelers weren't running it well. But Roethlisberger was lighting teams up. You hesitate to compare him with Bradshaw--"It's an honor," Roethlisberger said during Super Bowl week, "but it's way, way early"--but the way Pittsburgh called plays in the playoffs is the way the 1979 Steelers called plays, by putting the pressure on Bradshaw. He ate it up. As did Roethlisberger.
The Steelers have gone through a football encyclopedia of heirs to Bradshaw's throne. Cliff Stoudt. Mark Malone. Bubby Brister. Neil O'Donnell. Mike Tomczak. Kordell Stewart. Tommy Maddox. But now, unless ego, money, injury or a combination of the three screw up the kid, Roethlisberger's the man for a long, long time.
"I had my day in the sun," Bradshaw said. "Now I hope the kid has his."