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Steel Certain
ESPN The Magazine

Ed Reed admits it. He was more than a bit nervous. He could actually feel the tornado twisting in his stomach as his sweaty hand turned the doorknob. Go figure. Reed's an All-America safety from national champion Miami. At 23 he returned to school for his senior season, and his passionate halftime speeches are the stuff of legend. Last year, he picked off two passes against Florida State while playing with a dislocated shoulder. So what could possibly make this guy twitch?

How about Bill Cowher, who was on the other side of the door waiting to interview Reed at the NFL Combine. If you're a pro prospect and the Steelers request a sit-down ... well, in NFL draft circles, that's the ultimate seal of approval. "By the end, we were like long-lost friends," said a relieved Reed. "He was real cool."

Their unis may be bland. The town may be boring. And the game plan may be stuck in the 1950s. But to potential picks, the Steelers are the absolute arbiters of cool.

Because no one drafts better than Pittsburgh.

Of the team's starters in '01, 15 were drafted by the Steelers (NFL average: 12), including these Pro Bowlers: quarterback Kordell Stewart, guard Alan Faneca and linebackers Jason Gildon and Kendrell Bell (the defensive Rookie of the Year). Faneca is the only No.1 pick in that group. Last year, opening day rosters across the league featured 26 players drafted by the Steelers. Only the Bills, with 27, drafted more.

Think of the draft as a blackjack table. At one seat is Raiders chief Al Davis, tossing around chips, doubling down, hitting on 17, always playing hunches. Sitting next to him is Steelers owner and president Dan Rooney, the 2001 Executive of the Year. He's drinking ginger ale, his chips are practically glued to the tabletop and he never -- ever -- deviates from the memorized chart in his shirt pocket that breaks down the odds in his favor on every hand.

Of course, if this isn't flashy enough for you, be sure to don some shades when you check out Rooney's bling-bling -- four shimmering Lombardi trophies.

The teams that won that Super Bowl hardware were stocked through the draft. Or, some say, a draft. In 1974, the Steelers chose four future Hall of Famers with their first five picks: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. "There are a lot of ways to get to the finish line," says Buffalo director of football operations Tom Modrak. "But how do you argue with the Steelers' results? The '74 draft is the gold standard."

Until the mid-'60s, the Steelers were like everyone else -- picking guys based on press clippings and word of mouth. (This is the team that cut eventual Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas in 1955 and Len Dawson in 1959.) Then, owner Art Rooney put his son, Art Jr., in charge of creating a methodology to select talent. When future Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll arrived in Pittsburgh in 1969, he gathered up the Steelers staff and succinctly put the philosophy into words: "I don't care what color, what religion, what school or what state these players are from -- just find me the best athletes. Find them. They have to be smart and they have to be good people."

"We really took off after that," says Art Jr., now a de facto VP for the team. "By now, the standard operating procedure we created may seem as boring and basic as breathing, but back then it was revolutionary."

Since 1970, the Steelers have drafted eight Hall of Famers, twice as many as any other NFL team. The Steelers' approach to the draft is a lot like the rusty iron-ore barges that meander past their office complex east of downtown Pittsburgh. They aren't colorful, they move with a slow and steady purpose -- and they almost never run aground. When the Steelers staff gathers for the final stretch before the 2002 draft to construct a board that will grow to the size of a large movie screen, Cowher and director of football ops Kevin Colbert will rely on many of the same philosophies Noll and Art Jr. developed more than 30 years ago.

And it is by stockpiling young, inexpensive talent every April that the Steelers have managed to flourish despite an annual exodus of Pro Bowl talent. Leon Searcy leaves for the Jags and Faneca steps in. Kevin Greene cruises to Carolina and is replaced by Gildon. Carnell Lake steps out for Jacksonville and Lee Flowers steps up. Yancey Thigpen bounces to Tennessee and in comes Hines Ward. "Hines Ward never played receiver full-time before," says Cowher. "But he developed into a Pro Bowl-type player. That tells you the system is working."

Yet Pittsburgh has no secret formula when it comes to drafting. Where other teams go dizzy with constant coaching changes and uncontrolled spending in free agency, the Steelers prove it's hip to be square. In the past 33 years, they've had two head coaches and one game plan (play good defense/run the ball), which means their scouts have had the same marching orders for three decades. The Steelers plan is ingenious in its simplicity: In a league of turmoil and transience they buck the trend by being stable and fiscally conservative. They are consistent in their approach and thorough in their research.

Gildon, for example, was a third-round pick in 1994 from Oklahoma State (where he played defensive end, no less). He contributed on special teams for two years while serving an apprenticeship behind the All-Pro Greene. Twice the Steelers re-upped him without breaking the bank before he reached free agency (the second time was on Feb.25, when he inked a five-year, $23 million deal). Now he's the cornerstone of the team's top-rated D.

In Pittsburgh, talent never trumps character or health. Art Jr.'s favorite saying is "We don't have time." The Steelers aren't going to wait around to see if a guy can turn his life around or recover from an injury. Furthermore, they never let "measurables," like a player's 40 time and bench press, overshadow productivity and heart.

With so much emphasis on intangibles, though, the team must conduct background checks and interviews that could pass CIA muster. Last year, defensive coordinator Tim Lewis sought out Otis Smart, Bell's coach at Laney High School in Augusta, Ga., and even his college weight trainer. Then he peppered Bell with questions like "Are your parents still married? Do they come to your games? What about your siblings, are you close to them? Do you value education?" Says Lewis, "More than the answers, I wanted to see how he reacted to the questions. I'm not a psychologist but I'm going to do everything I can to predict what this kid will be like five years from now."

There are always borderline guys like Plaxico Burress, whose attitude and work ethic were question marks before the Steelers took him with the eighth pick in 2000. "We had to work through our issues with Plax," Cowher admits. "But the bottom line is, I looked him in the eye and felt comfortable. Sometimes you gotta go on a gut instinct, too."

While teams like the Giants use several hours to administer, grade and analyze with psychological tests of up to 450 questions, the Steelers prefer to utilize that time in face-to-face meetings. "That Giants test is some of the biggest bull in all of the NFL," says Flowers, another draft diamond (fifth round, 1995) who has grown into a team leader. "What do questions that start with something like 'Johnny has two apples' have to do with football? The Steelers didn't give a test, but they knew my parents' names and had already talked to guys I went to high school with."

The Steeler Way starts with scouts from the Blesto Scouting Service, which begins evaluating talent a year and a half before the draft. The following season, from August to December, the team sends three of its own people to scout top players three times during the season. After the NFL season, position coaches, coordinators, Cowher and Colbert all appraise talent at bowls, all-star games, workouts and the Combine. That's eight sets of eyes -- and all of the checks and balances that come with them -- compared to the four or five most teams rely on.

Then, before the three weeks leading up to the draft, everyone who evaluates talent for the Steelers meets in an auditorium at the team's facility for what is called The Big Read. (With up to 60 players to evaluate and four game films per player, coaches like Lewis must occasionally commandeer their families to help type up reports.)

At TBR, all eight reports are discussed and debated. Medical reports are read and the psychologist takes his turn (players with "rejectable" personal problems such as positive drug tests or arrests don't make the board). Finally, Cowher wraps things up with his thoughts. Colbert then assigns the prospect ratings for talent (5 for a rookie free agent, 9 for a future Hall of Famer), character and medical. The player is then slotted on the board -- once by position and again overall. The group then goes through several mock drafts and constantly tweaks the list of whom they expect to come away with.

On draft day they simply and calmly follow the board. They do not reach. They rarely trade picks. The only fierce debates occur when a player of "need" is rated close to a player of "value," and that usually happens after the first round, which is where Pittsburgh has made its name as the draft expert. "Need always plays into your decisions more as the draft unfolds," says Cowher.

That was the case last year. Knowing they were going to lose All-Pro backer Levon Kirkland as a salary-cap casualty, the team focused on replacing him through the draft. U. of Miami LB Dan Morgan was the highest-rated and most polished prospect. But the team needed a thicker guy who could take on blocks, stay with tight ends down the middle of the field in two-deep coverage and still have the speed to chase guys like Eddie George from sideline to sideline. What they needed was Bell.

Most NFL scouts had the Georgia linebacker rated as an average pro. But the more the Steelers dug, the higher Bell climbed. The team discovered that he had a knack for plowing through traffic to make plays. In 16 starts at UGa, Bell had seven sacks, five forced fumbles and five blocked kicks. Before that, he used his 4.55 speed as a fullback at Middle Georgia J.C. And his workouts with linebackers coach Mike Archer, designed specifically for the 3-4 defense, were off the charts -- as were his interviews.

"The way he flashed on the screen made you sit up and go, 'Whoa!'" says Cowher. "When he hit people they went backwards. And it was refreshing to talk to a guy like him. He was humble and unselfish. There are a lot of talented players out there, but the ultimate question in the draft is: Do they fit you and do they fit your team? That can be just as important as anything else you look at."

On the clock with the 39th pick, Cowher went around the horn one last time on Bell. "Nut-cutting time," says Lewis. Defensive coordinator? Green light. Position coach? Thumbs up. Medical? Clear. Shrink? No issues. Colbert? Go for it. After hours of interviews, film study and background checks; after pages of medical reports, workout stats and scouting reports; after hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on research, the answer should come easy.

"Then you take the guy's name off your board," says Art Jr., "and cross your fingers and hold your breath for the next five years, just like everyone else."

This article appears in the April 15 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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