NFL's best fans? We gotta hand it to Steelers (barely)

Terrible towels, diehard fans, smashmouth ball, three head coaches since '69 -- yup, it's a Burgh thing. Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The only problem with ranking the NFL's 32 fan bases -- other than the sheer insanity of the exercise -- is that someone must finish last. But let's not focus on the Cardinals right now.

The idea to rank the 32 fan bases was hatched by our Committee on Rankings in Bristol, Conn. With the steadfast belief that everything in sports should be quantified on at least a twice-weekly basis, we were off and running.

A team of eight esteemed bloggers was asked to rank fans over the past five seasons using scientific criteria such as "Tailgate factor" and "How well do they travel?"

When all was said and done, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers ended up tied for first. But much like the International Gymnastics Federation, we came up with an elaborate tiebreaking process in which Hall of Fame writer John Clayton of ESPN was called upon to keep things above board. Clayton, who grew up in the East Braddock section of Pittsburgh, picked the Steelers, which seems totally fair.

But even without John's gentle nudge, Steelers fans are deserving of the top honor. The decline of the steel industry in the 1970s coincided with the rise of the Steelers dynasty. At a time when the city's collective psyche was taking a major blow, the local football team offered a weekly respite.

A generation of young people left the city to find work elsewhere, but they remained passionate about their hometown team. And that's why your local stadiums are often invaded by a black-and-gold army.

"People save up all year and then plan their vacations around traveling to Steelers games," said native Pittsburgher Bill Hillgrove, a retired local TV icon and the team's radio play-by-play voice the past 15 seasons. "When you arrive at the team hotel, the fans are all waiting in the lobby."

The Steelers of the 1970s pretty much took over the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- a subject you might consider avoiding the next time you bump into Roger Staubach. But a great deal of credit for the Steelers' first-place finish should go to the late Myron Cope, who from his local radio pulpit gave fans a distinctive voice.

In 1995, a group of Steelers fans were roasting a pig in the Three Rivers Stadium parking lot before a game against Jacksonville and thought it would be funny to send the pig's head to Cope in the radio booth. According to Hillgrove, Cope spent much of the game referring to the pig on-air as Jaguars middle linebacker Keith Goganious.

Steelers and Eagles fans are no-brainers as top-five selections, but they seem to come at things from a much different perspective. The Steelers have had so much success over the years that fans can live through a 6-10 season without doing anything to harm themselves or others. In that respect, they take their cue from the Rooney family. I've heard Pittsburgh referred to as a "big little town," which is not something you'd say about Philadelphia. Eagles fans are just as loyal as Steelers fans, but they have a different way of showing it.

"You could drop a Martian into Philly the day after a game, and within three minutes, he'd know if the Eagles had won or lost," said Glen Macnow, a sports radio talk show host for the wildly popular WIP and co-author of "The Great Philadelphia Fan Book." "When they win, you'll meet the friendliest cab drivers, CPAs and newspaper sellers. Whey they lose, it's like a five-day hangover."

Unlike places such as Dallas and Miami, Philadelphia isn't home to a lot of transplants. People aren't trying to leave, and potential newcomers aren't arriving any time soon. It sort of creates this bunker mentality that seems to fuel passion for local teams -- but mainly the Eagles.

When Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins recently called local fans "front-runners," he made a fatal error. You can say a lot of things about Philly fans, but this has never been a community of bandwagon jumpers.

"Sports here are handed down through generations," Macnow said. "Grandpa Joe watched games at Franklin Field, the son watched them at the Vet and the grandson's now in the seats at the Linc."

Some of the stories over the years have been embellished, but I still think Philadelphia and perhaps Oakland are the last places you should wear an opposing team's jersey. Wearing a Cowboys jersey in certain sections of the Linc will almost guarantee you a fistfight. But for whatever reason (Halloween costumes perhaps), the infamous Black Hole in Oakland seems to have a more dangerous element.

I recall standing near the infamous section inside McAfee Coliseum during the closing seconds of a Cowboys-Raiders game a few years ago, praying that no one could tell I was from Dallas. Honestly, there's just something unsettling about a group of fans who make KISS seem like a folk band.

The Packers and Browns finished second and third in our rankings. Every NFL fan should make the pilgrimage to Lambeau Field at least once. I've done it in 55-degree weather in October and minus-6 degree weather in January -- and would recommend the latter for the true experience. The stadium is the league's most famous shrine and Packers fans are among the most loyal in all of sports. Sure, they love Brett Favre, but they love the franchise more. It's one of the few places in the league that feels like a college game day -- and that's a good thing in my book.

Packers fans also travel well. In parking lots across the league, Cheeseheads gather to drink beer with a man who wears a green-and-yellow robe and calls himself St. Vincent. I don't think it's any coincidence that most of our top fans come from cold-weather areas. Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Cleveland and Philadelphia fans will sit through anything. And I think there's something about the elements that make fans more rabid.

Browns fans lost a team, but they never lost their passion for football. The fan base has suffered through a lot of losing, but that almost seems to reinforce their loyalty. At first glance, I thought No. 3 was a bit high for Browns fans. I certainly wouldn't have put them in front of the Eagles, Chiefs and Broncos, but they deserve top-10 billing. The new Cleveland Browns Stadium (1999) doesn't seem as loud -- and as wild -- as old Municipal Stadium. But the Browns were smart enough to create another Dawg Pound in the east end zone bleachers. Last time I checked, a ticket in the Pound cost about $40.

My sincerest apologies go out to Seahawks fans. I don't know whom you should blame for the No. 20 ranking, although I can provide a couple of options. Other than the Chiefs, I think you have the loudest stadium in football and your ability to induce false starts is the stuff of legend.

Now, I encourage you to spend the next day or so arguing about this topic. Just remember: Don't shoot the messenger. They made me do it!

Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

ESPN.COM NFL FAN BASE RANKINGS: 1-10 | 11-22 | 23-32

1. Steelers

Consecutive sellouts: 299 | Season-ticket waiting list: More than six years

No team is as woven into the fabric of a city. The organization's stability has a lot to do with it, as generations of Steelers fans relate to the tradition of ownership (Rooneys), smashmouth football, quality head coaches (league-low three since 1969) and success (five Super Bowl titles). The season-ticket waiting list is extremely long and the consecutive sellout streak of 299 games, including playoffs, is unbelievable.
-- James Walker

2. Packers

Consecutive sellouts: 269 | Season-ticket waiting list: 78,000

Want to talk about support? The Packers have been sold out since 1960. Win or lose, fans fill Lambeau Field. The Packers are a huge part of the community fabric, perhaps more so than any other NFL town. Passion is second to none. Of course, that passion has been directly challenged following the team's ugly divorce with quarterback Brett Favre. Many fans are upset, and some have taken it out on replacement Aaron Rodgers. But if they are true to form, the vast majority of Packers fans will remain supportive of the team.
-- Kevin Seifert

3. Browns

Consecutive sellouts: 72 | Season-ticket waiting list: Undisclosed

Browns fans are some of the most dedicated in the NFL. Cleveland is a football-crazed town year-round, and its loyalty has been tested like no other city. Cleveland lost its team to Baltimore following the 1995 season, and the "new" Browns have taken nearly a decade to get it together. Yet the fans remain rabid and hopeful every year, sometimes to a fault. Cleveland fans travel well and the "Browns Backers" are one of the NFL's largest and well-organized fan groups. About the only thing lacking is the stadium atmosphere, which has yet to reach the level of the old Municipal Stadium.
-- James Walker

4. Eagles

Consecutive sellouts: 71 | Season-ticket waiting list: 70,000

No other team dictates a city's mood like the Eagles. It's a loyal group of fans, but don't confuse it with blind loyalty. When the Eagles play poorly, they face the wrath of the fans. That rattles some guys, but players such as Jeremiah Trotter and Brian Dawkins have thrived on that tough love. Fans of opposing teams should tread lightly in the Linc.
-- Matt Mosley

5. Chiefs

Consecutive sellouts: 141 | Season-ticket waiting list: none

Kansas City is often referred to as the Green Bay of the AFC when it comes to fans. KC has a small-town feel, and the fans completely buy into the Chiefs. Arrowhead Stadium is a sea of red and the party begins early. There's nothing like arriving at a Chiefs game and smelling miles of smoking BBQ hours before game time.
-- Bill Williamson

6. Redskins

Consecutive sellouts: 319 | Season-ticket waiting list: 200,000

Redskins fans aren't as volatile as Eagles fans -- especially in swanky FedEx Field. It is, however, a very astute crowd that stays loyal through tough times. It's hard to tell who hates the Cowboys more between the Redskins and Eagles, although I'd lean toward the Eagles.
The Redskins built a stadium at least 45 minutes from civilization -- yet fans never missed a beat. Owner Dan Snyder has plowed through coaches at an alarming rate, but the fan base has a remarkable amount of patience that has been passed down from generation to generation. Outside of Steelers and Packers fans, the Redskins travel better than anyone. And though politically incorrect, the feathers and face paint still reign.
-- Matt Mosley

7. Broncos

Consecutive sellouts: 293 | Season-ticket waiting list: 27,600

This is traditionally one of the stronger fan bases in the NFL. The magic of old Mile High may be gone, but Broncos fans brave varying degrees of football weather to cheer the Broncos season after season. If you are a no-show for a game in Denver, you'll endure plenty of shame from the orange-clad residents of Broncos Country.
-- Bill Williamson

8. Patriots

Consecutive sellouts: 149 | Season-ticket waiting list: 50,000

There's no way to argue with a fan base that has sold out Gillette Stadium since it opened -- pushing the Patriots' streak to 149 games, including playoffs -- and is willing to join a waiting list 50,000 deep to get a crack at season tickets someday. On-field dominance will do that. It will be interesting to see how the addition of Patriot Place -- a commercial development that offers shopping, restaurants, a movie theater and a medical center -- will affect the game-day dynamic. Do you throw Italian sausages on the grill or grab a teriyaki burger at Red Robin? One sounds more festive than the other.
-- Tim Graham

9. Raiders

Consecutive sellouts: 4 | Season-ticket waiting list: none

The Raiders may have the most fun group of NFL fans in the league. The Raider Nation travels like a college contingent, and game day in Oakland is an all-day Halloween party, whether it's October or Christmas Eve. The Raider Nation prides itself in bullying the opposition.
-- Bill Williamson

10. Giants

Consecutive sellouts: 249 | Season-ticket waiting list: 130,000

It's sort of a drag sharing a stadium with another team, but Giants fans are more loyal than Jets fans. And speaking from experience, Giants fans will tailgate in any weather. I prefer Lot C because that's where you find the short-rib experts.
-- Matt Mosley

ESPN.COM FAN BASE RANKINGS: 1-10 | 11-22 | 23-32