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It's time to recognize brilliance of Pittsburgh's Colbert

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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DALLAS -- Tell me Pittsburgh's Kevin Colbert isn't one of the most underrated and unrecognized executives in the NFL. No, on second thought, just look what happened Tuesday when he walked on the field for Media Day. Where there were dozens of reporters listening to coach Mike Tomlin, there were two in front of Colbert.

"It's no problem at all," Colbert said.

Well, actually, it is. Because Kevin Colbert is as important to the Pittsburgh Steelers as Tomlin, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or safety Troy Polamalu -- except most people outside the 412 area code don't know it.

Well, now they should because the Steelers are in their third Super Bowl in six years, and, yeah, Kevin Colbert has plenty to do with it.

As the Steelers' director of player personnel, Colbert is responsible for evaluating, finding and acquiring the talent that comprises the AFC's best football team. He was there when the team drafted Roethlisberger. He was there when it drafted Polamalu. He was there when it drafted Casey Hampton. He was there when it re-signed James Harrison.

Kevin Colbert has been with the Steelers since 2000, which means he's been there when they went to the playoffs seven times, the conference championship game five times and the Super Bowl three times. But tell me you know what he looks like because I know you don't -- and that doesn't make you exceptional. Colbert is to the Steelers what the wizard was to Oz, the guy who pulls the levers behind a curtain that conceals his identity.

"Kevin is very good at what he does," said former Kansas City personnel director Bill Kuharich, "but he's very under the radar. Most of the country doesn't know who he is."

He's so under the radar that there were fewer people around him Tuesday than there were kicker Shaun Suisham, and tell me who makes more of a difference to the Steelers. Colbert is the caretaker of something affectionately known as "The Steeler Way," which is a business that operates with a patience, a continuity and a consistency that is rare -- no, unheard of -- in the NFL.

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Essentially, it's an organization that hires the right people to do the important jobs and leaves them alone.

Where the San Francisco 49ers go through three head coaches in two months, for instance, the Steelers go through three in four decades. They don't change coaches. They don't change GMs. They don't change owners. They don't even change draft picks, and you can look it up. In the past 41 years the Steelers traded up twice and down twice. Period. And with those choices they landed four Pro Bowlers.

"People ask me what is 'The Steeler Way?'," Colbert said. "I just say it's hard to describe, and I just say, 'It's doing the right thing in every situation, whatever the right thing you deem it to be.' "

In 2004, the Steelers decided "the right thing" was to draft Miami (of Ohio) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick when they already had a starter in Tommy Maddox. The idea was to groom Roethlisberger behind Maddox until he was ready to step in, but plans changed when Maddox was hurt in the 2004 season opener, and Roethlisberger was forced into the lineup.

The rest you know.

"Tommy was coming off a pretty successful run with us," said Colbert, "and we really didn't think a quarterback would make it to us, quite honestly. But I remember what coach [Bill] Cowher said to us: 'For the good of the organization, we have to take a quarterback.' You don't get opportunities to take a franchise quarterback, but if you think he's a franchise quarterback you better take him."

Roethlisberger is one of a slew of first-rounders who not only stuck but hit it big. Running back Rashard Mendenhall is another. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons and Polamalu are others. Look at the club's last eight drafts, and you find seven of their starters in the first round -- with the eighth wide receiver Santonio Holmes, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII.

Roethlisberger, Polamalu and Harrison are just three acquisitions during Kevin Colbert's watch. (Getty Images)  
Roethlisberger, Polamalu and Harrison are just three acquisitions during Kevin Colbert's watch. (Getty Images)  
But that's "The Steeler Way." The club relies on the draft, not free agency, to keep it ticking. It eschews the marquee free agents for promising draft choices, and you can't argue with the results: Sixteen of the starters on this year's team are Steelers' draft choices. Two others were signed as college free agents and played for no one else.

Credit the continuity that is the hallmark of the club so that everyone from Colbert to Tomlin to assistant coaches to scouts knows what a Pittsburgh Steelers' draft pick looks like, acts like and plays like. There is no guessing, no variance of opinion and no blueprint that changes every three or four years.

But there are results.

"It goes back to the continuity of the ownership," said Colbert, citing the Rooney family. "It's something they started decades ago, and it's been passed from one coach to another and one personnel guy to another. We all understand what the Steelers are looking for. You just try to find players. When you have a system that has been continuous, for the most part, offensively and defensively ... and in overall philosophy ... it's easy to find players to fit into those molds."

Maybe. But I don't recall Washington finding those players. Or San Francisco. Or Cleveland, Oakland or Buffalo, and the reason is obvious: They don't practice the patience that Pittsburgh does. Heck, nobody does, and don't ask me why. I just know that what Colbert and the Steelers stand for works, and the proof is here at Super Bowl XLV.

"They've been successful doing it this way," Colbert said of the organization and its players, "and they know there's going to be a year where we're going to be 6-10. Last year we were 9-7, and it was an abysmal offseason for us. They understand, and we understand that there's going to be a dip along the way. That just happens in this business. So, they're prepared to ride it out and try to come out on the other side, which we've been able to do. So there's not a panic when we lose a game or don't qualify for the playoffs. They understand it's a long process.

"But they don't get lulled into a sense of security where it's OK to lose. No, it's not OK to lose. Everybody understands that. It kills us when we do. But they also understand that when we stumble the organization is going to support them on the field and off the field, and we're going to try to get things right so we can compete again."

I'd say they succeeded, and they succeeded because of people like Kevin Colbert. It's time he was recognized.

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