The Steel Curtain reappeared at Mean Joe strength.
On Christmas Eve 2005, Pittsburgh took over Cleveland Browns Stadium. The only fans left at the end of a 41-0 pillaging wore black and gold.
The Steelers then pounded their way to four playoff wins, seized Super Bowl XL and had their old biceps back.
As quickly as it reappeared, the Steel Curtain was transformed into doilies and lace.
In one stretch in 2006, the Steelers were 3-7, and it would have been 2-8 had the Browns not blown a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead.
Bill Cowher seemed in Carolina Dreamin' mode, in a family state of mind but not in a Rooney family way.
On his way out the door, though, Cowher yanked the Steel Curtain out of the shed one last time. His team won four of its last five games.
It smashed the Browns with 303 rushing yards on a cold Thursday night.
It clobbered the Carolina Panthers, 37-3.
Rather than leaving an odor, Cowher recovered an aura. Some of it lingers as the Steelers prepare for a Sept. 9 opener at Cleveland under new Head Coach Mike Tomlin.
Steelers fans can't know what to expect from the new kid.
Since 1992, their man had been Bill. Now it's a 34-year-old former wideout from William & Mary.
Until Tomlin proves something, his only similarity to Cowher is having been 34 when the Rooneys made him rich.
First-year head coaches needn't flounder, even when they inherit bad teams.
Sean Payton proved that in New Orleans. Eric Mangini, barely older than Tomlin, demonstrated it with the Jets.
Tomlin's Steelers have issues.
They must replace leaders on both sides of the ball, center Jeff Hartings and linebacker Joey Porter. They must hope star guard Alan Faneca gets his mind right while heading into his twilight years with a somewhat light contract and waning hope of a monster payday.
They need smallish running back Willie Parker to hold up and wideout Hines Ward to play young. They need quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to make a comeback, at 25.
At least Tomlin seemed at peace at the end of June workouts.
"Overall, they like to work,'' he said in assessing his squad. "They like to compete.
"There's a healthy camaraderie on this team. It's a close-knit team.
"It's kind of indicative of a team that's kind of been built through the draft, as opposed to a team that's been built through free agency.
"There's closeness to this football team that's a little better than teams I've been associated with. That's been a pleasant surprise, something I've been excited about.''
The excitement will turn into something else if the Steelers lose Tomlin's debut at Cleveland.
Plenty rides on Roethlisberger, whose quarterback rating for 2006 was 75.4, barely better than that of Cleveland's Charlie Frye.
"He's kind of a ball junkie,'' Tomlin said. "I didn't know that about him.
He is really into it. I was very pleased with him.''
In the Super Bowl season, Roethlisberger's passer rating was 98.6. If he gets back to that ‹ and he has a developing force in
wideout Santonio Holmes ‹ the men of steel could be back.
If line issues don't get solved and Roethlisberger repeats his 2006, it could be curtains.
It should come as no surprise that the Browns' higher-ups monitor future coaching prospects, in the event things don't work out with Romeo Crennel.
It would be foolish not to.
Jeff Fisher would be a good fit in Cleveland, or for any team seeking an experienced NFL head coach with a strong resume and gas left in the tank.
Native Ohioan Urban Meyer's work for Florida and against Ohio State has not gone unnoticed.
Naturally, Bill Cowher has been analyzed for possible future reference. In Pittsburgh, the possibility Cowher could land in Cleveland has been discussed a lot.
"Cleveland really might be the best fit for Cowher,'' Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook said last week. "He was a Brown long before he was a Steeler, playing for the Browns from '80-82 and coaching them from '85-88.
"Cleveland fans would love to see him as their coach. They aren't as fortunate as you to be living here.
"Certainly, they don't know what it's like to experience a championship team. It's not hard to imagine Cowher getting it done for them, doing with Brady Quinn there what he did with Ben Roethlisberger here.''
AN ARMS RACE
The Chiefs think they might keep pace with their AFC West rivals by grooming Brodie Croyle rather than Damon Huard as their 2007 quarterback.
The thinking is that Huard's strong work as Trent Green's replacement for much of 2006 is offset by his advancing age. A young gun is required heading into a future against rivals with strong young slingers.
How realistic is it, though, to bet that Croyle, a No. 85 overall pick in 2006, has the talent to hang with:
‹ Oakland's Jamarcus Russell, the first pick of this year's draft?
‹ Denver's Jay Cutler, a No. 11 overall pick in '06?
‹ San Diego's Philip Rivers, a No. 4 overall pick in 2005?
The Chiefs came close to having another option, when Brady Quinn nearly dropped all the way to their first-round spot, No. 23 overall. The Browns snatched Quinn after trading into the No. 22 spot.
Croyle might have first-round talent, but he has taken a bumpy ride to the verge of an NFL starting job.
He blew out a knee in the first game of his senior year of high school. The night before he was expected to sign with Florida State, he abruptly announced he would play for Alabama.
At one point, he had three head coaches ‹ Dennis Franchione, Mike Price and Mike Shula ‹ within five months.
In 2004, he blew out a knee again and missed all but three games. In 2005, he led the Crimson Tide to a 10-2 season. The Chiefs are basing their bet on that.
The Patriots are the team of the decade partly because they get as much mileage out of the draft as any team on earth. Go straight up the gut for the most glaring example.
The center is Dan Koppen, who was a fifth-round pick the year the Browns spent a Round 1 pick on center Jeff Faine.
Koppen snaps to Tom Brady, who was a Round 6 pick the year Cleveland picked QB Spergon Wynn a bit higher in the round.
Brady hands off to Laurence Maroney, a low first-round pick in 2006 who looks like a brighter talent than Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams and Cedric Benson, high first-rounders a year earlier.
Koppen is part of a centers-guards group ranked No. 1 in the AFC by the current issue of The Sporting News. The Chargers and Chiefs are next.
TSN ranks the Bears, Vikings and Giants as the best interior lines in the NFC.
The top three interior linemen are:
‹ AFC: 1, Alan Faneca, Steelers; 2, Brian Waters, Chiefs; 3, Jeff Saturday, Colts.
‹ NFC: 1, Steve Hutchinson, Vikings; 2, Olin Kreutz, Bears; 3, Matt Birk, Vikings.
Quarterback Jon Kitna and wideout Mike Furrey both are on record predicting their team will win more than 10 games in 2007.
That's crazy because their team is the Lions. It's crazy not just because the Lions went 3-13 in 2006. It's crazy because they are 24-72 since 2001, coinciding with Matt Millen's hire as team president.
At about that time, Millen's friend Carmen Policy agreed to start a preseason series called the Lake Erie Classic.
The Browns, who are 35-61 since 2001, will play host to the Lions on Aug. 18.