DALLAS - Every great western needs a villain. A black-hatted bad guy who rides into town with a ruthless swagger and a lawless soul. Mean-spirited and ill-tempered, with a reputation sometimes more hearsay and whisper than fact and deed. A mug that looks incomplete without the word "Wanted" written above it.
It's been a while since they've been anything but sentimental favorites. Five years ago, they came in trying to win one for a veteran running back on the arm of a second-year quarterback, and Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the team earned the first title a generation of Pittsburghers had seen. Two years ago, the Cardinals were a Super Bowl anomaly, but there was nothing about the Steelers that made people root against them other than jealousy for winning a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
But this year, against the Packers, the Steelers have a different vibe. Their quarterback spent four games behind marshal Roger Goodell's bars for alleged lewd actions that took place before the season. Linebacker James Harrison became the poster boy for illegal hits in a crackdown against them. Receiver Hines Ward, master of the blindside hit on defenders, has even suggested that the Steelers bring back Plaxico Burress . . . who really is in prison. This is a team that before leaving Pittsburgh had its offensive linemen pay homage to veteran Flozell Adams, known for being the dirtiest tackle in the league.
They've even tried to come into Dallas and heist the title of "America's Team" away from the Cowboys. It's enough to make Mean Joe seem docile.
"I don't know if we've embraced it, but we're definitely aware of it," linebacker James Farrior said of the Steelers' new persona. "It definitely was a rallying point. That just built our bond with each other and made us a closer group."
The Packers hark back to a different time - Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr - and have some heartwarming stories. The quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, had to wait his turn in junior college, in the draft, and behind Brett Favre (who himself has morphed into villainhood) before finally getting a chance on the big stage. The head coach is a guy with a frumpy appearance who looks every bit like a former tollbooth collector. The general manager had faith in his team when others didn't. The owner? The citizens of hard-working Green Bay, of course.
Not everyone is buying into the Steelers as scoundrels, though.
"When I think of [Roethlisberger], the first thing I think of is a few months ago when he spent a whole evening with kids at our Caring Place who had just lost their parents," former Steelers running back and current ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said. "Seeing him for a moment in time alleviate a lot of pain from a lot of children's lives, to see him do that, it's hard to think of him as a villain."
Hoge had the same to say about Harrison. "Is he nasty and tough on the football field? [But] does he try to understand how they want him to hit? Yeah," he said. "But I just don't see them as villains because I've seen them in so many ways."
So maybe the Steelers aren't the heavies in this Super Bowl. Maybe they are more misunderstood than misanthropic. Maybe their rogue style is just a veneer.
They are the league's classiest and most stable franchise - from ownership to management, anyway. And there are plenty of good players who also are good people, soft-spoken Troy Polamalu standing out as one.
But it doesn't really matter. Every western needs a villain. And when the sun goes down tonight, the Steelers will be the team with the helmets that are painted black - both literally and figuratively.