By JOHN ROMANO,
Times Sports Columnist
It was nearing 11 p.m., and the locker room celebration was winding down Sunday night. It had been almost an hour since the Steelers had won the AFC championship, and players were heading out the door to continue the party elsewhere.
Maurkice Pouncey was one of the few who lagged behind, still moving slowly on a pair of crutches he had been sentenced to earlier in the evening.
"Big Man! Big Man," came a shout from across the room. "Hey, Pouncey!"
Pouncey looked up to see Steelers coach Mike Tomlin heading toward him from across the room. Tomlin grabbed his rookie center in a tight hug, then held him by the arms and looked directly in his eyes.
"I'm going to give you a few days off," Tomlin said, "and then I expect to see you out there."
Never mind that a 260-pound linebacker had just fallen on Pouncey's left ankle from behind during the AFC title game. Never mind that Pouncey could not bear to put any weight on that leg. And never mind that he would have only two weeks to heal before the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh centers do not come easily out of a lineup. At least not in the past half-century or so.
Reports do not look good for Pouncey this week. More than one Steelers teammate has intimated that the first-round draft pick from Lakeland via the University of Florida will miss the Feb. 6 Super Bowl against the Packers. Pouncey has the ankle in a hard cast and is keeping his distance from the practice field this week.
And so the biggest game of the year is set to arrive and the Steelers are fretting over the one position that folks in Pittsburgh never seem to worry about.
In Pittsburgh they replace Pro Bowl centers with Hall of Fame centers. They replace icons with landmarks. Since the mid 1960s, there have been roughly the same number of Pittsburgh centers as U.S. presidents, and typically they've had higher approval ratings.
For the most part, the Steelers have survived with six starting centers the past 45 years. A handful of others have filled in for a dislocated elbow here or a torn hamstring there, but the lineage is pretty well-defined.
Ray Mansfield played 168 consecutive games before giving way to Mike Webster, who started 150 consecutive games on his way to the Hall of Fame. Dermontti Dawson would go on to start 171 consecutive games as Webster's eventual replacement and is a Hall of Fame finalist himself this year.
Jeff Hartings took over for Dawson and was the slacker of the bunch, starting only 89 of Pittsburgh's next 96 games and making two Pro Bowls over six seasons. The Steelers put up with a few nondescript seasons from 2007-09, but that ended the day Pouncey showed up.
The plan after choosing Pouncey with the 17th pick in the 2010 draft was to start him at right guard to get him acclimated to the NFL. That plan was scrapped about 72 hours into training camp last July.
That's all the time it took to recognize Pouncey was the best center on the roster. His reps at guard were reduced, and he began playing with the first team at center. By the end of August, the Steelers had released incumbent Justin Hartwig, who had earned $3.7 million in salary and a signing bonus the previous year.
In this position of prestige, Pouncey had the best debut yet. Webster shared time with Mansfield before he took over. Dawson played a handful of games at guard before he took over. Pouncey, on the other hand, started all 16 regular-season games and capped the season by becoming the first Pittsburgh offensive lineman since 1955 to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Which explains this week's obsession with Pouncey's injury. With 340-pound Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji on the horizon, the Steelers can't be thrilled with the idea of Doug Legursky heading into the Super Bowl with four career starts on his resume.
Pouncey injured the ankle one play before a Pittsburgh touchdown on the opening series against the Jets. The Steelers would score only 10 more points on offense the rest of the day.
"They don't blink. They understand the standard is the standard. And the standard is winning," Tomlin said of the offensive line after the victory against the Jets. "It's not always as attractive as we would like, but they made the effort nonetheless."
In the euphoria of the locker room after the game, Pouncey said he had a handle on the situation. He had injured the other ankle on a similar play at Florida and said he knew exactly how to approach the treatment. The Super Bowl, he said, was not in doubt.
"I know in my heart that I'm playing in that game," Pouncey said.
The news hasn't been as encouraging since.
On the other hand, the man is a Steelers center.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Money in the middle
Since 1965, the Steelers have used only 10 starting centers in the regular season. During that span of 688 regular-season games, Pittsburgh centers have missed only 27 due to injuries.…
… Webster missed four games with a dislocated elbow in '86; Dawson missed 16 games with hamstring problems in 1999-2000; Hartings missed five games in 2002 and two in '06 with knee injuries.