View Full Version : Steelers better prepared to defend title

09-09-2009, 02:33 AM
Steelers better prepared to defend title
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The 2006 Steelers wrote the book on how not to defend a Super Bowl title. This team stands to learn a lot from that bad experience

The best thing to happen for the 2009 Steelers were the 2006 Steelers. Now they have the poster boy for what can go wrong after a Super Bowl championship.

What did not go wrong for that 2006 team? Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident, his appendectomy, his concussions; the coach's family up and moving to North Carolina, with him to soon follow; injuries and more injuries, and what Hines Ward would call the Big Fat Head syndrome.

Many of Ward's teammates dispute that cockiness as Super Bowl champs had anything to do with their performance and record in 2006, but they all believe their experiences from that season should help them ward off a repeat of their disappointment.

"I think it should be a learning experience," said Dick LeBeau, the Steelers' defensive coordinator. "We have a good nucleus of guys who went through that, and you can't take anything for granted, but it's one thing for a coach standing up and saying that, it's another thing when you have an actual life experience to point to. I think we can learn from that year."

The season of 2006 began with the same thoughts as this one, to become the first Steelers team to repeat as Super Bowl champions since 1979. It unraveled quickly, starting with Roethlisberger's accident a few days after spring practices ended in June.

While Roethlisberger returned for the full length of training camp, he would add to his woes with an appendectomy, which kept him out of the season opener, and a concussion or two.

So, in that sense, these Steelers already are off to a better start.
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"We didn't have all the distractions we had that year," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "I don't think they were necessarily distractions, but your quarterback gets hurt -- I give him credit, he came back and played decent, which would be hard for anybody to do.

"Coming back that year, we had a lot of injuries that season. Our offensive line was a little bit in shambles. So, I think stuff like that, I think that's the biggest factor -- you keep your team healthy, keep them motivated and hungry this year.

"I think this team has done a good job of focusing on the upcoming season."

But that team in 2006 felt the same way. No one stood up at any point that year and said, "Boy, do we have fat heads."

"I don't buy into this whole Super Bowl hangover thing," said nose tackle Chris Hoke. "What I buy into is we had some unfortunate injuries. We had the whole thing with Ben. We had other injuries.

"I remember that camp, we worked just as hard as we worked before. This camp, we practiced as hard as we practiced after the Super Bowl the last time. I don't think it's because we weren't hungry. We practiced hard, we prepared for each game as we did in the past. We just had some unfortunate injuries."

That sounds good in theory, too. But then they won their first game without their starting quarterback, beating Miami with Charlie Batch. It was when their quarterback returned that the problems began.

The Steelers lost six of their next seven games after their opening victory, taking them out of the running to repeat as champs. During those seven games, no starter was lost on offense until center Jeff Hartings missed the seventh game. On defense, linebacker Joey Porter missed two games, cornerback Deshea Townsend missed two and nose tackle Casey Hampton missed one.

That could be considered about normal for a team over half a season. And whatever injuries were sustained over the second half of the season -- key players such as Ward, Troy Polamalu, and Max Starks were lost -- had little negative effect since they went 6-2 over their final eight games.

So, it's back to the Big Head theory.

LeBeau, entering his 51st NFL season, might not subscribe to that premise, but he does believe emotion plays a part in sports.

"There were mitigating circumstances for the slow start we had," LeBeau said. "Nevertheless, the possibility exists that we didn't transition as quickly as we needed to. It's human nature. Hopefully, this being our second world championship, the experience factor will kick in there for us. I'm pretty confident that it will."

The feeling by many back in 2006 after the Steelers won their first Super Bowl in 26 years could be described as the Nestea Plunge reaction, the long relief of finally winning after coming so close. Ahhhhhhh!!! Most on that team experienced the upset loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game at home after the 2001 season and the repeat loss to them in the title game at home after the 2004 season.

Many coaches and front-office employees also went through the frustration of close calls in 1994, '95 and '97 when they lost two AFC title games at home and a Super Bowl.

Coach Bill Cowher especially could be forgiven if he took extra pleasure in that Super Bowl because he was the coach of all the previous close calls and some people were painting him with the can't-win-the-big-one brush.

Only the two Super Bowl opponents know how the two extra weeks cut into the offseason preparations. Besides having less time to get ready for free agency and spring workouts, there are more demands starting with the parade, the ring ceremony, the visit to the White House and all the other increased interest that requires extra time for the Super Bowl winners.

"It takes a toll on your body and your mind," Hoke said. "You have to be mentally stronger because it crunches everything; your offseason training and travels, all are smashed down. Everything you do in the offseason is condensed, and you don't have that full preparation."

Again, they believe they have learned from that, how to budget everything. Coach Mike Tomlin scheduled the veterans for workouts a little later this year because of it.

"I think our bodies were worn out at that point," Starks recalled of the early days after winning Super Bowl XL. "I think now we know how to take care of our bodies. We saw what happens when you don't take it seriously coming off a Super Bowl season. I think it's an experience now on our side because a lot of guys have gone through that situation, now we kind of know what the difference is."

Yet, that Nestea Plunge syndrome was real, the universal sense of relief for the accomplishment of winning a Super Bowl. Now that they've won two, it is a different feeling for many of the 21 who own two rings. And it may be different for Tomlin, too. At age 37 and with just two years behind him as a head coach, he is just getting started rather than getting ready to call it quits as Cowher was.

"I think he wants to win a bunch," Smith said. "I think really that's what a lot of guys are focused on.

"I think the first one, you're kind of just happy to win the first one. And now I think you say 'I want to win as many as I can.' Especially for some of the older guys, you realize you don't have many opportunities left. You just want to win as many as you can while you have the chance.

"I think that motivates guys. I don't have many years left; I know that plays a factor with me: How much longer can I do this? I want to win as many as I can. You always want to win as many as you can but I think you appreciate it more when you're older. You understand."

They're off to a good start anyway because, for one, they return 20 of the 22 starters from Super Bowl XLIII and, for another, their quarterback is healthy. There was that distraction of the civil lawsuit field against Roethlisberger in July in Nevada, but at least his head hasn't hit the pavement.

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