To a man, the Steelers say 2006 was just a fluke and that the glory of a Super Bowl championship is within their reach again this season.
Thursday, August 30, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers opened defense of their Super Bowl championship last September. Nearly a year later few give them a chance to even make the playoffs.
The Steelers must suffer through a fifth preseason game tonight in Charlotte, N.C., before the final cuts are made tomorrow and Saturday by new coach Mike Tomlin. Then they open preparation for what they hope will be a season of redemption after they flubbed defense of their Super Bowl XL championship with an 8-8 record.
A sampling of online betting sites pegs the Steelers closer to their record of 2006 than the team that won it all in '05. They are no better than 13th among the 32 NFL teams to win the Super Bowl. One had them at 26-1 odds to win it, another 34-1.
Typical of them is Bodog, an online sports book. As of yesterday, the Steelers were 25-1 to win the Super Bowl, 14-1 to win the AFC championship and picked third (at 5-2) to win the AFC North behind Cincinnati (3-2) and Baltimore (9-5). Sports Illustrated this week picks the Steelers to finish third in the AFC North.
The sites had teams such as the Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars and Philadelphia Eagles at better odds. Generally, the over-under on the number of Steelers victories this season is 9, one more than their disappointing reign as Super Bowl champions.
There are people who strongly disagree with that and while they might be a distinct minority, they're true believers. You can find them inside the Steelers' locker room.
The players say last year was a fluke and that they are every bit as good as their teams of 2004 (15-1, loss in AFC championship game) and their Super Bowl season of '05. Most of their starters are intact from that team and some of the new ones might be better than the starters they replaced.
The Steelers, the Steelers say, are as strong as ever and can compete for another Super Bowl championship.
"There's no doubt there's the talent in this room," defensive end Aaron Smith said as he peered around the locker room. "I don't see much difference [from '05]. I see the same team."
"We definitely have the talent," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "It's the same team that's been here for a lot of years. The good thing is we have a lot of guys in key roles back then who are more mature now."
To be sure, it's not the same team. Gone from this year's club is two-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings and three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter. Among starters gone from the Super Bowl are receiver Antwaan Randle-El, defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen and free safety Chris Hope.
Yet, as many Steelers noted, the younger players on that team -- such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, halfback Willie Parker, strong safety Troy Polamalu, linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Ike Taylor -- have matured and should be better than they were in 2005. The Steelers still have veterans such as guard Alan Faneca, tackle Marvel Smith, defensive linemen Smith and Casey Hampton and receiver Hines Ward. And newer starters such as defensive end Brett Keisel and wide receiver Santonio Holmes look to be an upgrade from '05.
"I think we're just as good," Ward said. "The younger guys are starting to develop and we have a lot of veteran guys off that Super Bowl team."
Those who doubt the Steelers point to the changes in their offensive line and the loss of Porter, a dominant force in the '05 playoffs.
Sean Mahan, signed from Tampa Bay as a free agent, will replace Hartings at center, and Willie Colon apparently has beaten out two-year starter Max Starks at right tackle.
"Our offensive line can be the best in the league, I think, and we have so much depth," Smith countered. "We have seven starters who could start somewhere else. There's no doubt they have the talent, it's just a matter if they can work together. That's what makes offensive lines great is when they can work well together."
What happened to the Steelers last season can happen to any NFL team, Ward said. The New England Patriots followed their first Super Bowl victory with a 9-7 record and no playoff visit in 2002.
"We didn't become sorry overnight," Ward said. "You don't win a Super Bowl and the next year become sorry. There were a lot of circumstances -- Ben had the accident and we just played too inconsistent."
So why should this season be any better than the last one?
"It takes a year like 8-8 in order for you to come back and respond and have a better year," Ward said. "You want to make sure what happened last year doesn't happen this year."
Soon, they will get that chance.