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Can Steelers avoid repeat of '06?

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- Mention the year 2006 in the locker room of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the veterans generally cringe.

"Crazy," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said.

"The guys still on this team from '05 remember how it felt in '06," added cornerback Ike Taylor.

Even quarterback Ben Roethlisberger admitted it was his toughest year "physically, mentally and emotionally."

Immediately after the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl title that February, everything quickly unraveled.

  • Team leader and future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis announced his retirement.

  • Former head coach Bill Cowher entered the final year of his contract, immediately starting year-long speculation of his retirement.

  • Roethlisberger got into a motorcycle accident that summer, causing multiple injuries. He missed the regular-season opener and wasn't the same player once he returned.

  • The Steelers started their title defense 2-6 on their way to an 8-8 finish.

Simply put, the 2006 Steelers provided a blueprint of how not to defend a Super Bowl title.

As we fast forward to 2009, the Steelers are in the same position as a more mature team. Pittsburgh defeated the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII last February for its NFL-record sixth championship and an opportunity to win back-to-back championships in Pittsburgh for the first time in two decades.

In order to have a chance, the Steelers need to avoid the same issues, distractions, and complacency that haunted them just three years ago.

"You can always be hungry, but once you eat or feel you did everything that you can do, the hunger kind of goes," Taylor explained. "So now we have to take it to the next step ... When you get past hungry, you have to get greedy."

It takes a greedy team to win back-to-back championships. In the past 10 years, only one group -- the 2003-04 New England Patriots -- was able to maintain enough focus and resolve to pull off this feat.

During last weekend's minicamp, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin elaborated on Taylor's statement and the team's approach for 2009.

"I prefer to use the word driven," Tomlin said. "I view hunger as something that can be satisfied, whereas driven is not. Driven is an irresistible and sometimes irrational urge to do an act, which is pursue greatness, which is what we're trying to do."

A fighting chance

In hindsight, it was easy to see why the 2006 Steelers never had a fighting chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Two of the biggest figures in the organization -- the quarterback and head coach -- were in the midst of turmoil.

Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident changed the makeup of the team not only physically but emotionally. A case can be made that, in addition to the player, the team never recovered that season.

"All of our focus went from winning the Super Bowl to [Roethlisberger's injury] and wanting him to heal," said Keisel, who is one of Roethlisberger's best friends on the team.

Roethlisberger generally doesn't like reflecting on his accident. But when asked what he could do differently during this title defense, Roethlisberger was candid.

"I'm going to try to avoid offseason injuries; that's what it was for me," Roethlisberger said. "We had a bull's-eye on our chest as a team. But we will be all right. We will come in and see how thing
s go."

As the team got off to a slow start, Cowher's situation also increasingly became the elephant in the locker room. The longtime coach spent 15 seasons in Pittsburgh, and toward the end of 2006 everyone knew the end of an era was forthcoming.

So far, this year's team has avoided major distractions.

Roethlisberger says he's 100 percent healthy. Tomlin is firmly entrenched as Pittsburgh's head coach. And the team will return at least 20 of its 22 starters from last season.

The Steelers lost cornerback Bryant McFadden in free agency, and starting linebacker Larry Foote was the only no-show for Pittsburgh's minicamp and wants to be released because of a reduced role with the team.

The Steelers took Foote's situation in stride last weekend as well as the fact that many key veterans are in the final year of their contracts. Players such as defensive tackle Casey Hampton, tight end Heath Miller, safety Ryan Clark and tailback Willie Parker are set to become free agents in 2010, but not before this current group gets to make another run at the title.

Team of the decade?

The Steelers are chasing a lot of history this fall.

With another championship, it would mark Pittsburgh's third title in five seasons and cement its status as an NFL dynasty. A trio of titles also would spark a heated debate between the Patriots and Steelers for team of the decade, as these organizations would hold six of the past nine Lombardi trophies. Both teams have future Hall of Famers, outstanding coaching and franchise quarterbacks who are the consummate winners.

But if 2006 is any indication, the Steelers can ill-afford to look ahead to the "dynasty" conversation. Every Super Bowl champion begins the following year with a new set of challenges in order to stay on top.

"It's our main goal," Keisel said of winning another Super Bowl. "It's what we want, and it's what we're striving for. It's the focus starting now.

"[Tomlin] put that in front of all of us at our team meeting and making it evident. We understand we're not going to win the Super Bowl this week. But at the same time, he wants us out every day when we're making our decisions thinking, 'Is this going to help us win a championship?'"