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Monday, February 6, 2006
Updated: February 10, 2:51 PM ET
Pittsburgh has several offseason question marks

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Now that the Pittsburgh Steelers finally have captured the elusive "one for the thumb," after waiting more than a quarter century to claim a fifth Super Bowl title, they are eager to begin working on a second handful of championships.

Ron Jaworski, Michael Irvin and Tom Jackson look at their top 5 teams for 2006. Where do the Seahawks and Steelers rate?

Then again, if any franchise understands how difficult it is to win consecutive Super Bowl games, it is Pittsburgh. The Steelers accomplished the feat twice in the 1970s but then hit a long fallow spell. Since the Steelers' victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV, only four franchises have claimed back-to-back Super Bowl championships.

That is why, for Steelers owner Dan Rooney, at least, "one for the thumb" translated into "one at a time" late Sunday night.

"Let's take a little time and let this one sink in first," Rooney said. "People have talked about the 'one for the thumb' thing, but this is one for this generation of Steelers. The 'one for the thumb' was a long time ago. It's a different game now, with the salary cap and all, a different era. It's harder now, probably, to [maintain] success.

"That doesn't mean, though, we're not going to try."

Certainly the nucleus of the Pittsburgh talent base, on both sides of the football, will return for the 2006 season. And coach Bill Cowher -- who finally got the yoke off his back after a successful 14-year tenure, with the only résumé blemish being the absence of a Super Bowl ring -- will be back. Yet even with the unparalleled stability provided by the Rooney family, whose team has worked under only two head coaches since 1969, there are no guarantees.

If there is one constant in the NFL in the salary cap/free agency era, even for the bedrock-solid Steelers, it is that change is inevitable.

Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El
Ward's big-money deal means that Randel El (right) may have to leave Pittsburgh.
Actually, change began within minutes of Sunday's 21-10 victory over Seattle, when future Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis confirmed that the triumph represented the last "Bus" stop.

Because he rushed for a career-low 368 yards in 2005, losing Bettis to the rigors of age might not seem like much. But, coupled with the possibility that Duce Staley's $2.5 million base salary for 2006 might be prohibitive and could well make him a salary-cap casualty, and that Verron Haynes is a pending unrestricted free agent, Pittsburgh's once-crowded depth chart at running back could become perilously thin -- especially for a team that likes to run the ball.

Young tailback Willie Parker, whose 75-yard touchdown run on Sunday was the longest in Super Bowl history, hasn't quite achieved workhorse status yet. Even if Haynes opts to stay rather than test the market, he has been principally a third-down specialist during his career. So it could be that Pittsburgh will have to try to talk Staley into sticking around at a reduced salary or draft a running back with a high-round selection.

In the passing game, starting wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, whose versatility was on display again with Sunday's 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward off a reverse play, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Since the Steelers signed Ward to a pricey contract extension last summer, it will be difficult to keep Randle El, who will be attractive to a number of franchises seeking a viable No. 2 wideout. Already there have been rumors that Randle El's hometown Chicago Bears will be among his suitors.

"Right now, I don't even want to think about it, OK?" said Randle El on Sunday. "I mean, this is a special moment, and I want to [savor] it. It's a great bunch of guys and, when you think about what we've done, winning eight in a row after everyone was ready to write us off for the season [at 7-5] in early December, it means a lot. These guys are my friends. I think [management] here knows my preference. But you just don't know in this game anymore. We'll have to see how it plays out."

While he is the most notable pending free agent, Randle El isn't the only starter who could depart. Half the starting secondary -- cornerback Deshea Townsend and free safety Chris Hope, two excellent but underrated players -- is just a few weeks away from unrestricted free agency. So are starting defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen and tight end Jerame Tuman, a part-time starter.

"I think that's why you cherish this moment," said an emotional von Oelhoffen, puffing on an expensive victory cigar after Sunday's game. "When you look around any locker room at the end of a season, you know it's the last time you're going to see this particular team. That's just how the game is [today]. This time, looking around, yeah, maybe it's a little bit harder. But that's just the reality of the league now."

The Steelers, according to figures obtained by ESPN.com, figure to be approximately $4 million to $5 million over the projected spending limit for 2006. The retirement of Bettis, who was on the books for a $5.35 million base salary in '06, will help reduce the cap overage some but still doesn't allow the Steelers to try to retain all their free agents.

There is also the possibility that offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt could depart. Whisenhunt's game plans and play-calling in the postseason stamped him as one of the hottest young assistants in the NFL. He told ESPN.com that he is leaning toward interviewing for the Oakland job, the last head coach vacancy in the league, if Raiders owner Al Davis wants to discuss it with him. But it might take a considerable offer from the Raiders, and some mighty arm-twisting, to lure the talented Whisenhunt.

Just as Whisenhunt is emerging as a star, so is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose shaky performance on Sunday, when he posted an anemic efficiency rating of 22.6 -- the lowest ever by a winning quarterback in Super Bowl history -- was not indicative of his growth in just his second NFL season. The team's 2004 first-round draft pick quickly has become its unquestioned leader, and he should continue to improve.

This figures to be, even with some alterations, a Pittsburgh team capable of defending its Super Bowl title in 2006. On defense, nose tackle Casey Hampton and end Aaron Smith are stalwarts, linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans are excellent, and cornerback Ike Taylor will, in time, be a Pro Bowl-caliber coverage guy. And then there is strong safety Troy Polamalu, arguably the NFL's most versatile secondary player, who will be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2006 and beyond.

Given the potential of Roethlisberger to continue making positive strides, the offense will be fine. The line is a good one, Ward has demonstrated no signs of slowing down at age 29, and tight end Heath Miller has provided a new dimension.

"For this offense," said Parker, "I think the sky's the limit."

Of course, it should be noted that, despite winning Super Bowl XL, the Steelers didn't even win their division championship in 2005. The AFC North, particularly with the emergence of the Cincinnati Bengals, figures to be a difficult division in 2006. The Bengals are a powerful, young team, with an MVP-type quarterback in Carson Palmer, who is coming off knee surgery. And in Cleveland and Baltimore, the Steelers have two more longtime rivals to contend with.

In addition to their division schedule, the Steelers will face all four franchises from the potent AFC West in 2006, along with 2005 playoff qualifiers Tampa Bay, Carolina and Jacksonville. It could be a tough road for the Steelers back to another Super Bowl, perhaps a tough road, even, to reach the playoffs. Given their stability and continuity, however, the Steelers have a chance to repeat.

"There's a lot of talent here, a lot of young talent, definitely," Ward said. "One thing about this team is that, while some of the names change, the personality doesn't. There is a certain philosophy here, a way we play, and that's a constant that always gives you a chance to do something special."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.