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1 Pittsburgh Steelers
Michael Silver
September 04, 2006
The coach's future is uncertain, but the quarterback of the Super Bowl champs will leave no doubt who's boss on the field
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September 04, 2006

1 Pittsburgh Steelers

The coach's future is uncertain, but the quarterback of the Super Bowl champs will leave no doubt who's boss on the field

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THE BELIEF Having finally figured out how to bring their A game when it matters most, the Steelers will overcome the loss of their locker-room leader (and three key starters), uncertainty over their coach's future and the fallout from their young quarterback's scary motorcycle crash to make another championship run.

THE REALITY Repeating is hard for any team, but the off-season distractions were extraordinary for this Super Bowl champion. For starters, coach Bill Cowher purchased a home in Raleigh and moved in his wife and youngest daughter, prompting speculation that 2006 will be his final season with the Steelers. Then quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was nearly killed in a June 12 motorcycle wreck in downtown Pittsburgh.

The good news is that both men are intensely driven to make this season memorable-Cowher because he's wired that way, and Big Ben because he's still peeved that he came up so small in Super Bowl XL. Though at 23 he was the youngest QB to guide his team to an NFL title, Roethlisberger, in the aftermath of Pittsburgh's 21-10 victory over Seattle, looked and acted like a golfer who'd just won the Masters after everyone else had signed incorrect scorecards. "That experience drives me," says Roethlisberger, who went 9 for 21 with no touchdowns and two interceptions. "People say, 'Well, he won a Super Bowl, but look how he played.' Now I've got to prove people wrong again, just like I did as a rookie."

Before taking off on his motorcycle without a helmet, Roethlisberger had shown signs of maturity, asserting himself in off-season workouts and helping fill the leadership void caused by beloved running back Jerome Bettis's retirement. "I love the way Ben has kind of taken control of this team," says Cowher, whose status as Steeltown's commander in chief remains uncertain. In August the team announced that talks on an extension for Cowher, whose contract expires after the 2007 season, had broken off, raising the possibility that his status as the coach with the second-longest tenure in the Big Four professional sports could end after 15 years with his hometown team.

In the meantime the Jaw is drawing on all the motivational might he can muster, proclaiming that the Steelers weren't the NFL's best team in 2005, merely the one that got hot at the right time, and reminding his players that they didn't even win their division last year.

Nice try. Pittsburgh looks every bit as loaded as the 2004 team that went 15-1 before losing the AFC title game to the Patriots, and the '05 squad, which became the first No. 6 seed to win it all. None of Pittsburgh's losses through free agency (multiple threat Antwaan Randle El, defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, safety Chris Hope) should be too damaging. Hanging on to offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Cowher's doppelg�nger and heir apparent, may turn out to have been the most important move of all. "We went through a lot together last year, and most of the core guys are back," says Whisenhunt, who interviewed for the Raiders' coaching job in February before removing himself from consideration. "And we've got a quarterback who's more vocal and more focused and ready to have some fun."

How much fun remains to be seen. Just don't expect the Steelers to crash.

2006 SCHEDULE

SEPTEMBER

7 MIAMI (T)

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