Steelers get lost in turbulent offseason

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

There was the Brett Favre(notes) saga (and saga) (and saga). There was the prison release of Michael Vick(notes) and the guilty plea of Plaxico Burress(notes). There was Tom Brady's(notes) return and Tedy Bruschi's(notes) retirement.

Matthew Stafford(notes) and Mark Sanchez(notes) went from top-five picks to opening-day starters. Michael Crabtree(notes) went from 10th overall to threatening to skip the season.


Roethlisberger hoists the Lombardi Trophy, Pittsburgh's sixth.

(Chris Graythen/Getty)

Jerry Jones opened a $1.1 billion stadium, complete with a monster video board that punters can hit with the ball. He refused to raise it, except for concerts of course.

Terrell Owens(notes) was released from the Dallas Cowboys, released a reality show and then found his new reality in Buffalo. Donte' Stallworth(notes) got off easy. Tony Romo(notes) got a new girlfriend.

The Indianapolis Colts got a new coach, the Chicago Bears got a new quarterback and Brandon Marshall(notes) almost got a new team (but didn't). Three organizations fired their offensive coordinators just before the season. The NFLPA got investigated and the commissioner kept doling out suspensions. Eric Mangini refused to admit the Cleveland Browns even have any quarterbacks.

Every day there was a new headline/scandal/talking point for the National Football League during what can be described as nothing less than another eventful offseason. Every day a different team was highlighted and hyped as a Super Bowl contender. Even the Detroit Lions are expected to win a game this year.

And week after week – for the most part – one team seemed to avoid the national spotlight.

The Pittsburgh Steelers.

You know, the defending Super Bowl champions? The winners of one of the most exciting – capped with a back-and-forth final quarter – title games in league history? The team that will go for its third Super Bowl of the decade – which would tie the Patriots.

Yeah, those guys.

Other than Ben Roethlisberger(notes) getting hit with a civil suit stemming from a sexual encounter (even that didn't last as a news item), the Steelers, of all teams, were the forgotten franchise of the offseason. It doesn't seem like anyone outside of Western Pennsylvania has been talking black and gold.

The Patriots have been the trendy favorite to win it this season, Favre will have the most eyeballs on him in Week 1 and, the if you want soap operas, 31 other cities offer better drama. Even AFC North cellar dweller Cincinnati got more press – thanks to HBO's "Hard Knocks."

All this helps explain how the defending champions enter Thursday's traditional season opener – they host the Tennessee Titans – as a somewhat unheralded squad.

"Nothing really surprises me anymore in the National Football League," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week.

Here's what wouldn't be a surprise: Pittsburgh lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy again this February in Miami.

Don't confuse a lack of attention with a lack of strength.

The Steelers return 20 of 22 starters from a year ago. One of those lost, linebacker Larry Foote(notes), is in Detroit because the Steelers believed Lawrence Timmons(notes) was ready to take his spot.

The team is healthy. It even gets running back Rashard Mendenhall(notes) back from an injury that cut down his rookie season. That means they add what is essentially two first-round picks to the club (along with DT Evander Hood(notes)).

Then there's the coaching staff, which for one of the few times in recent league history, wasn't raided following a Super Bowl title. Not only are Tomlin and his coordinators (Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau) back, but so is the entire group. It's a bit of consistency that can't hurt.


Mendenhall was limited to four games and 19 carriers last season.

(Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

Then there's motivation. Perhaps the most difficult challenge for a Super Bowl team is maintaining the hunger that got them there in the first place. The veterans on this team, however, have already experienced a post-Super Bowl hangover when in 2006 they followed up a championship with an 8-8 season.

They've vowed to avoid a similar fate this year, one reason there was near full participation in offseason workouts in Pittsburgh.

All of this is interesting and substantive and important if you're trying to break down the upcoming season. It just isn't all that exciting or controversial or colorful, and that's what the NFL offseason has become. No league does a better job keeping itself relevant during quiet time.

The result is a build up to the season that is so intense that even Tomlin admits Thursday is "going to be awesome."

Left in the dark, however, during the endless news cycles about players who aren't in camp are the teams that have everyone showing up for voluntary extra sessions. Ignored as everyone focuses on the new faces in new places are the teams with the same old guys doing the same old jobs.

Smoothly sail through the offseason and it doesn't matter how good you just were or how great you might be.

That's the Steelers, who coasted far below the Favre/Vick/Plax radar.

Thursday, Pittsburgh can start reminding people exactly who they are and what they're about and where they are hoping to wind up.

"We will find out about ourselves pretty quickly in the '09 season," Tomlin said.

That's on the field, not in the soap-opera-obsessed offseason.

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