NFL TRAINING CAMP Despite 15-1 mark, Steelers start over
But they were 1-1 when it counted in the postseason.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- For perhaps the only time in their 73-season history, the Pittsburgh Steelers head to training camp today knowing that repeating their regular-season record of the year before isn't a realistic goal.
That's why the unspoken but very apparent theme heading into Bill Cowher's 14th training camp as coach is this: It's not just about a great start in September or October, but how you finish in January and February.
That's why, at least in Cowher's mind, the Steelers aren't coming off a 15-1 season, but rather 1-1 -- their playoff record.
Best regular season
They may have enjoyed the NFL's best regular season, but it was again the New England Patriots, not the Steelers, who were cradling the Lombardi Trophy when the playoffs ended nearly six months ago.
So much for the regular season: in both the 2001 and 2004 seasons the Steelers had the superior record going in, yet it was the Patriots who won the AFC championship at Heinz Field.
"We understand that we're not trying to live up to a 15-1 record. How can you do better than that?" Cowher said. "Hey, the bottom line is we were 1-1 in the post season. That's why we've got to go back up to training camp and create that foundation -- we're back at the bottom, building our way up."
Since free agency began creating a work-in-progress scenario for every NFL team going into every training camp, the Steelers have rarely been this settled going camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. All 11 end-of-the-season starters are back on defense, the coaching staff returns intact and all the draft picks are signed.
The main unsettled issue is Hines Ward's contract situation; the four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver is unsigned past this season and is not expected to report today.
He is vowing to hold out until he has a multiyear contact comparable to those of the league's top paid wideouts, which would require the Steelers to pay him a club-record signing bonus of $10 million or so.
If Ward's holdout is a long and cantankerous one, it could hamper second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's development in camp, especially since he was already adjusting to the loss of Plaxico Burress in free agency and a retooled set of receivers that includes former 49ers starter Cedrick Wilson and tight end Heath Miller, the first-round draft pick.
Unbeaten regular season
Roethlisberger has yet to lose a regular season start, yet the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year saw his production slip significantly during the final month of the season and again during the playoffs, when he was intercepted five times in two games by the Jets and Patriots.
Cowher isn't demanding another 13-0 season from Roethlisberger -- how could he? -- but he does expect to see the poised, polished and imperturbable quarterback of a season ago, not the overly aggressive and mistake-prone Roethlisberger of January.
"It's not always something that's going to be measured in numbers," Cowher said. "Stay focused, control the emotions ... You can't ride the roller coaster of going up and down and worrying about comparisons."
Roller coaster? Cowher also doesn't want to see Roethlisberger riding his megasized motorcycle without a helmet, either, but that probably won't be an issue during camp. Roethlisberger can bring all the SUVs he wants to camp, but he must leave the bike parked in August.
Some other issues
There are other issues, just not as many as last summer, when the Steelers were in transition from the 6-10 team of 2003 to the 15-1 of 2004.
There's considerable competition at cornerback, where holdovers Deshea Townsend and Willie Williams will try to hold off second-round draft pick Bryant McFadden, plus recent draft picks Richard Colclough (second round, 2004) and Ike Taylor (fourth round, 2003).
"It gives us a lot of guys, and I'm kind of looking forward to seeing it unfold," Cowher said.
Max Starks, last year's third-round pick, is their most inexperienced starter as he takes over at right tackle on an offensive line that returns three Pro Bowl players. There's also competition between Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch to be Roethlisberger's backup.
"This is going to be a tough camp, very demanding -- and very competitive," Cowher said.