Not Bill Cowher's Champs: Why Mike Tomlin's Team will Make the Playoffs

Brian Gulish@@briengeeContributor IMay 12, 2009

One won because he had to validate a great regular season coaching career.  The other won because he could.  One won because he had gritty veterans who wanted to send one of their own out on top. 

The other won because his gritty veterans pushed his stellar youngsters to do so.  One won because trick plays and a bit of luck.  The other won because of great plays and gloves that stuck!

Bill Cowher led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a victory in Super Bowl XL with little expectations from a team that needed to win its final four regular season games just to make the playoffs.  No one would blame Cowher if his 2005 version of the Steelers came up short in Detroit.  He'd been down this road before, never writing his final chapter.

1994 AFC Championship Game LOSS

1995 Super Bowl LOSS

1997 AFC Championship Game LOSS

2001 AFC Championship Game LOSS

2004 AFC Championship Game LOSS

But in 2005, with a bit of luck and a lot of determination, Cowher wrote that final chapter in a book of great seasons with less than great results. 

Never judging a book by its cover, who is the better coach?  The that won a Super Bowl by defying the odds one time?  Or a coach whose resume is greener than the grass at Heinz Field (that would be prior to a season of professional, collegiate and interscholastic games!)? 

The answer come with the success of the 2009 Steelers.

Following his teams Super Bowl XL win, Bill Cowher led the 2006 version on a roller coaster ride season.  A Thursday Night season opening win against the Miami Dolphins was as if the Steelers had not lost a step. 

Although they had lost many key parts from a team that had just won the Lombardi Trophy (Antwaan Randle El, Chris Hope, Jeff Hartings, Joey Porter), this team seemed up to the challenge.

They won that game against the Dolphins with Charlie Batch playing quarterback for Ben Roethlisberger, whose off-season motorcycle accident wasn't what kept him of the field.  Instead, it was an emergency appendectomy that would keep Ben out.

Following the Steelers win over the Dolphins, the Steelers would go on to lose six of their next seven, holding a record of 2 and 6 midway through the season.

Finishing the second half of 2006 6 and 2, the Steelers were able to salvage an 8-8 season, missing the playoffs and losing head coach Bill Cowher to "retirement."

Mike Tomlin's 2009 version of the Black and Gold will be judged on continued success or 2006-like misfortune.  Following a season that saw the Steelers compete against the leagues toughest schedule in a quarter-century, the 2009 Steelers will take the field playing the 29th toughest (fourth easiest) schedule in the NFL

The Steelers open the 2009 campaign hosting the Tennesse Titans on Thursday night September 10th in the annual NFL opener.  That game alone may be the measuring stick for the defending Super Bowl champs. 

Playing the NFC North and AFC West, the Steelers will see two of the leagues weakest divisions.  Their most challenging games should all be home games versus the likes of the Titans, Chargers, Vikings and Raiders

With the schedule aside, what may seperate the '09 Steelers from the '06 Steelers is their player personel. 

As opposed to all the losses leading up to the 2006 season, the reigning Champs return 20 of 22 starters to the field.  The only losses are starting cornerback Bryant McFadden who signed with Super Bowl runner-up Arizona

The Steelers also cut ties with starting inside linebacker Larry Foote, replacing him with rising star Lawrence Timmons in the Steelers 3-4 defensive scheme. 

There are other minimal changes that have occurred this off-season.  The Steelers WR depth took a hit with the departure of Nate Washington to the Titans.  However, with the potential emergence of Limas Sweed and the drafting of Mike Wallace, the Steelers hope to fill any potential void a the WR position.

There is no pressing need for the Steelers to sign a free agent wideout such as Marvin Harrison, seeing how they have two of the past four Super Bowl MVP's starting opposite each other at the WR position.

For the 2009 Steelers season to be considered a success, they will look no farther that their 2006 predecessors.  Miss the playoffs, season failed.  Make the playoffs, and a bonus chapter can be written in Mike Tomlin's coaching book. 

Nothing other than a win in Super Bowl XLIV will satisfy a team of great leadership and unquestionable talent.  That said, what are the REALISTIC expectations for the up-and-coming Steelers?

Potential obstacles:

For the Steelers, an aging defensive line may be cause for concern.  With the drafting of Missouri DL Evander "Ziggy" Hood, the Steelers have looked towards the future of their team in the first round of April's draft. 

The Steelers also addressed an average at best offensive line.  With Max Starks being the most experienced and seemingly least-liked offensive lineman on the team, the Steelers drafted OL Kraig Urbik in the third round of this years draft. 

They also drafted a local prospect, Moon Township and Penn State grad, center A.Q. Shipley in the seventh round, which may be the steal of the draft. 

Other than depth at positions filled by aging all-pros, the Steelers main threat to Super Bowl XLIV may be themselves.  Will the highs of success catch-up with this team, again?  Not likely. 

Immediately following the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIII, Coach Tomlin implied: "For us, for me, and the thing I’m going to sell to our football team is that we are not attempting to repeat. That special group of men in that locker room last night at the end of that game—that’s gone forever. There will be a new 53-man (roster).

"A lot of the faces will be the same, but nothing stays the same in this game. Few will come and go, those who remain, the roles will change. Some will ascend, some will descend. That’s the nature of today’s NFL. Our focus will be about being the one at the end of the season and we are no different than anybody else in that regard.

"I think repeating and defending Super Bowl champions in today’s NFL is somewhat of a misnomer. When I walk down the hallway and look at the championships of the Steelers from the '70s, it’s the same pictures and same positions in those photos in terms of the ‘Steel Curtain’ and so forth.

"That’s not the reality of today’s NFL, to be quite honest with you. We are going to roll up our sleeves at the appropriate time and start with a new group of men—hopefully a lot of them will the same—and go about our business of trying to compete in ’09.

"You won’t hear me say words like repeat or defending because it will be brand new. This group will always be special to me, but sometime soon, that group will assume its place with others in history. It will be just that—history.”

Therein lies the answer to the biggest obstacle for the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers.

The only way the Steelers fall short this season is by their own undoing.  The Steelers know what is at stake this upcoming season, a place in history.  For all the shortcomings in the early part of this decade (2001 and 2004,) a win in Super Bowl XLIV gives the Steelers three Lombardi's this side of the millennium. 

That places them side-by-side with rival New England in the terms of teams of the decade.  Many would say that is motivation enough.  The Steelers would almost certainly have to agree.

With Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, James Farrior and Super Bowl hero's James Harrison and Santonio Holmes, the Steelers will not lack the leadership and past lessons learned on how to repeat as Super Bowl champions. 

Without the knowledge gained three years ago, along with a head coach just 37 years young, the Steelers could easily be in trouble.

However, the Steelers do have the leaders, the knowledge and the coaching experience.  The Steelers have the luxury of a determined and passionate leader in Mike Tomlin, as well as the brilliant and seasoned knowledge of defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau on the same sideline.

If the Steelers stay healthy and determined, one which they can't control the other they totally control, there are no limits to the possible achievements this coming season.


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