The Steelers embarked upon their season in 2006 with ominous signs looming everywhere.
The impact that Ben Roethlisberger's accident had both on the young quarterback and on Steelers Nation had begun to heal, but disorder was spilling out of other sources.
Jerome Bettis, proclaiming the Steelers would be awful that year on national television, turned my heart to ice though I laughed it off and tried to forget what I had heard.
Bettis and Bill Cowher's "is he or isn't he" battle over the legitimacy of Cowher's imminent retirement surfaced in the press after the "Bus" stated it would be Cowher's last year of coaching.
Then, after the fanfare of the season opener and the win at Heinz Field, the Steelers slid backwards and lost three straight games. An easy win was followed by another three loss free fall.
The rest of the season lost its meaning until the last game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Sensing it was Cowher's last game, the Steelers stepped up and eliminated Cincy from a playoff spot with a fire that had been missing all season.
Most of the analysis pinned the blame of the abysmal season squarely on Roethlisberger.
He is not without blame, but I will never cease to wonder why Cowher failed to use his retirement to motivate the team when that very tactic had worked with the impending exodus of Bettis the previous year.
Many of the '09 Steelers remember the '06 season.
How will Coach Tomlin prevent this team from repeating the debacle that happened after Super Bowl XL?
Let's start with Ben since he was given the lion's share of the blame. He was quoted as saying that the accident was a result of him not being careful enough after winning his first Super Bowl.
Not only has Roethlisberger matured as a player, but I would expect he has also grown as a person.
He is no longer coached by Cowher, who would bark into his ear as he stared off into an undefined spot in the clouds rather than look his coach in the eye.
Tomlin has an entirely different approach toward his team. Following his first Super Bowl victory, Tomlin told the New York Times, "You wear many hats in this business and I embrace that as much as the X's and O's."
He added, "I probably get more enjoyment out of watching people grow than I do preparing winning football games. It's a beautiful thing. I believe it's what we're all called to do."
Tomlin looks at the whole picture. He is a man of balance. A jock who was a clandestine honor student brainiac. A cool contained individual whose eyes betray the fire that drives him to be great.
He expects his team to carry themselves with honor both on and off the field. He stands behind his squad and in return, I believe they do not want to let him down.
Much is also made of the fact that Super Bowl champions have a "target on their back." This is because it is true.
Steeler legend Lynn Swann recounted his experience as the Steelers advanced toward their first Super Bowl repeat in the 1975 season in the "America's Game" series. Swann said the Steelers had to elevate their game just to maintain their position. To excel required an even greater effort.
In the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Tomlin said of Roethlisberger, "I believe he can get better....I'm sure that he does."
"Like everybody else, Ben is going to be here searching for the ceiling in terms of what he's capable of doing," he added.
Tomlin continues to challenge the team. He did not become the youngest coach to rise from relative obscurity to a podium lifting the Lombardi without a lot of hard work.
Tomlin has first hand experience of a Super Bowl let down similar to the one faced by the almost 20 Steelers that remain from 2006. In 2003, as a member of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay coaching staff, he watched as the team fared slightly worse than the '06 Steelers and finished 7-9.
If we knew how a season would play out, we would never flock to the stadiums, living rooms, and bars every time our team takes to the field of play.
For me, coach Tomlin's Steelers' place in history is at stake, and I am eager to see how they fare. Will they be repeaters like Noll's squads, or retreaters as they were under the guidance of Cowher.
Only time will tell, but if I were to venture a guess, I think Tomlin and his band of brothers will be a force for years to come.
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