Saturday, November 18, 2006

Steelers Dodgeball Big in the West

Proving once again that the Steelers are truly America's team, Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times offers up an extended homage to the struggling Super Bowl champions. For those fans looking to feel good about a 3-6 record, this surely does help.

And the information about the on-going dodgeball tournament the Steelers are having is great too.

"The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the middle of the worst Super Bowl hangover in NFL history, and the defending champions have yet to break their pattern this season of win one game, lose three. They have been undone by turnovers, and can't seem to find the magic that defined their 2005 season.

So in their locker room, the battle lines are drawn.

Dodgeball battle lines.

On one side are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a couple of hulking linemen; on the other is kicker Jeff Reed and a pair of receivers. They dodge a Nerf ball about the size of a grapefruit and heavy enough to sting.

'If one side catches your ball,' Roethlisberger explained with a laugh, 'the only way to get back in is to hit a reporter.'

It's one of many locker-room games the Steelers play when things get slow. Across the cavernous room, in front of safety Troy Polamalu's locker, linebacker Larry Foote and others play H-O-R-S-E by shooting tape balls into a trash can. In another spot, players huddle over a game of dominoes.

When you walk into the Steelers' locker room, some longtime Pittsburgh reporters say, it's nearly impossible to tell whether the team has its current record of 3-6 or is actually 6-3.

'It's a strength,' Foote said. 'We know our record doesn't indicate what type of team we are. We know it's going to turn one day, and why not now?'

The Steelers' unwavering confidence is a tribute to one of the most consistent, even-keeled organizations in sports. It's also a trickle-down from the top. The Rooney family has owned the team for 73 years; Bill Cowher is the league's longest-tenured coach; and most of the key players are Pittsburgh draft picks or undrafted free agents, among them Roethlisberger, guard Alan Faneca, running back Willie Parker, linebacker Joey Porter, receiver Hines Ward and Polamalu.

Make no mistake, this season has been disastrous for the Steelers. At 3-6, they're tied for the worst record for any defending champion. The New York Giants, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins got off to identical wobbly starts after winning it all.

But there's something about the Steelers that inspires the feeling this gutter time won't last long. Maybe it's all the confidence in the locker room, or because the team has put up impressive numbers on offense — numbers undone by turnovers — as the loss column swells.

'Because we know we're a good team, that frustrates us,' Roethlisberger said. 'We feel we're a good team with a bad record.'

It has been a wildly tumultuous year for Roethlisberger. He's gone from being the youngest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl, to suffering a near-fatal motorcycle collision, to an astounding comeback, to an emergency appendectomy, to a player having to fight to hang onto his starting job.

'As a team, we set the bar pretty high,' he said. 'The first year went so well, and then it was, "How can you live up to the way you played your rookie year"' ' in 2004, when the Steelers finished 15-1 in the regular season before losing to New England in the AFC title game.

After the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl title in February expectations were so high in Pittsburgh, he said, 'that people expect a Super Bowl every year. It's what have you done for me now? Forget about last year that you won a Super Bowl. And that's fine because we don't want to dwell on it. But part of you says, "Man, don't you remember we just won one?" '

Just before going on their astounding run of eight consecutive victories last season, culminating with a 21-10 Super Bowl triumph over Seattle, the Steelers lost three in a row last November. They looked like anything but a playoff team.

Now, their prospects look even worse. They are at the bottom of the AFC North, four games behind leader Baltimore, and their final seven games include two against the Ravens and road games at Carolina and Cincinnati. Even if the Steelers run the table, there's no guarantee they will reach the postseason.

There are some positive signs. In the past month, the Steelers have averaged a league-high 451.2 yards a game, and their 127 plays of 10-plus yards this season are second only to the Cowboys' 131. But turnovers have plagued the Steelers. They already have 24 giveaways, most in the league, and higher than their turnovers for each of the last two seasons.

Defenses have intercepted Roethlisberger passes 10 times in the second half of games, and his quarterback rating has nosedived after halftime from 102.7 to 52.4. Although he has never shied from accepting blame, he knows there's an element of luck involved.

'The ball could get tipped three times and your guy could catch it or it could get intercepted,' he said. 'Last year, we got the ball to bounce our way a ton. Sometimes that's the determining factor that gets you over the bar.'

What the Steelers aren't doing is panicking. They're confident they can shake their Super Bowl hangover and seem determined to maintain their spirit. And if that means reporters have to duck when they walk into the locker room, so be it



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