Showing No Signs of a Hangover

Country-music troubadour and Pittsburgh Steelers fan Hank Williams Jr. once sang that "the hangovers hurt more than they used to." Steelers Nation



Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes running the ball against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII.

The Super Bowl hangover lingered for several agonizing months after the Steelers beat Seattle to claim Super Bowl XL in Detroit. Jerome Bettis, the team's emotional leader, retired after the season. Ben Roethlisberger had perhaps the most famous motorcycle accident in city history in June and then had to have his appendix removed right before the season opener. He struggled through the worst season of his brilliant career. And rumors dogged the team all year that head coach Bill Cowher would step aside as well, which he ultimately did at season's end.

On the field, the Steelers suffered the kinds of thrashings they used to administer to opponents. Jacksonville physically handled them in a 9-0 shutout in week two on "Monday Night Football." The Baltimore Ravens combined to beat the Steelers 58-7 in their two meetings. There were also two three-game losing streaks, as the Steelers finished an unsatisfying 8-and-8. But after winning Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals in February, the Steelers think they can avoid a "Super Bowl hangover" this season.

"I think we know a little bit more what to expect this time," says linebacker James Farrior. "We know the first time we did it we didn't come back and have the great season we expected to have. But this time, I think we'll be a little more focused and pay a little bit more attention to details. We know it's a tough road ahead of us, so we're going to be out here working hard."

The road is tough, and the journey can begin with the weary. The Steelers played 24 games in 2005, including the preseason, regular season and postseason. After the Super Bowl victory in Detroit, there was the parade in Pittsburgh as well as a few parties to celebrate the team's accomplishment. The extended postseason meant that there were already six weeks or so less time to let the bodies heal from the season, and in the afterglow of the championship, perhaps a little less will for some to get themselves back into top shape.

"I think the last time we were a little lax," says nose tackle Casey Hampton of his first visit to the Super Bowl in Detroit. "We kicked it, and [let the whole thing get to us] a little last time, and forgot how we got there."

The Steelers have a large number of key holdovers from the first Super Bowl-winning team, and they think that will help them avoid a letdown this season. "We know what it's going to take," Farrior says, "and all the veteran guys know what we have to put in to make this season another good one."

And younger players like Matt Spaeth plan on following the lead of the veterans. "I'm just going to get with some vets, and learn from them, and ride their coattails," Spaeth says. "They'll learn from their mistakes, and they're going to know what to do and how to handle themselves."

Repeating is tough. Only eight teams have successfully done it, including the Steelers, twice, in the 1970s. Part of the reason lies in the "hangover effect," but part of it is in the expectations heaped upon the defending champ and the desire for other teams to knock them off. "You've got a target on your back," says linebacker LaMarr Woodley. "Teams are out to get you. You want to come in better, because fans are going to expect more, and you should expect more from yourself."

Another reason that repeating is tough is that the pool of competition is so deep. To combat that, the Steelers speak of motivation, the edge that's needed in a sport of such parity that this year's defeated Super Bowl team frequently become next year's champions..

For Hines Ward, the motivation lies in the chance to become known as the best team in the NFL over the course of his career. "I want to win another [Super Bowl]," Ward says. "The [Steelers] team in the '70s - they won four. And I think if we can win another one, we'd be right up there with New England as one of the teams in the dynasty [discussion] since I've been here."

Ward also thinks that Mike Tomlin will help the team keep its motivational edge. "He won't let us have a down year," Ward says. "His expectation level is very high - and it should be."

And for Tomlin, Steelers Nation is part of what keeps him hungry for more success. "The more I get to understand it, the more Steelers Nation drives me," Tomlin said the day after the Steelers' Super Bowl win over Arizona. "I want to give them something to be excited about. I want to perform for them; I want to win for them, because they're that special."

And if the Steelers can't beat the odds this season and win another championship? Well, we can always turn to Hank Williams Jr.'s daddy for a prediction: "There's a tear in my beer," he once famously sang. And there'd be some salty suds in Pittsburgh as well.

 

Rob King's versatility places him in the studio or at the game for FSN Pittsburgh. He brought his enthusiasm for sports to the 'Burgh in 2000 after having spent the previous five years in Syracuse, where he was the sports director at CBS affiliate WTVH and hosted a radio show on WHEN-AM. Before that, Rob spent 21/2 years as a reporter at KPLR-TV in St. Louis and also hosted a radio show on KFNS-AM. He's a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he was an all-conference quarterback.

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