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Old 08-05-2006, 10:37 AM   #1
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Default Sports Illustrated: Training camp postcard from Latrobe

Latrobe, Pa., hometown of Arnold Palmer and, until very recently, the Rolling Rock Brewery, which sadly relocated to New Jersey. The Steelers are training at bucolic St. Vincent College for the 40th consecutive year -- and for the fifth time as defending Super Bowl champions.
Here's the Drill

1. "He looked pretty good, didn't he?" Ken Whisenhunt, the Steelers' brainy offensive coordinator, said as he walked off the field following his team's spirited, two-hour practice Friday afternoon. The coach didn't specify who he was, and I didn't have to ask: the tall dude with the big arm, well-trimmed goatee and copious dose of perspective did indeed look mighty impressive -- just a couple of months removed from the scary motorcycle crash that nearly took his life. "I'm so happy to be here," Ben Roethlisberger had said earlier Friday, ostensibly referring to training camp at St. Vincent, but perhaps speaking in a broader context as well. He asked to delay our chat until the following morning -- "I've got to go take [fullback] Danny Kreider's money in Tiger Woods Golf," he explained -- and disappeared to his dorm room, as breezy as the gentle drafts that provided merciful respite from the heat. The third-year passer's lightness of being extends to a literal level as well -- he's far closer to his listed playing weight of 241 pounds than he was in Super Bowl XL, perhaps even under it. That's what a few weeks without solid food will do for you. "He's lighter because of the accident," Steelers coach Bill Cowher confirmed. "It's not the way he wanted to get there, but it's really going to help his game." Cowher and Whisenhunt each said that even before the crash, they noticed a newfound maturity and focus from Roethlisberger that began during the team's offseason workouts and extended through minicamps. For all of the talk about which players would step up to fill the leadership void caused by Jerome Bettis' retirement -- Hines Ward? Joey Porter? Troy Polamalu? -- Roethlisberger has quietly been doing his part.

2. Did you see Cowher's recent comment that, despite their stirring championship run, the Steelers "weren't the best team" last season? I don't buy it at all -- this is a team that went into Indy and absolutely took it to Peyton Manning and the Colts in January -- and I told the coach so following the afternoon practice. I asked him if he'd merely said that as a means of keeping his players from getting complacent; he stuck to his story. "Yes, we played the best football at the end of last year, but we were very close to not making the tournament at all," he reasoned. "Any time a team loses three straight games in the middle of a season, it's hard for me to say they were the best." OK, coach, I hear you, but I'm going to say it anyway: In our society, by definition, the team that wins the biggest games and takes home the trophy becomes the best -- end of subject. Whether the Steelers will be the best team in 2006, of course, is an entirely different matter.

3. Though most people who cover the NFL for a living made their Super Bowl picks long ago -- I'm surprised no one has come out with his picks for the 2007 season -- I've been procrastinating on mine, though I've been pretty set on not tabbing the Steelers to repeat. But as I arrived at St. Vincent for Friday's morning practice and saw the caliber of players on the practice field, I turned to my father, Stephen Silver -- my designated driver on our eight-day, five-camp (Patriots, Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Steelers) -- and-one-killer-rock-concert-with-backstage-passes (Counting Crows in Mansfield, Mass. last Saturday night) odyssey -- and blurted, "This team is pretty damned good." As disastrous as Roethlisberger's accident nearly was -- even an injury such as, say, a banged-up knee might have been psychologically devastating to the team -- his seemingly seamless recovery has the Steelers feeling very good about themselves. This team is full of fiery veterans who care too much about the game of football to let up, and the quarterback, who had a lousy Super Bowl, has something to prove. And remember, in recent years it has been the Super Bowl losers who've struggled, rather than the winners. Logic says it will be tough for the Steelers to repeat, but right now I'm not so sure.

4. From my perspective, one of the coolest byproducts of the Steelers' title run was the coronation of Super Bowl XL MVP Ward. Until that game, Ward was always an afterthought when it came to listing the NFL's top wideouts, with guys like Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt and Randy Moss considered a cut above. Now Ward is rightfully in the conversation; personally, I can't think of too many other football players I'd rather have on my team, period. "When I see those elite guys make a play on TV, that's my motivation to go out and get better," Ward said on Friday. "I just try to be the most complete receiver I can be. A big goal I have is to get to 10,000 [career receiving] yards -- I think that would be a huge accomplishment given the way my career started. John Stallworth has, I think, 8,700 yards, and I can get to that with 1,600 this season, which I believe is a realistic goal." I told Ward that he may already hold the record for the most receiving yards for a player without an anterior cruciate ligament. "Yeah," he said, laughing, "that's one I'm really proud of."
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