By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It took the Steelers 26 years to win a Super Bowl, and seven months later their coach wants everyone to forget about it.
"What we did last year means nothing," coach Bill Cowher declared this week. "We're not living off last year's laurels."
He has drilled it into everyone's head, or at least tried, that the Steelers might not have been even the best team in the league last year, just one that got on a roll at the end. Their final reward for winning the NFL championship comes tonight when they kick off the new season against a team that ended on a high themselves last year, the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins closed the 2005 regular season in more impressive fashion than did the Steelers, who won their final four to qualify for the playoffs. Miami won its final six -- including an upset in San Diego that helped put the Steelers in the postseason -- but did not qualify the Dolphins at 9-7.
Many pick the Dolphins to do it all this year, and they can launch a booming start when they kick off against the defending champions at 8:30 p.m.
Both teams will have new starters at quarterback tonight, one overcoming a malady, the other playing because of one.
Miami's Daunte Culpepper, like Ben Roethlisberger before Sunday, made it back this summer from a severe injury and will take his first official snaps with the Dolphins since they acquired him from the Vikings for a second-round draft pick in March.
The underlying drama of two injured quarterbacks fighting back to play in the opener was reduced by one when Roethlisberger had surgery Sunday to remove his appendix. Culpepper had surgery to reconstruct his right knee that was injured Oct. 30 in a game at Carolina. The Dolphins weren't certain he would make the opener, but he played in the preseason, completing 22 of 30 passes for 218 yards and a 93.5 passer rating, and was deemed ready.
"We feel like he got a lot more [play] than we had initially anticipated," said second-year Miami coach Nick Saban. "He certainly was well ahead of schedule in terms of his rehab. ... He probably got the same amount of work as most starting quarterbacks."
Saban held Culpepper out of the final preseason game Thursday, as did Cowher with Roethlisberger, for fear of injury. Roethlisberger avoided further mishap until Sunday. The Steelers plunged from 41/2-point favorites to a 1-point pick tonight since his surgery.
Culpepper gives Miami a Pro Bowl quarterback for the first time since Dan Marino retired. He's a three-time all-star and a reason many believe the Dolphins can reach the Super Bowl.
"We know what type of player Daunte is," Cowher said. "He's one of the elite quarterbacks in the game. And coming off a major knee surgery, he probably isn't where he was. He's probably about 90 percent. But he's still out there making plays and running when he has to. So I think our defense knows what Daunte is capable of doing. Miami adding Daunte really helped increased their chances. That's why everybody's picking them, because he's that difference maker."
The Steelers hope not to help in his recovery. They're likely to test that knee. Coordinator Dick LeBeau showed little of the exotic defenses and blitzes he'll spring tonight on an offense coached by Mike Mularkey, the Steelers' former coordinator.
The Steelers blitz more often than any NFL defense, and Culpepper expects them to come after him.
"The one thing about them that sticks out is that they are a very physical football team," Culpepper said. "They're fast, they fly around and they hit hard. That's what we expect them to do now. We expect them to fly around and disrupt things, disrupt our rhythm with their defensive schemes. ... They are going to blitz."
The opening of this season for the Steelers is quite different, and not just because they won a Super Bowl. Last year, they started with patsies Tennessee and Houston and won by a combined 61-14. They open this one against Miami, at Jacksonville and Cincinnati, all Super Bowl contenders.
"We're playing a team who a lot of people are picking to win the Super Bowl this year," Hines Ward said. "For players, that's what you're looking for, a prime-time game with the chance for you to showcase to the world who you are as a player and what type of team we are. Especially coming off the Super Bowl championship; all eyes are going to be on what the Steelers are going to do."