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Old 11-08-2006, 07:36 AM   #1
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Default Steelers' problems deep-rooted

Column: Steelers' problems deep-rooted

By ALAN ROBINSON
AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The genesis for a season that has gone terribly wrong may be traced to a pair of seemingly unconnected events that occurred long before any member of the Pittsburgh Steelers stepped on a field: A motorcycle wrecked. A mansion purchased. A season ruined?

Ben Roethlisberger's decision to not strap on a helmet before he rode his racing-style motorcycle through downtown Pittsburgh on a sunny June day. A pen scrawl on a North Carolina luxury home sales agreement.

Unwittingly, they may have caused self-doubts, worry and distraction to creep into a team renowned for its confidence and set the stage for one of the worst performances ever by a returning Super Bowl champion.

How's this for downsizing your goals?

Only weeks after the Steelers were talking so confidently of making another Super Bowl run, coach Bill Cowher said Tuesday he has only one immediate goal for a sagging team that has lost six of seven games: "Win a game."

Right now, these Steelers (2-6) can't aspire to much more than that.

"This is new territory for this group of players," Cowher said.

What the Steelers may ask themselves someday is whether this whole mess would have been different if Roethlisberger hadn't wrecked his motorcycle. Or if Cowher hadn't stunned the franchise by buying a $2.5 million luxury home in Raleigh, N.C., and moving his family there before the season started.

Roethlisberger, the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl at age 23, came out of his bloody crash as well as could be expected with a broken jaw, a concussion and other relatively minor injuries. He later apologized to his teammates and, only last week, said he is no longer riding bikes.

But while he healed quickly, it was evident once the season started he wasn't close to being the quarterback he was during the playoffs last season.

He was set back further after undergoing surgery to remove his appendix and missed the opening game.

When he returned, his timing and decision-making weren't the same and, while he has played effectively in three of his last four starts, he has a 1-5 record after going 27-4 in his first two seasons.

Players don't always confine their poor judgment to a football field, and Roethlisberger may have set his team back by a season simply for the selfish pleasure of feeling the wind blowing through his hair on a sunny day.

Equally surprising was the decision by Cowher, a man who despises distractions, to move his family out of Pittsburgh with only one season beyond this one remaining on his contract.

Cowher has not said if he will coach the Steelers again in 2007, and there is growing speculation he will retire after this season. Still, how long can a successful coach who, at 49, is 30 years younger than Joe Paterno stay out of the game?

Cowher hasn't discussed his status, his new home or if he wants a new job. Yet he had to know what a stir the home buying would cause, and the possibility it would be a season-long distraction - despite his players' repeated insistence it's not a factor in their poor season.

The Steelers have long prized stability; they have won five Super Bowls yet have had only two coaches since 1969. Forty Steelers have known no other NFL coach but Cowher. So the thought they might be searching for another coach so soon after winning a Super Bowl is unnerving to some in the organization.

Mathematically, a team that won 26 games the past two regular seasons but has only two wins in two months could make the playoffs, though it would probably take an eight-game winning streak like that of last season to do so.

"I think to look at the big picture would be foolish," Cowher said. "The little picture right now is what we have to do."

Realistically, this team doesn't seem capable of making what arguably would be the NFL's greatest in-season turnaround. Not with Hines Ward already talking about next year and Willie Parker saying some players were satisfied with winning the Super Bowl and no longer are selling out.

"It seems like we've already got what we want, what's the use?" Parker said.

Parker, anything but a locker room rabble rouser, was stating what has seemed evident for weeks. These Steelers lack the focus, the attention to detail, the confidence they possessed in becoming the first team to win three road playoff games and the Super Bowl.

It's showing up in the careless turnovers, the unforced penalties, the missed assignments and the lack of self-discipline that are visible every week. The Steelers had 23 turnovers while going 11-5 last season, but already have a league-high 24 this season - 10 the last two weeks against the Raiders and Broncos.

They also keep getting flagged for the kind of penalties, unsportsmanlike conduct and excessive celebration, that Cowher has never tolerated.

"You've got to maintain your cool," Cowher said. "I don't think there's any question a lot of it has been frustration. But you've got to be able to deal with it. You've got to deal with a little adversity."

Or, in their case, a lot of it.

"We didn't become sorry overnight," Ward said.

Nor can all their problems be solved with a lineup switch here or there, as Cowher suggested might occur Sunday against New Orleans (6-2).

"I understand the disappointment," Cowher said. "If there wasn't that sense of disappointment and frustration, it would not be a good situation. Our whole football team is learning to deal with this, and the thing right now is we've got to fight through it."

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