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Old 08-28-2006, 04:08 AM   #1
lamberts-lost-tooth
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Default Faneca, Ward and Townsend have endured

Steelers' Faneca, Ward and Townsend have endured the good and the bad
Monday, August 28, 2006


They are defending Super Bowl champs now. One, a Super Bowl MVP. Another, one of the most-decorated offensive guards in football. A third, the late bloomer, a starting cornerback who played well enough to hold off two young second-round picks.

Hines Ward, Alan Faneca and Deshea Townsend are at the top of the NFL world as they prepare to help the Steelers defend their championship. Yet, they remember when things weren't going so well in Pittsburgh, when they were so far near the bottom they could not see the top.

They are the '98ers, a trio of players remaining from the draft eight years ago. Two are 30 years old, one is closing in on it. They joined the team when it was on a roll, having barely missed a Super Bowl visit three months before they were drafted. Bill Cowher had coached each of his first six Steelers teams into the playoffs, tying a coaching record held by Hall of Famer Paul Brown. Three of those teams reached an AFC championship game, and one a Super Bowl.

There was no reason to believe it would ever stop.

"You had to think, 'Hey, we're coming to a good situation,' " Townsend said. "You know you're going to a good organization, the championships they've won, Mr. Rooney and how they run their organization."

But in the '98ers' rookie year, the Steelers lost their final five games and finished 7-9. Then things turned poorly. They lost seven of their final eight in 1999 and plummeted to 6-10. Tom Donahoe, the director of football operations and the man who drafted them, was fired after that season. In minicamp that June, an ugly brawl broke out in their locker room. They lost their first three games of 2000 and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year.

Townsend and Ward, roommates, looked at each other and wondered if they hadn't jinxed the team that drafted them.

"Me and Hines said, 'Man, we must be the reason we're losing,' " Townsend said.

Chuck Noll often noted that steel must go through fire to be strengthened, and the heat was relentless on the Steelers, particularly for the '98ers, who celebrated going to such a successful organization only to wonder what had happened after their first three years.

Looking back now, from atop the perch that includes a 15-1 2004 season and the franchise's first Super Bowl victory in 26 years, one thing the '98ers learned early in their NFL careers is that nothing can be taken for granted.

"I think you appreciate it more when you've been there in the bad times," Faneca said.

The rookie trio did not think the club was in disarray as the 1998 season began, but there were omens. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey left the team late to become head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Cowher, no doubt to his everlasting regret, invited quarterback Kordell Stewart to have input on the new coordinator. The hiring of Ray Sherman, whose play-calling duties were usurped by Cowher late in his only season on the job, set Stewart and the offense back through two fired coordinators before Mike Mularkey righted things in 2001.

Yancey Thigpen, the team's best receiver, left in free agency before '98 and an aging Courtney Hawkins tried to replace him. Safeties Carnell Lake and Darren Perry were on their last legs and final season with the Steelers. Linebacker Greg Lloyd was injured, angry and released that summer.

There was more, but there was something bubbling below the ruins of the Steelers' long playoff run. A foundation sprouted that would bring the team back in the new century, starting with Ward, Faneca and Townsend.

"At the time, we were just going through, I guess, a transition stage," Ward said. "We lost a good deal of our veteran guys. It was just a matter of rebuilding. We were going through some new coaches. It was hard overall just to get everyone on the same page.

"And throughout the draft, we started to build our team. The '98 class -- me, Faneca, Deshea -- it kind of went from there. The next year was Joey and his class and as we grew and evolved into our own, we had a pretty good ballclub."

Joey Porter and Aaron Smith in 1999, two more future Pro Bowl players. Another in 2000, Marvel Smith, along with Clark Haggans. Another in 2001, Casey Hampton. The talent restocking that ultimately would bring a Super Bowl victory had begun.

"The one thing about coach Cowher, he stayed the same throughout," Townsend said. "He's been very consistent. That's one thing I'll say if anybody asks me about him is how consistent he is.

"Sometimes when you go through changes, things happen. But the one thing about it, we kept the same focus, did the same things and worked our way out of it."

Not before rock bottom arrived in June 2000. In their final days practicing at Three Rivers Stadium (they moved to the South Side that fall), an ugly fight broke in the locker room in minicamp. It started between linebacker Earl Holmes and halfback Richard Huntley and spread with players swinging wooden chairs and threatening each other.

When the Steelers began the season 0-3, it only seemed to confirm that they had disintegrated.

But, "guys just kept working," Townsend said.

They won five in a row and finished 9-7. They followed by making the playoffs four of the next five seasons, including three AFC title games and one Super Bowl victory.

Starting Friday, the Steelers gear up for a run at a second consecutive championship, knowing through experience that past results do not guarantee future returns but that eight years later the foundation is stronger.
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