Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Mike Tomlin already is working to establish the mindset for the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers.
According to the freshly minted Super Bowl winning coach, you will not hear the terms "repeat" or "two-peat" from Tomlin next season.
"Our focus [next year] will be about being the one at the end of the season, and that we're no different than anyone else in that regard," Tomlin said. "I think repeating and defending Super Bowl champions in today's NFL is somewhat of a misnomer."
Teams can change dramatically. Coaching staffs are altered. And players move around the league in high volumes. The players that do stay have roles that increase and decrease annually.
This is part of the message Tomlin will covey to his team next year as the Steelers prepare to chase an NFL-best seventh Super Bowl championship.
Even for the league's most successful franchise, Pittsburgh has a major uphill climb against history. Only seven teams have repeated as Super Bowl champs since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970. The New England Patriots (2003, 2004) were the only team to do it in the last decade.
"Although it will be a very difficult task, the Steelers have a great shot to challenge for the Super Bowl," said Keith Kidd of Scouts Inc. "[They have] a great head coach in Mike Tomlin, a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and a defense that will return its core group of veteran players under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. ...Simply put, this is an organization that knows how to win."
The 2009 Steelers are fortunate in many ways. They will not face some of the same adversity as other defending Super Bowl champions.
There are no major, Pro-Bowl caliber free agents on the team. Pittsburgh's coaching staff will not be raided like many other successful playoff teams because it's so late in the process. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, in particular, are expected to stay put. LeBeau, 71, will finish his career in Pittsburgh, and Arians is not on the head-coaching radar like other coordinators such as Todd Haley of the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers also have proven winners at head coach and quarterback, which is something a majority of teams lack.
With a few exceptions, next season's Steelers will appear similar to the 2008 version from top to bottom.
Just one starter, cornerback Bryant McFadden, will be a free agent from the NFL's top-rated defense. But McFadden, 27, has expressed the desire to return next season and Pittsburgh likely will make re-signing him a priority.
"I would love to be back here for the long term," McFadden said recently. "But I guess it's up to the decision-makers to make it happen. But I would love it, because this is a great environment."
No. 3 receiver Nate Washington is Pittsburgh's biggest free agent on offense. Washington caught 40 passes for 631 yards in the regular season. Offensive linemen Max Starks, Marvel Smith and Chris Kemoeatu also could test the market. Starting tackle Willie Colon will be a restricted free agent as well.
The expiring contracts sets up the potential for a major overhaul on the offensive line, which was the team's most glaring weakness this season. Expect Pittsburgh to address this through the draft and free agency.
Another significant change -- and advantage -- for Pittsburgh will be its strength of schedule.
After entering last season with the NFL's toughest slate, the Steelers will drop an astounding 28 spots from No. 1 to No. 29 next year. In fact, Pittsburgh has the easiest strength of schedule in the entire AFC, with a winning percentage of .434. That could be a factor in locking up a playoff berth and high seed in the postseason.
Although a lot can change in the offseason, Pittsburgh's easier schedule based on last season's records include dates with the Detroit Lions (0-16), Kansas City Chiefs (2-14), Oakland Raiders (5-11), Green Bay Packers (6-10) and two contests each against the Cleveland Browns (4-12) and Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1). That makes up half of the Steelers' 2009 schedule.
If Pittsburgh once again masters its schedule and wins its third title in five years, it will certainly be labeled a dynasty.
But will Pittsburgh be the team of the decade?
That title is currently held by New England. It would take another ring for Pittsburgh to equal the Patriots, who have three titles. New England also made it to the Super Bowl and lost to the New York Giants following the 2007 season, making it four championship appearances in nine seasons. That is hard to match.
Either way, Pittsburgh has an impressive resume with two titles in this decade and six overall. But as the parades and celebrations conclude over the next couple of weeks, it soon will be time for the Steelers to chase championship No. 7.
"This game, like life itself, is full of challenges," Tomlin explained. "We met the challenges that were laid before us in terms of the '08 season. It's awesome, it's great, and it's appreciated.
"But, if you're a legitimate competitor, at the appropriate time you ready yourself for the challenges that lie ahead in '09."