By Teresa Varley
When a new football season starts, optimism abounds. Everyone feels their team has the makeup to be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at seasons end. "When you start the year off you always go into it saying that we are trying to win a Super Bowl," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "There are just so many things that have to take place. We've cut some guys, but we kept some guys. I think when we left training camp the team that we built together with 53 guys was good."
But as luck, or lack there of would have it, those 53 guys you start with aren't always the ones you finish the season with.
As the injuries mounted and the schedule got tougher, those outside of the walls at the Steelers UPMC Sports Performance Complex started to have their doubts.
Those doubts never infiltrated the Steelers locker room, though. Not even when the injuries continued to grow and sidelined at times for games were Willie Parker, Marvel Smith, Kendall Simmons, Rashard Mendenhall, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Bryant McFadden, Ryan Clark, LaMarr Woodley just to name a few.
"I think we used all 53 guys over the course of the season," said Ward. "Hats go off to the scouting department and to Coach (Mike) Tomlin for putting the best 53 guys that we have to come together and gel as a team considering we had the hardest schedule in all of the NFL.
"Over the course of the season you are losing half your offensive line due to injuries. You lost Willie Parker. Then we lost Mendenhall. Guys stepped up and continued to play and we didn't really lose a beat. That is something that I think really helped us as far as depth wise. I think it really just helped the continuity of the team considering guys are falling down and we were still going out there putting up wins."
And those wins came against some of the top teams in the NFL, while a few losses were tough fought battles. With a stretch of games that included the last two Super Bowl winners, the Giants and Colts, as well as the Redskins, Chargers, Patriots, Cowboys, Ravens and Titans, the Steelers were tested. They passed.
"I strongly believe that the hard schedule really helped us get to where we are today as Super Bowl Champions," said Ward. "Week in and week out we were playing top quality teams. You look at playing Dallas, having the lead against the Colts, against the Giants and really letting those games slip away from us. We learned from that and we built on that.
"I think by playing that hard rigorous schedule helped prepare us to win this Super Bowl this year because we had been through every scenario and situation."
Another thing that worked well for this team was the relaxed approach they took. While every game was taken seriously, there was never tightness or stress. The players were loose, all the way up to the Super Bowl when they did their normal joking in the practices leading up to game day.
"I think that has a lot to do with the leadership, not being uptight, still taking the same approach we had during the regular season and carrying it over to the post-season," said Ward. "We played a little basketball game. We had that going in the locker room down in Tampa. We brought our basketballs down there. We had our garbage can and guys were shooting around. You have to have that.
"In order to win the Super Bowl you have to have great chemistry on the team. It really doesn't matter the talent. You can have the best wide receiver and never win a Super Bowl. You can have the best running back or the best quarterback and it doesn't necessarily mean you will win the Super Bowl. It's all about team effort. This season has been that. Every week someone has stood up and risen to the occasion of going out and making plays. All in all, you've got to have that great team chemistry to go out and have success."