The Pittsburgh Steelers are the toast of the football world, following their scintillating, come-from-behind win over the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl on Sunday. By and large, however, it is the same Steelers team the Jaguars defeated twice last season in Pittsburgh, the final time in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
At that time, the Jaguars had the look of a team on the rise; the Steelers, the look of a team in need of retooling. So what happened? Why did the Steelers recover to plow through one of the most difficult schedules in NFL history and claim the franchise's sixth Super Bowl title, while the Jaguars fell from the ranks of preseason Super Bowl favorites to a 5-11 record?
"You have to look at the injuries," Jaguars veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "I know it's been said over and over but, if you disregard the injuries, you know nothing about football. Other than that, I would say the consistent play; plugging in and not being able to miss a beat. If you're healthy going into the playoffs, you're going to have a great chance and, by the looks of it, they were healthy going into the playoffs."
Mathis was a star in the Jaguars' playoff win in Pittsburgh last winter. He intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass in the first half and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown, helping to stake the Jaguars to a healthy first-half lead. Roethlisberger rallied the Steelers into the lead late in the game, but David Garrard's 32-yard run set up a game-winning field goal with but seconds to play in the game.
"Knowing you have the team to beat the great teams in the league; it just lets you know how consistent you have to play to be in the game, and if you don't play consistently, you'll be home watching that game," Mathis said when asked his thoughts as he watched the Steelers win Super Bowl XLIII.
In at least one way, the Jaguars and Steelers were similar in the 2008 season. They each sustained a rash of injuries. The Jaguars lost their starting guards for the season in the season-opener, and the Steelers lost their two best offensive linemen for the season early in the year. The Steelers, however, were able to overcome their injuries; the Jaguars were not. Why?
A lack of team chemistry was volunteered by players and coaches alike as the major reason for the Jaguars' fall in '08. Mathis is one of the players who believes that to be true and he said it'll be job one in the offseason for the Jaguars to repair their locker room spirit.
"We had what it takes. I don't know what it was that was different. I don't know if it started with the coaches and trickled down to the players or if it started with the players and trickled down to the coaches. We have to be a family within," Mathis said.
How will that be accomplished?
"First of all, we need to buy into the system. The key guys on this team have to buy in and then the other guys are going to follow. If the key guys aren't on the same page, the team isn't going to be on the same page," Mathis added.
Clearly, the Jaguars have roster needs. It may be an exaggeration to say the Jaguars have to rebuild their roster, but it wouldn't be an overstatement to say the team has a lot of work to do. The Jags need to find a left tackle and address depth needs on their offensive line. They need young "lions" on their defensive line, too, and there are no receivers to compare to the top two receivers in the Super Bowl, MVP Santonio Holmes or Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald.
All teams, however, have needs. The Steelers began this season with major questions on their offensive line and suffered a terrible fall with their running game and pass-protection. Finished products are few and far between in the NFL these days.
"You can just look at the Cardinals and seeing what they did (in 2007) and people writing them off. You can just look at them and have hope. No one expected the Giants to have the run they did. If you're playing good team football at the right time, you can get to that game," Mathis said of the Super Bowl.
"I think we can. This year was a terrible taste in everybody's mouth. It was enough of a bad taste to get the leaders to rally around. We have to get everybody, the same heart beat, everybody in it for the same reason and knowing it's bigger than just that one person," Mathis added.
The spring is when the foundation for solid team chemistry is built. During conditioning workouts and spring practices, players learn about each other and begin the process of developing a sense of team. Coach Jack Del Rio repeatedly referred to that process during the spring of 2007, a year in which the Jaguars were said to be a very tight-knit team.
Del Rio has already announced he wants all Jaguars players present at this year's offseason conditioning, which begins in March. His remarks were thought to be pointed at veteran Fred Taylor, who has elected to workout in a private regimen in south Florida in past springs.
"It's not just him. There a couple of guys who go off and train in other places," Mathis said. "We have a new weight room staff. When the guys go off to other places, they don't come back out of shape. If we want everybody here, we have to do what it takes."
Mathis is recommending that the new strength and conditioning staff include among the team's workout regimen those aspects that attract players to personal workouts. Should that occur, then full participation should be expected.
"Then there's no excuse. Then you can ask the guys to leave (their personal regimens). There are things you can do in other places that you can do better here," Mathis said. "We're trying to do it a different way this year and hopefully it'll work. We have some great core guys on this team. There's no question about that. If we can plug in some guys, whether it's to catch the football or make a block or make a tackle or break up a pass, that's all we need.
"Hopefully, we can get everybody here. That means a lot. Inside the locker room we can be, 'OK, guys, this is the plan. If you're not on board, you're on the wrong team.' " Mathis said.