2006 was an interesting calendar year for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In February, the upstart Steelers, fresh off a string of upsets in the AFC playoffs, rode the arm of their young quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, and the legs of their old running back, Jerome Bettis, to a record-tying fifth Super Bowl title, defeating the Seattle Seahawks 21-10.
The euphoria from the thrilling postseason run disintegrated quickly for the Steelers, as a tearful Bettis announced his retirement after 13 years in the league and Roethlisberger was injured in a serious motorcycle accident in the summer. Although he came back quickly from a broken jaw and other minor injuries, Roethlisberger was never the same. Thanks in part to his league-leading 22 interceptions, Roethlisberger and the Steelers will be watching the playoffs from their couches this time around.
3 When Lamar Hunt passed away on Dec. 13 at the age of 74, the NFL lost more than just one of its owners, it lost an icon of the sport who played a major role in shaping the league into the institution it is today. Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs since the organization’s inception in 1959, fought to create the AFL, a rival to the NFL, in 1959, as a venue for his Chiefs and eight other teams to compete. Initially thought of as a foolish endeavor, the AFL gained in popularity to the point where it was able to merge with the more powerful NFL in 1966. And when you say Super Bowl, you have one man to thank — Hunt, who saw his daughter playing with a pink, rubber “Super Ball.”
4 One of the most-hyped rookie classes entering the league in years did not disappoint. Beleaguered fans in New Orleans, Tennessee and Arizona were all able to rejoice at the glimmer of hope their electrifying rookie imports were able to give their moribund franchises around. Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush has been a lightning rod in New Orleans with his exciting all-around play for the Saints, and former Southern Cal teammate Matt Leinart was a solid starter in Arizona since taking the reins in Week 5 before being hurt last week. In Tennessee, quarterback Vince Young has led the Titans to a surprising 8-7 record, including a current six-game winning streak that has put them in the thick of the AFC playoff picture. Perhaps most impressive of all first-timers is Chicago Bears return specialist Devin Hester, who set an NFL record with six return touchdowns.
As T.O. turns
5 Hmmm, let’s see, what could possibly be on Terrell Owens’ list of resolutions for 2007? Wreck another franchise? Accidentally overdose on medication again? Spit one more time in an opposing player’s face? You just never know what you are getting with T.O., the volatile wide receiver who has been quite the spectacle in his first season with the Dallas Cowboys. After overstaying visits to San Francisco and Philadelphia, he has alienated teammates, fans and, perhaps most importantly, coach Bill Parcells with his egotistical antics and dropped balls.
Saints marching again
6 A little more than a year removed from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints returned to New Orleans to play football — and in the process shocked everyone by assembling one of the best teams in the NFC. Providing a much-needed sense of hope for the city’s battered citizens, the Saints have played inspired ball this season, having won the NFC South and clinching a first-round playoff bye as the No. 2 seed. Drew Brees has been the catalyst for the Saints, bouncing back from a severe shoulder injury to pass for an NFL-best 4,372 yards to go along with 26 touchdowns. Rookie Reggie Bush has provided all the excitement has was expected to, racking up 86 receptions, while amassing 1,274 yards (545 rushing, 729 receiving).
7 Unlike other major sports commissioners whose tenures have been marked by controversy (see Selig, Bud), NFL head Paul Tagliabue has maintained a relatively quiet profile during his 17-plus years in charge of the league. It was with the same reserved dignity that defined him that Tagliabue announced in March he would be retiring from his post. After months of fevered speculation, with everyone from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to Atlanta Falcons general manager Rick McKay mentioned as possible candidates, the league finally announced that Roger Goodell, the NFL’s chief operating officer, would assume Tagliabue’s post. Tagliabue had made no secret his desire to retire after exhaustive labor and television deals were reached, both of which were finally secured just weeks before he made his announcement.
8 The Chargers finally found a defensive player to match offensive maven LaDainian Tomlinson’s considerable talents when they drafted linebacker Shawne Merriman out of Maryland in 2005. Afteran impressive rookie campaign, Merriman’s sophomore season was shaping up to be even more impressive, as he posted 8½ sacks in seven games. However, he tested positive for steroids and was forced to sit for four games.
9 For the second year in a row, the Indianapolis Colts started the season 9-0, the first time in league history a team has done that. Unlike last season, when the Colts seemed invincible before losing their playoff opener to the Steelers, Peyton Manning and Co. seem very vulnerable after losing four of their next six games.
10 Is it the water? While there has been a football resurrection in Cincinnati, the Bengals have also been making too many headlines off the field. Eight players have been arrested for a variety of offenses, with a handful of those athletes serving league- and team-imposed suspensions.