The Pittsburgh Steelers concluded the easy-going, reflective days of the spring Thursday with a warning from their coach that what they accomplished by winning the Super Bowl in 2005 will be nothing more than a memory without the proper approach to training camp.
All of the Steelers, with the exception of rookies Santonio Holmes and Mike Kudla, are off until they report to St. Vincent College on July 28.
"The next several weeks are critical," said Cowher. "They'll need to show the ability to apply self-discipline and sacrifice."
Most players will take a short break before beginning serious preparations for training camp. While Holmes and Kudla report for a crash course after missing minicamp due to NCAA regulations, several of the players will travel south to work with personal trainers. Cowher gave them the same warning last year and it was obviously heeded.
Although Holmes missed four weeks of coaching sessions, he was perhaps the team's biggest newsmaker this spring. He was arrested in Miami for disorderly conduct during a Memorial Day weekend crackdown by local authorities.
"Whatever he did wrong, I don't think he handled it properly," Cowher said. "I think he'll learn from it and understand the scrutiny he's under. We have not talked face to face about it. I don't have any long-term concerns. He's a very solid individual and I'm not holding that incident against him, although we will talk about it."
Joey Porter made news for missing the first week of coaching sessions. He underwent minor knee surgery the second week and missed the remainder of spring drills. Cowher said the surgery was "a proactive approach instead of waiting until training camp."
Cowher said everyone is expected to be healthy for the start of camp, including Porter.
"I think it was just something we were hoping in time would go away and it just never did," Cowher said of Porter's knee.
The good news for the Steelers is the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who enters his third season as the team's unquestioned leader.
"He's a lot more comfortable right now than he's ever been in this offense," Cowher said. "He not only understands what he has to do, he understands where everybody else should be as well. There's no question that with his comfort level he's a much bigger presence on this team than he's ever been."
With the maturing of Roethlisberger, and the increased depth on the offensive line, the Super Bowl champions could, in fact, enter the 2006 season a more complete team. Another championship is possible.
"I don't like losing," Cowher said. "You develop a distaste for failure and I think that drives you more than wanting to be recognized for your success. So I think it's a football team that's been driven by not wanting to lose more than anything.
"It was special. It was a special time. We always will reflect on it. I think you still have to enjoy it and reap the benefits of it. A lot of people said ‘Don't do the White House. Don't have a ceremony.' But when you work so hard to obtain a championship, enjoy it. Just have the discipline enough to be able to understand that a lot of the enjoyment and fulfillment that comes with it, you need to experience that. You always have to be able to say, ‘OK, now let's do it again,' so there is something to look forward to. The longer you stay in it, the more you realize how special it is, and that's a driving force in itself."