Wednesday, October 31st, 2001
Monday night's AFC Central clash between Pittsburgh and Tennessee gave a
lot of the country their first chance to see the new home of the Pittsburgh
Steelers, Heinz Field. So the name sucks, but giving a new stadium
a corporate name is preferable to renaming an old favorite - like who calls
the Murph Qualcomm or Candlestick 3Com apart from cretinous
TV announcers? Nice grass field (unlike the old desperate turf of Three
Rivers), great views of what's actually one of the country's nicest cities,
a college style stadium architecture, and a terrific atmosphere. And, best
of all, the Steelers looked pretty good in destroying the Titans 34-7.
Like most sports fans who are older than dirt, I'm a traditionalist. I like
Nebraska to play Oklahoma when it's 30 degrees or less - and raining. I like
cold weather cities competing for Lord Stanley's Cup. I like Monday Night
Football announcers to actually know something about football. I like the
Boston Red Sox to disappoint again. And I like the Pittsburgh Steelers to
be a good football team.
Pittsburgh is a sports town, and the Steelers are the biggest draw in town,
despite the presence of the Pirates and the Penguins. The team hasn't made
the playoffs since 1997, and had seemed set to spiral into a period of decline.
Ten-year veteran head coach Bill Cowher had lost an inch or two off his jutting
jaw, lost his intensity, and maybe even his love of coaching. Kordell Stewart
couldn't live up to his hype and was set to be hounded out of town. Offensive
coordinators came and went like boy bands in the album chart. Veteran players
who were the heart of the team drifted away to seek riches elsewhere - Carnell
Lake, Leon Searcy, Charles Johnson, Rod Woodson, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown,
Courtney Hawkins, Deon Figures, Neil O'Donnell, et al - a seemingly endless
list of players who, at the time, were an integral part of the success the
team enjoyed in the early-to-mid-90's.
The Steeler organization was always known as being frugal, some might say
cheap, when it came to salaries, and relied on the draft to retool the roster,
rather than go out and get a high-priced star veteran. Cowher could live
with that policy and still win AFC Central titles - even get to a Super Bowl.
He's a college style rah-rah coach, rather than a studious Bill Walsh-type,
and his personality fits well with young players straight out of college.
But the past three years had seen him withdrawn, in comparison to his early
days in Pittsburgh, and at loggerheads with then Director of Football Operations,
Tom Donahoe. Surprisingly, to many, he won that power struggle and gained
total control of football matters. Yet the team limped to a 9-7 record in
2000 and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year, although they
won four of their last five games.
What's more, they couldn't settle on an offensive philosophy, or even an
offensive coordinator. Mike Sherman and Kevin Gilbride came and went, without
solving the Kordell Stewart mystery. Jerome Bettis was the only constant,
and even he was seemingly in decline, as defenses, no longer scared of Stewart's
arm or legs, loaded up against The Bus. The Steelers still played blue-collar
hard-nosed defense, but that wasn't enough to win a title. They wanted to
pass more, but Stewart couldn't hit a barn door from 5 yards away. When he
did connect, the receiving core did a passable impression of 5-year-olds
trying to catch a slab of butter. No one figured Pittsburgh were going to
challenge Tennessee, Baltimore, or Jacksonville for the AFC Central this
Coming into Monday night's game against the Titans, Pittsburgh was seen as
a bit of a mystery, still. They'd beaten Tampa Bay the week previous, but
the Buc's are the NFL's equivalent of the Dodgers. Great roster, great names,
great hype, no heart. Fur coat and no knickers, as the old British saying
goes. A struggling, but dangerous, Titan team would be a sterner test. Despite
a poor start, Tennessee were still a probable playoff team.
Pittsburgh destroyed, what appeared to be, a very poor banged-up Tennessee
team. Eddie George got injured, Steve McNair did an extremely good impression
of Kordell Stewart's last three years, and the Tennessee secondary had more
holes in it than the plot of a Will Smith movie. Sadly, we're none the wiser
as to whether the Steelers are a force again in the NFL. Sure, Kordell threw
for over 200 yards for the first time in two years and went interceptionless,
but his QB rating is still only 71.2, ranking him 31st amongst NFL QB's.
He's yet to convince he can lead the team in pressure situations. The Bus
rumbled for 60-plus yards and the defense stymied a mediocre Titan offense.
Hardly hold-the-back-page stuff, but encouraging.
What was pleasing to Steeler fans was the play of Plaxico Burress at wideout.
A major disappointment since been drafted back in April 2000, Burress had
a breakout game with 6 catches for over 150 yards. He still showed signs
of inexperience, stepping out of bounds after a catch when a high-quality
NFL receiver would have made sure he planted his feet, but on Monday, he
actually looked like an 8th overall pick. Maybe, at last, he's realized you
have to work in the NFL for your success, rather than drift aimlessly while
wishing you were in the NBA.
Mike Mularkey, the latest offensive coordinator for the Steelers, has simplified
the offense for Stewart, and will give him the green light to take off and
run when necessary. So far, it's paying off. The young and feisty defense
can't do it all - they're not a Ravens of 2000 unit yet. The offense has
got to be more than Bettis, so that means Stewart, Edwards, Burress, and
Ward have got to step it up a gear.
The heart of the Steeler schedule is to come, with two games against the
Ravens and Cleveland. Those four games will likely decide whether the Steelers
get to play in the postseason or not. If they do, the towels will be waving
in Heinz Stadium, and old traditionalists all over will be happy.