With 2010 a couple days away, people tend to reflect back at what the past twelve months have brought them. This January 1st is particularly special in that it also marks the start of a new decade. Instead of making a list of the best of this or All-Decade that, I thought I’d just take a look at what the past ten years have meant to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s almost hard to believe when the Aughts (or 00’s) began, the team was mired in three consecutive losing seasons and hadn’t won a Super Bowl in twenty years.
This marked the Steelers final season in Three Rivers Stadium.
The team began the year with the Kent Graham Experiment. Graham, a journeyman backup quarterback who spent most of his career with the Giants, was inexplicably signed to a big money free agent deal to replace the struggling Kordell Stewart. He had a mediocre start as the the Steelers were 0-3 under his leadership until getting injured. Kordell replaced him and reeled off two straight wins before returning to the bench. Somehow, the Steelers won the next two games despite Graham completing a grand total of 16 passes.
Stewart was given his job back and finished out the year as starter. The team went 9-7, ending their streak of three consecutive losing seasons. Thanks to a decent defense led by Joey Porter and Jason Gildon and 1,350 rushing yards from Jerome Bettis, old Three Rivers went out a winner.
The Steelers welcomed Heinz Field by going 13-3 and hosting the AFC Championship Game. 2001 was Slash’s final shining moment in the Black and Gold. After almost losing his job the year before, he managed to conjure up the days when he was the most exciting player in the NFL.
When the year was over, Kordell would pass for 3,100 yards, rush for 500, and score 19 total touchdowns. Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress each had 1,000 yard seasons receiving. They were aided by the Bus, who would have his final 1,000 yard season, and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, one of the many heir apparents the Steelers tried to find for Bettis.
The Steelers bounced the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens out of the playoffs in the first round. Thus began a decade long trend of the Steelers torturing the poor Ratbirds in games that actually meant something. In the Championship game, the Steelers knocked a spunky youngster named Tom Brady out of the game. Drew Bledsoe came off the bench to toss a TD pass that would eventually be the difference in the game.
The previous year saw WWE owner Vince McMahon think to himself, “Hmmm, I’m great at marketing oiled up meatheads in teeny tiny swimming trunks fake fighting with each other. I know! I’ll start a football league!” The XFL was an abject failure and went away after one season. However, the league MVP, Tommy Maddox, went on to sign with the Steelers.
Maddox was a first round draft pick of the Denver Broncos way back in 1992. They planned to make him the successor to John Elway. Except Elway pulled a Favre and refused to retire. Good for Denver, because he ended up winning two Super Bowls late in his career. Maddox was considered a washout and was actually selling insurance for a living when Vinnie Mac gave him a call.
Stewart began the season as starter but played terribly. After losing the first two games and looking bad while squeaking by the Browns in OT, Bill Cowher had seen enough. He pulled Kordell in favor of Maddox marking the end of Slash’s career in Pittsburgh. Maddox lead the team to a 10-5-1 record (yes, a tie).
Elsewhere, Bettis was struggling with injuries as his days as the primary back were rapidly coming to an end. West Virginia product Amos Zereoue stepped in to do a nice job in his absence. It would be the lone highlight of Zereoue’s NFL career. Believe it or not, today he’s a chef at a fancy restaurant which bears his name.
The Steelers managed to win the AFC North that year. In the first round, they played the Cleveland Browns in one of the best playoff games ever. The Browns were up 24-14 in the fourth quarter and all they had to do was run out the clock. However, the Browns had an offensive coordinator by the name of Bruce Arians. Foolishly chucking the ball 40+ times gave the Steelers time to explode for 22 points in pulling off a 36-33 victory.
In the next round, they faced the late Steve McNair and his Tennesee Titans. This game will forever be known as The Joe Nedney Game. The teams battled into overtime where Nedney missed a 30 yard field goal but Steelers CB Dewayne Washington brushed up against his calf trying to block it. Nedney hit the turf, rolling around like he just got decked by Chuck Liddell. The refs threw a flag, giving Nedney a second chance to win the game.
File ’03 under “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The Steelers had a weak running attack with Bettis battling injuries and age while newly anointed starter Zereoue quickly flamed out. So what did they decide to do?
AIR IT OUT!
This was the year of the Tommy Gun Offense. The Steelers let Maddox throw early and throw often. He ended up with 3,500 yards passing but a terrible 18/17 TD-to-INT ratio. And the team finished a miserable 6-10.
Although there was hope on the horizon in the form of a wild haired human missile out of USC who spent most of the year on special teams because he had trouble figuring out the Steelers’ complicated defense.
The Steelers parlayed the misery of ’03 into a first round draft pick by the name of Ben Roethlisberger. While everybody was fighting over Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, the Steelers sat back and waited for Big Ben to fall into their laps. For those wondering where I got the name of my site, there was a great NFL end of season commercial showing two actors playing Steeler fans. They were watching the draft and after Ben’s name was called one fan asks, “Roethlis…who?” to which the other answers sarcastically, “Nice pick, Cowher!”
Man, how different does Ben look?
Anyway, Maddox was supposed to play the year while Ben sat and learned. Unfortunately, he was hurt in the second game of the season, a loss to the Ratbirds. Ben stepped in and reeled off fifteen straight victories. Among those wins were back-to-back triumphs over undefeated teams, first ending the Patriots 18 game winning streak then humbling the Iggles.
Ben was supported by a rejuvenated running game. The Steelers signed their last big name free agent by luring Duce Staley from the Eagles. Staley had 830 yards on the season while the Bus added another 941 plus 13 TDS. The Steelers also benefitted by rehiring Dick LeBeau, who had left the team earlier in the decade to become head coach of the Bengals. With LeBeau as defensive coordinator and the ground game clicking, the Steelers made it to another AFC Championship game where they were defeated by Peepin’ Bill Belichick and his Spycam loving Patriots.
The loss was followed by a pair of good byes. Burress, an uber-talented headcase, departed via free agency. The Steelers shed no tears over that development. Tears did fall when Myron Cope, the voice of Steeler Nation for 35 years, announced his retirement. There’ll never be another one like you, Cope.
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