A Meaningless Pre-Season Or 2002 All Over Again? - By Neal Coolong

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Pre-Season means nothing.

Unless, of course, your first-team offense has scored three points in three games, your heralded quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) has a passing rating lower than the average rainfall in Pakistan and your highly-touted replacement for your lost wide receiver (Fred Gibson) is about to be cut.

Can we just ignore this?

Pittsburgh traditionally starts off slowly, but with the loss of two starting running backs (Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley), an offense less effective than the Iraqi army and Tommy Maddox outplaying Roethlisberger with the second team, warning flags are going to go up, especially coming off a 15-1 season.

While the Steelers do have one more pre-season game tonight vs. Carolina, and soon-to-be AFC cupcake Tennessee for their first regular season game, a nasty string of opponents after week 3 doesn't give coach Bill Cowher much time to right this pre-season ship gone awry.

Defending champion (and Steelers nemesis) New England comes to Pittsburgh in week 3, followed by a bye week and a cross-country trip to defending AFC West champ San Diego. The next two weeks involve two AFC up-and-coming teams in Jacksonville and Cincinnati, and then the first game against the hated Ravens.

They won't admit it, but the panic button is close to the fingers of the average Steelers fan. And those who are still confident in Pittsburgh's chances to repeat as AFC North champions still have the nightmarish thought of an 0-3 start in their minds.

Why?

This same thing happened in 2002.

Since former quarterback Kordell Stewart decided to spend his offseason telling everyone within an earshot that the better team lost the AFC Championship game to New England, there was a mountain of hype surrounding Pittsburgh and New England's season-opening clash in the newly constructed Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.

The results of that game - and Kordell's performance - were Clockwork Orange-like sickening. We won't even discuss it now.

An equally disparaging loss to Oakland the following week and a dismal first half against Cleveland the following week led to Kordell's benching, and Tommy Maddox's late-game heroics (and a Phil Dawson missed field goal in overtime) brought the Steelers to a dramatic and hard-fought 1-2 to start the year.

The 2001 team was quickly forgotten.

We all know it well; Maddox led the Steelers back to 10-5-1 and a win in the playoffs, but the season fell well short of expectations, and that plunge continued into the next year. Injuries and Maddox's mediocrity led Pittsburgh to a reprehensible 6-10 mark, nearly destroying any credibility the franchise built with a successful start to the new millennium.

Are we seeing a trend? With this offseason and pre-season being far from kind for the Steelers - as well as an emerging AFC which could find a team finishing 9-7 and out of the playoffs - it tests the Steelers' mettle. FS Chris Hope said in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that former holdout Hines Ward is the straw that stirs the offensive drink, and when he's rolling, the rest of the offense follows suit. I won't point out the disturbance that now defensive players are having to vouch for the offense, but looking at the schedule Hines and company don't have much time left to get into rhythm. Their schedule is loaded in the beginning, and an uphill climb to the playoffs in the best AFC in years is not an optimal situation.

Just thinking about it makes me reach for the Rolaids.

Stepping back from my usual dramatic edge, perhaps Ben, Hines and fourth starting RB Verron Haynes can put three consecutive scoring drives in their one quarter of action. It would do our collective morale good against a top-notch defense like Carolina's.

But, even if they do, it's only the pre-season.

Right?