Will The Pieces Fall Into Place? – By Tim Bodamer
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|Bill Cowher will be sure to hone his media skills in the next weeks, because the questions will be coming as Camp Cowher opens in Latrobe on July 30.
Will Plaxico make amends with the Steeler brass and coaching staff? Will Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons stay healthy? Will any of the umpteen cornerbacks the Steelers acquired in the offseason actually improve the secondary? Will Clark Haggans fill Jason Gildon’s shoes? Will Tommy Maddox be the quarterback all season? Let’s break these issues down:
A summer time fade route. Plaxico Burress made for high drama during the summer workouts when he failed to show up to a mandatory mini-camp. So will the Plax who spiked a live ball during a game against Jacksonville win out? Or will it be the Plax who two years ago emerged as a number one option and formed the best tandem in the game with Hines Ward? I’ll take the later. Burress is in a contract year, should benefit from an improved Steeler running game, and has plenty of incentive to prove that missing mini-camp and the optional volunteer workouts won’t hinder his performance. The odds are Plax will put up a 70-80 catch, 1,000-yard plus, eight-10 touchdown season. Why? He’s playing for free agency. He knows another sub par season like 2003 (60 catches four touchdowns) won’t draw many suitors. Plus, Burress might play with a chip on his shoulder, something that might prove useful on any fade route (are you listening Ken Whisenhunt?).
In the line of Fire: Marvel Smith has been deemed 100 percent healthy from the pinched nerve he suffered causing him to miss most of last season. Kendall Simmons said he’s returned to his original weight after battling the onset of diabetes. How many teams can lose their starting left tackle and feel comfortable with maintaining the high standards that teams like the Steelers expect from their running game. Couple that with having a struggling right tackle position and the recipe for 2003 proved disastrous. The return of Smith will ‘mysteriously’ improve the Steelers ground game. If Simmons is back to 100 percent, you’ll look at a drastically improved Steelers offense. As for the right tackle position- let’s hope rookie Max Starks (6 ft, 7 in., 337 pounds) can fill the void of underachieving Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham. If he can play well as a rookie, and that’s a big if, the Steelers might have found a steal in the third round.
‘Cornered’- The Steelers almost humorously went from proclaiming their secondary as not much as a problem area in the middle of 2003 to drafting and signing a Calvary of players to fill the void. Gone is Dewayne Washington; on the bubble may be Chad Scott. And emerging are Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor. Add second rounder Ricardo Colclough, free agent Willie Williams (yes, from the mid 90s Blitzburgh club), Terry Fair, and Shane Walton to the mix. My bets are on Townsend and Scott to get the nod on Sept. 12 in the opener against the Raiders. Townsend started the last part of 2003, playing a solid if not spectacular corner. Scott will likely join him. He’s a Cowher type of guy, tough nose, a good tackler, and plays through various injuries. But he does get burnt, and he’s going to be – this fall. I like Ike Taylor- he’s fast and aggressive, and joins Colclough as the potential future for the Steelers cornerbacks. Fair (former Detroit first round pick), Williams, and Walton will compete for roster spots, but look for Williams, a favorite of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, and special teams phenom Chidi Iwuoma to stick. This position is looking a lot younger and more athletic and could be a strength for the Steelers in the future.
Young gun over Tommy Gun- Tommy Maddox will be the quarterback for 2004, no dispute. Ben Roethlisberger was too good not to take with the 11th pick of this past spring’s draft, but he can wait and watch Tommy Gun. Despite throwing 17 interceptions, Maddox threw for more yards than Jake Delhomme, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, and Steve McNair. That’s impressive considering the Steelers had no running game and poor pass protection. With Duce Staley added to the mix and Smith back at left tackle, Maddox should have a relatively smooth 2004. With Charlie Batch as a veteran number two, the Steelers have the leverage to develop the kid, and go with a veteran who came a Plaxico Burress catch away from leading his team to the AFC Championship game in 2002.
A coaching carousel in the Steel City- Bill Cowher has been the Steelers coach for 12 seasons. He has four AFC Championship appearances and one AFC title. He holds the longest tenure of coaches in the NFL and is more often than not (save Josh Miller) adored by his players. So why does the word fired and Cowher appear in the same sentence? Professional sports and their fans take a “What have you done for me lately?” approach. Cowher’s teams have missed the playoffs four out of the last five years. Many believe he seems to be late on making a change (i.e. Dewayne Washington, Kordell Stewart). The wins and losses are a major factor, and it’s not too difficult to get burned out in the NFL. That being said, Cowher and the Steelers brass took Roethlisberger, for the future, regardless if Cowher is around to see it or not. That says a lot about the coach’s confidence in turning things around when the team is ready to hand over the reigns to Big Ben. This is the most important year for Cowher. If the team isn’t a playoff contender, the Rooneys may go in a different direction.
The Steelers have a lot of questions to be answered. Thanks to the NFL, the national media have six weeks from the start of training camp to the opening season kickoff to get answers from the Steelers players, coaches, and management. Inquiring minds want to know, as 2004 could go down as a tabloid type of year for the black and gold.