Issues with offense? El Yeah!

Conventional wisdom places the blame for the Steelers' shortcomings in 2002 at the feet of the defense. Short of going into the larger problems that are coach Bill Cowher, the current noise is mostly about QB Tommy Maddox. Upon further review, the usual quarterback critics in Steelerland are strangely quiet about the biggest problem in Pittsburgh.

You wouldn't know it gauging the last few seasons, but fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers were once in love with Kordell Stewart. So was Bill Cowher, who was seen prancing over to Stewart once like a smitten schoolgirl to place a kiss on the sensation that was Slash.

The infatuation with Stewart came crashing to the earth in the AFC Championship loss to the Denver Broncos. Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski openly taunted Stewart, who threw two interceptions in the end zone in the 24-21 loss.

Stewart's go-to receiver, Yancey Thigpen, would leave Pittsburgh after the 1997 Super Bowl run ended and did not exactly wax nostalgically about his success with Kordell at the helm.

"Mistakes," Thigpen said about Stewart and the loss to the Broncos. "Crucial turnovers and mistakes, throwing into double coverage, bad reads. Just bad reads. That's about it. If we could do it all over, one or two plays in that game may change the decision of that game. It will always haunt me."

The 1998 Pittsburgh offense would crash and burn. Stewart imploded as the Steelers scored 20 less touchdowns than they did during 1997. Injuries, a change in offensive coordinator, and personnel losses to free agency all played a role in the offensive demise, but the key was that there were no longer any Thigpens or John Jacksons to compensate for Stewart's "mistakes."

Fast forward to 2002 and the return of the offensive juggernaut. The passing game thrived with Maddox behind center and wideouts Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward enjoyed career years, the likes of which Pittsburgh fans have never seen before.

The Steelers became a team that, instead of sitting on leads, came dramatically from behind, winning shootouts. Gone were the days of grinding on low-scoring affair wins with a power running game.

Thus, there is a new crush in town, comeback kid Tommy Maddox. Only, Cowher and company aren't as enamored as the fans (and press) seem to be.

There were plenty of hints in 1997 about Stewart's inconsistent play, which the Broncos exploited to the hilt. Maddox will not have to endure the turnover in personnel and coaches that Stewart did and there will be no free agent receiver to air all the dirty laundry. However, the fact that the Steelers did not re-up Maddox's contract should speak volumes.

The perceptions of fans and even the journalists often do not fall in line with the views of the coaching staff. During this off-season, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has hardly gushed about the play and potential of Maddox. What he sees are turnovers that often handcuffed his very creative offensive game plan.

Despite all the scoring, the Steelers offense was very inefficient with Maddox at quarterback. The biggest problems were turnovers, for which Mularkey has already publicly admonished Maddox. Despite the Steelers defense leading the AFC in takeaways, Maddox and the Steelers offense made that advantage a wash. The Steelers were last in the AFC in giveaways.

Strangely, the defensive-minded Pittsburgh fans overlooked these statistics, preferring to blame the Steelers secondary for the lack of a 5th Super Bowl ring.

Turnover Tommy was not the only problem. Despite leading the NFL in two-point conversions last season (they added two more in the playoffs), the Steelers struggled mightily in the red zone. Pittsburgh's 45.9 touchdown percentage (28 TDs out of 61 visits to the red zone) was only good enough for 26th in the NFL.

The Steelers led the AFC in field goals made, even with the 9 misses off of the erratic leg of place kicker Todd Peterson. The offense clearly failed to cash in on the many opportunities presented them.

What the end of the year film review of Maddox revealed was all the mistakes he was making in the red zone. He had plenty of weapons, but did most of his scoring with a long field and the defense spread out. The short field amplified Maddox's poor reads and other mistakes, the same thing that haunted Stewart in the AFC Championship game against Denver.

Stewart would eventually learn to become red zone gun-shy, preferring to tuck the ball and run instead of finding the open receiver. Unfortunately, Maddox does not have that option in his game.

Conceivably, Maddox can improve his red zone game, but the front office in Pittsburgh prefers to wait and see in terms of the money they give their anointed starting quarterback. Dealing with Stewart has taught them a thing or two.

Meanwhile, Mularkey is not taking any chances, already devising ways to squeeze much more scoring out of his red zone offense. The answer appears to be rookie sensation Antwaan Randle El.

"I think I may be asked to do a little bit more, and I'm always up for that," Randle El said during the May mini-camp. "Given the opportunity, that's what I want to do."

Randle El played a central role in the Steelers 2-pt conversion offense, though more at quarterback than at wide receiver. Overall, Randle El would go 7 of 8 for 45 yards throwing the ball. Add to that 19 rushes for 134 yards and you begin to see a red zone threat that was underutilized in 2002.

What Mularkey may have in mind, if the May mini-camp is any indication, is turning over the red zone offense to Randle El if Maddox continues to struggle inside the 20. Randle El will be asked to reprise his college QB role as Mularkey continues to demonstrate his ability to refill his impressive bag of tricks.

Those "mistakes" that Thigpen talked about have potentially cost Cowher three Super Bowl trophies. In view of that, no one should be surprised that the Steelers are approaching Maddox with caution while pulling out the stops in the offensive playbook.

The biggest changes in 2003 look to be on offense, not defense.

Jim Russell

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