Deja Vu All Over Again

Jim Wexell has been here before. He remembers it as the year 2000, when Steelers fans raged and Pittsburgh nearly burned.

Hines Ward criticized the Steelers' performance against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, and why not? He was being paid to do so by NBC Sports.

I didn't see it. I read it. But I'm sure I've seen that Hines Ward face before, the tough guy who just might shed a tear at any moment but instead shrugs his shoulders and wraps up his commentary with a what-the-hell-is-going-on-around-here look.

Ward's exact wrap was "I don't even know who these guys are."

It took me back to training camp 2000. In fact, everything the Steelers do this year takes me back to 2000, a year of much disgruntlement from the fan base toward one Bill Cowher, who had just won an organizational power struggle with the deposed Tom Donahoe and was making changes, his own changes, after age, injury and free agency had ravaged his once-proud team that only five years earlier had played in a Super Bowl.

Ward was one of those changes. He was benched after what he believed was a breakthrough season.

In 1999, Ward's second season, he co-led the Steelers, along with rookie first-round pick Troy Edwards, with 61 receptions. But Ward was knocked down the depth chart upon the drafting of Plaxico Burress.

Ward wasn't even used that preseason in the Steelers' 3-WR sets. "I don't even know what I've done wrong," Ward told us in the middle of camp.

But the Steelers had lost 15 of their previous 21 games, and Cowher -- rightfully so in most cases -- was intent on making changes.

Burress was one, and so was second-round pick Marvel Smith, who was moved from backup left tackle to starting right tackle on Aug. 2 to replace the Kris Farris-Shar Pourdanesh combo that had been in place.

Nothing that quickly was expected of third-round pick Kendrick Clancy. Cowher wanted him to learn behind the nose tackle who had finished the 1999 season, Jeremy Staat, while incoming free agents Kimo von Oelhoffen and Chris Sullivan would rotate at DE with Kevin Henry to ease the loss of Orpheus Roye as a big-money free agent to Cleveland.

The linebackers were no doubt fierce. Cowher liked what he had on the edges in Jason Gildon and young Joey Porter. Earl Holmes was a tackler and Levon Kirkland had lost 30 pounds to get down to 270.

Of course, Kirkland was released after the season and Holmes was eventually pushed out of town by new coordinator Tim Lewis after the 2001 season. He would be replaced by James Farrior in free agency.

The 2000 Steelers also had a backup linebacker by the name of Mike Vrabel. "You're starting to see a guy now starting to feel very comfortable playing linebacker," Cowher said six months before letting Vrabel leave to become a championship leader for the New England Patriots.

In the secondary, Cowher brought in Brent Alexander to play free safety. Alexander had been the starting free safety for the Carolina Panthers, and after two preseason games with the Steelers, Cowher said, "I kind of like the look in his eye on game day."

Scott Shields didn't. He thought he, in his second season, would be the one to replace Travis Davis at free safety. "I think they all know that I'm pretty upset," Shields told us once Alexander secured the job. Shields became even more upset as he then lost his job in the dime, and then his job on the punt team, as his final season with the team trudged on.

Alexander, Sullivan and KvO weren't the only free agents brought in with a starting spot in mind. Rich Tylski was brought in to replace Brenden Stai at right guard. And the new right side would've been fine had not Dermontti Dawson run into such a difficult time recovering from a hamstring injury that wrecked his 1999 season. The all-time great was on his last legs, and behind him were the also-injured Roger Duffy and Tom Myslinski as undrafted rookie Hank Fraley received most of the camp work at center.

To Fraley's left, Wayne Gandy was expecting more in his second season at left tackle, and everyone was hoping for more from the young left guard, Alan Faneca, in his third season.

"It's time Alan Faneca stepped up," wrote Stan Savran. "It's time for him to upgrade his resume from just being a pedestrian starter on a below-.500 team."

Not much was expected from this team by the fans or media. After all, Kent Graham, another free agent, was in the process of displacing Kordell Stewart at quarterback.

Cowher, in fact, made the move on a whim. While driving home he stopped at Graham's house the night after naming both QBs the co-starters and told Graham he would start the opener.

No one but maybe Bob Smizik cared. Not that he was pushing for Stewart and his 37.8 preseason passer rating. He just wanted the coach to make up his mind.

"Cowher, for all of his outward show of steely resolve," Smizik wrote, "is a flip-flopping man these days."

In other words, after two losing seasons, the Steelers were still a mess, made all the messier by youth. At one preseason press conference, Cowher used the word "young" seven times in eight sentences. And when asked why he "liked the team's prospects for the season," Cowher said, "I like where we're at. Don't put words in my mouth. ... I like the way they're working."

Cowher couldn't even say he liked the team's prospects, and why should he have? The only starters remaining from his Super Bowl team were Dawson, Kirkland and tight end Mark Bruener. And two of those would be gone by season's end.

"It's hard to remember when there was less excitement about the Steelers," Smizik wrote before the opener.

It was nearly a brand new team, and some of those new starters couldn't make it out of camp. Staat was thrown out of practice, and his starting spot, on Aug. 8. Sullivan had a bad back and was replaced at DE in the middle of preseason by a guy who had been drafted out of a Division II school the previous year, some kid named Aaron Smith. His weight was up from 270 to 290 and he showed enough improvement over his rookie season to be thrown into the starting lineup.

As for Edwards, he led the team in preseason drops so Ward got his job back. "I don't even know what I did wrong to lose the job in the first place," Ward repeated after the season had begun.

With youthful inexperience at ROLB, LDE, WR, and old age at center and middle linebacker, the Steelers put their hopes on being physical. It was and always would be Cowher's trademark. So much so that he replaced the thick running back he had playing quarterback with a 248-pound statue to stand in the pocket and take the rush after 255-pound Jerome Bettis had established the running game. And Graham stood in that pocket as long as he could against the Cleveland Browns but was sacked on third down and the field goal unit had no time to get on the field in a three-point loss.

That loss came on the heels of an opening-day loss to the Baltimore Ravens that had prompted Ravens TE Shannnon Sharpe to say: "That's probably the worst in my 11 years that I've seen a Steelers team look."

The 0-2 start, punctuated by a loss to the expansion Browns, didn't sit well with anyone in town.

"At least it wasn't Kordell Stewart who made one of the dumbest plays in NFL history. Pittsburgh still might be burning," Ron Cook wrote of Graham's game-ending sack.

"An 0-16 season isn't likely, but how can anyone rule it out?" asked Smizik. "Cowher haters are probably celebrating today."

The next embarrassment came the following week against the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers had a late lead but Gildon's first sack of the season knocked Neil O'Donnell out of the game and Steve McNair entered to rally the Titans past the 0-3 Steelers, who had now lost 10 of their last 11 games, 13 of their last 17, 18 of their last 24.

The fans raged against Cowher, who was criticized for his clock management, replay challenges, forcing out Donahoe, and, as the self-proclaimed voice of the people, Mark Madden, proclaimed in a column, "The Steelers stink because of bad drafting and poor coaching." He pointed out that the 1995-99 drafts produced only eight starters. "That's pitiful," he concluded.

Funny how we look back at this time as the period in which Cowher and Donahoe drafted the pillars of the Steelers' next Super Bowl champion. The 2005 team featured Aaron Smith as the strong-side run-stuffer, Porter as the blind-side pass-rusher, Ward as the playmaking and tone-setting flanker, Faneca as the slobber-knocking pulling guard on the famed counter-power play, and Marvel Smith as the blind-side pass-protector.

So Cowher had won with Chuck Noll's players, let a Super Bowl slip through his fingers, drafted poorly, wasn't up to the other geniuses around the league when it came to analytics, and had basically "lost the team" because the players had "tuned out his message."

Sound familiar?

And then the Steelers began to win again. Cowher still flip-flopped at quarterback, but the Steelers won 23 of their next 30 games before losing yet another home AFC Championship Game.

Cowher even changed QBs the following year and still made the playoffs before turning the offense into absolute finesse by 2003. Yet that team didn't have a QB who could throw the thing reliably. That came two years later when Cowher was talked out of drafting guard Shawn Andrews and into drafting Ben Roethlisberger.

Someone probably told Cowher that Ben was "physical."

Right now, Mike Tomlin's going through this very same phase. His three-season downturn hasn't dipped as low as Cowher's did probably because Tomlin has a solid quarterback in place. But there's no doubt a similar rebuilding phase is taking place. Steelers fans can only hope that David DeCastro is Faneca, that Jarvis Jones is Porter, that Stephon Tuitt is Aaron Smith, that Kelvin Beachum becomes Marvel Smith, and that Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier and Shamarko Thomas and Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown become prominent pieces to the next championship puzzle.

Some of those players were drafted to fill spots to get this team back into the playoffs. But the time will come -- and probably already has -- when the coaching staff and front office will stop filling holes and begin drafting superior athletes. That may have even been the case last May when the Steelers chose an inside linebacker with 4.40 speed instead of a needed cornerback with 4.5+ speed.

And perhaps even real players, like Jeff Hartings and Farrior -- outsiders whom they had no choice but to place highly on their pay scale -- will be brought into the fold as free agents instead of inexpensive bit players like Alexander, Sullivan, Graham, Tylski, Mike Mitchell, LeGarrette Blount, Lance Moore and Cam Thomas.

Maybe one or two of these current free agents can contribute to a championship the way Von Oelhoffen did, but to tell the truth it's all melding together in my mind at this point.

I am certain, though, that even in this state of deja vu, I have watched an organization use patience to crawl out of a hole by making one smart decision at a time. And they have no choice but to use that method once again.

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