The year was 1998…

The fans and the press wondered if the window on the Super Bowl was closing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Would the quarterback prove to be a one-hit wonder? Could the Steelers overcome the problems at right tackle? Was there enough talent in the secondary?<br><br> A recently departed free agent uttered the most ominous words before the season even started.

Yancey Thigpen, who recently signed with the Tennessee Oilers, said the Pittsburgh Steelers' loss to Denver in the AFC Championship was the fault of QB Kordell Stewart.

According to Thigpen, the problem was Stewart "throwing into double-coverage'' and making ''bad reads".

' "I think Steve is being asked to do more than Kordell was asked to do,'' Thigpen compared Stewart with new battery mate Steve McNair. ''I can't say that Kordell wouldn't be able to do it, but [the Steelers] really make Kordell's job really easy. They simplified it for the guy and said, 'Hey, this is what you've got to do. We're going to let the people who surround you make the adjustment.' With Steve, he's reading defenses and making a lot of audibles. He's checking off to a lot of different plays.

"I think they're doing the best thing for Kordell. You have a guy with a lot of talent. You put him on the field and say, 'Don't think about a lot of things. Just go out and make plays.' That's the best thing you can do with an athlete."

"I'm pretty sure as he feels more comfortable, that they will give him more responsibility. But for right now, this is the best thing he can do."

Thigpen, despite his pettiness, could not have proven more prescient. Stewart would bomb in his second season as the starting quarterback and the Steelers would stumble out of the gate and then freefall towards the end of the season, failing to make the playoffs for the first time during Bill Cowher's tenure as head coach.

Does 2003 hold a similar fall from grace for the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Before the 1998 season even got underway, there were already plenty of problems in Pittsburgh. Free agency took OT John Jackson and WR Yancey Thigpen, Stewart's favorite target. The offensive line was a large question mark given the inability of Paul Wiggins or Jamain Stephens to grab hold of the starting job at the right tackle spot vacated by Jackson. However, Gerry Dulac, just days before the season started against the Baltimore Ravens, had the Steelers ranked second in the entire NFL. The local press wondered if Stewart would help the Steelers take the next step to the Super Bowl.

A bitter Rod Woodson, now a Raven, cautioned, "You can't keep getting rid of players and bringing in nobodies. Eventually, it will catch up with you."

And catch up with the Steelers it did, but more in the way of injuries. At starting RT, the cursed position, Justin Strzelczyk would go down with a season-ending injury. The offensive line was a shambles and RB Jerome Bettis had nowhere to run. Stewart, luckily fleet of foot, was running for his life. The defense was not immune. The linebacking corps was hit particularly hard and even starting CB Carnell Lake would miss time with a high ankle sprain.

However, Thigpen and Woodson were right, there was no longer enough talent around Stewart to compensate for the shortcomings in his game. During the storm of 1998, there were not any rocks to which the Steelers could cling. Leadership and talent had left through free agency; those who remained were past their prime, and the talented youngsters were too green to do anything about the situation. There was no room for error in the draft and the first round bust of Jamain Stephens was the straw that broke Cowher's back. The injuries only magnified the inherent problems.

Fast forwarding to 2003, the recently departed starting LT Wayne Gandy warned that QB Tommy Maddox would not be safe without his services. The offensive line has struggled, particularly the right side where neither Todd Fordham nor Oliver Ross has seized the starting job. Injuries have also ravaged the team, particularly the stunning story of starting OLB Joey Porter's gunshot wound. Furthermore, will Maddox prove to be a one hit wonder just like Kordell Stewart?

Really, 2003 is nothing like 1998. Free agency is hardly the scourge of the Pittsburgh Steelers. If anything, the front office has been too vigilant in keeping the players in Pittsburgh. Recent drafts have stocked the Steelers with plenty of talent and the depth is as good as any team in the NFL. Injuries ravaged the Steelers' last season only to see Pittsburgh sweep the AFC North and come within an overtime FG of going to the AFC Championship for the second season in a row. Furthermore, the local beat writers are hardly gushing with optimism, one even proclaiming that 2004 will be the year, not 2003 (8-8 finish predicted).

However, there are warts. Maddox has a penchant for throwing the interception. The offensive line is already a major medical risk. The secondary is a year older and a step slower, despite the attempts to infuse youth and speed at the strong safety position. Bettis is well past his prime and no longer can carry a team (he couldn't in 1998 and 1999 either with those offensive lines).

Yet, the 1998 team cannot really hold a candle to the 2003 version. Maddox is clearly better than Stewart, even the 1997 hyped-up version. The present offensive line is better and deeper. The '98 wide receiver corps doesn't merit a remote comparison. Certainly, Bettis has seen better days, but in 1998 his main backup was Richard Huntley. I have much more confidence in Amos Zereoue and Verron Haynes. This stable of running backs, including fullback Dan Kreider, is a head above the 1998 class.

The defensive comparisons are a bit tighter. The 2003 defensive line is much better than the 1998 version. At linebacker, you had Donta Jones, Levon Kirkland, Earl Holmes, and Jason Gildon. I'll leave the 1998 Gildon vs. the 2003 Gildon for the connoisseurs. I like Joey Porter, Kendrell Bell, and James Farrior better than what the 1998 crew brought to the field. Obviously, in terms of speed, there is no comparison. The secondary may be more important in 2003 and I'm not sure how well they measure up to Lake and company. Darren Perry, Lee Flowers, Dewayne Washington, and Lake made up the starting secondary in 1998. In 2003, you get Chad Scott for Lake, Washington a step slower but maybe a bit better at judging the ball, Mike Logan for Flowers, and Brent Alexander for Perry. I'd call it a wash, but the 2003 group is deeper.

Say what you will about the secondary this year, but the shortcomings in 1998 were hardly in the defensive backfield. Still, plenty of press, local and national, had the Steelers in the Super Bowl for the 1998 season. The 2003 group is nowhere near as shorthanded as the 1998 team, which finished 7-9 and lost the last 5 games. That season broke the spirit of the Steelers. No one can predict what devastating injuries might come, but the 2003 team won't break.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will make the playoffs this year. What they do beyond that is anyone's guess. The main reason is that they have a leader at quarterback in Tommy Maddox. If you want to blame the horrors of 1998 on Stewart, as Thigpen and Woodson suggest, then you have to have faith in Maddox. Believe it or not, the Steelers have never had such an excellent chance of winning the Super Bowl under Bill Cowher. The defensive backfield be damned.

Jim Russell

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