Preseason and postseason perspective

Last Sunday provided a harsh awakening from the slumber that is preseason. Somewhere between the end of the draft and the dog days of camp, my perspective was muddled and I lost all sense of NFL reality. Apparently, I was not the only one.

Allow me to put my cards on the table. As far as the Pittsburgh Steelers are concerned, I dreamed of an offense that would struggle thanks to a patchwork offensive line. The defense would discover past glories with a healthy front seven and just enough new speed in the secondary. The draft restocked a special teams unit that had fallen on hard times, turning a disadvantage back into an advantage for Bill Cowher, a coach who would seem to understand such things.

But August found more than the Steelers on my mind. I didn't see much hope for the Cleveland Browns and their defense, but put stock in air Kelly Holcomb. I found promise in the Baltimore Ravens; in Ray Lewis we trust. I believed the Buffalo Bills were over-hyped and the New England Patriots had the best off-season. Kurt Warner would find his rags-to-riches magic behind a revamped offensive line. And so on and so forth…

Perhaps I read too much analysis proffered by the experts and beat writers. Anyone following the NFL should have expected a healthy dose of crow eating this week. Instead, the Steelers ate the Ravens for breakfast, scoring more points than the rest of the AFC North combined. Please forgive me if I admit that I'm still not sure what is up and what is down right now.

I did learn a few things from Week 1 in the NFL. You can get too deep into the preseason swing of things. Not that I bought into Brian Billick's hype about rookie QB Kyle Boller, certain NFL personalities seem to force upon me a certain clarity of thinking, but I made too much of all the observations I made during a time that is really about filling out the roster and taking into account new talent.

However, the past few seasons have also taught me not to rely too much on the year before. The truisms of the 2002 won't hold in 2003, except when it comes to Kurt Warner.

Ah, but 10 plus years of Cowher power have taught the average Steelers fan a thing or two that should not be forgotten amidst the euphoria of spanking the Ravens on opening day.

Week 1 wonders do not a Super Bowl team make. And all those bold preseason predictions are hardly dead in the water, yet.

The Steelers often sputter and stumble out of the gate, leaving fans with little sense of what is to come. There is no reason to toss out such learned reasoning thanks to a stellar performance of Tommy Maddox and his three-ring circus of receivers.

The opening line of +3 on the Steelers game at Kansas City suggests some confusion among the small fraternity of professional handicappers. Week 1 was too strong in its tales of the unexpected. Some semblance of sanity will return this Sunday and the fire of a long 16-game season will expose the contenders and pretenders.

Maddox will convince the opposing defenses to pull that 8th man out of the box and Amos Zereoue and company will have to make them pay for it. Given Alan Faneca's performance against the Ravens, there is reason to believe the Steelers will succeed on this count. Yet, watching the Steelers quickly replace Jeff Hartings with Chukky Okobi when the game seemed well in hand offers some caution. How long will Hartings last? How well can he execute the necessary run blocking with a bum knee? Okobi's lackluster performance during scrub time allows for some concern. The offensive line needs Hartings in there, especially for pass protection as teams risk blitzing Maddox to take him out of his game.

The success against the Ravens was resounding, but sobering in its fragility. Will someone step in for an injured place kicker and hit three field goals against the Oakland Raiders?

The answer is yes if you look at the defense. With leader Joey Porter out, Clark Haggans steps in and the rest up their game. The Kyle Boller factor, something that still seems misguided even for an egomaniac such as Brian Billick, is not lost on me, but the defense still showed quite a bit of resilience. The scapegoats of the 2002 season already have shown they won't fold under adversity, which included the hobbling of Kendrell Bell and damaged goods in the secondary for the playoffs. At the very least, Dewayne Washington showed that he does not have any quit in him.

This brings me back to Cowher and his opening day surprise for all Steelers fans. Cowher has shown more willingness to change than many critics allow for, but that's no reason to start thinking that 2nd half adjustments will suddenly become Cowher's forte. Even fan vigilance scouring for chinks in the Steelers' armor during the last quarter of the regular season will not provide much in the way of clues of how this team will perform in the playoffs.

Likely missing will be the lackluster playoff performance of Jerome Bettis and the implosions of Kordell Stewart, on full display for the Chicago Bears this past Sunday. What wrinkles will the opposing brain trust devise to deconstruct Maddox and the Steelers' offensive juggernaut? You probably can be sure that Cowher won't anticipate whatever may come.

The Steelers may look a little funny to you hardcore fans, but don't settle in thinking that the world is upside down and there is a Lombardi trophy blowing in the wind. Certainly, either the Ravens or the Browns will be 0-2 next week, but unless the Steelers derail the Chiefs with the same authority they smacked Baltimore, the NFL will begin realigning itself with more of the preseason expectations.

Jim Russell

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