Pulling back from the brink

There the Pittsburgh Steelers sit, 2-5 and at the bottom of the AFC North. Bill Cowher and most fans are not all that familiar with a 4-game losing streak, let alone the basement of their division. You would have to go back to the days of Chuck Noll to find such a bad start to a season. Perhaps that is worth keeping in mind.

While many fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are ready to jump headfirst into a discussion about the best draft prospects for 2004, there's an NFL season going on that is not even half over. As any fan of the Miami Dolphins will tell you, there's a tale of two or three seasons within a given year.

Fast starts can lead to sudden stops. Impressive regular season runs can result in embarrassing postseason implosions. And, of course, slow starts can blossom into Super Bowl runs.

The season-to-season variation in playoff teams during this era of NFL parity is impressive enough. Perhaps more impressive, but less discussed, are the in-season about-faces.

In positive terms, the Tennessee Titans exhibited one of the most recent dramatic turnarounds.

The Titans opened the 2002 season with an unexpected win over the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-24. However, all the hopes for a big year quickly fell victim to a four-game losing streak that saw Tennessee surrender 21, 31, 52, and 31 points respectively to such world-beaters as the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, and Washington Redskins.

There sat the Titans at 1-4 and facing a big divisional game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, owners of a 3-game winning streak.

The players and head coach Jeff Fisher were seemingly cool in the face of mounting criticism and rumblings of no confidence coming from the ownership. Ugly was the word coming off a humiliating 31-14 loss to the Redskins.

At the head of the line of scapegoats after that game stood RB Eddie George. George was clearly not the back he used to be, averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. The Titans as a team were dead last in the NFL at 69.4 yards per game. However, there was plenty of blame to go around.

"I think at this point, I can say we are a great team, but we are not showing it on the field," said Titans quarterback Steve McNair after the loss to the Redskins. "We are making too many mistakes offensively, defensively and on special teams."

It wasn't just George. WR Kevin Dyson dropped three passes in that game. Fisher thinks the team needs to relax a bit more, "That's when we play our best. If they're worrying about the score and if the game is in hand and if it's a life and death situation, it's hard to go out and do your best. When you make mistakes, it's all going to be magnified."

There was enough failure to spread around the entire team.

Pointing the finger at the pass defense would not be a stretch given the poor showing by the Titans the year before, worst in the NFL. "We pretty much let a third-string quarterback [Patrick Ramsey] have his way with us," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "We can say we're a good football team all we want, but our record is what you go by. This is one of the low points for the Titans."

What about the run defense? Did the Titans have a leg to stand on? "Defensively, we didn't hold up our end," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "They came out with that long 13-play drive and we didn't stop them on third down situations." The Titans couldn't blame the secondary for 90 yards on just 18 carries by Redskins RB Stephen Davis. To add insult to injury, mere backup RB Kenny "Who?" Watson gained 62 yards on 8 rushing attempts.

Fisher's reaction created quite a stir, "We have won a lot of games under this system, and so I'm simply not going to change."

Fisher would consider mixing up personnel, but not as an act of desperation. Whatever the case, he sounded much like Bill Cowher did in his press conference coming off the loss to the St. Louis Rams, "I think the fact that we have the same system that we have had here. This is the third year with it. We have had a lot of the same coaches and to a large degree a lot of the same players that have won two straight divisions. You know the system can be successful; it has been successful. The same things with coaches as with players is that you have to be careful that you are not trying to worry about making the perfect call. You start to worry about things that, instead of attacking an offense or a defense, you just have to be careful that you are not more concerned with what you are not able to do, on the side of the ball and I think you start to get into a very tentative mode in play calling standpoint."

Cowher needs to tune out the media, fans and ownership. The Titans last season saw Nashville turn into home field advantage for the Redskins just 5 games into the 2002 season. Tennessee went on to the AFC Championship, finishing 11-5 during the regular season after such a horrible start. The average football fan is nothing more than a fair-weather beast.

The advice here is that Cowher invite Jim Fassel of the New York Giants and Jeff Fisher of the Tennessee Titans out for a beer. Cowher isn't exactly a neophyte when it comes to slow starts, but he might benefit from a few suggestions from fellow coaches that have dealt successfully with a season on the brink.

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