Friday, March 3rd, 2006 marked the end of an era for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Granted, it was a very weird, interesting, peculiar, intriguing, XFL-type era, but whatever. After five seasons, the big club finally released Tommy Maddox for salary cap reasons. And here I can only guess "salary cap reasons" is a euphemism for "being to the quarterback position what Brian Bosworth was to acting."
For almost two seasons, Maddox was the starter, amassing a very respectable 15-13-1 record. He replaced Kordell Stewart during Week 3 of the 2002 season, and led the Steelers to ten wins, an unbelievable come-from-behind playoff victory over the Browns, and high hopes for the organization going forward. The unfortunate confluence of a Mike Mularkey-coordinated offense -- one that seemed to emphasize triple reverse halfback options on third-and-two -- and a horrific offensive line beset by injuries led to a 6-10 2003 season that, in hindsight, was the beginning of the end of the Tommy Maddox Era. Maddox made three more starts in 2004 -- a win in the season opener against the Raiders, his for-all-intents-and-purposes-career-ender the following week against the Ravens and a meaningless Week 17 contest against the Bills that can best be described as mop-up duty.
Ironically, it was his 2005 performance -- in addition to his agents' claims that fans had thrown garbage in Maddox's yard after the Jacksonville game -- that pretty much guaranteed he wouldn't be with the Steelers come the spring. And here we are.
We've all taken our shots at Tommy, especially after his dreadful 2005 effort, but no matter how things ended, I'll always remember the excitement he brought to Pittsburgh in 2002. During that season, the Browns playoff game, the Titans paralysis game, and the Texans "What the Hell Just Happened?" game all stick out in my mind. (The Texans game was Maddox's first start after being paralyzed and the loss single-handedly kept the Steelers from earning a first-round playoff bye). Say what you want about Tommy, version 2005, but he was fun to watch in 2002 (well, except for the Texans game).
So what got me thinking about all of this? For starters, Maddox got cut. When a player gets released -- especially one who could be the protagonist in a Greek tragedy -- you tend to reflect back on their career. I originally eulogized him on my site back in March, but a few weeks ago the NFL Network replayed the Browns-Steelers Wild Card game and watching that reminded me how good Touchdown Tommy could be. It also prompted the re-eulogization here. In this latest version, I've added my thoughts from that memorable Browns playoff game, and made a few editorial tweaks. Plus, with a lull in the on-the-field action -- minicamp doesn't start until this weekend -- I figured this was a perfect opportunity to pay homage to one of the most captivating yet maddening Steelers in recent memory.
The Tommy Timeline
This is what happens when Kent Graham is your quarterback. You abandon all hope and seriously consider auditioning former insurance salesmen. What's really scary about this article -- other than the Steelers eventually hiring the XFL MVP -- is that Pittsburgh was originally trying to sign either Trent Dilfer or Scott Mitchell. Dilfer I can at least understand -- he had managed the Ravens' offense during their 2000 Super Bowl run -- but Scott Mitchell? If Kent Graham was left-handed, he'd be Scott Mitchell.
I think this column was the predecessor to Peter King's modern day MMQB.
This was the Week 3 contest against the Browns that saw Maddox come off the bench and go 11-of-13 for 122 yards, and lead the Steelers on two scoring drives in barely a half a quarter. It also effectively ended Kordell Stewart's time in Pittsburgh. I always liked Kordell, but after two demoralizing losses to start the season (you remember those New England and Oakland drubbings, don't you?), I was ecstatic to see Maddox lead the Steelers to a come-from-behind victory. The goofy rule about the ball going past the line of scrimmage on the botched Todd Peterson field goal attempt certainly contributed to the Browns' snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but when your team is staring 0-3 in the face, you tend to overlook such things. It's hard to believe that this was three seasons ago. It might as well have been 30 it seems so long. Weird.
Heading into the Week 11 game the Steelers were 5-3-1, Maddox was 4-1-1 and Pittsburgh was in first place in the division. Not bad for a team that was a blocked field goal away from starting the season 0-3. And then it happened. A seemingly harmless hit by Keith Bulluck left Maddox motionless.
At the time I didn't know what to make of it. It just seemed like Maddox was cursed. A former first-round pick, he was already run out of the league once, only to return years later to earn the starting job, win some games, and then ... suffer an inexplicable -- and from the looks of it -- career-ending injury. It didn't seem fair.
Of course Maddox had a miraculous recovery that saw him miss only two games so all my blubbering was a little premature. Looking back -- and now knowing that there was no lasting damage -- the worst part of that whole ordeal was watching Maddox lie on the field while the medical staff removed his face mask before putting him on the stretcher. He looked like an oversized Gazoo. (It's OK to laugh, he was fine.)
If suffering through a life-threatening injury was one of the scariest moments of his career, the bizarre loss to the Texans had to be one of the most embarrassing (it probably ranked second to winning the XFL MVP).
After the game, Hines Ward put it best: "That was the most crappiest performance." Grammar aside, truer words have never been spoken. The then-expansion Texans were 13.5 point underdogs, scored three measly points on offense, totaled three first downs and 47 yards in total offense. Making matters worse was the fact that Pittsburgh racked up 422 total yards. And managed six points. Ugh. If you're really a glutton for punishment, you can relive the gory details here.
I mentioned it above, but dropping that game meant that the Steelers didn't get homefield advantage, and as a result, DeWayne Washington cemented his place as one of the nicest Steelers in history to lose a playoff game by the most heart-wrenching means possible. But we're not here to relive the bad stuff ...
Thinking back on the game, I only have vague recollections of what happened. I remember being totally disgusted at how poorly the defense played in the first half; I recall Antwaan Randle El returning a punt for a touchdown as it started to really snowed; I will never forget Chris Fuamatu-Maafala scoring the deciding touchdown in the fourth quarter. But otherwise, everything now seems like a blur. However, thanks to the NFL Network's "Game of the Week" replay I was reminded of a lot of stuff long since forgotten.
So, for your reading pleasure, here are 14 things that I will now not forget -- thanks to the replay ... and TiVo -- from The Game:
2) Kelly Holcomb literally came out of nowhere. He replaced an injured Tim Couch to go 26-of-43 for 429 yards. And yes, the 429 yards is a playoff record. Dennis Northcutt had two TD catches – both against Hank Poteat – and Kevin Johnson finished the game with 140 receiving yards.
3) Kendrell Bell was an absolute beast. I had forgotten how good he was his first two seasons. His rookie season was unforgettable, but year two saw him battle the dreaded high ankle sprain for virtually the entire season. He led the team with eight solo tackles in the game.
4) Maddox, even during his heyday, still made many of the mistakes that would eventually doom him – he threw two first half interceptions deep in Cleveland territory that took points off the board.
5) And when Maddox wasn't throwing picks, Randle El was losing fumbles on punt returns. The Steelers managed three turnovers in six minutes and found themselves trailing 14-0 in the 2nd quarter.
6) And then Randle El busted out a 66-yard punt return for touchdown and it seemed like Pittsburgh was right back in it. 14-7.
7) The Steelers have always been solid against the run, but given how bad their pass defense was in 2002, this actually played right into their opponents' hands. The Browns tried to run with William Green early, but after little success, they just started airing it out. A lot. The half ended 17-7, but on the fist Cleveland series of the second half, Holcomb throws another touchdown (Poteat in coverage … again). This leads Tunch Ilkin to note, "The Steelers secondary has been getting tortured by Holcomb." That was my nomination for understatement of the 2002 NFL season with "Maybe Lee Flowers isn't the answer at safety," getting strong consideration for second place. (And just so there's no confusion, the Flowers quote is from me.)
8) Even after going up 24-7, the Browns continued to throw the ball. After DeWayne Washington broke up a pass in the end zone (Yes, that DeWayne Washington), Mike Logan made a great pick that gave the Steelers the ball on their own 42-yard line. That was Holcomb's only mistake of the game.
9) Maddox finally gets things going and works the Steelers down the field. The drive ends with a play-action, roll right touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in the back of the end zone. Like Bell, Burress is another guy who's been so heavily criticized you actually forget that more times than not, played pretty well. This was one of those times. He finished the game with six catches for 100 yards. 24-14.
10) On the very next play Holcomb hit Andre Davis on bomb down to the Steelers 25-yard line. The good news was that Hank Poteat wasn't in coverage this time. It was Lee Flowers. (Apparently, Poteat only plays lax coverage on touchdowns.) Although known primarily as a two-down player, Kendrell Bell's tight pass coverage on running back Jamel White in the end zone forced the Browns to settle for a field goal. 27-14 (14:52 left in the 4th quarter).
11) On the next drive, Maddox again marches down the field in less than three minutes and throws a TD pass to Jerame Tuman. 27-21 (12:28 left in the 4th quarter). But as had been the case all day, a few minutes later, Holcomb threw his third TD of the day, this time to Andre King. And it was on 3rd and 12. With Chris Hope in coverage. 33-21 (10:17 left in the 4th quarter).
12) Pittsburgh finally gets the ball back with 5:30 to go in the game … down 13 points. Two minutes and 77 yards later (and thanks to three Cleveland penalties), Maddox throws into quadruple coverage and somehow manages to find Hines Ward for a touchdown. 33-28 (3:06 left in the 4th quarter).
13) Cleveland runs the ball on first down and Bell crushes William Green for the last time. As Bill Hillgrove says at the time, "Bell has played his guts out." Yep, he sure did. On second down, the Browns again go deep. And again, DeWayne Washington breaks up a potentially big pass play (Yes, that DeWayne Washington). That stopped the clock with 2:49 to go. On third down, Holcomb rolled left and hit Dennis Northcutt in stride … and he dropped it … with Hank Poteat beat on the play. It would've been enough for a first down.
14) Maddox seems to do best when in the no-huddle and for most of the 4th quarter that was exactly the case. After a series of big catches from Burress and Randle El, the Steelers had the ball at Cleveland's three-yard line with 53 seconds to go. With Maddox in the shotgun, it was a draw to Fu … for a TD.
Pittsburgh was now up 34-33 and decided to go for two. In typical Mularkey fashion, Ward lined up at QB, went in motion, and Randle El took the snap. He rolled right and found Tuman open in the end zone for the conversion. Randle El was 8-of-9 that season on pass attempts. In retrospect, maybe he should've started the 2005 game at Baltimore. Looking back, Maddox never seemed to take the easy route. But I also think that's why so many people liked him.
Fast-forward 22 months, an injured elbow and a rookie first-round quarterback later ...
And just like that, the Ben Roethlisberger Era began. To be fair, Maddox never complained, at least publicly, about his new role as clipboard holder/babysitter when he returned from an elbow injury that I'm still not sure ever totally healed.
I like giving Maddox a hard time, but he also deserves some credit for what he was able to do during the 2002 season. The guy was selling insurance a few years ago. To make an NFL comeback is nothing short of amazing. Of course it says something about the state of the Pittsburgh quarterback situation when Maddox can win a job, but that's a whole other story.
So here's to all those insurance salesmen who have dreams of becoming an NFL quarterback. Remember, where there's a will -- and a team with Kent Graham and Kordell Stewart fighting for the starting job -- there's a way.