It was almost a year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Denver Broncos. At the time, the Steelers were on their way to the low point of 2006, and the Broncos were still team in great position to make a postseason run. Pittsburgh played the second-most frustrating game of the year that Sunday afternoon in early November -- outdone only by their performance in Oakland a week prior -- and that 60 minutes against Denver was a microcosm of the season: turnovers, missed scoring opportunities, and more turnovers.
This was the game that inevitably led to Bill Cowher benching Ike Taylor. If you're a masochist, you can watch the lowlights here. ( You know what bummed me out most about watching that three-minute clip? The Santonio Holmes first-quarter fumble recovered by Darrent Williams. It's amazing how your perspective changes once you have a kid. The whole Williams thing was just sad … and weird. But mostly sad.)
Ben Roethlisberger threw for more than 400 yards, but he also was sacked four times and threw three picks. Those three turnovers along with fumbles from Holmes, Cedrick Wilson and Hines Ward sealed Pittsburgh's (non)postseason fate. I took a look back at my SCI column following the game, and this paragraph says it all:
Roethlisberger's second interception was a really good punt, and it was probably Pittsburgh's best pick of the season. You know, when you can identify your favorite turnover it's probably a safe bet that the hometown team ain't having a very good year. That said, maybe Cowher should leave Roethlisberger on the field on 4th down and just have him Hail Mary a pass and hope the defense intercepts it somewhere inside their 20-yard line. It would be huge improvement to the current punt-team coverage.
Wow, that's depressing. Not only does it point to problems with holding onto the ball, but it's a stark reminder of how dreadful Chris Gardocki was. When you're even contemplating having the quarterback toss fourth-down bombs as a means of winning the field position battle, it's probably worth spending a draft pick -- I don't know, a high fourth-rounder sounds about right -- on a punter.
The Steelers would make the turn at 2-6, finish up 6-2, and try to parlay that second-half momentum into a good start for the 2007 season. So far, so good.
But be honest, after losing to the Raiders (Ben game-managed that one all by himself -- four interceptions, two pick-sixes … that'll do it) and Broncos in consecutive weeks, in gut-wrenching fashion, nobody knew what to expect going forward. No one wanted to admit it at the time (at least I didn't, anyway), but Cowher was a lame duck, Roethlisberger's health was a huge question mark, the team had one legit wide receiver and no offensive line to speak of. Denver left Pittsburgh with a 6-2 record, were coming off an AFC Championship appearance, and if not for an idiotic decision by the head coach to bench Jesus Plummer for rookie Jay Cutler, they were a cinch to return to the postseason.
Instead, the limped through the final eight games of '06 at 3-5, and after an 2-0 start this season (both games were squeakers, by the way), the Broncos have dropped three in a row. Compounding matters, they're banged up. Javon Walker and Tom Nalen are out, Champ Bailey is iffy, and Travis Henry, the pot-smokin', love-maker is in trouble with commissar Goodell. (Although he'll be available this weekend, it has to be a distraction … or maybe not. Anybody who can father nine kids, and then ask a former employer to help you pay child support probably isn't affected by such things.) Cutler, in his second year, is holding his own, but the defense has aged in dog years since last January. Until I read it earlier this week, I totally forgot Denver had signed Simeon Rice. In fact, head coach Mike Shanahan didn't have Rice on the active roster during the Week 5 game against the Chargers (Denver, like Pittsburgh, was off last week), and in four games, Rice has managed three tackles and no sacks.
Denver's 2007 first-round pick, Jarvis Moss, was drafted specifically to shore up the pass rush. Through give games, he has just one sack. But it's hard to point to Moss and call him a bust, or even an underachiever. He's only started one game, and he's stuck on the depth chart behind future Hall of Famer John Engleberger. Whether Moss should be starting is another issue, but what intrigues me is that the Broncos were very interested in trading up for Juan Timmons. I wonder if he'd be having a Jon Beason-type season in Denver. Currently, the Broncos have Nate Webster as their left outside linebacker, and I have to think that in that situation Timmons might be starting right now.
None of that matters, though. The Steelers are 4-1, I'm glad they're bringing Juan along slowly -- and that he's wreaking havoc on special teams in the meantime -- and with the perspective of five months, I've seen some of those Timmons' flashes that Mike Tomlin spoke of on draft day. Crazy, I know, but maybe watching hours of game tape actually correlates with identifying talent.
Anyway, the talk of first-round picks got me thinking about Pittsburgh's 2006 first-rounder. The Steelers moved up seven spots to draft Santonio Holmes 25th overall. I was jazzed about the move at the time, and now, 18 months later, I'm feeling even better about it. Remember the talk heading into draft weekend? There was no consensus on the top wideout, but it was a two-man race: Holmes and Chad Jackson. For the record, Jackson never did anything for me -- I saw him run his 4.3-something at the combine … big whoop -- and I was hoping some team in front of Pittsburgh would draft him just so Cowher didn't get a chance to pull an "Alonzo." Didn't happen, but it didn't matter.
I recently saw an article about the unstoppable force that is the New England Patriots, and it mentioned that Troy Brown and Jackson would be eligible to come of the physically unable to perform list next Monday. Given that the Pats currently have the best stable of wideouts in the league, I don't know where that leaves Brown and Jackson. It wouldn't surprise me if Brown was released -- he's 36, and his role has diminished in recent years. But what does New England do with Jackson? Best case, is they keep him on the active roster, but barring a slew of injuries, he'll never see the field. He's in no danger of getting cut, but there's probably a good chance he lands on injured reserve.
Can you imagine if that happened in Pittsburgh? People would be going bonkers (myself included). I mention this for two reasons: First, it just reinforces the fact that the draft is a crapshoot. Sure, there are ways to minimize mistakes, but until the NFL goes to robots-only, it will always be just as much art as science. Second, the Patriots aren't infallible. They make mistakes (like getting caught stealing signs -- BIG mistake). And Jackson is one example. That they can re-stock the roster with the likes of Randy Moss, Dante' Stallworth and Wes Welker is all kinds of amazing, but that would never happen in Pittsburgh.
The point, I guess, is this: a year ago, the Steelers were a mess through the first eight games; the quarterback's brains were still trying to unscramble themselves, Hines Ward was the only pass-catching threat on the outside, and the season seemed lost. Now the franchise quarterback is back, Holmes, who had a nifty second half to his rookie season, is jaw-droppingly better as a sophomore, and the team is back on track. Things can change in a hurry in the NFL. And sometimes for reasons that aren't completely clear.
Things can change in a hurry
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