On this afternoon, Maddox was magic
By BOB LABRIOLA
Ten seasons into a wonderfully successful tenure as coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bill Cowher had established an offensive style that had rushed for more yards than any other NFL team over the same decade; in 2001, the Steelers again had led the league in rushing, but because they were 1-3 in conference championship games and 0-1 in Super Bowls under Cowher, questions about the direction of the offense had become common.
"You still want to get the speed, you still want to score quickly, you still want to try to add excitement, but our makeup is still running the football and stopping the run," Cowher had said in the months leading up to the 2002 NFL season. "You just want to make sure you surround yourself with players who fit in with that approach to the game. Sometimes if people don't like that approach to the game, it's hard to change them. But when you get guys who understand that type of football, you can then cater to them to get done what you're trying to get done."
There was little not to like about the Steelers at this time. Not only had the team led the league in rushing during the previous season, but Kordell Stewart blossomed into the kind of playmaker/leader at the quarterback position who gets voted MVP by his teammates. Their defense had finished the 2001 season ranked No. 1 against the run, No. 4 against the pass and No. 1 overall; it had tied a franchise record for sacks; it had allowed only one touchdown in the third quarter all season.
"I don't see any (weaknesses)," said coordinator Tim Lewis when asked that very question about the defense in the months before the start of the 2002 NFL season. "I think we're big, we're fast, we've got depth at each position. I think we're quick. I think all of the guys in the secondary can play the ball, and they'll tackle. The linebackers do a fantastic job of running to the ball and filling their gaps. The defensive line is big and powerful, and we've got good backups at each position."
No one was arguing, either. The Steelers may not have been the defending Super Bowl champions, but it wasn't difficult to make the case that the only reason they weren't was because their special teams gagged big-time against New England in the 2001 AFC Championship Game. The Steelers had lost, 21-17, in a game in which 14 of the Patriots points had come on special teams touchdowns. Since New England then had gone on to handle the St. Louis Rams, the line of thinking that the Steelers were a championship team-in-waiting was prevalent and it led to a comfort zone as spring melted into summer.
In the case of 2002, "melted" is the precise term, because it was miserably hot and humid starting with the day they reported to St. Vincent College for training camp. The previous summer, Cowher had conducted the kind of camp designed to find out who his players were going to be, and the tempo of the practices and the amount of hitting in them reflected that. In the summer of 2002, it was different.
There was a veterans' day off, where Cowher decreed that guys with eight-plus years of NFL experience didn't have to practice. He gave the players a full 24 hours off after a particular practice in pads in triple-digit temperatures. Cowher believed he had a good idea who his players were going to be this time, and so the idea seemed to shift more towards keeping those guys healthy for the long haul that was to begin for them on a Monday night in Foxborough.
But on that Monday night, Sept. 9, 2002, the Steelers got a taste of what their opponents had in store for them, and it was something they never expected. Rather than even attempt to run the ball against a defense that had allowed a meager 3.5 yards per attempt the previous season, opponents decided not to bother with the pretense of even trying.
Tom Brady attempted 43 passes and handed the ball off only 18 times in a 30-14 win over the Steelers in a game in which the Patriots never trailed. The next week, the Oakland Raiders attempted 63 passes and 17 runs in another decisive win, this one by 30-17. Opponents would go on to attempt 573 passes in 2002, and that still is the highest number against the Steelers over the course of any of their 75 full NFL seasons.
"I didn't think they would come out just winging it, too," said Cowher when Oakland's Rich Gannon attempted 62 passes the week after Brady attempted 43. "I thought Oakland would try to run the football, but we knew from the first series as they took the ball that was not going to be their plan."
On offense, the Steelers had been forced into a more wide-open style themselves because they were behind early in both of their first two games, and their opinion as to why they were behind in those two games was that Stewart was turning the ball over. He threw four interceptions and lost a fumble in the team's 0-2 start, but a defense that was incapable of dealing with the up-tempo offensive style opponents were using was just as much a factor.
But when Stewart threw another interception and had led the offense to just two field goals to the midway point in the fourth quarter of the third game of the 2002 season – one in which the Browns had a 13-6 lead at Heinz Field – Cowher made a quarterback change. The Steelers went to Tommy Maddox.
Maddox had been dazzling the coaches all summer with his ability to make quick decisions in the passing game, and when he was clicking the results were impressive and the offense was fun to watch. That never was more evident than on Maddox's first drive against the Browns, when he directed the team 77 yards in seven plays and tied the game with a 10-yard pass to Plaxico Burress. But playing an up-tempo offense with Maddox as the triggerman also had its disadvantages, and the opening possession of overtime against the Browns was a harbinger.
From the shotgun formation, Maddox made another of those quick decisions, only this time the ball went right into the hands of Cleveland linebacker Andra Davis.
Had the Steelers lost that game to fall to 0-3, who knows what would've happened from there, but Kimo von Oelhoffen then blocked Phil Dawson's field goal attempt to allow the Steelers offense another chance, and it drove into field goal position to eke out a 16-13 win. And even though Cowher said immediately after the win that his inclination was to come back with Stewart as the starting quarterback the following week against New Orleans, he ultimately decided to cast the team's lot with Maddox.
Ultimately, it would be shown that the Steelers were not equipped to play an up-tempo style – either on offense where Maddox would throw 16 interceptions in 11 starts, or on defense where the team lacked the speed and athleticism in the secondary to handle the multiple-receiver packages opponents had begun to use with regularity.
But while this style of play wasn't something the Steelers could use and still contend for a championship, it did lead to one of the most exciting and entertaining afternoons in the franchise's long and glorious postseason history.
The Steelers completed the 2002 regular season with a 10-5-1 record and the championship of the newly-created AFC North Division. Their offense had a quarterback throw 20 touchdown passes for the first time in five years, but their 36 turnovers was the most since their 5-11 team had 39 in 1988. Their defense had 50 sacks and allowed only 3.8 yards per rush, but against the top two seeds in the AFC playoffs – Oakland and Tennessee – the Steelers had allowed a 55.8 percent conversion rate on third downs.
"We can't worry about what has happened … we're looking forward," said Jerome Bettis, who had been supplanted as the team's primary running back by Amos Zereoue, as further proof of the move away from smash-mouth football. "It's not about fixing the regular season; it's about going forward. We play to get into the playoffs, and once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen."
The Steelers, because of a 34-34 tie with the Falcons and a 24-6 loss at home to the expansion Houston Texans in which three Maddox turnovers were returned directly for touchdowns, were the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. When the Cleveland Browns rallied from a 16-10 deficit to defeat Atlanta, they earned the conference's final berth in the playoffs and with it the right to travel to Heinz Field to face the Steelers for the third time that season.
Steelers-Browns, The Playoff Edition, started badly for the home team, and it continued to get worse throughout the first half because of the same things that had plagued them throughout the regular season. Turnovers and their pass defense.
On the Steelers' first offensive possession, Maddox got sacked on third down; on their second he missed an open Antwaan Randle El on a third down from the 45-yard line; and their next two possessions ended with interceptions.
Randle El's fumble on a punt early in the second quarter set up Kelly Holcomb's first touchdown pass of the game for a 14-0 Cleveland lead, but then Randle El atoned with a 66-yard punt return for the touchdown that made it 14-7 with 9:35 left in the first half. By the time the first half had ended, the Browns led, 17-7, and while the Steelers had three turnovers they also had allowed Holcomb to complete 13-of-18 for 232 yards with two touchdowns. In the passer rating department, Holcomb led Maddox, 132.9-34.4.
In the short time between the teams coming back onto the field after halftime and the second half kickoff, Maddox gathered the Steelers in front of their bench. "Tommy came out after halftime and he brought the whole team up," said Steelers receiver Terance Mathis. "He just said, 'If you don't think we're going to win this game, go back into the locker room."
If Maddox's Rockne imitation had any effect, it wasn't immediately apparent, because after a Steelers' three-and-out, the Browns returned the punt 59 yards and scored a touchdown three plays later to make it 24-7. The Steelers fans who didn't leave Heinz Field let the home team know what they thought of the performance so far.
"The thing that is amazing about this team that makes it so much fun to play on is that everybody is relaxed and stays calm on the sidelines, whether things are going good or things are bad," said Maddox. "There is never a sense of pointing fingers. Everybody believed we could win, and they kept going out there and playing as hard as they could. There were guys who were hurt, there were guys who didn't think they had anything left, but they kept playing great."
What made for the dramatic ending was that the Steelers played great for maybe a quarter-and-a-half, and coupled with one dropped ball by the Browns at a critical juncture of the fourth quarter, it would prove to be enough for a 36-33 win that was a lot of fun for a city that loves nothing more than to hate Cleveland.
The game would end with the Browns having rolled up 447 yards of offense, having converted almost 50 percent on third downs, having a journeyman quarterback put up a passer rating of 107.6, having two wide receivers end the game with per-catch averages north of 30 yards. But this game also would turn on a play made by the Steelers defense.
The Steelers were trailing, 24-7, and the Browns were sniffing around for more after needing seven plays to drive the ball 49 yards to the Pittsburgh 27-yard line. After a false start penalty, Holcomb dropped back to pass and tried to get the ball to Kevin Johnson at the Steelers 25-yard line, but safety Mike Logan intercepted. More Cleveland points at that stage might have been a dagger through the Steelers' heart, but Logan's interception meant new life.
Ten plays later, Maddox's touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress made it 24-10, but the Browns were far from finished. They answered that score with a 64-yard drive that netted a field goal, and after Maddox took the Steelers 65 yards for another touchdown, the Browns answered with a five-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that restored their lead to 33-21 with 10:17 to play.
The Steelers were now using the no-huddle exclusively, and on the rare occasions when someone on the Browns defense would make a play one of his teammates was negating it with a stupid penalty. A sack by defensive end Mark Word was nullified by a holding penalty on Dwayne Rudd; solid coverage on Hines Ward was cancelled out by a roughing penalty on safety Robert Griffith. And so it was, until Maddox hit Ward with a 5-yard touchdown pass to make it 33-28 with 3:06 to play.
"We wanted to stay aggressive, and obviously they came with the no-huddle offense," said Browns coach Butch Davis. "We assumed that, and we practiced for the no-huddle all week long. We knew they would stay with four wide receivers, and the guys tend to get complacent and they stop rushing instead of staying aggressive. So after the first drive, we talked about it, about rushing the quarterback. We just didn't get the pressure in the second half that we got in the first half."
With 3:06 to play, though, it was up to the Cleveland offense. The Steelers had two timeouts, and there also was the two-minute warning. One first down would relegate the Steelers to Hail Mary territory; two first downs and the game would be over.
A 3-yard run by William Green on first down ate one of the Steelers timeouts, but the Browns stopped the clock on their own on second down with an incomplete pass. Cleveland already had burned all of its timeouts, and so when the play clock was winding down before the next snap, Holcomb had to take a delay of game penalty. On third-and-12 with 2:49 left, Holcomb had wide receiver Dennis Northcutt open in front of the Steelers sideline, and he put the ball right in his hands. Northcutt dropped it.
"(Cornerback) Hank Poteat was close to him, but not close enough," said Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "(Northcutt) just dropped the ball."
The Steelers took over at their 39-yard line after the punt, with 2:35 to play, and by this stage of the game, Maddox's touch had become a force of its own. Twenty-four yards to Burress on first down; 10 more to Ward and out of bounds at the Browns 27-yard line with 1:48 to play.
Seventeen more yards to Burress, and then a 7-yard pass to Ward put the ball at the Cleveland 3-yard line. The Steelers used their last timeout with 58 seconds to play.
Staying in the shotgun, Maddox simply handed the ball to Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who ran into the end zone untouched. Ballgame.
"That's probably the most fear I ever had playing the game of football," said Kimo von Oelhoffen. "Fear of losing, fear of going home. I don't want to go home. I've got nothing at home except my daughters, and that's great, but what I'm living for is to play this game."
Thanks to the greatest postseason comeback in franchise history, the 2002 Steelers got to play the game for another week.