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Labriola On

Labriola on the impact of 2002's Wild Card

Ready or not, here it comes:

• The last time the Steelers and the Browns met in the postseason, which also happened to be the last NFL regular season that ended with the Cleveland Browns participating in the playoffs, the two franchises combined for one of the most thrilling, exciting, enjoyable fan experiences in the 20-year history of Heinz Field.

• But if it then hadn't been for the subsequent intervention of two men – first Brian Billick and then Dan Rooney – that thrilling, exciting, enjoyable fan experience could have set the Steelers franchise back a decade. Or more.

• It was 27-degrees with light snow and a wind chill of 20-degrees on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2003 when the AFC North Champion Steelers were set to host the Cleveland Browns in an AFC Wild Card Round game that would be the second postseason matchup between these two franchises since this rivalry was born in 1950. And this, the 102nd meeting in this series, would turn out to be one for the books.

• For Steelers fans, 2002 was an unusual, sometimes unsettling season, because it was such a departure from what they had come to expect from their favorite team. The offense had become a high-wire act, one that eschewed the run-centric philosophy that had been a franchise staple for something that had come to be known as the Tommy Gun offense. Exciting, sure, but 36 turnovers made things stressful as well. And the defense found itself having to deal with a totally new strategy from opponents, many of them abandoning the running game themselves to spread out the Steelers and pick their secondary apart with short, sideways passes.

• In the first two games of the season, this opponent strategy came into clear focus when the Patriots ran the ball 18 times and had Tom Brady throw it 43 times in a game in which they never trailed, and the following week the Raiders ran it 17 times and had Rich Gannon throw it 65 times in a game in which they never trailed.

• Coach Bill Cowher pulled reigning team MVP Kordell Stewart midway through the season's third game, which was against the Browns, and replaced him with Maddox, because maybe his reasoning was something along the lines of, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

• By the time the playoffs came around, the Steelers were committed to this new style of offense, or as committed to it as they could be given they didn't incorporate it fully until late September. But on Sunday, Jan. 5, it was who they were, or at least who they were trying to be.

• As this Steelers-Browns playoff matchup began, however, the problem for the home team, as had been the case so often during the regular season, was its defense. On the game's opening possession, on a third-and-14 from the Cleveland 16-yard line, Kelly Holcomb hooked up with Kevin Johnson for an 83-yard gain to the Steelers 1-yard line. After the next play, it was 7-0.

• And 7-0 would've been 17-0 at halftime if not for a 66-yard punt return by Antwaan Randle El for a touchdown, because the Tommy Gun offense misfired to the tune of punt, punt, interception, interception, punt, missed field goal on its six first half possessions.

• While 17-7 grew to 24-7 and then settled at 33-21 with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Dan Rooney sat in his seat in the second row of the owner's box and was writing names on a sheet of paper, and the look on his face as he was doing it didn't give the impression he was getting an early start on his 2003 Christmas card list.

• Throughout the season Maddox's play could be described in the same way as the protagonist of a nursery rhyme written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

There was a little girl,
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
When she was good,
She was very, very good;
But when she was bad—she was horrid.

• And after a horrid first half in which he completed 8-of-16, was sacked twice, intercepted twice, and had no positive impact on the scoreboard for his team, Maddox flipped the switch and got hot. Only after a couple of three-and-outs and the deficit had grown to 24-7, but he got hot.

• When the Steelers got the ball back following their two three-and-outs to open the second half, the Browns led, 24-7, and there was 7:35 left in the third quarter. From that point to the end of the game, Maddox completed 21-of-29 for 248 yards, with three touchdowns, no interceptions, and those numbers equated to a rating of 132.5.

• The comeback was spectacular, Hollywood-esque, and the 62,595 paying customers reveled in every second. It was significant in terms of the size of the deficit, it was significant because it happened in the climate of the win-or-go-home playoffs, and it was delicious because the Steelers did it to the Browns.

• When Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala cruised into the end zone on a 3-yard draw play with 54 seconds left to complete a comeback for the ages, the Browns went home, the Steelers advanced to the Divisional Round in Nashville against the 11-5 Titans, all was right in Steelers Nation, and Dan Rooney's sheet of paper with those names written on it ended up in the Heinz Field trash.

• It turned out to be fool's gold.

• The Steelers went further down the Maddox hole in 2003 and lost all sense of who they were and what the players on the roster could and could not do. A 2-1 start became a 2-6 hole from which they could not escape, and the nadir came on Dec. 14 at the Meadowlands. The 5-8 Steelers met the 5-8 New York Jets on a day where the precipitation ranged from rain to sleet to wet snow as temperatures dropped throughout, and eventually the artificial turf was covered with a few inches of wet, heavy snow.

• In this mushy mess, the Steelers, so addicted had they become to their Tommy Gun offense, that they attempted 38 passes. In a game where the Jets held a 3-0 halftime lead and eventually would win, 6-0, the Steelers called 38 pass plays even though the guy lined up behind Maddox for much of the afternoon was Jerome Bettis.

• Maddox averaged 3.6 yards per pass attempt, and Bettis averaged 4.3 yards per carry, and in a game where the deficit never was more than a touchdown and the snow on the field was nearly as deep as Maddox's average yards per attempt was long, the Steelers called 38 passes. Thirty-eight. Where was Dan Rooney's sheet of paper when they really needed it?

• But their season would be "saved" in the finale, and their hero was Brian Billick. So intent was the Ravens coach on embarrassing the Steelers and having Jamal Lewis crack the 2,000-yard yard rushing mark and then go on to set an NFL single-season rushing record against his hated rival that he played his starters even though his team had secured the AFC North title and was locked into a Wild Card Round game the following weekend vs. the Titans.

• Lewis cracked 2,000, but he didn't get the NFL record, and in the process of defeating the Steelers, 13-10, but needing overtime to do it, Billick wore out his team to the extent it was one-and-done in the postseason. But that loss made the Steelers 6-10 and improved their draft position in 2004 by about a handful of slots, or barely enough to be in position to be able to pick somebody to take Maddox's job.

• When the 2004 NFL Draft rolled around, Coach Bill Cowher was reported to favor North Carolina State's Philip Rivers over the other two quarterback prospects projected to be first-round picks – Mississippi's Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger from Miami (Ohio).

• Once both Rivers and Manning were off the board, as Dan Rooney wrote in his book, Cowher settled on Arkansas offensive lineman Shawn Andrews as his preference to be the team's first-round pick. But once the Steelers were on the clock, Rooney wrote that he noticed Roethlisberger's name still on the team's draft board and instigated more discussion among the scouts about his attributes, only offering the input that it is always foolish to pass up a big-time quarterback prospect.

• History tells us how things worked out that day, and the franchise is still reaping the benefits of spending that first-round pick on the quarterback from Miami (Ohio) instead of the offensive lineman from Arkansas, because from 2004-10, the Steelers played in four AFC Championship Games, three Super Bowls, and added two Lombardis to the trophy case. And none of that happens with Maddox at quarterback.

• So Steelers fans, as you settle in on Sunday night to watch this Wild Card Round Game against the Browns, take a moment to think back on the last time these teams met in the postseason, and how one of the most exciting and entertaining playoff games in franchise history almost became one of the most costly playoff games in franchise history.

• And if not for Brian Billick's fanaticism and Dan Rooney's foresight, it would have.