Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

If someone had told me in August that the Steelers would win 16 games, lose two, and have their rookie QB reel off 15 in a row on their way to homefield advantage and a chance at going to the Super Bowl, my first reaction would be to think I was dreaming, drunk or both because I don't think anyone anywhere thought the Steelers would have anything resembling this type of season. I reminded myself of this minutes after the Steelers lost to the Patriots 41-27 and it didn't have quite the same effect. It never does. It's kind of like saying minutes after it happens, "Yeah, I know your dog got run over, but he had a much better life than anyone expected." Well, that's great, but it doesn't change the fact that your dog's dead. However, with 24 hours between me and the game, I do feel better.

First, this was a great season. My buddy Andy mentioned this a few days ago, and it's worth repeating here: "Just think how much better September through December was with the Steelers playing so well." Good point. If you think you felt bad Sunday night, just remember how you felt on 10 different occasions during the 2003 season. Not only that, I got to see Troy Polamalu, Chris Hope, Chris Hoke, Willie Williams, James Farrior, Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis and the offensive line all have great seasons. Honestly, if someone had told you in August that for large parts of the season the Steelers would be without Kendrell Bell, Kendell Simmons, Duce Staley, Casey Hampton, Chad Scott, Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress, most of you would be talking about who Pittsburgh would be taking with the first overall pick in the 2005 draft. Instead, they won 15 games in the regular season and we got to see guys like 34-year old Willie Williams, and perennial 3rd-stringer Chris Hoke do a hell of a lot than anyone could've ever imagined on the league's best defense.

So am I bummed they lost? Yeah, but looking back at the 2004 season, there was a lot more good than bad -- and certainly a lot of surprises. And the good news is I don't think the NFL is shutting down the league after February 6, so there'll be more football in seven months. OK, now I feel better.

I guess I should mention the game -- since that's the reason I'm eulogizing the '04 Steelers. I said this last week and it proved true: "If the Steelers don't turn the ball over they'll win." Of course that's like saying, if you can avoid falling out of a 10-story window, you'll probably increase your chances of survival -- technically, it is true, but doesn't offer much in the way of insight.

Anyway, Roethlisberger's inexperience/nervousness/thumb/whatever was primarily responsible for Pittsburgh's implosion. Still, I don't blame Ben. On more than one occasion this season he was the reason the Steelers won (see Dallas, Jacksonville and New York, for example), but for some reason he struggled in the playoffs. Maybe he was hurt, or nervous, or inexperience finally caught up with him. Either way, it doesn't take away from an otherwise unbelievable season.

Did the Pats deserve to win Sunday? Yep. They played mistake-free football. And I could sit here and tell you that the Steelers were the better team, that Ben's picks were the result of nothing more than poor aim, that the Steelers were moving the ball on the ground (and on and on ... ), but I'm not sure what purpose that would serve other than to sound like a sore loser. So I'll save that speech for the next Yankees - Red Sox series. Instead I'll just say that for as much as I hate the Patriots (primarily because they're so infuriatingly good), I have a lot of respect for what they've done. And no Patriot moreso than Tom Brady. This guy is money ... every time it matters. And I have even more respect for him now that he actually sports a mullet. Solid.

Anyway, I haven't really looked at any of the papers simply because I didn't feel like re-hashing what I saw with my own two eyes just a few hours before, but I don't need to read the newspapers to know that the Steelers could field a very different team in 2005. For starters, Plaxico Burress and Kendrell Bell are unrestricted free agents. I know the Steelers would like to keep Burress, but who knows about Bell. Pittsburgh's first order of business will be to re-negotiate Hine's contract, and then hopefully get to work on Burress. I know he mentioned he didn't think he'd be back because the Steelers didn't use him as effectively as maybe they should have, but you also have to understand that Plax made those comments after getting blown out at home in the AFC Championship game.

Also, the Bus may finally call it quits, even though he had his best season since 2001. And with Kendell Simmons set to return to right guard, and Max Starks primed to play right tackle, the Steelers might say good-bye to Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross -- two guys who weren't expected to do much and ended up being solid starters. Center Jeff Hartings is scheduled to make something like $4 billion next season, so unless he restructure his contract, he could be a cap casualty; which is what will almost certainly happen to Chad Scott -- who despite being hurt for most of the season, played as well as I can remember. But hey, there will be plenty of time to talk about all this stuff ... and the draft too, but the good news is that the Steelers don't have the 11th pick this April, and don't have nearly as many questions at the end of 2004 that they had at the end of 2003. And even though they lost the AFC Championship Game again, this season was fun to watch.

If you're looking for more stuff to make you feel better, Rowdy does a good job of putting things in perspective (here's how some other Steelers' fans are dealing with the loss).

And In case you've been on Mars for the past five months, here's a recap of the Steelers season, week-by-week:

Week 1: The New Zack Crockett (Oakland)
Week 2: This is Why you Play 16 Games (Baltimore)
Week 3: PIT vs. MIA: Live from my Living Room (Miami)
Week 4: Steelers Win 2 in a Row ... Finally (Cincinnati)
Week 5: Cleveland Steamrolled (Cleveland)
Week 6: What a Difference a Year Makes (Dallas)
Week 8: October Surprise (New England)
Week 9: The Wheels on the Bus (Philadelphia)
Week 10: The Wheels on the Bus get Rims (Cleveland)
Week 11: Winning Ugly (Cincinnati)
Week 12: Winning Ugly, game 2 (Washington)
Week 13: Battle of the Big MACs (Jacksonville)
Week 14: Who needs Ben when you have the Bus? (NY Jets)
Week 15: Limping to the Finish (NY Giants)
Week 16: Homefield throughout the Playoffs: Check (Baltimore)
Week 17: Maddox + St. Pierre = Whuppin' (Buffalo)
Week 19: Rookiesberger (NY Jets)

OK, now let's get back to making fun of people.