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Steelers' offense too complicated

Saturday, August 12, 2000

When it comes to analyzing football, I don't pretend to know much about X's and O's. I just know what looks good. I just know what I like.

Right now, the Steelers' offense doesn't look good. And I don't know anyone who likes it.

People talk about Kordell Stewart being in the ringer this season, and that's true, but what about Kevin Gilbride? Heralded by some as the top offensive coordinator of the '90s, Gilbride has seen his reputation erode quickly the past three years. He was head coach at San Diego when then-rookie quarterback Ryan Leaf had his meltdown in 1998 and has since guided the woeful Steelers' offense, which has featured the transformation of Stewart into the NFL's worst quarterback.

Gilbride's offense didn't seem too complicated when Warren Moon ran it in Houston. Or when Mark Brunell ran it in Jacksonville.

But Gilbride doesn't have Moon or Brunell in Pittsburgh.

And Gilbride doesn't look like a genius anymore. Far from it. It's beginning to look like the quarterback mattered a lot more than the game plan in Houston and Jacksonville.

In fact, it's beginning to look like you need a Mensa member under center to execute Gilbride's offense, with a couple Rhodes scholars at receiver to boot. Or maybe Kreskin at quarterback and members of the Psychic Friends Network catching the ball. Gilbride's passing game is based on option routes. That means that the quarterback and receiver must make simultaneous reads at the same point in the route, then execute one of three options -- hopefully, the same option, but seldom so in the Steelers' case.

The ability to make plays on option routes comes with intelligence and experience. Stewart doesn't seem to have much of the former, while his receivers don't have much of the latter.

OK, so a lot of teams use option routes. A lot of teams have quarterbacks and receivers who seemingly read each other's minds. The Steelers don't.

Some Steelers admittedly haven't had much time to learn Gilbride's offense, most notably quarterback Kent Graham and rookie receiver Burress. But Stewart has had more than a year with Gilbride, and he doesn't even remotely seem to get it. Same with most of the receiving corps, although it's tough to evaluate the wideouts in light of such putrid play at quarterback.

So, is Gilbride's offense too complicated or are those executing it too stupid? Who cares?

The bottom line is that the Steelers offense isn't working. Gilbride needs to make it simpler. There's a precedent. Gilbride dumbed down his game plan last season when the Steelers struggled.

Give new defensive coordinator Tim Lewis credit. He has seemingly tempered his defense to best suit the strengths of those playing it. For example, Lewis has the Steelers playing a lot of tight man-to-man pass coverage. The result is cornerback Chad Scott utilizing his athleticism, emotion and size to shine.

Gilbride, however, likely considers his playbook too sacred to tamper with. If that's not true, why didn't he adjust it during the off-season in the wake of the offensive disaster last season? You've heard it before. It's the sound of one hand clapping. It's another example of a coach trying to be more important than the players, an attitude all too prevalent in sports these days.

It's too late to switch game plans, let alone coordinators. The Steelers will sink or swim with Gilbride as offensive guru this year.

Maybe this is being a bit too critical of Gilbride. He has four quarterbacks to choose from, and none could hit the broad side of a barn with a fist full of peanuts, although Graham showed some signs of life against Carolina. Too bad Graham won't be given a legitimate chance to win the job. Gilbride's offense needs precise execution by the quarterbacks, not quarterbacks who deserve to be executed.

It's a shame. Gilbride probably knows as much about offense as anyone in the NFL. But you are judged by what you do, not what you know.

Gilbride should simplify his offense. He should cut down the number of options. Better to perfectly execute a small number of simple plays than mangle a ton of complicated ones. Terry Bradshaw didn't need option routes. Yeah, maybe he had Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. But I'm willing to bet Terry would do a lot better with Burress, Edwards and his playbook than Stewart would with Swann, Stallworth and Gilbride's playbook. And that's now, with Bradshaw stepping right out of the Fox TV booth.

Football has changed over the years. But it hasn't changed that much. Somebody throws the ball, somebody catches it. You block, you run, you tackle. It's a simple game.

If Gilbride doesn't realize that now, Steelers management will remind him at the end of the season. A pink slip will accompany the reminder, to say nothing of a shattered reputation.

Mark Madden hosts a sports radio talk show 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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