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Madden: Many questions dog Steelers

Saturday, July 28, 2001

What's better than a column examining one of the burning issues at Steelers training camp? A column of refreshing Steelers notes examining all the burning issues at training camp!

Snapping a football between your legs to the quarterback seems like one of the easiest tasks in football. Yet Jeff Hartings can't do it consistently. Everyone assumes he will catch on in time. But if that's a lock, why does Bill Cowher seem so worried? If Hartings doesn't get the hang of snapping the ball soon, he could develop a mental block. Mackey Sasser used to catch for the New York Mets. He had a mental block against throwing the ball back to the pitcher. He just couldn't do it. Chuck Knoblauch and Steve Sax got spooked on routine throws from second base. Steve Blass stopped throwing strikes. There's a chance -- albeit a slim one -- that Hartings' little problem could become a big one.

Here in Pittsburgh, the fans and local media have been browbeaten into believing everything is peachy with the Steelers' quarterback situation. But outside Pittsburgh, most experts believe the position is a disaster waiting to happen. Kordell Stewart finished last year decently, but he was useless for 2 1/2 seasons before that. Tee Martin has never taken a regular-season snap in the NFL. Tommy Maddox hasn't played in the league since 1995. Kent Graham is a journeyman. Stewart might do OK. But he might not, and there's not much backing him up. Be afraid of the QB position, Pittsburgh. Be very afraid.

There's a legitimate worry that the Steelers' new simplified offense will be extremely simple for opposition teams to defend. But even the simplest offense can be made harder to defend -- and made to appear more complex -- by involving everybody possible. In other words, throw to the tight end (gasp) and throw to backs coming out of the backfield (double gasp). It ain't Stillers smashmouth football per se, but simplified times call for slightly more diverse measures.

In all my years of watching Stillers smashmouth football, I've never seen anyone actually get smashed in the mouth. Those face masks get in the way. Maybe we need a new cliche.

Speaking of cliches, now that the Steelers finally have a new stadium, I dare the fans to come up with a new cheer to replace the indescribably lame "Here we go Stillers, here we go."

Brent Alexander and Mike Logan were supposed to compete for the free safety spot during training camp. Mike Jones and rookie Kendrell Bell were supposed to compete for an inside linebacker spot. Now -- after just one week of relatively inconsequential drills -- Alexander and Jones already have won the aforementioned jobs. I'm not saying they don't deserve them. But how were those positions decided in a week? Answer: They really weren't up for grabs in the first place.

Casey Hampton has got to stop referring to himself in the third person. It's bad when Kordell Stewart does it. It's intolerable when a rookie does it.

Cowher made a subtle yet brilliant decision when he chose to have Plaxico Burress and Troy Edwards compete for the split end spot instead of having Burress play split end and Edwards flanker. Pitting the two first-round draft choices against each other should make them take the fight for playing time very seriously. Each knows the other is a player of pedigree. The winner starts, the loser sits, but, hopefully, both work harder. Meanwhile, Hines Ward can provide needed stability at flanker.

Good cornerbacks are a lot tougher to find than good linebackers. The Steelers were right to tie up Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott before signing Earl Holmes and Jason Gildon. That said, the Steelers should sign Holmes now. If they expect him to lead the defense with maximum efficiency this season, his teammates need to know he's going to be around next season. Plus, he's good.

If you record Cowher lavishing praise on backup linebacker Clark Haggans, then play the tape backward, here's what you hear: "See you later, Jason Gildon." Cowher obviously likes Haggans, so if the Steelers feel Gildon is making unreasonable salary demands when he reaches free agency after the season, don't be surprised if Gildon is shown the door. Which would be a big mistake.

Memo to Lee Flowers: In Pittsburgh, the head coach is more important than the players. The Steelers have had only two head coaches since 1969. Doesn't that tell you something?

It would be a neat story if 5-foot-6 Joey Getherall, the real-life Rudy from Notre Dame, made the Steelers. But if you can't get on the big kids' rides at Kennywood, how can you play in the NFL?

The NFL's latest attempt to discourage individuality and the corresponding entertainment will see a ban on do-rags and a tighter crackdown on celebrations. There's a freedom of expression lawsuit in there somewhere -- sadly, I'm not kidding -- but the main result will be even less fun in the No Fun League. Well, unless TV ratings drop. Then Paul Tagliabue will hire Michael Flatley to choreograph end-zone dances.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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