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Madden: Steelers can't pass, so record will suffer

Saturday, August 18, 2001

Steelers purists are up in arms because the first event at Heinz Field is a boy-band concert today. Check out the show, I say. When you consider the Steelers' passing game, it might be nice to see something on a football field that's actually 'N Sync.

Bill Cowher, Mike Mularkey and Kordell Stewart doubtless will try to create optimism out of the Steelers' 12-play, 89-yard opening drive at Minnesota Thursday night, and I do like the running game. Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue look ready to roll, the offensive line is tight, and offensive coordinator Mularkey is doing some creative things to allow the quarterbacks to run in structured fashion.

But the passing game stinks. Out-and-out stinks. If it stinks this bad when the Steelers play host to Detroit next Saturday, Allegheny West residents will be complaining about the smell by halftime. I wouldn't blame Steelers season ticket holders for filing a class-action lawsuit against Stewart, because God knows they've been promised a better passing game than this.

There's no point overanalyzing what the passing game is or what it could be. Not when the quarterbacks can't throw the ball accurately or with touch. Not when the receivers drop a half-dozen balls per game and mangle a good percentage of the supposedly simpler new routes. Not when the team is afraid to throw the ball down the field. You might be encouraged by Stewart completing 6 of 9 passes at Minnesota, but I scoff at the mere 50 yards he compiled in an entire half of football.

Stewart has 64 yards passing in two preseason games. Is it time to blame the offensive coordinator yet?

Stewart's pass late in the first half was vintage Kordell: Score tied 7-7, Bobby Shaw open behind the secondary, Stewart underthrows him, and the ball gets intercepted. Damn that Mularkey! You have to at least get a dropped pass in that situation. I have no doubt Shaw would have come through.

(I must take this space to praise receiver Hines Ward, a paragon of performance and professionalism in a cesspool of underachievement. Ward works hard to maximize his accomplishments. He runs good routes. He minimizes his drops. He has made third-round talent into first-string quality. As opposed to making first-round talent into third-string quality. Hi, Troy. Hi, No-Catchico.)

Let me tell you right now how the Steelers' season is going to go:

The defense will be very solid. Casey Hampton and Kendrick Clancy are improving. They should provide solid play at nose tackle, which is all that's needed to give a 3-4 defense a shot at real success. The Steelers won't have weaknesses on D, and they have more than their share of playmakers.

The running game will do what's needed and then some. Bettis looks very motivated in the wake of signing his new contract. Marvel Smith is struggling at right tackle, but he should work out the kinks -- although he won't get five years to do it unless he switches to quarterback. The rest of the line could be superb. If Zereoue gets some snaps, his zip will provide a nice counterpoint for Bettis' power.

Kris Brown's kickoffs are deeper. Josh Miller is a top-shelf punter. It's tough to predict special-teams play because it's mostly based on desire, but the Steelers should be fine in that department.

The passing game, however, will blow the season. Bet on it.

Despite the Steelers drafting for years with an eye toward improving their passing, it's still brutal. Which is a shame, because success in the NFL has never been more based on throwing the ball. Smashmouth football with no aerial skill only gets you so far. In the Steelers' case, it should get them to no better than 8-8, and that record will actually turn out to be quite a tribute to the defense and running game.

Last week in this space, I described the season as a make-or-break year for Stewart. I still feel that way. Stewart has to play all season. Tommy Maddox, Tee Martin and Kent Graham have shown that they can't do any better, anyway.

But since Stewart's demise looks increasingly likely, it might be worth talking to Chicago about quarterback Cade McNown, a first-round draft choice in 1999. If you go by the Steelers' way of doing things, the Bears are giving up on McNown way too early. At this point, McNown's career seems a more likely candidate for resurrection than Stewart's. The Steelers should acquire McNown if the price is right, make him the No. 2 guy, and let him learn the offense. If Stewart fails, McNown could step in next year.

Cowher exploded (not literally, but almost) earlier this week over a story on ESPN.com that said Steelers defensive backs had anonymously criticized Stewart. Only author Mike Florio and the defensive backs in question know if the story is true, but ESPN.com isn't in a habit of making things up.

The story is, of course, very believable. If the forward pass were illegal, the Steelers would easily make the playoffs. With the exception of those affiliated with the passing game, everyone else on the Steelers is doing their job in at least adequate fashion. You couldn't blame the defensive backs for being frustrated with Stewart.

Before this season is over, they will hardly be the only ones frustrated with the Steelers' pitiful passing game.

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

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