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Madden: Steelers turnabout easy to explain

Saturday, December 29, 2001

Like snowflakes falling from the winter sky, here is a flurry of refreshing sports notes. Each one unique, each one a work of art, each one a marvelous little miracle. Do I get paid now?

The Steelers are the best team in the American Football Conference for many reasons, but here's the biggest: They are the only team in the AFC to take two projected weaknesses and turn them into overwhelming strengths. Quarterback Kordell Stewart has gone from scrub to Pro Bowler in fashion both frightening and convincing. The Steelers' defensive line, so suspect last season, has prospered from the arrival of rookie nose tackle Casey Hampton, the move of Kimo von Oelhoffen to defensive end, and the continued development of defensive end Aaron Smith. If those situations had merely gone from bad to mediocre, the Steelers would have been a playoff team. But now they seem capable of so much more.

Now that Stewart is finally performing well, it's time to admit that having a new offensive coordinator every year or so was only a minimal factor in his prior incompetence. Want proof? Mike Mularkey is a new offensive coordinator, and Stewart is having a career year. Getting the right offensive coordinator is what matters. Kevin Gilbride was here two seasons, and Stewart improved very little.

I was glad to see the Steelers pound Detroit Sunday, if only to silence the phony experts and hype jockeys who tried to make the game seem competitive by proclaiming the Lions "much better than their 1-12 record." No 1-12 team has ever been better than its record. If you win one out of your first 13 -- or your first 14 -- you stink, period. Losing at that rate for that long is not just a fluke, it's not just a trend, it means you have a very bad team.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns should combine rosters, then play one game against the Steelers with two wins at stake. That way the Steelers could get yet another week off before their first playoff game, and they would only face the boredom of sweeping up the trash once.

When Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala can gain 126 yards in a game, it says a lot about the Steelers' depth at running back. It says a lot about how bad Detroit is. But it speaks loudest about the quality of the Steelers' offensive line. If a group of players can win NFL MVP, cast my vote for those guys.

Oakland's age is showing, and the Raiders can't stop the run. Tom Brady, New England's rookie quarterback, is a candidate to be exposed big time in the playoffs. Baltimore doesn't have a running attack, which means the Ravens can't control a game's tempo. If the Steelers were a big, tough, tattooed prison lifer, New York Jets QB Vinny Testaverde would be their cooperative cellmate. The Dolphins can't run at all, and their starting quarterback went to freakin' Dartmouth. The Steelers seem an absolute lock to make the Super Bowl. Which is why we should all be really worried.

Johan Hedberg is playing solid goal for the Penguins, but he needs to quit making such a big fuss when somebody skates through his crease and bumps him. Sure, it's illegal. But when Hedberg starts flapping his arms and gums in such obvious fashion, the referees feel like they're being shown up. That makes them a lot less likely to make a call to protect Hedberg. And by reacting so emotionally every time he's touched, Hedberg makes it clear that you can get under his skin by jostling him. That guarantees that every opposing team will do it.

Next time Hedberg gets knocked down, he should just pick himself up, dust himself off, stop the puck and shut up. He got a big break from the game officials and from the NHL when his distress caused him to shove a linesman Saturday at Washington. Hedberg could have gotten a lengthy suspension. Instead, he didn't even get a penalty.

If Notre Dame had felt strongly that George O'Leary was really the man to coach the Irish football team, they wouldn't have forced him out over some relatively harmless biography fluffing. Dumping O'Leary was hirer's remorse, pure and simple.

If Notre Dame got rid of O'Leary for lying on his resume, shouldn't the Pirates have fired former General Manager Cam Bonifay the minute he told us Derek Bell was still good?

Dan Issel got screwed when he was forced out as coach of the NBA's Denver Nuggets. Issel, who had been with the team for a quarter-century, quit after responding to a heckling fan with a remark that was so borderline racially insensitive that the aftermath is more an indictment of our society's anal-retentive penchant for political correctness that it is an indictment of Issel.

Issel called the fan a "Mexican piece of [expletive]." The word Mexican was not used as an insult. It was used as an adjective. If Issel had said, "I like fine Mexican food," he wouldn't have been coerced into quitting. "Piece of [expletive]" was the insult. That is not racially insensitive.

The fan was reportedly overly loud and very abusive. In other words, he is a "piece of [expletive]" no matter what his ethnic background might be. Issel just told the truth.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio 1250.

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