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Madden: Patriots unmasked Steelers' offense

Saturday, August 03, 2002

Receiver Hines Ward says the New England Patriots' defensive players were yelling out the upcoming play when the Steelers' offense broke huddle and got into formation in the AFC championship last season.

There's a lot to be said for having a simple offense. But perhaps, at that point, the Steelers' offense officially became too simple. Too predictable, anyway.

Special teams lost that game, but the Steelers' offense certainly did nothing to salvage the situation, looking particularly pathetic down the stretch.

New England head coach Bill Belichick is a defensive genius of rare repute. No ninny was going to come up with a game plan to stop the Steelers' offense cold.

But now any ninny can watch a tape of New England's victory over the Steelers and just tell his team to do the same thing.

The scenario brings back memories of 1997, when Kordell Stewart ripped the NFL apart in his first year as a starting quarterback. But once opposing teams perused tapes of Stewart over the off-season, defensive game plans were formulated, and Stewart was stuffed for the next three campaigns.

A healthy Jerome Bettis could make predictability a dangerous weapon. It's difficult to stop Bettis even if you know what's coming. But how durable will Bettis be? How long will his groin hold out?

The Steelers' offense is far from being a weakness. But it's equally far from being the juggernaut that blind optimists make it out to be.

Stewart and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey could be on the spot before the 2002 season concludes.

Mularkey, in his second season running the offense, has to expand upon the admittedly impressive job he did last season. But coordinators can have a sophomore jinx, too.

Anyone with a modicum of football intelligence can come up with one season's worth of good ideas. But can you still keep 'em guessing once everyone has seen your stuff? The New England Patriots' defense certainly wasn't guessing in the championship game.

Don't cite Mularkey's array of trick plays as evidence of a well-rounded offense, either. Trick plays are a smoke screen, a device designed to conceal the fact that an offense isn't versatile.

All that said, Mularkey -- better than any Steelers offensive coordinator since Chan Gailey -- understands exactly what kind of talent he has at his disposal and how best to use it. He won't reinvent the wheel, but I have no doubt he'll figure out how to keep it rolling straight and steady.

In retrospect, perhaps then-offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride absorbed a little too much blame for the failure of the Steelers' offense in the 1999 and 2000 seasons.

Gilbride definitely combined stubbornness and stupidity when he tried to inflict his high-tech offense on a team that didn't have the type of talent required to execute it or the mental faculties necessary to understand it.

But was it Gilbride's fault that he was coaching a bunch of morons? When the quarterback and receivers can't comprehend the concept of option routes, that's not Gilbride's fault. Just about every other team in the NFL is using them. Don't blame Shakespeare because Johnny can't read.

Of course, now that Stewart has proclaimed himself fit to be compared to Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers' problems on offense should be nonexistent.

In one way, the comparison is valid: Both are dumb rubes from Louisiana. The only major difference is Bradshaw's four Super Bowl rings.

There's no questioning Stewart's courage. There's no questioning his will to win. Stewart's desire and athletic ability are his major attributes, and he makes the most of them. But somebody has got to tell this guy to think before he talks. And it wouldn't hurt if Stewart quit reading the paper, turned off the television, turned off the radio and didn't get on the Internet.

Earlier this week, Stewart said that Steelers fans "have got to find a way to embrace the quarterback position." Why? Who cares?

Stewart does, obviously. I would bet he reads everything that is written about him, hears everything that is said about him, then endlessly obsesses about all of it. Ridiculous.

Except for what might be libelous or slanderous, a pro athlete should pay zero attention to opinions expressed outside the context of his/her team. Doing anything else detracts from the job at hand. And right now, in Stewart's case, the job at hand is winning a Super Bowl.

When it comes to earning public favor in this town, Stewart might find that you just can't beat winning a Super Bowl. Heck, you even get compared to Terry Bradshaw when you do that.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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