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Savran: It's time for Steelers to show some offense

Sunday, November 05, 2000

When the Steelers hired Kevin Gilbride as their offensive coordinator, they also hired the Kevin Gilbride offense. The offense they had seen in Jacksonville, and Houston before that. Multiple sets, multiple touchdowns. A little flash, a lot of dash. But when Gilbride brought his offense of round holes to Pittsburgh, what he found was a cupboard filled with square pegs.

There was no Mark Brunell or Warren Moon. No Jimmy Smith or Haywood Jeffires. No Tony Boselli or Bruce Matthews. What he found was a quarterback with limited confidence, who inspired even less in his coaches and teammates. A set of receivers, none of whom would likely start for another team. And an offensive line that was more "5 Boxes of Tissue" than "7 Blocks of Granite".

And yet, perhaps because Gilbride wanted to deliver the goods the Steelers thought they had purchased, square pegs were pounded into unyielding round holes. The result was an offense often in reverse and seldom in the end zone.

This season, however, Gilbride, perhaps at the insistence of Bill Cowher, has either rounded the pegs or squared the holes. The Steelers' offense has been almost painfully effective. One that's winning. It's what Gilbride was expected to do, although probably not how he planned on doing it. But the road to ruin is paved with good intentions, and ultimately in football, the end does justify the means. But for how long?

The Steelers recognize that one touchdown per game will not continue to get it done. Especially against teams that don't call a timeout to celebrate every time they get a first down. There will come a point, maybe as early as this afternoon, when they fall behind by more than one score and have to shed the offensive straight-jacket to catch up with a team that actually passes through the end zone during the game, not only before and after it.

Therein lies the conundrum. The Steelers have been remarkably efficient in this turtle offense. Staying in its shell, poking its head out only when it's absolutely necessary. Sort of an isolationist offense. And that's fine for now. But what will happen when it's not fine? Will it be able to function beyond the limits set by the coaching staff that has obviously determined this is the best way, perhaps the only way, they can win?

There is another reason why they have to stretch out a bit. No team can expect a defense to carry them an entire season. The stress and strain of fretting over every field goal allowed eventually leads to rips and tears in the physical and mental fabric of a defense. Look at what has happened here recently.

The past two seasons the Steelers had 5-3 records, built largely on defense 3/4 a defense that eventually wore down and collapsed under the weight of an offense that couldn't get out of its own way. Look at what's happening to Baltimore. No touchdowns in five games, and the Ravens have dropped to 5-4 after a great start.

Quarterbacks are changed, fingers are being pointed and, right now, the Ravens are headed for a seat on the playoff bench. You can't have a defense leaving the field with heads down, chins on chest because they gave up a field goal. Nor can you have an offense constantly going three and out. Not only because you're not producing points, but also because that shortens the field for the opponents, further increasing the strain on your defense.

There's another reason why this offense must spread its wings, although it's more of a long-term issue. The Steelers must come up with a definitive decision on the status of their quarterback. They must know Kent Graham is not a long-term solution. He wasn't brought here for that. No, the issue is the future of Kordell Stewart, and how can you accurately assess him in an offense that would function about as well with Levon Kirkland under center? They're not going to know about their quarterback unless they allow him to be one.

I'm not suggesting they abandon what they've been doing. The season has taken on a different perspective with a distinct possibility of making the playoffs. But there will come the day when it's not their choice. And when that day arrives, and Kevin Gilbride must take his rounded pegs and squared holes off life support, will they be able to breathe on their own?

Stan Savran is the co-host of "SportsBeat" on Fox Sports Pittsburgh

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