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Savran: Steelers' future begins against the Bengals

Sunday, November 26, 2000

Rip Van Winkle might be better able to figure out this millennium Steelers team. If the Ripster had succumbed to the power of Morpheus on or about Aug. 31 and awakened at some point this past week, he might have opened the sports section, looked at the NFL standings and theorized after his three-month snooze, "Hmmmm. The Steelers are 5-6. Considering what they have and don't have, that sounds about right."

If R.VW. had dozed off three weeks ago instead of three months ago, when his team was riding the crest of a five-game winning streak, his perspective likely would be significantly different. And perspective is all that's left of this season.

Oh, I suppose the playoffs aren't out of the question as long as mathematical chance has a last, labored breath. But there's a better chance that Nordstrom's will build in your back yard than of the Steelers being included in Paul Tagliabue's postseason tournament. So what's left? Nothing less than the future.

That's why today's game is so critical. Yes critical, even against the stinking Bengals, who make losing seem like it's by writ of mandamus. It's critical not because it would end a losing streak, nor because it might resuscitate the Steelers' failing playoff aspirations.

But what's at stake today is how they approach their remaining games, which may determine if they're about to pull out of this two-year-working-on-three down cycle.

If they lose today, there will be no need to wait until 5 p.m. to certify the results of this season. The collapse will be official. The loss of confidence, the loss of will, the loss of motivation will ensure another crawl to the finish line. For the third consecutive year, they will look like a dazed marathon runner, stumbling, twisting, lurching to the end. And that will give serious rise to the notion that the rebuilding process is far from complete. In fact, it would give credence to the idea that it has yet to begin!

When you look at the November/December/January record of this team from 1998 to the present (4-17), it tells you two things: The talent isn't nearly good enough and the character of whatever talent they have is lacking. Thus, a complete re-evaluation of who they have and what's inside them would be in order. And that same process could be extended to the coaching staff. If they disintegrate, again, Dan and Art Rooney must, and should, consider the leadership.

That they are short on players is a given. If they are short on players who can tough it out when necessary, and short on coaches who can extract the best this limited talent has to offer, then the problem-circle will be enclosed. Look at the rest of this season as the entire Steelers "program" being on trial.

Objective preseason analysis suggested that the upside potential of this team was a break-even proposition. They are where they figured to be. Maybe a good bounce here, a better play there, a proper call from an official, and they could be a bit better. But just before Rip nodded off in late summer, 5-6 sounded about right. It's only the route they've traveled to arrive at this point that has clouded the issue.

But they are where they are. What's unclear is the final destination. That's not terribly important in the context of this particular season, but it is infinitely important as to the overall direction of this rebuilding process. Any game against Cincinnati should be just a burp after Thanksgiving dinner, but the outcome of this one will determine where this franchise is and how long it will take them to get back to where they once were.

A win today won't mean they're back, or even on the right road to getting there. It wouldn't guarantee success in the remaining four games. But it would give them a chance to approach those four games with a sense of purpose, another stride toward respectability.

But if they should lose, not only would they add to their current streak, the psychological damage would likely ensure another collapse. And that would mean that rock-bottom is as yet undetermined, which would mean these past three seasons would have been completely for naught. Three years to discover that you've wasted three years.

Cincinnati and critical aren't often included in the same sentence. Today is an exception.

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

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