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Savran: Message delivered, but was it heard?

Saturday, October 05, 2002

Bill Cowher made the call to the bullpen Sunday in order to win a game against Cleveland. At that particular moment, I doubt he was thinking about the long-term ramifications.

Presumably, he chose Tommy Maddox to start tomorrow because he believes that will give his team its best opportunity to win this one game, not necessarily the dozen beyond. But in trying to win one game at a time, one week at a time, he might have delivered a message that will resonate all season long.

Whether the message was received, we begin to find out tomorrow.

Although it wasn't at all Cowher's primary motivation for beginning the potentially dangerous game of musical quarterbacks, it should send a not-so-subtle message to the rest of this team:

"If I can make a change at quarterback, the highest-profile and arguably most important position, I can certainly make it at tackle, guard, safety or cornerback."

Or running back.

When Jerome Bettis was left to stand and observe much of the fourth quarter and overtime of the Cleveland game, turning the Steelers' sideline into a grassy Bus stop, it punctuated the message.

I thought it rather odd that Bettis would be left behind at that point, well before the spread offense, but I figured they wanted to give him a rest, something the coaches had discussed doing throughout the season.

But a couple of things have convinced me otherwise.

First was the change at quarterback. The feeling was reinforced when the head coach said after the game that he would play the players who were playing the best. That told me that Jerome was benched. Plain and simple. Pine time. This was an issue of performance, not fatigue.

So the message is extended and intended for all.

If the head coach is comfortable pulling the two biggest offensive stars, you lesser lights in the Steelers galaxy had better pick it up, or you surely could be next.

It's valid, at least partially, to explain away the Steelers record by considering that the early season schedule has included two almost-certain playoff teams, possibly a third. But would anybody deny that the only thing more disappointing than their record has been the level of play?

You can play poorly and beat Cincinnati, just as you can play well and lose to New England. But they haven't played well, not in any phase of the game. A team returning virtually every starter, no less.

But maybe that's part of the problem. There was very little competition for starting positions. The beginning of this season was going to be merely a continuation of the last: 13-3, AFC championship game, just picking up where we left off. The constant references to high expectations.

But isn't it possible that the players' expectations included just being able to click on the refresh button at the top of last season's computer screen, and the 2002 page would appear?

There might have been an undercurrent of complacency here.

While the Steelers licked their championship-game wounds, opposing coaching staffs spent the off-season in darkened screening rooms, wearing out their forward-reverse clickers, figuring out ways to disarm this team, devising schemes that can't be designed or implemented in one week.

At the same time, it's possible the Steelers players came back expecting it to be deja vu all over again. However, as a great coach once said, if you're not getting better, you're getting worse.

And the Steelers are worse today than they were in the yesterday of last season. It's certainly not irreversible. It's not that they don't have the talent. But take talent, expectations and potential without mental toughness and an edge of defiance and you end up with the New York Mets.

While they were desperate for a win, perhaps the next most important thing is that they did it with their two biggest offensive stars reduced to being observers. One has lost his job, at least temporarily. The other won't, but I'm fairly confident his extraction from last week's proceedings hasn't gone unnoticed by him. Nor should it go unnoticed by any member of this team.

At one particular moment Sunday, Bill Cowher was trying to win one game. His only mission at that point was that and only that. Mission accomplished. For now.

But the most important benefit from that win might be this perhaps unintended, but very real message:

If you think you have it made, chances are you don't. Recent history is ancient history. Nobody is afraid of you. Nobody is intimidated by you. And worse, if you continue to think it's 2001, nobody will respect you.

Stan Savran is the host of a talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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