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Savran: Maddox best option at quarterback

Saturday, November 30, 2002

Penguins defenseman Marc Bergevin was discussing the differences between hockey and football -- beyond the decidedly better footing found on Mellon Arena ice compared to Heinz Beach. He suggested that one of the primary differences between the two was that while in football you have your separate defensive and offensive units, in the more fluid sport of hockey, a player must change from one to the other with every stray bounce of the puck.

But as we are learning with the 2002 Steelers, offense and defense are more intertwined than you might have imagined.

Because it would appear the choices being made at quarterback are predicated not only on how it will impact the offense, but the defense as well. Maybe even to a greater degree.

It is not only a matter of which quarterback the Steelers use, but the offense they will use based on that choice. There are the obvious differences in terms of Kordell Stewart's running abilities. That's a given. But in addition, it appears the Steelers have two distinctly different offenses, depending upon which of the two capable starting quarterbacks are running it.

With Stewart at the helm, the Steelers' offense Sunday was almost exclusively horizontal. With the exception of the deep one to Hines Ward late in the game, passes were thrown unfailingly to the sidelines. The 64-yard touchdown toss to Ward was a 12-yard out and a 52-yard run.

Exactly half of Stewart's completions were dump-offs or screens to running backs. Outside of that fourth-quarter, 37-yarder to Ward, Plaxico Burress averaged 9 yards per catch,7 yards less than his season average. Antwaan Randle El caught two for 10 yards. Hardly a down-the-field passing attack. More like a sashay.

This, by the way, is not a condemnation of Stewart. He did what he was asked to do and did it exceptionally well. And maybe the Steelers' plan was just taking what the Bengals were giving to them -- giving being something the Bengals are comfortable with.

More likely, it was the coaching staff's lack of confidence in Stewart functioning in a vertical passing attack, at which Tommy Maddox excels.

So the issue extends beyond which quarterback you want. It is also which offense you want. One capable of burning out the bulbs in the Jumbo-Tron, or the slow-and-steady one that keeps the defense off the field?

I believe you can have both with Maddox.

First, let's debunk the notion that you can't have a successful running game with him at quarterback. In the seven games Maddox has started, Steelers' running backs (I'm not including yards gained by wide receivers on reverses and other gadget plays) have averaged 113 yards rushing per game.

Much of that, by the way, was without Jerome Bettis.

If you take out the horrendous 22-yard effort against Tennessee, that average jumps to 129 yards per game. This, of course, goes along with the electric passing game Maddox has produced.

Conversely, in the four games Stewart has started, including the yardage he gained on scrambles and designed running plays, the Steelers averaged 83 yards on the ground.

Certainly game circumstances contributed to that number, but it disproves the theory that the Steelers sell out totally to the passing game and therefore can't run the ball with Maddox at quarterback.

So what we have here is a tale of two quarterbacks, two offenses, two options: Score more and more quickly, or score less but take more time in doing so. And it centers not on what's the best offense, but what's best for a consistently inconsistent defense.

It's absurd to suggest you can score too quickly. There is simply no such thing. You score when you can, as much as you can, as quickly as you can. In a perfect world you'd receive the opening kickoff, take the full 60 minutes to score, and win, 7-0. It doesn't work that way. Naturally, you want to manage a game based on the score and time remaining. But if you can get into the end zone, whether it takes one play or 10, you get there.

You don't choose your quarterback, and thus your style of offense, to protect your defense. Let them fend for themselves.

It's time for the defenders to stand on their own 22 feet. It's time they stopped blaming everything from the coaches' strategy to the field conditions to global warming and scoring too quickly. It's time to blame the only ones responsible for their ineptitude. They need look no further than inside their own huddle.

And while it's clear all the Steelers' early season offensive troubles were not of Stewart's making, it is equally clear there are fewer of them with Maddox under center. The choice at the position should be made accordingly.

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

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