It was a snowy Sunday afternoon on Jan 5, 2003, the Pittsburgh Steelers were hosting the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers coached by Bill Cowher and being led by the Comeback Player of the Year, QB Tommy Maddox. I know what you are thinking, "How is this the most important playoff victory since 2000, we have won 2 Super Bowls since then and three AFC Championships and....". Well I will explain myself, but 1st a little summary on this game for those not familiar.
Coach Butch Davis's young Cleveland Browns came into Pittsburgh trying to prove that not only did they belong in the NFL, but that they were contenders to deal with in the playoffs this year. After an 83 yd pass from QB Kelly Holcomb to WR Kevin Johnson on a 3rd & 14, Rookie RB William Green plunges into the end zone for a 1 yd TD and it is only one minute and sixteen seconds into the game. This is followed by a pair of punt exchanges for both teams. A 10 yd punt return, 15 yd personal foul, and a 36 yd run by "Famous" Amos Zereoue gives the Steelers a 1st &10 at the 23 yd line. However, Tommy Maddox is picked off at the 3 yd line by McCutchon who returns the ball to the 30 yd line. End of the 1st quarter the Browns lead 7-0.
After a Cleveland 3 & out, Antwaan Randle-El muffs a punt and the Browns recover at the 32 yd line, and waste little time getting into the end zone as Holcomb hits WR Dennis Northcutt for a 32 yd TD. So twenty-two seconds into the 2nd qtr and the Browns now lead 14-0. After another personal foul on the kick return, the Steelers start on the 39 yd line and gain a pair of 1st downs before Maddox is intercepted again by McCutchon at the 18 returning it to the thirty-one yd line. The Steeler defense forces a 3 & out, and Randle-El redeems himself with a 66 yd punt return for a touchdown the 1st ever Steeler PRTD in the post-season and the longest PR in Steelers post-season at that time (14-7). After another punt for each team, Cleveland drives the ball down to the 1 yd line. With a first and goal to go the Steelers defense steps up and knocks the Browns back 15 yds in three plays where Cleveland has to settle on a 32 yd FG with 53 seconds left before the half. Pittsburgh is able to move the ball down the field, but Jeff Reed misses a 46 yd field goal with 2 seconds left and Cleveland downs the ball. Halftime score is Cleveland 17, Pittsburgh 7.
After a Pittsburgh 3 & out to start the second half, Dennis Northcutt returns a punt 59 yards to the fourteen yd line. Two plays later, Holcomb hits Northcutt for a 15 yd TD, two minutes and forty-nine seconds into the 2nd half and Cleveland leads 24-7. After another Steeler's 3 & out, the third of the game, the Browns get a 43 yard drive halted when S Mike Logan intercepts a Holcomb pass. Maddox leads the Steelers on a 71 yd drive that includes a 25 yd pass to Randle-El and is capped off by a 5 yd TD reception by Plaxico Burress. Eleven minutes and ten seconds into the 3rd quarter and the score shows Pittsburgh trailing by 10 (24-14). The Browns start their next drive off with a 44 yd catch by WR Andre Davis. End of the third quarter and Cleveland is still ahead 24-14.
Fifty-six seconds into the final fifteen minutes of the game and the Browns K Phil Dawson connects on a 24 yd field goal. Pittsburgh follows this score with a nice 2 minute and 28 second, 65 yd TD drive. Randle-El had 3 catches for 57 yards and 3 1st downs, and TE Jerame Tuman ended the drive with a 3 yd TD grab. The Browns not showing any quitting in this game answers this with the tune of a 2:11, sixty-one yard drive that ends with a 23 yd TD reception by Andre Davis. After failing to convert a 2-point attempt the Browns now lead 33-21 with 10:11 left on the game clock. After both teams exchange punts again, the Steelers set off on a 77 yd drive with 7 first downs (3 from Browns' penalties). The drive ended with a 5 yard TD grab by Hines Ward with three minutes and 6 seconds left in the game, Pittsburgh still trailing by five. With CB DeWayne Washington breaking up a long pass on 2nd down, the Browns fail to make a first down and have to punt back to the Steelers. With 2:35 left in the game the Steelers have the ball back and need 61 yds and a TD to win the game. The drive goes like this, Burress 24 yd catch, Ward 10 yd catch, Burress 17 yd catch, Ward 7 yd catch, RB Chris Fuamatu-Ma'Afala 3 yd TD run. The Steelers get a 2-point conversion when Randle-El hits Tuman with a pass in the back of the end zone. With only 54 seconds left in the game the Steelers lead for the first time, 36-33. Cleveland gets the ball back with zero time-outs and needing a field goal to send the game into overtime. The Browns drive the ball forty-two yards to the 34 yd line, but time expires before Northcutt can get out of bounds to stop the clock. The final score the Steelers win a shoot-out by the score of 36-33.
Now that the game recap is over, it is time to explain why this is the most important playoff victory in the 21st century. When Tommy Maddox was able to lead the Steelers to a 22 point 4th quarter, it was enough for Coach Cowher to believe that Maddox was the Steeler's answer at the QB position. Since hindsight is 20/20 we all know that this wasn't the case. The Steelers left Kordell Stewart go in the off season and prepared for their new wide-open passing offense with "Tommy Gun" at the helm. What followed in 2003? Maddox threw for 3,414 yds, 18 TDS, 17 Ints, and a QB rating of 75.3, while tying the team's worst record (6-10) since 1988. The team also failed to average over 4 yards a run (3.3) for only the 2nd time since 1990.
It is because of the 2003 season when the Steelers went 6-10 that the Pittsburgh had their highest draft position in the 21st century. Holding the eleventh pick in the 2004 NFL Draft the Steelers were able to select the man who would lead them back to the promised land, QB "Big" Ben Roethlisberger. Of course we all know that Big Ben became the franchise quarterback that the Steelers had not had since Terry Bradshaw retired after 1983. He has led Pittsburgh to three Super Bowls (winning two) thus far and hopefully we are still counting. However if Maddox had not won that playoff game against the Browns, then the Steelers may have tried to go a different route at the QB position for 2003. That means the Steelers record may have been better that year, henceforth they would not have had the 11th pick in the draft. Or maybe seeing that Maddox wasn't the answer, Pittsburgh may have tried to obtain a young QB in the '03 draft and therefore feel they did not need another one in 2004. So my conclusion is that if the Steelers don't win the playoff game against Cleveland then there is a high probability that Pittsburgh doesn't end up drafting Roethlisberger in 2004. Without Big Ben I don't believe the Steelers would have been able to add the 2 additional Lombardi Trophies to their championship collection. This is what makes that Jan. 5th, 2003 victory over Cleveland the most important playoff victory in the 21st century, because without it there may have been a lot fewer of the playoff victories that followed.
When I thought about the idea of this post I went back and watched that Cleveland game for about the 5th or 6th time. It is an enjoyable game to watch when you know the outcome, live it about gave me a stroke. Re-watching the game made me think of some other little tidbits that I wanted to share to start up conversations.
1. It is very ironic that Cleveland's offensive coordinator in that game is no other than one Mr. Bruce Arians.
2. Keith Butler was the Brown's linebacker coach in that game and would be hired by the Steelers 23 days later for the same position on their staff, where he still remains to this day.
3. Ken Whisenhunt was Pittsburgh's TE coach, the same position that Mike Mularkey held before being promoted to Offensive Coordinator.
4. QB Tommy Maddox's 367 yards passing was a Steelers post-season record at that time.
5. Kendrell Bell was a real good player at the LB position and it is a true shame that he couldn't stay healthy.
6. The run defense in this game was awesome holding Cleveland to 38 yds on 28 carries for a 1.4 avg.
7. The pass defense was horrendous allowing Holcomb to go 26 of 43 for 429 yards, 3 TDs and 1 Int.
8. Seeing the trio of Ward (11 for 104 yds 1 TD), Randle-El (5 for 85 yds + a PRTD), and the "tall" Plaxico Burress (6 for 100 yds 1 TD) makes me think that maybe we should get that big receiver this year to add to Brown and Moore.
9. Most importantly, after watching Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, James Farrior, and Kendrell Bell flying around the field and making plays, I realized that our current LBing corps is one of the weakest that I can recall in a very long time. I am not saying they don't have the potential to get better, I'm just saying that at this moment they do not live up to the par set by Steelers Linebackers of the past.
So now it is time to let the conversations and arguments begin and I'm hoping you will take the time to answer several things.
1. Do you agree or disagree with my conclusion of this being the most important playoff victory since 2000?
2. Does thinking about that WR trio make you hope for a tall receiver to be taken in this draft to team up with Brown and Moore and become the equivalent to Burress of early to mid-2000's?
3. Is the current LB corps the weakest it has been since 1970 or not? If not then who was?
4. Are there any funny things that come to your mind when thinking about this playoff game? (Other than the fact that Cleveland was actually in the playoffs)
5. This one is simple, anything else you may want to bring up to have a conversation about.