The other day in preparation for one of my Let’s Ride podcasts, I pulled Jim Wexell’s Polamalu book off the shelf to look at a blurb from Polamalu’s first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. As I was leafing through this tremendous book, if you haven’t read it yet, you should, and I stumbled upon information about the 2002 Steelers.
This obviously jogged some serious memories, and one game in particular.
The 2002 AFC Wild Card game between the Cleveland Browns and Steelers at Heinz Field.
I remember this game vividly for many reasons. Kelly Holcomb and Dennis Northcutt carving up the Steelers’ defense, and of course the finish. Who can forget the draw play to Chris Fuamatu-Maʻafala in the snow to give the Steelers the lead?! Tack on the two-point conversion, a direct snap to Antwaan Randle El and pass to Jerame Tuman, and the Steelers somehow walked away with a 36-33 victory.
I actually watched the majority of the game just the other day. Want to watch the game in its entirety? Click HERE...
As I was watching Tommy Maddox and company do their best to avoid a deflating postseason loss to the Browns, I couldn’t help but draw some comparisons to the team the Steelers are going to roll out onto the field in 2022.
No, not just the fact Maddox and rookie Kenny Pickett both had No. 8, but the uncertainty the 2022 team faces are some of the same uncertainties the 2002 team faced, especially in that playoff game.
For anyone who thinks the 2002 defense was like the 70s steel curtain, you must be thinking of a different team, and most importantly that specific game. In that 2002 playoff game Kelly Holcomb threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns. During the game, Holcomb, who was the backup for injured Tim Couch, had passes of 83, 32, 29, 15 and 43 yards. In the Steelers’ defense, they were without Chad Scott and Mike Logan, both out due to injuries.
So, what’s the point?
The point is I could see the 2022 Steelers having to win some wild games this season, just like the 2002 team did on more than one occasion.
Offensively, the Maddox-led team wasn’t always pretty. They had playmakers, but often times had to overcome some bone-headed decisions, especially by the quarterback. I think it’s safe to say the same could be said about whoever is the team’s quarterback this upcoming season.
Defensively, I already mentioned how the Steelers were shredded through the air by a backup quarterback from the moment the game started, till the scoreboard read zeroes. They had to make timely plays, and hope their offense would bail them out. Granted, this isn’t the recipe for success in 2022, but there will be games when things don’t necessarily go the Steelers way on defense.
When you look back at that one particular playoff game, it truly had it all. Turnovers, special teams plays, Randle El’s punt return touchdown, and a down-to-the-wire finish.
Am I drawing too much from one game? Absolutely. However, I do think looking at a game like this provides perspective for the post-Ben Roethlisberger era. When Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004, and went on his magical run that season, everything changed in the organization. Expectations were elevated and it was Super Bowl or bust. When I think back to 2002, even though the Steelers were coming off a 13-3 season in 2001, the uncertainty at quarterback, who can forget the Kordell Stewart experiment, and the question marks in the secondary certainly do sound familiar heading into this 2022 season.
The Tommy Gun era of Steelers football never produced a championship. Division title, yes, but a championship? No. They didn’t even reach an AFC Championship game with Maddox at the helm. But the one thing which was known to almost everyone was how Maddox wasn’t considered the long term answer at the position. Looking at the Steelers’ current depth at the position, and you see more hope for the future at quarterback than the team had in 2002. And I’d also be lying if I didn’t tell you those games were exciting to watch. The team finished 10-5-1 in 2002, and almost punched their ticket to the AFC Championship game if Joe Nedney didn’t happen in the Divisional Round against the Tennessee Titans.
To wrap up this trip down memory lane, be prepared for Steelers football to look different this season. It isn’t going to be the same-old, same-old considering so much has changed. No Roethlisberger, no Butler and no Colbert will leave plenty of opportunities for others to step up and leave their imprint on the team. I, for one, am looking forward to that, and am keeping the faith for 2022...just like I did in the Wild Card game back in 2002.
(Note: The Letter From the Editor article runs every Sunday during the Pittsburgh Steelers offseason.)