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Hope Springs Eternal
by Tom Hayes (5/29/01)

In the Spring of each year, every NFL fan has reason for optimism. Now in some cases, it IS a reach. Take Dallas, for example, and imagine yourself repeating "Tony Banks is really going to kick a**!!" Ouch. For those who follow the Black & Gold, however, I think there are real signs that things are looking up. Here are ten reasons why my cup is better than half full:

1. Start with the offensive line. This year Wayne Gandy, who played very well last season, will get to use BOTH arms. Faneca and Marvel Smith are youngsters on the rise. In particular, Smith should be much improved in his second year. At center/right guard, either Hartings/Tylski or Duffy/Hartings - depending upon whether Jeff can really play center - is an improvement over Duffy/Tylski, the pair that played down the stretch last year. Finally, Mark Breuner is one of the best in the business playing the Steelers-specific position of "Outside Tackle".

2. The power running game, in the form of the Bus and second year fullback Dan Kreider, remains intact. Fu and Witman are extra bullets for the same gun. Meanwhile, with Huntley gone and a new coordinator looking to add some wrinkles, speedster Amos Z. might finally find a niche.

3. Applying a radical new philosophy, Mike Mularky will design plays that can actually be understood by football players (!), yet are still innovative. Among his rumored surprises for this season: throwing the ball to the "Outside Tackle".

4. The young wideouts - Burress and Edwards - have had a sorely needed year to mature. Their playbook will be simpler. They are athletically talented. Their new position coach will be a living, in-your-face reminder that being a #1 pick doesn't guarantee anything. If they have ANY pride at all, they should be worlds better this year.

5. You better sit down for this one. Kordell Stewart DOES NOT SUCK! He's a homerun threat in a backfield that otherwise normally doesn't have one. He had 18 TDs passing & rushing vs. 11 picks and fumbles lost last year. He was 7-4 as a starter, had another win in relief and showed growth and grit as the season wore on. Now he'll have an offense tuned to his strengths. Now, after years of floundering, he'll actually have a position coach. If just one of those two first round receivers shows significant improvement, Kordell Stewart WILL lead a successful passing attack.

6. On the defensive side, all three starting line positions have been upgraded. Rookie Casey Hampton will be better on the nose than Kimo. Kimo will be better at end than Kevin Henry. And this year, Aaron Smith will be better than, well, Aaron Smith last year.

7. Better defensive line play makes for better linebacking. Now I happen to think that Levon Kirkland will have a fine year in Seattle, but Porter/Holmes/Jones/Gildon is a formidable group that should be better, on the whole, than last year.

8. A good secondary returns intact with an addition at safety - Mike Logan - pushing to start. What could be a problem next year can be a boon this season - both Scott and Washington are playing for new contracts. Hank Poteat could challenge for the nickel corner role.

9. Kris Brown and Josh Miller form one of the finest young kicking tandems in the league.

10. Our top four draft picks can become quality NFL players and should make the team. Hampton is the instant starter at nose tackle and will make an immediate impact. Bell will be a killer on special teams and is probably already the fifth best linebacker on the team. Seriously, I know he was drafted for the inside, but if Gildon or Porter should go down for an extended period, I'd be sorely tempted to swap this guy in. Nkwenti and Okobi, in addition to providing the funnest names this side of Chris "Spell it like it sounds" Fuamatu-Ma'afala, should at least be molded into quality backups by Russ Grimm before the end of the year and one might even push Rich Tylski for playing time.

Now I know it's not likely that it will ALL come to pass. But, hell, I might be underestimating in a couple places too. Consider this last one a bonus:

11. Last season, Bill Cowher's team came to training camp with a two year losing streak pinned to their collective behinds. The coach reaffirmed fundamentals, physicality and toughness and the team promptly opened the season with three straight losses. Yet somehow they managed to keep their heads up and battle back, just missing the playoffs.

As a fan, I don't have to invest any blood or sweat - just a little hope. Look at where we were and look at where we are. And sign me up for another season.

Tom Hayes

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Fan Comments & Responses
The following articles are listed in the order they were received (with the most recent entries at the top). This isn't a "guestbook" format... I read and manually insert every message, so you may not see your submission show up immediately. Thanks a million for your comments, people!
Submitted by Jon Pasterick

Your list was excellent, except I would've put the last item first. I think that if this team can carry only one thing over from this last season, it's the notion that they don't suck. Confidence is the first step to achievement in football, and I think a lot of guys on the team sorely lacked the confidence that they were good enough to win during that two year stretch. How Cowher was able to restore that confidence in a largely identical team I'll never know, but he did, and I think that's the biggest thing they have going into next year.

And I agree with you, Tim, that talk of the LB corps being better without Kirkland is premature and probably incorrect. The Steelers didn't cut him because he couldn't play. They only cut him because he wasn't in the top 3 best LBs in the league, as he was being paid. His replacements won't be in the top 3 either.

A couple things this team needs to remember is that, despite the fact that they didn't make the playoffs last year, they only got their butts kicked once, by the Giants in New York. In the meantime, they beat the Raiders, the Ravens in Baltimore, the Jags in Jacksonville and the Jets in New York. Heck, I count the Eagles among those wins. Those were some quality football teams. They got hurt by a bad start to the season caused by any number of things (mostly that lack of confidence, I believe, but also some personnel turnover), and then some piss-poor officiating. And they bounced back. Bottom line: this is a GOOD football team, and as long as the Steelers remember that going into next season, they'll be fine and they will be better than last year.

Submitted by Tom Hayes
OK, Tim, ya caught me whistling past the cemetery on a couple points. Edwards and Burress (and a lack of Kirkland) kinda scare me too, but here's what I was thinking as I put on the positive spin.

The linebackers, taken together, actually could be better in 2001 vs. 2000 if you accept the notion that the continuing improvement of youngsters Holmes and Porter offsets any decline of Gildon and the swap of Mike Jones for Kirkland. Now I admit that ordinarily I wouldn't buy in based on that last bit. However, regardless of how he performs this year, Kirk played last year on two bad ankles. So while I happen to believe that the Seahawks will find that a healthy Levon Kirkland is still a force to be reckoned with in the NFL, adding a speedy Mike Jones will prove to be an upgrade over the hobbled Kirkland of 2000. If money hadn't been a big part of the issue, I'd have been more than happy keeping Kirk - especially since we drafted Kendrell Bell. This, in fact, is the tip of an iceberg that has really hurt the Steelers over the years. It's not just the fact that they lose the on-field services of some of their best players but that they lose them as teachers for the incoming talent as well. What Rod Woodson has done for Baltimore is a perfect example.

2000 was certainly a lost season for our not-so-dynamic duo of wide receivers and God only knows they've got a lot of room for improvement. I just happen to think that a significant percentage of their problems were due to circumstances beyond their control that have since been changed. My hope is that their immaturity caused them to get caught in a downward spiral that they can avoid altogether this year. Troy did put up decent numbers in his rookie year. And Burress did show flashes. Was his dominance in his preseason appearance against Dallas only because the Cowboy secondary sucked or because all of those damn option routes weren't installed in the offense yet? After salivating over the possibility throughout training camp last year, did we ever attempt to throw the fade pattern? I also wonder sometimes if Bob Bratkowski, who was an offensive coordinator before he got here and is now one again, was any good as a receiving coach beyond the chalkboard.

As it happens, I've got a wide pessimistic streak myself but for the purpose of this particular article I tried to keep it under wraps. I guarantee that I'll not always be walking the sunny side of the street. Anyway, thanks for the chance to post a few thoughts and for running the best damn Steelers site on the planet!

- Tom H.

Submitted by McMillen & Wife
I've become a bit of a pessimist over the last couple of years, but I'm happy to say I can't find much here I can disagree with you about, my man. Like you, I feel pretty good about Kordell Stewart overall, especially now that they've hired a QB coach to help him along. 'Ya know, I read the daily mindless drivel on the message board slamming Stewart and it almost makes me wanna shut the thing down. I can handle people butchering the English language when they have something interesting to say, but when the same handful of people post the same lame rhetoric with the same glaring spelling and grammatical errors day after day after day, it gets a little embarrassing, dontcha' think? Thanks a million for volunteering your efforts to help bring some thoughtful dialogue back to this site.

But I digress. Rather than rehashing all of the areas where we agree --- Stewart, Bettis and company, our offensive & defensive lines, & our kicking game, etc. --- I wanna pose a few questions.

Edwards and Burress frighten me. You mentioned that "if they have ANY pride at all, they should be worlds better this year." My brutha, that's a mighty big "if." I've seen nothing from either of them that reveals even a hint of pride, at least, not in the good sense of the word. What I DO see is lack of effort, lack of concentration, lack of consistancy, and lack of maturity. Will they improve over last year? I don't see how they could get any worse, quite frankly, so yes, they will improve. But will they become REAL contributors? I have my doubts.

I also don't know if we can say with complete conviction we've upgraded at LB. Think about it... if we'd picked up a player of Kirkland's caliber from another team via free agency, we'd all be doing cartwheels. Instead, I think we're stretching to rationalize that his departure is addition by subtraction. The Steelers had no choice but to cut Kirkland loose... I understand that. But it doesn't mean I have to like it. And I fear it doesn't make us a better team.

Just my two cents. Sign me up for another season, too, bro.

Tim McMillen
Webmaster, McMillen & Wife

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