Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Throwback column: Sept. 19, 2002

When I wrote the following column for the Monitor eight months later, on the eve of the 2002 season, the Steelers were still running their mouths, apparently angry that the Pats made them no-shows for their meticulously planned Super Bowl champions party in New Orleans. Man, what a cocky, unlikable Steelers team that was - All-Pro jerks like Porter, Burress and Ward (above, apparently practicing throwing in the towel.) Whatever happened to those guys, anyway?

Come to think of it, Ward - who is a classic example of a guy you love on your team and hate as an opponent - has been quiet this week . . . too quiet. Can't he claim that the Steelers are "basically" about to win their third Super Bowl in four years, just so we Pats fans can work up a healthy hatred again? C'mon, Hinsey. Help us out here. Give Belichick some motivational ammo.

One more note: You'll notice I batted .500 on predictions in this one. My theory that the Pats would pound Pittsburgh in that Monday night opener proved true. New England rolled to a 30-14 victory that wasn't - cliche alert - as close as the score. How much of a blowout was it? Even Donald Hayes scored a touchdown. Now that's a whuppin'.

As for my theory that the Pats would win a dozen or so games? Not so true. They ended up 10-6, their reign ending on the final day of the regular season when a Jets victory over Green Bay nudged them out of the playoffs. Such an anticlimactic ending seems so long ago now.

So here it is, a look back at the Steelers of Sept. 19, 2002, who sure seem a lot like the Steelers of today. If only Ward would start talking smack, or at least tell us he's booked a hotel room in Jacksonville . . .

Sept. 19, 2002 - All right, I think I've got it. I think I've figured out the reason the Pittsburgh Steelers have spent the last eight months yelping and yowling and smack-talking and generally behaving as if they're the baddest dudes in the football universe.

The Patriots hit them so often and with so much malice in the AFC Championship game that every last Steeler lost his memory.

A stretch? Sure. But can you offer a reasonable explanation why the Steelers would spend the offseason spouting delusional nonsense such as this:

"We should be the favorite in the AFC. The way we see it, we've got every advantage over the Patriots .  .  . People forget, we basically went to the Super Bowl last year."

That quote comes via the perpetually flapping gums of Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who by either convenience or concussion has "basically" forgotten all the little insignificant details of last January's game.

As a courtesy to Ward, we'll now remind him of a few details that have apparently been knocked from his rattled little mind.

Detail: The final score, which is recorded in NFL history books as a 24-17 Patriots victory.

Detail: The Steelers were outperformed, outsmarted and overpowered on offense, defense and special teams.

Detail: In a ballyhooed battle of coaching wits, their leader, the overrated Bill Cowher, was quickly and shamefully disarmed by Bill Belichick.

Detail: The Steelers endured so much physical punishment that their countless bruises beautifully accessorized their black and gold uniforms.

Hey, can't let those silly little details get in the way of a good fantasy. Yep, the Steelers practically did go to the Super Bowl. Well, almost. You know - basically.

Can't wait to hear Ward explain the Patriots Super Bowl DVD. Phony black-market bootleg, perhaps?

We're almost tempted to excuse the Steelers delusions as the daydreams of beaten men. Problem is, their belief that they are superior to the Patriots has become the party line around the NFL, a common perception. Apparently, the phrase "World Champion New England Patriots" is now considered synonymous with the word "fluke."

Our instinct is to roll our eyes whenever an athlete starts yapping that he ain't getting no respect. But these Patriots? They have the right to sing that song.

No defending Super Bowl champion has been as openly and roundly disrespected as your Patriots. Consider: Tonight, they'll open their season by raising a championship banner while christening a state-of-the-art new stadium in front of a national television audience. As if that's not enough to get them pumped and jacked, they're facing a disrespectful opponent, one they've proven they can manhandle and one they are eager to pummel again .  .  . and yet the Steelers are favored by three points?!

Wow. Seems the only way the Patriots will get any pre-game respect is if Aretha sings the anthem.

Know what's really maddening? All the talk among the "experts" about which team will be "this year's Patriots." In other words: Hey, Boomer. Hey, Sterling: Which lousy, no-talent team do you guys think will get lucky this season?

Few folks outside of New England seem to believe that the Patriots are legitimate, let alone that they can contend again. Of 17 supposed pro football experts polled on, a mere five picked the Patriots to win the AFC East. I figure they're the select few who happened to notice that the Patriots actually improved in the offseason.

Some of ESPN's pretend prognosticators prefer the Bills, ignoring that Drew Bledsoe is being asked to accomplish in his new home what he repeatedly failed to do at his former home - carry a team with a leaky offensive line and a nondescript running game.

Others prefer Miami, apparently unaware that New Orleans celebrated like it was Mardi Gras when Ricky Williams departed. Saviors rarely arrive with this much baggage.

And the majority (nine) prefer the New York Jets, which offers further proof of a New York media bias. Belichick versus Testaverde? Please. The over/under on boneheaded Vinny interceptions in that matchup is 3. And I'll take the over, thanks.

So we wonder: Why do so many so easily dismiss the Patriots? I'm convinced that it all descends from the Tuck Rule saga. Every Tom, Dick and Jon remembers that one pivotal play in the Snow Bowl, and the consensus of fans think the Raiders got robbed.(One more time: It was the correct interpretation of a stupid, stupid rule.) Few recall that the Patriots ruled that game in the second half, or that they went on to defeat the alleged two best teams in football in their own environment, first whupping the Steelers in Pittsburgh before stopping the Rams in their tracks on the Superdome turf.

Because of that one controversial and symbolic play, the Patriots are perceived as damned lucky. And of course they were, to a point. We'd be greedy to expect fortune to smile upon them so frequently this season. Maybe David Patten gets knocked unconscious while inbounds this time. Maybe Adam Vinatieri slips in the snow. Maybe Mike Martz remembers that Marshall Faulk is on his side.

Still, I am certain that the warranty will not expire on Patriots magic. Cinderella will party on at the ball, for this reason.
The Patriots did not become champions by dumb luck and the whims of a frostbitten referee. They became champions due to brilliant strategy, selfless and fearless performances and precise execution.

The Patriots were an outstanding football team that January day in Pittsburgh, and they remain one on this September evening in Foxboro. Maybe they don't have a running back with a cool nickname like "The Bus," or a quarterback blessed with the legs of a sprinter and an arm full of cannonballs. In the Sporting News's annual ranking of the NFL's top 100 players, only quarterback Tom Brady (No. 80) and safety/soul Lawyer Milloy (86) cracked the list.

They lack marquee names. They don't lack much else. This team has the best tactical coach in football in Bill Belichick, whom I'm beginning to think meant more to Bill Parcells than Parcells meant to him. It has Troy Brown, who is not on anyone's list of the 500 most gifted players in the NFL but makes every thinking fan's list of the five most valuable. It has Tebucky Jones, a perceived first-round bust who played the second half of last season as if he were an evolving version of Ronnie Lott. It has Adam Vinatieri and Antowain Smith and Roman Phifer and .  .  . well, you know their names and accomplishments, even if those who get paid to know such things don't. Hey, you've got the Wheaties box.

We'll take soldiers like that anytime, especially when the alternative is a hotshot running back like Jerome Bettis, who always seems to be running on fumes in Foxboro, or an overhyped quarterback like Kordell Stewart, who when pressured performs as if his heart was transplanted from a lemming.

Or for that matter, a receiver like Hines Ward, whose mouth runs much faster than his legs.

If the Steelers refuse to concede that they were outclassed a season ago, if they refuse to give their conquerors their due, well, so be it. It's their own fault if they don't learn from their mistakes. Perhaps they'll learn from the many they make tonight - should they choose to remember them.

New England 27, Pittsburgh 7.

It's the first of a dozen or so Patriots victories to come.

And there's no basically about it.

(This column was originally published in the Concord Monitor.)