Coming off one of the most successful regular seasons in recent memory, coupled with yet another disappointing home loss in the AFC title game — this time, to the eventual Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots — Bill Cowher and the Steelers entered the 2002 campaign in the old familiar position of trying to take it one or two steps further and finally capture the Super Bowl title that had proven to be so elusive during the 1990s.
- Cowher and company had been down that road before.
Yet during the 2002 season the path that Bill Cowher would lead the Steelers on would take twists and turns that few, if any, could have anticipated.
Heinz Field Helps Bring Stability to the 2002 Off Season
Free agent exoduses out of Pittsburgh had been a huge part of the Steelers story in the 1990s. Dan Rooney and Steelers management argued taht the team simply lacked the finances without a new stadium. Fans simply called the Rooney’s “cheap.”
- However, when Heinz Field opened in 2001, the Rooneys kept their word and invested those new revenues into the roster.
In fact, the only notable departures of the Steelers 2002 offseason were receiver Troy Edwards, who was traded to the Rams after three rather disappointing seasons for 13th overall pick of the 1999 NFL Draft; and kicker Kris Brown, another member of the 1999 draft class, who mysteriously lost his touch after the Steelers moved to Heinz Field in 2001.
Earl Holmes, a linebacker taken by the Steelers during the 1996 NFL Draft also departed. But it was his departure that paved the way for one of the most important free agency signings in franchise history.
The Steelers had wanted to retain Holmes and made him a generous offer. But when Holmes decided to shop that offer, Dan Rooney was not happy and told Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher to “Sign the other guy.” That other guy was James Farrior, a former first-round pick of the Jets, who would switch from outside linebacker to inside linebacker and is easily one of the franchise’s best free agency signings.
Other free agent pick ups included kicker Todd Peterson, receiver Terance Mathis and quarterback Charlie Batch, a Pittsburgh native, were some of the most notable signings.
The 2002 NFL Draft was a rather successful one for the Steelers, even if it wouldn’t prove to be totally fruitful for a few more years. Some members did make immediate impacts, however. First-round pick, Kendall Simmons, a guard from LSU, started 14 games, while second-round pick, Antwaan Randle El, a receiver who played quarterback at Indiana, was a major contributor right away on offense, with 47 receptions.
Randle El even completed seven of eight passes when called upon to play quarterback in specialty packages. Randle El was also a dynamic return specialist, averaging nearly seven yards per punt return and returning a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in a game against the Bengals on October 13.
To reiterate, the 2002 Steelers were mostly the same team from the previous season and one looking to get over the hump. In order to do so, they would need quarterback Kordell Stewart, an embattled player who had a bit of a career resurgence in 2001, to up his game a little more after struggling mightily in the title game loss to New England.
Fortunately for Stewart, he would have help in the form of a receiving corps that included Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, along with a ground attack led by veteran running back, Jerome Bettis, and fourth-year man, Amos Zereoue. As for the defense, it was expected to be its usual dominant self, following an ’01 campaign where it finished first in total yards and registered 55 sacks.
Steelers “Dread the Spread” as 2002 Season Starts
Unfortunately, things couldn’t have started off worse for the Steelers, Stewart and even the defense.
Pittsburgh opened its ’02 campaign with a blowout road loss to the defending champions, a Patriots team that christened its new home, Gillette Stadium, with a 30-14 victory. Stewart struggled, sure, but so did a defense that had no answers for Tom Brady and New England’s passing attack.
In the second-to-last game of the 2001 season, an overtime road loss to the Bengals, former Steelers defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau and former Steelers wide recievers coach Bob Bartowski successfully exploited their old team’s zone-blitz defense — one that he helped to develop–by spreading it out and utilizing quick passes.
The Patriots used this blueprint to frustrate Pittsburgh’s defense all night long. The following week, in the team’s home-opener vs. the Raiders on Sunday Night Football, quarterback Rich Gannon took it a step further by completing 43 of 64 passes for 403 yards in a 27-17 victory. While Stewart wasn’t totally horrible in this game, he did turn the ball over twice — including an interception and a fumble.
- All-in-all, Pittsburgh committed five turnovers on the night, as the team dropped to 0-2.
With the Steelers already heading into their bye, they now had two weeks to stew in their nightmarish start.
The Tommy Gun Era Begins
How would Stewart and the team respond when the Browns came to Heinz Field in Week 4? Much the same — at least for Stewart. While the defense managed to have its best game to date, Stewart struggled to get much of anything going, and the team trailed, 13-6, late in the fourth quarter.
It was at this point that Cowher decided to insert Tommy Maddox, a veteran signed to be the backup the year before, into the starting lineup. Maddox immediately ignited the offense and produced the game-tying touchdown on a 10-yard strike to Burress with 2:05 remaining. The game ultimately went into overtime, where Peterson gave the Steelers their first win with a 31-yard field goal. In under a quarter of action, Maddox completed 11 of 13 passes for 122 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Cowher decided to go with Maddox, the former first-round pick by the Broncos who was getting another chance in the NFL after re-starting his football career in the XFL and Arena Football League, as his starter the following week and never looked back. Unfortunately, the defense struggled again in a 32-29 loss to the Saints, and Pittsburgh sat at 1-3 after four games.
Thankfully, the newly-christened AFC North Division was a rather mediocre one, and the Steelers still had a chance to get back into the race, which they did thanks to a four-game winning streak — including three victories over divisional rivals.
After feuding with his old coach, Chuck Noll, as well as the fans of Pittsburgh for nearly two decades following his retirement, quarterback Terry Bradshaw was honored at halftime of a 28-10 victory over the Colts on Monday Night Football. The folks in attendance at Heinz Field gave Bradshaw a standing ovation and let him know that they loved and appreciated him more than he ever realized.
It was a fitting night to honor Bradshaw, because Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” helped to change the offense’s identity and led a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Pittsburgh since perhaps the Blond Bomber’s heyday of the late-’70s.
One week after a surreal 34-34 home tie against the Falcons in a game in which Pittsburgh led, 34-17, in the fourth quarter, Maddox was seriously injured in a 31-23 loss to the Titans at Adelphia Coliseum. Maddox was temporarily paralyzed following a hit and had to be taken to a nearby hospital.
Thankfully for Maddox, the injury turned out to be a spinal contusion; he would be okay and would ultimately miss just two games.
- In the meantime, the Steelers stood at 5-4-1, and their season was clearly at a crossroads.
The Steelers would have to turn back to Kordell Stewart, the quarterback the fans had completely divorced themselves from emotionally, to get their season back on track. Muddying the waters, even more, were the struggles of Peterson, who had only connected on 12 of 21 field goals through 10 games and was cut after missing two attempts against the Titans. The Steelers had to hold kicking tryouts right in the middle of a season that looked to be spiraling out of control.
- Jeff Reed, an unknown who played his college ball at North Carolina, won the job and was the Steelers new kicker.
Kordell Stewart quietly guided the Steelers to two late-season victories over the Bengals and Jaguars, respectively (Reed, in just his second game, kicked a 50-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter that provided the winning points in the win over Jacksonville), and had them sitting at 7-4-1 for Maddox’s return to the lineup in a home date vs. the expansion Houston Texans on December 8. In a surreal turn of events the Steelers outgained Houston on the day, 422-47, but lost, 24-6, thanks to three turnovers by Maddox — including a fumble and two interceptions–that were returned for scores.
The Steelers rebounded from what could have been a devastating December home loss and won their last three regular-season games to capture the first AFC North title with a 10-5-1 record.
Maddox passed for 2,836 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions after being inserted into the lineup, numbers that helped earn him the nickname, Tommy Gun.
Hines Ward became the first receiver in franchise history to catch 100 passes when he reeled in 112 for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns. Plaxcio Burress added 1,325 receiving yards on 78 catches, as Pittsburgh finished eighth in the league in passing.
Despite taking a backseat to the passing attack, Pittsburgh’s ground game still managed to produce, finishing ninth in the league with 2,120 yards. Amos Zereoue actually paced the rushing attack with 762 yards, while Jerome Bettis added 666.
- The defense rebounded from that horrific start, finishing seventh in total yards and recording another 50 sacks.
The defense did struggle on third down all season long, however –something that would haunt it in the playoffs–and finished 27th in that category.
The Steelers didn’t capture the first or even the second seed. Instead, they would begin their postseason journey on Wildcard Weekend as the third seed in a matchup against Cleveland at Heinz Field.
Wild Card: Steelers Browns Fight in Barn Burner at Heinz Field
Things looked bleak for most of the game, as the sixth-seeded Browns opened up a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter and led, 33-21, late into the final period. With Heinz Field mostly empty, however, Maddox led an historic comeback.
Not long after finding Hines Ward for a five-yard touchdown pass with 3:06 remaining, Maddox and the offense were back on the field, as Cleveland failed to pick up a first down that would have iced the game. With just 54 seconds left in the game, reserve running back, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, scored from three yards out to give Pittsburgh a 34-33 lead. Randle El then hit tight end Jerame Tuman for the two-point conversion to make it 36-33. The Browns desperately tried to drive down the field to get in position for a game-tying field goal but ultimately ran out of time.
Divisoinal Playoffs: “…And the Oscar Goes to Joe Needley
Six days later, it was onto Tennessee to take on a Titans squad that had given Pittsburgh fits over the years.
This was mainly due to quarterback Steve McNair, a man who was a bit of a precursor to Brady, in that he had a knack for making Pittsburgh’s defense look foolish.
Sure enough, the defense struggled, so did Maddox, as Tennessee jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. The Steelers fought back, however, and scored 20 unanswered points and finally took the lead early in the third quarter on a 31-yard touchdown run by Amos Zereoue.
It was a back-and-forth affair from there, with Pittsburgh taking a 31-28 lead on a 40-yard field goal by Reed midway through the final period.
After the Titans soon tied the score on a field goal by Joe Nedney, it looked like the Steelers were in prime position to complete another comeback when an unnecessary roughness penalty set them up at the Tennessee 40 yard line with less than two minutes left in regulation. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh couldn’t advance another inch and ultimately needed a Nedney missed field goal from 48 yards out to send the game into overtime.
- The Titans won the toss and never relinquished possession.
After driving deep into Pittsburgh territory, the Titans sent Nedney out to end things from 31 yards away. He missed. Only problem was, cornerback Dewayne Washington was called for running into the kicker. The call was questionable, but Nedney got another chance from five yards closer. He didn’t miss this one, and the Steelers fell, 34-31.
- It was an emotional end to one of the most up-and-down seasons of Bill Cowher’s coaching career.
Despite its soul-crushing conclusion, however, the Steelers ’02 campaign will always be remembered as the year a journeyman quarterback came out of nowhere to save a season that may have otherwise ended long before the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
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