Friday, January 27, 2006

Steelers MVP? A 'Mad'dening choice

Looking back on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 11-5 season and their remarkable road warrior run once they hit the playoffs, it's hard to pick a most valuable player.

Hines Ward and Casey Hampton shared the award voted on by the players, and neither is a foolish choice. Ward is the heart and soul of what the Steelers do. He'll drag defensive backs to the turf when blocking downfield, or he'll go over the middle to make that tough catch when it's needed most. Hampton is the unsung hero in the middle of the defense. His job isn't necessarily to make tackles - it's to provide penetration in the offensive line and free up his teammates to get after the opponent.

And it's not like Ward and Hampton were the only viable candidates for the award. Willie Parker came out of nowhere to rush for 1,200 yards. Alan Faneca had another Pro Bowl-caliber year plowing holes for Parker and Jerome Bettis. Troy Polamalu wasn't just an intimidating presence in the secondary - he was the best safety in the NFL.

But here's betting if the vote took into account postseason success instead of just the 16-game jaunt through the regular season, there would be no co-MVPs. In fact, the winner would be unanimous. He lines up every day under center, and knows what it's like to have a cult following in the Steel City. He's heard thousands of fans scream his name in a playoff win.

He's Tommy Maddox.

Sure, Ben Roethlisberger gets the headlines, the commercials, the endorsements and the girls. He's the one who threw for 2400 yards in the 12 games he played, the one who won his first 16 games as a starter in the NFL.

But what the ex-insurance salesman did is all that mattered.

Maddox started two games this season - the first following an injury to Roethlisberger, the second after Charlie Batch had broken his hand.

In the first game, against Jacksonville, Maddox wasn't just bad. He set the forward pass back 15 years. He completed 14 of 28 passes on the day - not great, but not horrible for a guy who hadn't seen action in 13 months. Unfortunately for Tommy Teriffic, three of those passes went to Jacksonville defenders, the final one a wounded duck in overtime that Jags DB Rashean Mathis took 40 yards to the house. That loss dropped the Steelers to 3-2.

Big Ben returned the next week and led the Black and Gold to a 27-13 thumping of the eventual-AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals in the Queen City, and the Steelers dispatched of the Ravens the next week during a Monday night affair in Pittsburgh. But No. 7's right knee, injured during a Week 5 victory in San Diego, was hit with a cleat, forcing him to miss the next three games.

Because no NFL coach with an interest in keeping his job would have trotted Maddox out there with ANY better option available, Batch took the helm. He struggled somewhat against Green Bay but got the win. He looked phenomonal against Cleveland before breaking said hand shortly before halftime, leaving the Steelers with Touchdown Tommy as their only healthy QB. With a lead that could have been as easily protected by a blind, one-legged giraffe, Tommy threw only seven passes and the Steelers won the game.

In Week 11, it was up to Tommy again. He responded by getting sacked six times and missing wide open receivers in a 16-13 loss to the Ravens, a game which, it's safe to say, could have been managed and won by nearly any practice squad QB in the NFL, CFL, NFL Europe or the local Pop Warner league had he had any semblance of accuracy or feet quicker than those of a paralyzed turtle in concrete.

We all know the rest of the story. Ben returns the next week, and by the time he truly get his feet under him again, the Steelers hit their stride.

They finished the season 11-5, tied with the Bengals for first place in the North, but due to a tiebreaker, the Steelers go from the three seed (if they win the division) to the six seed - otherwise known as playoff doom and gloom, a spot that requires three road wins to get to the Super Bowl. In other words, right where they wanted to be.

Had Roethlisberger never been injured, the Steelers would have won at least 13 games. The Baltimore game, and especially the Jacksonville game, would have turned out drastically different.

Thirteen wins would have taken the division, and forced the Steelers to play Cincinnati at home in the first round. Had they won, they would have gone to Denver - where they won the AFC championship - but this would have been a round earlier. Assuming they win that game, it's either to New England (the last place Pittsburgh would have wanted to go) or Indianapolis (for a Colts team that would have had a chance to regroup after not having played a meaningful game in a month).

If that were the path, who knows if the Steelers even make it out of the wild card round against Cincinnati. Sure, it can be argued, possibly with great merit, that these Steelers are a team of destiny, that they were bound and determined to accomplish unthinkable feats regardless of who they played and where.

But one thing's for certain. This is a team that thrives with its back against the wall. They went into Week 14 against Chicago knowing that they couldn't lose again if they wanted their season to continue - and they've won every game since.

Tommy Maddox's play during his two starts in 2005 did nothing but hurt his team. But in the end, his inadequacies as a quarterback may have helped set the Steelers up to do what they haven't done since Jimmy Carter was in office and Wayne Gretzky was a wide-eyed 18-year-old rookie in the NHL - win a Super Bowl.