If you're wondering how the Pittsburgh Steelers can come within an eyelash of a Super Bowl victory and then let the quarterback who led them there slip away as a free agent, you have to understand the mentality of this club. The huge payout has never been the Steelers' style. Instead of matching the $25 million package Neil O'Donnell got from the New York Jets, Pittsburgh chose to use a big part of that sum to extend the contracts of three other veterans: Pro Bowl outside linebacker Greg Lloyd; third-year quarterback Jim Miller, who replaces O'Donnell; and offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk, a valuable player who has proved he can play both guard and tackle.
The Steelers billed the preseason as a quarterback shoot-out between Miller, second-year man Kordell (Slash) Stewart and 12-year vet Mike Tomczak, but I think the coaches figured all along that Miller was their man. Why else would management have given him a three-year, $6.55 million extension in June? He's big—6'2", 210 pounds—and mobile. He stands tall in the pocket and looks like a classic NFL passer. A sixth-round pick in 1994, he has thrown all of 56 career passes in the NFL and his preseason was nothing to get excited about, but he's 25 and he represents the future. Perhaps someday Stewart, who has the best arm of the three, will overtake him, but for now Pittsburgh's '96 run at the Super Bowl is in Miller's hands. The Steelers will probably take some hits early, but don't forget that coach Bill Cowher's teams have traditionally been slow starters.
In the four years of unfettered free agency the Steelers have rarely splurged, bringing in only two players whose contracts averaged more than a million a year. In 1993 it was rush linebacker Kevin Greene, who became a free agent again after last season and was snapped up by the Carolina Panthers. Although he gave Pittsburgh three good seasons, Greene is 34, and the Steelers believe they have a fine replacement in 24-year-old Jason Gildon. The other pickup, offensive lineman Will Wolford, was strictly a need signing this off-season, and switching him from tackle to guard should reap big rewards.
I don't question Steelers moves anymore. Losing linebacker Hardy Nickerson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the '93 season was a mistake, but they've been right too often. I hollered along with everyone else when they traded running back Barry Foster and tight end Adrian Cooper, the league's best blocker at his position, and didn't re-sign tight end Eric Green. But Pittsburgh didn't suffer from those moves. And you certainly have to like the trade in April for St. Louis Rams running back Jerome Bettis, who should ride the Steelers offensive line right into the Pro Bowl.
The defense is Pittsburgh's springboard to success, and it's a unit with a lot of heart. Cornerback Rod Woodson came back from a torn knee ligament in the season opener last year to play in the Super Bowl. Carnell Lake seemingly sacrificed a Pro Bowl shot by switching over to Woodson's spot from strong safety. He made it anyway but will be back at his old spot this year. I like the Steelers to win the division, but I see them getting upset in the playoffs.
Who will be the All-Pro quarterback in 1996? How about Jeff Blake of the Cincinnati Bengals? I watched Blake complete his first nine passes in a preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals, and it wasn't what he did but how he did it that caught my eye. He has always been able to throw deep, but now it seems that he has tightened up his delivery. He throws that quick-dart type of pass when he has to, and his reads are on the money. "He really worked on his completion percentage," coach Dave Shula says, "because we know the big plays will come."
Last year Blake made the Pro Bowl with, in effect, only two wide receivers, Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott, and with a running game that ranked 24th in the league. The Bengals' rushing fortunes could change with a healthy Ki-Jana Carter, the first pick in the 1995 draft, who is back from reconstructive surgery on his left knee that side-lined him for his rookie season. Carter's success will be dependent on the play of the offensive line, which could also be the difference between a 10-6 season and a 6-10.
Three starting linemen have been hurt, the most seriously injured being left guard Kevin Sargent, who is out for the year with a herniated disk. But if three rookies—Willie Anderson, Ken Blackman and Rod Jones—can quickly find their way, the pressure will ease. Anderson, a first-round pick, was a holdout until early August, reported overweight and thereafter showed that he still has a lot to learn about playing tackle in the NFL, Blackman, a third-round selection, showed a real mean streak in camp. Jones, who lasted until the seventh round because of questions about his knees, was the most impressive rookie in camp.
Three free-agent defensive backs were brought in to bolster a unit that gave up the fifth-most passing yards in NFL history. The most promising is former Indianapolis Colts cornerback Ashley Ambrose. Of course, a good pass rush can mask shortcomings in any secondary, and new defensive line coach Tim Krumrie, a former Bengals nosetackle, has his people exerting some real force, particularly 313-pound tackle Dan Wilkinson, the No. 1 draft choice in 1994, who has been a disappointment.
Shula, in the last year of his contract, is running a team with a lot of "if" bets. I get the feeling they'll pay off.