Entering the world of sports is like walking through a cliché minefield, which is why I never flip on ESPN without wearing body armor. One of my favorite football clichés is that you've "got to win the battle in the trenches," because it's such a colorful turn of phrase and also one of the most unerring.
The quarterback gets all the babes and the bucks, but it's the guys up front who hold the keys to the kingdom. They never get to touch the ball, at least not by design, yet they're traditionally thought of as the most critical element of any successful team.
John Elway won a Super Bowl only after Mike Shanahan arrived and shored up the line in front of him. Troy Aikman may have had Michael Irvin and Emmit Smith, but he also had one of the biggest and best lines ever. Joe Gibbs was able to win Super Bowls with Joe Theisman, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien at QB because he had "the Hogs" up front.
So it is with the Steelers: It all works when they can run the ball. Which is why it's not surprising that the common element to the 2001 Steelers and the 2004 Steelers was dominant and consistent offensive-line play. Well, that and gut-wrenching losses to those pesky New England Patriots.
But this season, the O-line's inconsistency has been equally gut-wrenching.
After 10 games this year, the Steelers ranked sixth in the league in rushing, averaging 3.9 yards per carry and 130 yards per game on the ground. Compare that with last year, when they ranked second in rushing offense, averaging 4 yards per carry and 154 yards per game. It's not an earth-shattering drop, but it's a drop, for certain.
The real key, though, is time of possession: This year the Steelers average 29:59 in time of possession per game; last year, they averaged 34:00.
What accounts for the difference?
Even discarding the two Tommy Maddox starts -- where Tommy's poor play contributed to poor overall performance -- the Steelers have not dominated up front.
In 2004, the Steelers went through the entire season with their front five intact. This year, they've already had to play without Pro Bowl tackle Marvel Smith. Perennial Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca is not playing at his usual level of magnificence. (Grow back the beard, Big Red, the wife's wrong.) The right side of the line is new, with Kendall Simmons and Max Starks. Steady Eddie in the middle, Jeff Hartings, is playing on knees made of bone and gristle, and who knows how much longer he can continue.
Still, these guys should be dominant. Even though Simmons is returning from injury, he's a former No. 1 draft pick and was the Steelers' 2002 rookie of the year. And Starks, though relatively inexperienced, is so big, at 6'7" and 337 pounds, that the three rivers experience tidal shifts when he is on the field.
The other bit of conventional wisdom regarding the O-line is that it's a unit that needs to gel -- five men playing as one, like a fist. This unit just hasn't, at least not consistently.
So the Steelers have two choices. They can commit to running the ball -- and by "commit," I mean to keep running even when it isn't working, focusing on number of carries per game, rather than yards per carry. That can sometimes wear down defenses.
Or they can go to more of a passing offense.
A leopard can't change his spots, but it can run up a different tree now and then. Even Tommy Maddox was effective in the second half of the Jacksonville game, when the Steelers went to a quick-release, timing-pattern kind of offense -- the kind the Patriots ran to beat the Steelers in week three. When it works, this approach takes some pressure off the O-line. The QB should be releasing the ball in less than two seconds. It forces opposing defenses to move to a seven-man front to take away the short passing game.
Dink, dunk, dink, dunk -- all the way home. It's just a thought, but it sure isn't Steelers football as I've seen it. Perhaps it's time to change that.
Or I could be wearing my ass for a hat. Because, you know, you gotta win the battle in the trenches.