The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2003 season with a lot of high expectations, they were literally bizarre special teams plays away from advancing to the Super Bowl and the offense had come off its best two seasons in decades.
But the team that had just won back-to-back Division Championships finished 6-10 in 2003, and while it did not feel like it at the time, the final game of the last time the Steelers had a losing season was one of the best games in Steelers history.
#1 – The Greatest Rivalry Game no one ever talks about:
The 2003 season finale was vs. the Baltimore Ravens with literally nothing on the line except pride. The Ravens had clinched the AFC North and had nothing to gain by winning. However, it is not by accident the Steelers/Ravens is the best rivalry in the NFL and the teams always have a genuine desire to defeat the other, acknowledged by it being a nationally televised game on Sunday night. The Ravens really manhandled the Steelers and Tommy Maddox with 3 INTs and 5 sacks. But the Steelers played the Ravens hard too, pulling out all the stops including a fake punt for an 81-yard TD pass from Josh Miller to Chris Hope. The game was a defensive fight, but the Ravens managed to pull out the win with a 4th quarter FG to tie and a OT FG to win 13-10.
#2 – No Rushing Record Allowed:
The Steelers held Ravens RB Jamal Lewis to 69 yards in their 34-15 demolition win in Week 1 of 2003. The following week vs. the Cleveland Browns, the motivated RB boldly predicted he would break the single game rushing record, then promptly did so with a 295-yard performance. Going into the finale, Lewis was at 1,952 yards and he was not merely satisfied with joining the 2,000-yard club. His goal was nothing short of overtaking Eric Dickerson‘s record of 2,105 yards and he had the full motivation of the Ravens to help him attain the 154 yards he needed. Lewis was on a tear down the stretch having averaged 170 yards/game over the previous 3 games and by halftime, he was actually halfway to the record. But the Steelers defense had pride too, so even with nearly 5 quarters of football, they kept him 40 yards short, his longest run of the 2nd half being only 11 yards.
Jamal Lewis finished with 114 yards on 27 carries and he may have made history, but it was not the history he or his teammates wanted.
#3 – A Coach took notice:
Dick LeBeau was the Steelers Defensive Coordinator during their 1995 Super Bowl run and the mastermind behind the Blitzburgh Defense that has been synonymous with the Steelers for 25 years. He was also temporarily without a team when the Buffalo Bills fired Head Coach Gregg Williams after the 2003 season, with whom LeBeau was Assistant Head Coach. In what could be described as the definition of irony, the Bills General Manager was also former Steelers Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe and he had just hired Steelers Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey as their Head Coach for 2004. Donahoe and Mularkey wanted keep LeBeau, but Bill Cowher also wanted to make changes on the defense, so he reached out to LeBeau upon letting go of DC Tim Lewis. On top of the ice cold relationship between Cowher and Donahoe, LeBeau was faced with deciding between two organizations he had a strong relationship with.
The deciding factor for LeBeau was the 2003 season finale and nationally televised game vs. the Ravens. He later noted of how impressed he was with the defensive effort he saw in that game and their desire to keep Lewis from attaining Dickerson’s record. Watching the game, he recognized the special talent of Troy Polamalu, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Joey Porter and Aaron Smith, leading him to believe there was a chance he could do something special with the unit. That would be an understatement as under his guidance, the Steelers would reach three Super Bowls in six years, winning two on the strength of a defense that would finish as the #1 ranked unit in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
#4 – Winning in the Short Run, Losing in the Long Run
In retrospect, the Ravens had a lot to lose in that final game, because they would have been better off losing and letting the Steelers finish 7-9. By virtue of the scrappy Ravens comeback win, the Steelers not only secured Dick LeBeau as their Defensive Coordinator, but found themselves in a three-way tie with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills at 6-10. Due to the NFL rules, by virtue of playing the weakest schedule, the Steelers got to pick before the other two teams from New York State.
Fortune favored the Steelers with the 2004 NFL Draft—it was the best QB draft since 1983 with three legitimate franchise QB prospects in Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. On a year in which five teams drafting in the top 10 had recently drafted a QB, when the No. 11 pick came around, Roethlisberger was available. The Buffalo Bills were coveting Roethlisberger, but Dan Rooney was not going to let the Steelers repeat the mistake made in 1983 when Dan Marino was passed over and the Steelers got the Hall of Fame QB that would lead them to the Super Bowl less than two years later.
While the Jets had the promise of Chad Pennington prior to the 2004 shoulder injury that derailed his promising career, Donahoe made a reckless trade with the Dallas Cowboys, giving away their 2nd, 5th and 2005 1st round pick (20th overall) to trade back into the 1st round and draft QB J.P. Losman. That pick might have come in handy when Aaron Rodgers was sitting idle while Donahoe was stuck with a declining Drew Bledsoe and a bust at QB.
Mr. Rooney made the right choice in the Cowher vs. Donahoe “decision” after all.
Thoughts or comments? Reconsiderations after the disappointment of this year maybe working out in the long run?
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