Bob Smizik: Win doesn't erase nightmare season

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CINCINNATI -- On Aug. 9, 1974, upon assuming the presidency from the disgraced Richard Nixon, who was brought down by the Watergate scandal, Gerald Ford said, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over."

We can find comfort in those words today.

To paraphrase President Ford, who died last week, "My fellow Pittsburghers, our long national nightmare is over."

This nightmare, which grievously affected the Steelers Nation, might be of far less importance than Watergate, but it has been no less horrific to those who so passionately follow the local football team. It has plunged many Steelers fans into the same kind of despair that the stonewalling and lying of the Nixon presidency did to patriots more than 30 years ago.

The nightmare President Ford spoke of ended with Nixon resigning. Our nightmare ended in less historic circumstances. It came at around 4:16 p.m. yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium with a meaningless 23-17 overtime win by the Steelers against the uninspired Cincinnati Bengals that mercifully closed out a miserable season.

The victory, created by a 67-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes, left the Steelers with a 8-8 record just one season after a Super Bowl championship that had inspired visions of a dynasty, not mediocrity. It also left memories of poor play, terrible coaching decisions and an undisciplined style that we seldom saw in the Bill Cowher era.

As if a reminder of all that went wrong, the Steelers were called for a taunting penalty, something Cowher vowed early in the season would not happen again. It has happened twice since. This time it was rookie offensive tackle Willie Colon who ran down the field after a 21-yard run by Hines Ward to taunt a Cincinnati player. When a rookie sees seasoned veterans acting without class, it's not surprising he would respond in kind.

The Steelers' players were jubilant in celebrating the winning score, and Cowher, who gave no hint of his coaching future, spoke in overly complimentary terms about his players.

"I thought today spoke volumes about the quality and character of this football team," he said.

Had the Steelers been playing a more worthy opponent there might have been some truth to Cowher's words. But the Bengals were a listless bunch despite having a slim chance of gaining a playoff berth. They looked as if they weren't over their emotional loss to Denver a week earlier, when a botched extra-point attempt sent them to defeat. Still, the Bengals could have won if kicker Shayne Graham had not missed a 39-yard field goal attempt with 12 seconds remaining.

This nightmare began the second week of the season when the Super Bowl champions were shut out by the Jacksonville Jaguars. It continued with losses to Cincinnati, when the cement-fingered Ricardo Colclough -- in the game for reasons clear only to Cowher -- fumbled a punt that spurred the Bengals to victory, and with a 10-point defeat at San Diego. Just when the Steelers seemed to find themselves after their 45-7 win against Kansas City, they came back with losses to Atlanta and to absolutely awful Oakland, which finished 2-14.

But the nightmare has been so much more than that.

This was expected to be the season when Roethlisberger would come of age and take his place among the elite of NFL quarterbacks and become the foundation for future success. His performance in the three playoff games leading to the Super Bowl had been so special -- seven touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating well over 100 -- that there was little doubt he would continue in such a mode. He did not. He has been erratic all season and not nearly as accurate as he showed last year. He struggled so mightily early in the game yesterday that the Steelers used Willie Parker like they never have in the past. Parker carried 37 times, by far the most of his career.

Roethlisberger threw his 23rd interception, the most by a Steelers quarterback since Terry Bradshaw threw 24 in 1970.

The defense never assumed for any length of time the dominant role it has in the past. The Steelers were ninth out of 16 in the AFC in the most crucial statistic -- points allowed.

Concerning his future, Cowher said: "I need to take some time to reflect. I don't want to make any decisions in the heat of the moment that are emotionally based."

That's always wise course and particularly so in the flush of victory. When the glow is off this clunker and when Cowher looks over the entire season, he will realize it for what it was: A nightmare that could easily drive any coach, especially one who had been considering such thoughts, into a temporary retirement.


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