Starks contrast: From highly paid backup to Super Bowl starter again
January 25, 2009 10:00 AM
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Offensive lineman Max Starks has had an up-and-down career with the Steelers.
By Gerry Dulac Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Max Starks is more than just the only Steelers offensive lineman to throw a big block on the winning touchdown in a Super Bowl. He is the only member of the offensive line to play in a Super Bowl.
"Father Wisdom," Starks, 27, said, laughing at himself.
It has been a strange and sometimes rocky road for Starks since he smothered Seattle Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu on a play called Counter 34 Pike, springing Willie Parker on a 75-yard touchdown run that gave the Steelers a lead they never relinquished in Super Bowl XL in Detroit.
Starks lost his starting right tackle job to Willie Colon before the start of the 2007 season, was offered and signed a one-year, $6.9 million tender as the team's transition player in the offseason and still began 2008 as a backup right tackle.
After all that, Starks finds himself back as a starting tackle in Super Bowl XLIII, this time on the left side as a replacement for injured Marvel Smith. Starks has been at that position for the past 13 games since Smith injured his back.
2004: With the 75th overall pick, the Steelers draft Florida offensive lineman Max Starks. He saw action as a reserve in the final 10 regular-season games and both postseason contests.
2005: Started every game at right tackle and helped the Steelers rank third in the AFC and fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (138.9 avg.). Starks threw a key block for Willie Parker's 75-yard TD run in Super Bowl XL.
2006: Started the first 14 games of the year before sitting out the last two with a knee injury. It was the first time in Starks' career that he missed time with an injury.
2007: Lost his starting RT job to Willie Colon and played in all 16 regular-season games, making four starts at LT in place of injured Marvel Smith. Starks was placed on injured/reserve after injuring his left knee in the last game of the regular season.
2008: Signed a one-year, $6.9 million contract as the Steelers' transition player and played the past 13 games at left tackle for the injured Marvel Smith.
The incongruity of Starks' plight is not lost on the 6-foot-8, 335-pound tackle who grew up in Orlando, Fla., less than 90 minutes from Tampa. Nor is the fact that the offensive line, a weekly punching bag for critics, has somehow managed to come together enough to get the Steelers to the Super Bowl.
"It's having faith and persevering, probably one of the biggest things you can do," Starks said. "I'm blessed to be in this position and do it on the greatest stage one more time."
And what an unlikely opportunity it is.
Finding believers in the offensive line is like finding snow in Arizona: There isn't much, and what little there is tends to disappear quickly.
It is a unit with four players in positions they did not occupy last season: Starks, who is replacing Smith; Chris Kemoeatu, who replaced Alan Faneca at left guard; center Justin Hartwig, who was signed in free agency to replace Sean Mahan; and guard Darnell Stapleton, who replaced injured Kendall Simmons in the fifth game of the season. The only player not in a new position is Colon, a two-year starter.
What's more, it is a unit that allowed Ben Roethlisberger to be sacked 46 times, second most among NFL quarterbacks. And it is also a line that produced the lowest number of rushing yards per game (105.6) than any other playoff team in franchise history.
And yet, here they are, ready to head to Tampa to try to make it happen one more time.
And who is the linemate they are leaning on for Super Bowl knowledge? None other than Starks -- the only one to appear in a Super Bowl. The same Max Starks who, despite his hefty salary, seemingly had vanished at the start of the season.
"A couple guys have asked me about it, but it's one of those things that there's nothing you can do to prepare for it," Starks said. "You have to go out there and be loose and treat it like every other game."
There have been signs of progress. The running game came to life in the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns and the playoff victory against the San Diego Chargers, producing 100-yard games from Parker each week. And, despite Roethlisberger being sacked four times against the Baltimore Ravens, the line did a good job forming a solid pocket for their quarterback.
Two of the sacks were a result of Roethlisberger holding the ball, trying to make a play. Starks gave up one of the others, but it was on a play in which Terrell Suggs got such a good jump he appeared to be offside.
"It's a work in progress," Starks said of the line's development. "You come in and you have five guys all through training camp and they all train together, then one goes down, and you have a second-year guy who hasn't played a full game come in. Then, the following week, the other oldest veteran goes down.
"It took a little while to get together. The only starter from last year who was still a starter was Willie Colon. We had to do it on fly with our butts pretty much in the fire. You can't say enough how we all jelled and how it all came together.
"We knew we were getting better every week. OK, we still have a couple mental errors here and there, but we said let's work on those and diminish those."
Go back to Super Bowl XL.
On the second play of the second half, leading, 7-3, the Steelers lined in a three-wide-receiver formation at their own 25 for Counter 34 Pike, a play in which Parker faked to his left and cut back right through a gaping hole created by Starks and Simmons, who sealed off defensive tackle Chartric Darby.
All Parker had to do was beat safety Michael Boulware for the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history. The touchdown provided the winning points in a 21-10 victory.
"Kendall smashed [Darby], and I kind of just hit [Tatupu]," Starks said. "I didn't even realize who was in secondary; I didn't realize everyone had over-shifted to the left and I saw Willie get clear. I looked up and I was like, there's nooo-body around. It was a great memory."
The man who called that play, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, is now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, the team the Steelers will be playing in the Super Bowl. And the Steelers still have Counter 34 Pike in the playbook.
"He was the one who put me in the record books," Parker said.