Maddox's goal: bend into shape

Steelers: Pittsburgh's face has changed after going 6-10, but despite his imperfections last season, QB Tommy Maddox is still part of the solution to forge a winner.

August 07, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

LATROBE, Pa. - At age 21, Tommy Maddox was cruising the fast lane of the NFL. He was a first-round draft choice of the Denver Broncos, the likely successor to John Elway and a star in waiting.

Four weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, Maddox is officially on the flip side. The incumbent starting quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers will spend training camp and beyond looking over his shoulder at the future of the team.

What he sees back there is 6-foot-4 Ben Roethlisberger, a chiseled-in-stone specimen from Miami of Ohio and the Steelers' first-round pick in April.

Once the golden boy, Maddox now is being pressed by one.

"When they drafted Ben, I thought about it a lot," Maddox said of the juxtaposition. "It's amazing how roles reverse. I went from young guy in this league for a long time to now I'm the old guy. That's the way this game works."

If the Steelers are going to reverse their role as a 6-10 also-ran in the AFC North and challenge the Ravens for the division title, they almost certainly will need Maddox to rebound from his 17-interception, 41-sack season in 2003.

Not that 6-10 was all his doing. The Steelers' offensive line was in shambles, starting three players at left tackle and two at right tackle.

Their vaunted running game was a rumor and the defense couldn't force the issue the way it once did.

As a result, Maddox threw 519 passes, a franchise high, and the running game finished next-to-last, a franchise low. Not surprisingly, Maddox caught a lot of criticism.

"He did a great job two years ago," coach Bill Cowher said. "Last year a lot of people felt that Tommy had a bad year ... but it wasn't just him. There were a lot of circumstances involved."

Help came in free agency when the Steelers signed former Philadelphia Eagles running back Duce Staley, an eight-year veteran with 4,807 career rushing yards. Staley could take Jerome Bettis' starting job or simply share it.

Up front, the Steelers need Marvel Smith, held to six games last year with a neck injury, and Oliver Ross, largely ineffective all year, to restore order at the two tackle positions.

Cowher fired three starters on defense and revamped his secondary with the goal of getting quicker. He also fired defensive coordinator Tim Lewis and replaced him with 66-year-old Dick LeBeau, the originator of the zone blitz with the Steelers a decade ago.

Still, any quick turnaround in Pittsburgh will hinge on the performance of Maddox. Even though Roethlisberger will receive bonuses worth more than $9 million as the 11th pick in the draft, he isn't expected to start anytime soon.

"I think it's always hard when you're a rookie to have a competition with a veteran player," said new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "I think there's so much stuff thrown at you that it's hard to catch up. But he's definitely gifted with great physical tools, and we're going to give him as much as he can take."

If anything, Maddox was guilty of trying to do too much last season while the rest of the team collapsed around him. Many of his interceptions came when the Steelers were behind and forced to pass.

"Tommy's a good quarterback when he plays within himself, which he's done for us this spring and which he's done for us in the past," Whisenhunt said. "He's valuable. He does a good job."

After Roethlisberger was drafted, the Steelers gave Maddox a contract extension that includes a $2 million signing bonus spread over the season. That took the sting out of the draft pick.

"I feel appreciated," Maddox said. "I've got a job; I'm out here playing football. There's worse things. I've been unappreciated. I was sitting home this time of year. That really doesn't bother me a whole lot."

Maddox actually sat home for five years after he was cut by the New York Giants in 1996. He never realized expectations as a first-round pick in Denver and was cut by three teams. He had a stint in the Arena Football League and the now-defunct XFL before the Steelers gave him a chance as a free agent in 2001.

In 2002, Maddox revived his career with 20 touchdown passes in 11 starts, replacing Kordell Stewart. Now he's trying to hold onto his job with the newest golden boy waiting in the wings.

Maddox said he has no problem working with Roethlisberger.

"It's a working relationship, one where you're competing, you're going out trying to do the best you can and you're rooting for the other guys. All that will work itself out," he said.

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