0-4. The Steelers and Giants are off to uncharacteristically winless starts.
Not familiar territory for the Black & Gold or Big Blue, who’ve combined to win 4 of the last 8 Super Bowls. Now their black and blue signals the bruised state of the current teams and their so-far awful seasons. The last time the Giants started 0-4 since the strike season of 1987. The Steelers haven’t been 0-4 since 2 years before I was born. I’m 43.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger declared that Pittsburgh was simply the worst team in the league. Giants safety Antrel Rolle highlighted the ongoing concern about NFL concussions by claiming that New York will run the table and finish 12-4.
How suddenly things can change in the NFL, how quickly the mighty can fall. Not that the ESPN NFL power rankings matter much beyond the water cooler, but it’s odd to see those familiar Steelers and Giants logos near the bottom of the list, below the Raiders, above only the also-winless Bucs and Jags.
Of all the NFL adages, from “Defense Wins Championships” to the more recent “It’s a Quarterback League,” there may be none truer than “Winning the Battle in the Trenches” and the importance of the offensive line.
Controlling the line of scrimmage has always equated to NFL success. The Cowboys of the 90′s are remembered for Jimmy Johnson and the Big Three, but it was all made possible by a dominant offensive line. Joe Gibbs won 3 Super Bowls with 3 different QB’s in Washington because he had The Hogs. And these Giants and Steelers won championships not only by protecting their QBs and but by winning the battle upfront on defense too, terrorizing opposing QBs. Now it’s their own QBs running for their lives behind offensive lines that have become that other meaning of “offensive” seemingly overnight.
Roethlisberger, always one to thrive on the run from pressure, has finally reached the point where he can no longer pull rabbits out of hats behind “protection” that has magically disappeared. And poor Eli Manning, along with his 9 interceptions and 2 fumbles, has as many wins so far this season as Cooper Manning.
Ben and Eli, both from the 2004 draft class, still have good receivers. Eli has a good young TE in Brandon Myers who managed 79 catches, 806 yards, and 4 on a putrid Raiders team last year. Ben finally got his (good old TE) blanky Heath Miller back last week. But both teams are suffering growing pains at RB (again, offensive line issues aren’t helping there either). The Steelers defense still looks okay, but just okay, no longer dominant enough to win games on their own, and the Giants defense has given up the most points in the league through 4 games. Yes, even more than Jacksonville.
Speaking of the 2004 draft, Eli was infamously picked #1 overall by the Chargers but was promptly traded to New York for the rights to QB Philip Rivers (after daddy Archie Manning cried loud enough to get his kid what he wanted, because getting drafted #1 overall to the city with the nicest weather in the country just wasn’t good enough for the First Family of Football). Since then, Manning/Roethlisberger have had the aforementioned success while Rivers seemed to have played his best ball back when the Chargers couldn’t get over the hump with LaDainian Tomlinson in the Marty/Norv eras.
Chargers fans may have given up on Rivers and this team after all the playoff heartbreaks and subsequent poor showings over the last few seasons. Perhaps too little too late, but Rivers looks like, well, Rivers again: In last week’s home win over the Cowboys, Rivers completed 35 of 42 passes for 401 yards and 3 TDs. Sure, he threw a pick-6, but after that he went 20/24 for 249 yards and 2 TDs. In fact, he set the NFL record for the most accurate performance in a 400-yard game at 83.3 percent (breaking the previous accuracy record of 81.8 percent that Jeff Garcia set with the 49ers in 2000 when Terrell Owens caught 20 passes for 283 yards and Jerry Rice was his second option).
So Rivers may be experiencing a bit of a return to form, but the contending window for San Diego has already closed around him. This Chargers team looks better than expected in 2013, but they’ll be hard pressed to sniff a wildcard spot with the Broncos running away with the AFC West, the Chiefs likely securing the first wildcard by Thanksgiving, and improving squads in Miami and Tennessee. Will Rivers still be at the helm (with enough talent around him) to contend in a couple of years once Peyton and Tom Brady finally hang it up?
Which brings us back to the once (and future?) contenders in Big Ben and Eli. Will either one still be upright if and when their respective teams get their acts together? It’s not impossible that a year or two from now we’re writing about the unlikely final act of one or both of these guys making it back to the Super Bowl. But right now it’s not looking so good. Pittsburgh doesn’t fire coaches, and Mike Tomlin is young and decorated enough to have earned a long leash. Tom Coughlin is old and decorated enough that he’d be allowed to retire “voluntarily” with some dignity before the Mara family would consider firing ol’ Red Cheeks. Tomlin will still be there long after Big Ben rides his motorcycle into the sunset. And Eli might retire to Arizona (like Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer) once Coughlin is done pacing the dejected Giants sidelines in disbelief.
Who knows. One of these teams might turn things around this year. A team has started 0-4 and made the playoffs (appropriately enough, the 1992 San Diego Chargers were the last team to do it). No matter how it ends, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger will be forever linked to Philip Rivers because of their beginnings…. And for now, the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers are mirror images, unlikely roommates in the cellar. But maybe someday they will have something else in common when New York hires its next head coach… Bill Cowher?