One has to wonder if 117 years ago, when the first professional football game was played in Pittsburgh PA, if the originators of the first league had foreseen how big the sport would become or the number of fans that it would eventually draw? One has to wonder, when the first professional football league was born in the town of Latrobe Pennsylvania, with very few rules and very little equipment, if they might have caught a glimpse in their minds eye how elaborate the sport would end up. From a $500.00 payment to William (Pudge) Heffelfinger, to multi-million dollar contracts of players today. From a group of guys from an athletics association looking for bragging rights, to a prized trophy and the infamy that comes with winning it.
Since February, after the Pittsburgh Steelers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, a lot has happened. Fans began watching free agency, the draft, mini-camps and training camps. Teams filled in needs, identified their game plans and prepared for the upcoming season. The NFL would see Dan Rooney leave for Ireland. There would be tragedy, there would be triumph in an off-season. We would watch the ongoing saga of a man who refused to leave the game he loved, and we would comment on hopeful young prospects whose dreams were one day to become as much of a household name. We would see new coaches coming in to hopefully lead teams to the next season and argue about which quarterback was better. There would be new rules that would leave us grumbling and scratching our heads. As fans, we waited, sometimes impatiently for the arrival of September, when the first kick-off of regular season professional football began, trying to fill the gap in the meantime by evaluating talent and hoping that the teams that we pulled for would grab the best of the best. Questions regarding the worst to the first dominated discussions.
Since February, the City of Pittsburgh, prepared. It welcomed home the Superbowl Champions with parades and celebrations. It would begin preparing for an international summit that would be held in the city. It would welcome home it’s Stanley Cup Champions and would shake it’s head when the beloved Pirates would register it’s 17th straight losing season. And come August both the City of Pittsburgh and the Steelers organization began preparing for the beginning of football season. Throughout this past week, as we began to count down the days and then the hours, events were held in anticipation of the city and the Steelers hosting the first game of the regular season. NFL60 events were held around the area and on Thursday evening, while people tailgated at Heinz Field, others were filing into Point State Park to be a part of the opening celebrations that featured the Black Eye Peas and Tim McGraw.
Then it happened, it was finally here. Somewhere in my mind I heard echo’s of Bocephus asking if we were ready for Football and for a moment, John Maddens absence was extremely notable. The fireworks erupted and the Steelers were announced and the Tennessee Titans would be entering hostile territory. And before the kickoff, we stopped and remembered the tragic events of 9/11 and paid tribute to those lost, not only on Flight 93 but in NYC and the Pentagon. The coin toss, the kick-off and then they were off.
How can you talk about the first game of the season without talking about the events leading up to it? With football there is history, legacies and traditions, one of which having the Superbowl Champions hosting the first game. This year, it would be held in Pittsburgh. And what more fitting opponent for the team who won it all to meet the last team that beat them.
The Tennessee Titans come into the 2009 season with unfinished business and the Pittsburgh Steelers, despite the words of coach Mike Tomlin and company, looking to repeat as Superbowl Champions. Going into the game there were many story lines. The Steelers hadn’t lost a home opener in the last six years. Titans quarterback Kerry Collins, prior to the meeting was 3-0 against the Steelers. Last night, one of these streaks would come to an end. The comment of LenDale White seemed to be shrugged off in regards to the towel, except, with the fans.
By now we all know the results of a game that was nothing less then fitting for a season opener, a nail biter to the very end. Fans looking for high scoring shootouts would be disappointed. For Titans and Steelers fans, could we have hoped for better? Perhaps in some areas, yes. In others, well.
Anyone who thought the Titans defense would degrade substantially with the departure of Albert Haynesworth, may have jumped a little too soon to that conclusion. Titans coach Jeff Fisher came into the game with a plan to stop the Steelers running game and they were successful, allowing less then 30 yards on the ground. At one point their defense had the Steelers at negative yardage. Offensively, Kerry Collins showed once again why he should be starting quarterback ending the night 22 for 35 with 1 interception. Most noteworthy though is the Titans offensive line which gave excellent protection to Collins, allowing only one sack.
As for my black and gold. Despite the slow start, in the end, even with some issues, Steelers seemed to have started the season with the same form that got them to the Superbowl last year, with one exception – a seemingly much improved oline when it comes to pass protection.
When first signed by the Steelers, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the number 7 due to his favorite player being John Elway. By the end of last nights game, Roethlisberger would once again, have the media talking about his clutch performance. When the offense was under Ben’s control, he was almost perfect, at one point completing 12 straight passes while in no huddle, keeping the Tennessee defense on their heels.
Offensively, in the passing game, though some errors and mistake, the wide receivers (and tight end Heath Miller) came through. Veteran receiver Hines Ward showed just a little too much passion, but in the end, the Steelers defense was able to keep the Titans down field, allowing the game to go into overtime. Earlier in pre-season I had commented that rookie Mike Wallace would make a name for himself and he didn’t prove me wrong when, in OT he put himself into a position to catch a pass that allowed Jeff Reed to kick the game winning field goal.
I could say that I was excited about the passing game, but those of us who’ve watched Roethlisberger and company for the past few years knew, that despite what critics said, we could trust Ben if the game relied on his arm. With the lack of a run game and the inability to convert 3d and shorts on the ground, that was the only way it was going to get done. However, the excitement I felt last nigh was watching kick returner Stefan Logan picking up more then ten yards on a run back. Logan’s acquisition from the CFL by the Steelers promises to fill a need where in the past the Steelers special teams struggled in punt and kick off returns.
Unfortunately, the Steelers still need to find a way to create a ground game and perhaps, as the season wears on, it will. Defensively, the Steelers seemed not to have lost a step, until free safety Troy Polamalu went out with an sprained MCL. When he returns is unknown. Although, not as electricifying as Polamalu, Tyrone Carter backfilled just fine and nearly had an interception of his own, though Polamalu’s absence was noticeable at times.
As far as any retribution for the “disrespect of the towel”, it was doubtful that there was any. It was more of a matchup between two teams, one looking to defeat the current champions, the other looking to atone for their last matchup. Although, something to ponder. The late Myron Cope use to say that the Terrible Towel was magical. Never more apparent are the towels waving then when a team is down by the goal line and the camera’s catch everyone on their feet swinging the towel around. A lot of talk over the off-season about the Titan’s disrespect for the towel. Could it be the spirit of the towel took it’s revenge on the least likely of persons, Titans kicker, Rob Bironas? How strange that one of the most accurate kicker in the league would miss a field goal under 40 yards with it going wide right and then on his second attempt, actually have it blocked by Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith. I know ludicrous, right?
As for Tomlin and company. Well they have ten days to rest before heading to Chicago. Coach Tomlin and the rest of the team, despite being asked about repeats, say they are seeking a championship and not looking to repeat. Funny, former Steelers Coach Chuck Knoll adopted that mentality and those types of comments with the press the years the Steelers won the SB back to back. It’ll be a long and exciting season for fans, something we’ve been waiting for along time. Once again, it's a new beginning.