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Slow Starters

For a change, Steelers hope first game is the start of something good

September 07, 2003|From Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — When the Pittsburgh Steelers upset defending division champion Houston in Bill Cowher's first game as coach in 1992, they probably never guessed how difficult it would become to duplicate that opening-game success.

Two things have remained nearly constant since then during Cowher's 12-season stay. One, they usually make the playoffs. Two, they usually do so despite getting off to a bad start.

"There are always games lost during the season," guard Alan Faneca said, reflecting on last year's 30-14 loss at New England in their opener. "It just happened in the first game."

Since that 29-24 surprise win at Houston in 1992, the Steelers are 3-7 on opening day under Cowher, yet made the playoffs in all but one of the seasons they dropped their opener. The only exception was 2000, when they started 0-3 before recovering to go 9-7.

The Steelers have lost their last three openers by a combined score of 67-17, but bounced back to make the playoffs in 2001 and 2002.

The Steelers try to reverse that trend Sunday at home against Baltimore, the third time in six years they've opened against the Ravens.

Through it all, Cowher has tried various ways to get off to a fast start. He's played his starters very little in the final preseason game and, when that didn't work, played them for nearly a half. He's also devoted time in training camp to working on a specific opponent; in other years, he's waited until the first week of the season to do most of the advance work.

How the Steelers perform during exhibition play also doesn't seem to matter.

They had one of their best camps under Cowher last year, going 3-1 in the preseason, only to lose to New England and Oakland when the season started.

In 1995, however, they lost each of their final three exhibitions, then beat Detroit in the opener and went on to reach the Super Bowl.

Don't ask Cowher for a theory, because he doesn't have one. One suggestion: maybe he should try making dinner reservations in advance.

"We always go out after a win," Cowher said. "If we lose, we eat at home."

Obviously, there have been a lot of stay-at-home dinners for the Cowher clan on opening days.

Despite the Steelers' proven ability to bounce back from slow starts, the early hole they've frequently dug for themselves has proven troublesome over the years.

The Steelers began last season as big favorites in the AFC, only to spend the rest of the season trying to catch up after losing their first two.

They made the playoffs with a 10-5-1 record, but the poor start and a late-season upset loss to Houston cost them a first-round bye. After staging an exhausting comeback to beat Cleveland 36-33 in the wild-card round, they had to play Tennessee six days later and lost 34-31 in overtime.

"Start fast, finish strong -- that's what we've talked about the past couple of weeks," Cowher said. "There's no guarantee that how you start is how it's going to end, but it certainly can give you a path that allows for a margin of error somewhere in the middle.

"When you get off to a slow start, you find yourself fighting an uphill battle every week."

This week, in addition to preparing for the Ravens, the Steelers have dealt with the distractions caused by Joey Porter's shooting in Denver. They'll find out Sunday if that might lead to another long day on opening day.

"We need to start a season off right," quarterback Tommy Maddox said.

"It helps the attitude. It helps everything. It's very important for us."

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