The year was 2001. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed XFL MVP Tommy Maddox to replace Kordell Stewart. Maddox, who was known as "Tommy Gun" for his arm strength and accuracy, was believed to be bringing a different type of football to Steeler Nation.
At the time, it was believed that the Steelers would begin to shy away from their "three yards and a cloud of dust" mentality and join the 21st century, as a team that could throw the ball better than, or as good as, they can run it.
Over the course of the next three years, there was a battle in Steeler Nation. Those of the "old school," that didn't want to see the change. That wanted to keep Jerome Bettis running the ball 30-35 times a game, killing the clock and abusing defenses into submission. It was Steelers football. It was the Bill Cowher way.
Then, there were those that believed that it was time for a change. The dynasty of the 70s was LONG in the rear view mirror, without a single Super Bowl championship added to their collection. It was time for the Steelers to, upgrade (for lack of a better term) on the offense, and play football the way the rules have changed to benefit.
Maddox was doing what he was brought in to do. He had Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress as his main weapons, with Antwaan Randle El as his slot receiver and trick play QB. In doing so, Maddox set new Steelers records for passing yards in a season, that were originally set by Terry Bradshaw.
Unfortunately, at the time, Maddox was nearing the end of his career. Yes, he still had some ability, but the Steelers knew they needed to find his long-term replacement. In the 2004 NFL draft, the Steelers were believed to be interested in Philip Rivers, who had played at the Alma Matter of Bill Cowher, NC State.
When Rivers was selected by the New York Giants with the fourth pick in the draft (and then traded to the Chargers for Eli Manning) the Steelers were stuck with selecting the only top-tier QB left in the draft class, Ben Roethlisberger.
It was believed at the time that Roethlisberger was not going to be ready to be the starter for at least two seasons, allowing Tommy Gun the ability to end his career as the starter, while giving Roethlisberger the chance to grow into the Steelers future.
Well, one injury, and the greatest rookie season EVER by a QB, and all that changed. Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to the Super Bowl in three of his seven seasons in the NFL, winning two of them.
Now, entering his eighth season, the Steelers again look to have the same dilemma they had with Tommy Maddox.
Though Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El are both still with the Steelers, neither is nearly the player they were when Ben was a rookie. Ward is probably in his last year with the Steelers, and had the Steelers won the Super Bowl in February, Ward would probably be retired right now. El will be lucky to even make the roster.
What the Steelers DO have as weapons, is unlike anything they have ever had before, INCLUDING when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were lining up wide.
At the No. 1 position, the Steelers have Mike Wallace. Wallace, who is one of the fastest men in the NFL, has had an amazing start to his career. Leading all rookies in yards in 2009, with the highest per catch average in the NFL.
He followed that up in 2010, landing second in the NFL with a YPC over 20, for the second consecutive season. Beyond being a deep threat, Wallace has improved his route running and playmaking ability, to where, at the end of 2011, he will be considered one of the best WR's in the NFL.
When the Steelers traded Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets prior to the 2010 NFL draft, and with the aging Hines Ward, it was understood that if the Steelers were going to be successful into the future, they were going to need to find his eventual replacement.
They did so by drafting Emmanuel Sanders in the third round, the same round as they drafted Wallace the previous season. They then used a fifth-round selection on Antonio Brown. Having drafted two young, fast receivers, they were hoping ONE of them would pan out.
Turns out, they both did.
Though neither Sanders or Browns lit up the scoreboard in their rookie season like Wallace did, they both showed that they have the talent, ability and drive to be successful players in the NFL.
Both Brown and Sanders posses amazing speed, with soft hands able to make catches not only in traffic, but catches most players would not be able to. They both also showed that big games are not too big for them, with both being solid contributors in the Steelers run to the Super Bowl XLV.
Roethlisberger now has weapons as good, or better than, almost any team in the NFL. As hard as this is for me to say, Hines Ward is going to be pushed for playing time with these three young athletes on the roster.
But, it doesn't stop there.
2010 first round pick, Maurkice Pouncey was the first Steeler since Kendrell Bell to start every game his rookie season. Pouncey was selected to the Pro Bowl, and many people believe that had Pouncey not been injured for the Super Bowl, the Steelers may have won that game.
With the selection of Marcus Gilbert in the second round of the draft, the Steelers have also added another piece to their offensive line. No, Gilbert is not going to be a starter his rookie season like Pouncey was but should compete for time at Guard and could be an injury away from being a starter in 2011. It is not like the offensive line has Pro Bowl players in front of him.
The Steelers are also one of the youngest teams in the league at running back, with Rashard Mendenhall (24), Isaac Redman (26) Jonathan Dwyer (21) and rookie Baron Batch (23) as the ball carriers. All of these players are not only solid at running the ball but are able to catch the ball out of the backfield, and make plays.
(Sorry, Tiki; NO room for you here!)
And at 28 years old, Heath Miller has grown into one of the most underrated players in the NFL.
It seems like the argument of "old school" vs. "new school" is no longer even a question, as Roethlisberger has shown that Steelers football is more about winning than the way you win.
With the growth, the Steelers have had on offense over the last couple years, those wins are looking to be coming in bunches for years into the future.