- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

These are tough times in the Steel City.

The Pittsburgh Steelers qualified for the playoffs eight times in coach Bill Cowher’s first 11 seasons, came up short of a second straight AFC Championship game appearance last year and harbored high hopes of a similar result this year. Instead, they have a 4-8 mark and need to split their final four games to avoid their worst record since 1988.

“There were high expectations,” receiver Hines Ward said. “Everybody wanted to have this passing attack and thought [it] was going to go smoothly, but it didn’t happen.”

Quarterback Tommy Maddox isn’t the performer he was last year, but the Steelers’ drastic dropoff isn’t his fault. Blame the vanished running attack. The Steelers’ ground game ranked No.1 in the league in 2001 and ninth last year. This season Pittsburgh ranks 31st.

Benching power back Jerome Bettis for speedster Amos Zereoue and blocking tight end Mark Bruener for pass-catcher Jay Riemersma in an attempt to enhance the aerial game didn’t work. Zereoue proved he’s a third-down back rather than a starter, and Bettis, 31, is averaging 3.2 yards a carry. Meanwhile, Riemersma has been either injured or ineffective.

The offensive line also is a mess. The departure of left tackle Wayne Gandy via free agency forced Marvel Smith to move over from the right side. Smith has missed seven games with a pinched nerve, and new right tackles Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham have been horrible.

Right guard Kendall Simmons lost 40 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes in training camp and hasn’t been the same since. When Smith was hurt, Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca moved to left tackle, and replacement Keydrick Vincent has been awful. Center Jeff Hartings, 31, has aged so quickly that he’s contemplating retirement.

The Steelers’ defense, which ranked seventh overall and first against the run in 2002, has slipped to 12th and ninth, respectively.

Dewayne Washington, the goat of January’s playoff loss at Tennessee, was benched, and fellow cornerback Chad Scott just went on injured reserve after a poor season. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Jason Gildon, 31, has lost enough of his speed to prevent him from disrupting offenses much anymore. And the Steelers have forced 16 turnovers, third fewest in the league, after collecting 36 in 2002.

Not very sunny San Diego — The Chargers, whose last playoff victory was in the 1994 AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh, are an AFC-worst 2-10. Coach Marty Schottenheimer termed the Chargers “miserable.” They have surrendered more points in the first half (207) than four teams have allowed all year. They have given up 620 rushing yards the past three weeks alone.

San Diego hasn’t had a winning record or playoff team for eight years, which will be the NFL’s longest streaks if Cincinnati finally meets those challenges this month. The Chargers have had three winning records in the 19 nonstrike years of Alex Spanos’ ownership.

So it’s not a great time for the Spanos family to be in an ugly fight with San Diego officials about a new stadium. The Chargers, who moved their training camp to suburban Los Angeles this year and are rumored to be considering a move up Interstate 5 from where they came in 1961, have filed suit to get out of their lease at Qualcomm Stadium.

“We’re trying our best to stay,” Chargers stadium consultant Mark Fabiani said. “We think this is the issue that’s preventing us from getting anywhere … in San Diego.”

San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy called the suit “an outrageous act of bad faith,” adding he’s dubious that there can be “meaningful” negotiations as long as the suit is pending. The mayor then struck a real low blow, saying, “If [the Chargers] perform as well in the courtroom as they do on the field, we’ll kill them.”

Finally a home for the J-E-T-S? — The news is much happier for the New York Jets and not just because the team has won three of its last four games after an 0-4 start. After two decades as tenants in Giants Stadium, miles of tangled traffic from their fan base in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island, the Jets finally might get a stadium of their own.

City and state officials told the New York Times that an announcement on a stadium for the Jets on Manhattan’s Upper West Side could come as soon as next month. The governments reportedly have agreed to kick in between $300million and $400million, with the Jets paying up to $800million for the facility, which would have a retractable roof and would serve as an Olympic stadium if New York is awarded the 2012 Games.

Helping out in Harlem — Duke Fergerson caught only 35 passes for Seattle and Buffalo from 1977 to 1980, but the former receiver has come up big for children.

Using a $10,000 grant from the NFL’s Youth Football Fund, Fergerson, who previously coached Pop Warner ball, organized Harlem’s first high school team with players from across the neighborhood. Nicknamed the Hellfighters in honor of an all-black World War I unit, the team made its debut with a 34-6 loss to Garden City on Nov.1 and plans to play a full schedule in 2004.

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