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Only the Steelers can contain Maddox mania

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2002

Finally, after he'd posted a 4-1-1 record as a starter and another victory in relief, a hint of ego emerged from Tommy Maddox. But even then, it took a franchise record-setting performance and some prodding from a media wise guy to bring it out.

"Stats and quarterback rating and all that stuff, that's for fantasy league teams to me," Maddox said when peppered about the significance of his Steelers-record 473 yards passing in Sunday's 34-34 tie with Atlanta.

Maddox' sincerity, as usual, wasn't an issue at the moment. Still, the response begged for a follow-up query.

"Tommy, are you in a fantasy league, and if so, do you have yourself?"

That drew a hearty laugh from the quarterback.

"I'm not in a fantasy league," Maddox said. "If I was, I would have myself."

It's obvious by now that fantasy players who haven't claimed Maddox have missed a boat the size of The Titanic.

Maddox is having the ultimate fantasy season. And the scary part is he still may not have reached his ceiling.

Not so very long ago he was a guy many were convinced was an inadequate alternative to Charlie Batch as the Steelers' backup.

Then, Maddox became a desperation replacement for Kordell Stewart against Cleveland in late September with the Steelers' season seemingly hanging in the balance.

After that, following much deliberation from coach Bill Cowher, Maddox was reluctantly thrust into the role of starter Oct. 6 at New Orleans.

How are we to characterize Maddox now?

As the Steelers' MVP?

As the NFL's MVP?

As a Pro Bowl quarterback• An All-Pro?

In the wake of Maddox completing 28 of 41 passes for 473 yards and four touchdowns with one interception against the Falcons, nothing is out of the question.

Clearly, Maddox is the Steelers' MVP, and that takes into account the consistently outstanding play being turned in by wide receiver Hines Ward and linebacker Joey Porter this season. Maddox' passer rating of 97.9 trails only Rich Gannon of Oakland (101.2), Brett Favre of Green Bay (101.7) and St. Louis' Marc Bulger (107.4), a product of West Virginia University and Central Catholic High School. Imagine what Maddox' number might be if the Steelers' coaching staff didn't consistently cut him off at the knees in the fourth quarters of games that are seemingly in hand.

Maddox has already thrown 15 touchdown passes this season, along with eight interceptions, in his six starts and his quarter-plus-overtime appearance against Cleveland. Stewart managed 14 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in 16 starts a year ago. Play calling was a factor in that, as well. In 2001, the Steelers got conservative in close because of their apparent trepidation with letting Stewart risk interceptions by throwing into the end zone, and because of their obvious faith in kicker Kris Brown and their defense.

Imagine the disaster this season would have become if the Steelers had been forced to rely on this year's missed-field-goal specialist, Todd Peterson, as often as they did Brown.

So, Maddox is the man for the 2002 Steelers.

Which begs the question yet again, why do they take the ball out of his hands at critical junctures?

Cowher reiterated yesterday that he managed the Atlanta game the way he has always managed games that evolve under similar circumstances.

"I don't think it's deviated," Cowher said of his approach. "You're going to utilize the clock. Certainly, we don't feel uncomfortable throwing it, but we don't feel uncomfortable running it.

"We'd like to think, again, that we're a team that's very efficient at doing both."

Except that the Steelers aren't such a team this season. The running game has materialized as a byproduct of the passing game's success, as a result of Maddox' development not just as a starting quarterback, but as one of the NFL's best.

In light of that, pounding away because logic and tradition dictate that you massage the clock at a given juncture just doesn't make sense, particularly without Jerome Bettis (a position the Steelers might find themselves in more often than not the rest of the way).

Such an evolution for the Steelers this season was unforeseen.

Then again, so was Maddox being an integral part of anyone's fantasy team.

Even his own.

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