Kovacevic: Why it’s absurdly hard, even at 1-4, to bury Steelers


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Some dude named Duck is the quarterback.

I mean, with all due respect to Devlin Hodges, that's really where the conversation should begin and end regarding the rest of the Steelers' 2019 season. Because the NFL's a quarterback-driven league, and the franchise linchpin was already lost when the promising protege went down Sunday, as well. And all that remains is an undrafted rookie out of -- hang on, I need to look this up again -- Samford University in Alabama.

It's over.

It's fat-lady-sung, Germans-bombed-Pearl-Harbor over.

It's as over as it could conceivably be with a 1-4 record, a long flight out west to face the Chargers up next, and so much else already having gone so very wrong.

And yet ...

"We know what the record is, and we know how it looks," Alejandro Villanueva was telling me at Heinz Field after the latest loss Sunday. "But nothing changes here. We still go out and play the same way, keep getting better. Nothing changes."

And yet ...

"We honestly feel like this defense is getting better and better, week to week," Bud Dupree was telling me. "It hasn't been good enough to win, but that's going to change."

And yet ...

The Browns were manhandled late Monday night by the 49ers, 31-3, out in Santa Clara, meaning they're now 2-3. And the Ravens take over first place in the AFC North at an almost-as-mediocre 3-2.

And yet ...

The division as a whole, including the Steelers, is now 3-11 against non-divisional opponents. And those three victories against non-divisional opponents have come against the Dolphins, Cardinals and Jets, who themselves are a combined 1-11-1.

And yet ...

The four opponents who've beaten the Steelers -- Patriots, Seahawks, 49ers, Ravens -- are now a combined 16-3. And beyond the 30-point blowout in Foxborough, the other three losses came by a combined nine points.

And yet ...

The 11-game schedule ahead includes four more AFC North games, as well as Dolphins (0-5), Cardinals (1-3-1) and Jets (0-4). Only the Bills have a lighter schedule the rest of the way:

Let's word this another way: The season's already had enough strangeness to cover half a decade. No point in ruling out that it could get that much stranger.

• It's wonderful that Mason Rudolph popped up at the Rooney Complex the day after being completely KO'd, but man, it'd be that much more wonderful if he didn't play in L.A.

I know no one wants to hear that. Insert obligatory comment about letting the doctors do their jobs, which easily can be translated to let my football team win. But there are concussions, and there's being sent into the next century, which is unmistakably what happened to Rudolph with that cheap, illegal helmet hit by the Ravens' Earl Thomas. And with concussion victims known to experience symptoms on a delayed basis, it sure would be nice if Rudolph could demonstrate a few successive days -- not hours -- to show he's OK.

• Besides, I kind of liked Duck, didn't you?

Not that much. Don't misunderstand. But there's something to be spoken for a 23-year-old of his pedigree having such a passion for the game that he persisted through not being courted by a major college, not being drafted by an NFL team ... only to stick it to everybody by showing up at Saint Vincent and just making play after play after play. And now this.

I liked this, too: At his stall following the game Sunday, he seemed completely comfortable with all the cameras and microphones suddenly crushing his space and offered this: "It's football. It's just football. I've been playing football all my life."

When he put it like that, everything we'd all just witnessed made so much more sense.

• Don't gloss over James Washington showing up in a sling. I get that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner were under-utilizing him, but I also get that his ceiling's way higher than some of the people who've been playing ahead of him, and who now will take those snaps. More Donte Moncrief isn't a plus.

• The anonymous alleged friend of the NFL's worst owner allegedly told a reporter that the Redskins allegedly have Tomlin on a wish list of potential future coaches. And somehow, some thought this was news.

Sometimes I just can't.

Le'Veon Bell thought so highly of his own value that he insisted on being paid like an elite running back and an elite wide receiver. Well, now that he's sat out an entire season, then signed with the Jets, he's played four games and has averaged 50.5 rushing yards per game (25th in the NFL), 2.9 yards per carry (54th), and 41.5 receiving yards per game (82nd overall, 8th among running backs), and one touchdown (tied for 90th).

Sure, there are mitigating circumstances, chiefly that the Jets are a disaster up front and don't have a quarterback. But unless my memory's foggy, the point had been made in this town countless times that Bell's performance was boosted by a veteran offensive line and a Hall of Fame quarterback.

Well, make the point again.

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