The 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers intrigued us, made us smile and surprised even their harshest critics. …
Blog ... If I Were A Carpenter
Did we learn anything from this game? Well, the teams set a record for fewest combined running attempts with 45. The previous record was 47 set in 2002 by the Patriots and St. Louis Rams. It's a sign of the times and Steelers fans are hopeful it doesn't mean Bill Cowher is wrong in pursuing his present offensive course. Is he wrong? I'd given it consideration before this season. But this season the Steelers overpowered many defenses that were built to stop finesse offenses such as those in this Super Bowl. By the end of the season, I believed the game had come full circle for Cowher and that power football could win, even dominate, again. After all, didn't Tampa Bay win it all only two years ago? So, yes, I'll continue to believe in Cowher, while telling myself, 'His quarterback was only a rookie. His quarterback was only a rookie.'
I read two stories today about the Patriots' use of the 4-3 on Sunday that hadn't been used since preseason. But according to the gamebook, the Patriots opened up in a 2-5 alignment. Whatever they used after that, I don't know (I didn't TiVo this one), but the pass rush worked. That's what we also learned here. The pass rush proved again to be more important to a defense than coverage. The Steelers can get by with their DBs, particularly since most are young and still learning, but they must find a way to harass quarterbacks the way the Patriots harassed Donovan McNabb. Hey, Tedy Bruschi was a defensive tackle in college. Do you think a smallish, quick tackle such as Justin Babineaux could play inside linebacker? I can't say. I do know Alonzo Jackson wasn't the answer, but that doesn't mean the Steelers should quit trying. David Pollack, Matt Roth, trade up for Dan Cody. Something. Anything. Pass rushers. Get LeBeau in on this. Think.
A couple of notes: Cris Collinsworth kept raving about Matt Light and I didn't understand why. Jevon Kearse owned him, I thought. The announcers disparaged Kearse at every turn, but I thought he played well. ... I don't think the loss of both coordinators will hurt the Patriots at all. Bill Belichick will roll on. ... I find it humorous when Pittsburgh pundits warn Steelers fans to beware the Cleveland Browns once Romeo Crennel takes over. In fact, I find it humorous when anyone mentions the Cleveland Browns. ... Terrell Owens was outstanding Sunday night. The man in charge of his re-hab, Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder, oversaw Rod Woodson's re-hab while in Pittsburgh in 1995. Burkholder also oversaw the re-hab of Duce Staley in Philadelphia. Staley is the only NFL player to have successfully resumed a career interrupted by the dreaded Lis Franc injury. ... Todd Pinkston left the game with cramps. His yards-per-catch average was 20.5. Want him? ... I've never watched a reality show and am annoyed to be quieted by commercial watchers. I'm obviously an old foggy who doesn't keep up with pop culture. I never miss anything, though, because I know where to find what I need to find.
Feb 5, 2005: Basically, there are two considerations for Steelers fans: One, they should root for the New England Patriots because they beat the Steelers; or, two, they should root for the Philadelphia Eagles to derail the Pats' budding dynasty. If the Patriots win, they'd have three titles in four years and would need only one more in the next two years to make a claim as the co-greatest dynasty in the modern era of pro football.
Frankly, I can't say it makes a difference to me, so let's go to the tiebreaker: Fan Smugness Factor.
Now, Patriots fans have become quite smug, but there aren't that many of them in the area, and the few I do know are pretty savvy football fans. There's also the fact that New England fans care more about baseball, so that probably has kept their F.S.F. down a bit. Losing has kept Philadelphia's F.S.F. low for some time, but we on the other side of the state are wary. We know how belligerent Eagles fans can be. The fact they booed Santa Claus is a positive in my book, but I fear an overwhelming F.S.F., starting with the governor, if the Eagles win on Sunday, so I'm rooting for the Patriots to keep the pride in the AFC. They are a pretty humble bunch, but I'll agree that this "no respect" mantra is becoming old, very old. Yet, I have to believe that any team hale enough to whip the Steelers at Heinz Field two weeks ago has to be good enough to beat the one-man band from Philly.
From a handicapping angle, I compared the games involving the five opponents common to both teams this regular season. To our benefit, each team played the same teams on the road (Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis) and the same teams at home (Baltimore, Cincinnati). Stunningly, the Eagles were outscored in their five common games, 126-69. Much of it had to do with lopsided losses to St. Louis and Cincinnati the final two weeks of the season. Still, while the Eagles had already clinched homefield advantage and didn't need to win either of those games, Super Bowl winners tend to play their best ball at the end of the season, so those stats were included. To counter this potential discrepancy, I used the Patriots' regular-season game at Pittsburgh instead of the post-season game.
The results of the categories I use in handicapping games were surprising in that they weren't as lopsided in the Pats' favor as expected, since they'd outgained the Eagles by 105 yards and outscored them by 23 points, on average, in those five common games.
Those stats might be enough for some to predict an easy Patriots win, but my favorite stats (aside from the too-complicated passer rating differential) are line-of-scrimmage averages, defensive yards-per-completion averages and yards-per-point averages. The first category measures physical might; the second measures big-play defense, pass rush and tackling ability; and the third measures efficiency, which can be a catch-all for coaching, turnovers, penalties and special teams.
The Eagles actually came out on top at the line of scrimmage by 0.1 yards per carry.
The Pats have the slightly better defensive yards-per-completion average (10.4 to 10.7) and not surprisingly a significant advantage in yards per point (+5.5 to -5.4).
So the Patriots are more efficient, which I expected, but the Eagles, even though they were significantly outscored in the five games, figure to be able to match up physically. So it's a wash. As Neil Young sang in "Powderfinger", the song he intended for use by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the numbers add up to nothing. Yeah, red means run, son, so I guess I'll be sitting this one out. I do predict the Pats by 10, but won't be making any type of investment.
As for the over-under (47.5), analyzation of the yards-per-point stats can often guide you to a nice pick, but again, the numbers are of little help. The Eagles' offense and the Pats' defense nudge me toward the under, while the Pats' offense and the Eagles' defense do the opposite. Let's just go with Patriots 27, Eagles 17.
At this time of year, ESPN provides around-the-clock highlights of past Super Bowls, and Friday it was Super Bowl 30's turn. A most interesting series of exchanges took place after the Steelers had cut the Dallas Cowboys' lead to 10 early in the fourth quarter. Special teams coach Bobby April approached Bill Cowher on the sideline and asked if he wanted to use the "surprise onside" kick.
Cowher paused, and over his headset asked, "Wanna go surprise onside? What do you think Chan? Chan?"
At that, April walked away as if to say, "Why would you ask the wide receivers coach about this?"
Cowher, who at this point was taking the advice of Chan Gailey instead of offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, quickly called April back and said, "Hey, let's do it. Surprise onside."
Cowher turned his attention back to his headset and said, "Hey, Dick, I'm going onside here. We're not leaving anything in the bag."
After Deon Figures recovered the onside kick, April ran up to Cowher and said, "Great f-----' call." And Cowher began with his "Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!" to the offense as it headed onto the field.
The Steelers drove for a touchdown to cut the Cowboys' lead to 20-17. Before the next kickoff, Cowher said to the side judge, "That was a gutsy call on the onside, wasn't it?"
"Great call," said the side judge.
"Huh?" said Cowher.
"It got us into the game," Cowher said with a huge smile.
"Yes," concluded the side judge.
Another interesting exchange preceded that one. The Steelers had just been stuffed on fourth-and-1 at midfield after three attempts by Bam Morris. The Steelers were trailing, 20-7, at the time.
"No, it was my decision not to punt," Cowher said over the headset. "It's all on me. (If we) can't make a f----n' yard when you're down by 13 points, you don't deserve to win a championship. (Pause) Is that the right thinking? I don't know, but that's my thinking." And with that Cowher turned off his headset and the second-guessers in the press box.
Feb 3, 2005: The most interesting news of the week was buried below the continuing nonsense about Ben Roethlisberger's broken-sprained-damaged-healthy-fine toes. I won't even waste another second on that soap opera, but did find Roethlisberger's "second public plea" for the Steelers to keep Plaxico Burress very interesting, and for the most part uplifting.
One of the positives I take from it is that the young quarterback really does enjoy Burress' company on and off the field. Since I've sniped all season at a media that overrates Burress' importance to the team, readers might assume I'm dismayed at the quarterback's positive appraisal, but it actually made me feel good about both of them. What's there not to like about a young quarterback making a public plea for the return of a wide receiver? Even though I'm against overspending to sign Burress, I'm willing to listen to a more educated opinion, and certainly Roethlisberger's is all of that. But what I liked even better about the pronouncement is that it had to be made publicly. Yes, it was made through the media, ergo it wasn't made to the head coach or the front office. I'm relieved that Roethlisberger didn't take matters into his own rookie hands here. Not that I don't think quarterbacks should have a voice in team matters, but not rookie quarterbacks, or even young quarterbacks. Three-year vet Kordell Stewart once sat in on the interview process to fill the offensive coordinator position. The hiring of Ray Sherman in 1998 was a disaster. It also, I believe, negatively altered Stewart's perception of his importance within the organization. He wasn't a true leader after only three years in the league, but had the role foisted upon him by a coach who thought it would help his quarterback become a leader. Bill Cowher put the cart before the horse and the result was the worst hire of his career.
OK. So I like Roethlisberger standing up for one of his boys, and that he didn't feel he was important enough to take that thought directly to his bosses. At the same time, I also believe this is the perfect opportunity for the parent (Cowher) to tell the child (Roethlisberger) "no." It's what parents must do from time to time, to show their child he can't have everything, and in my mind Burress is a luxury. While Roethlisberger's feelings help Burress' case if he would in fact settle for a reasonable re-signing bonus, I'm against a big payday for all of the reasons I've listed throughout the season: stiffed the team in the off-season; too much money at the position; doesn't produce enough; the "stretch-the-field" argument is a figment of the media's imagination; and the team won (5.67 and 0) without him. And, frankly, he's not talented enough. I thought that point became clear in the AFC championship game.
Here's another argument against re-signing Burress: Author Chris Harlan pored through NFL play-by-play sheets for data that tells us Burress caught only 51.5 percent of the passes thrown his way (35 of 68, corrected in the print edition of The Beaver County Times), which is well off the percentages posted by the elite receivers in the game. Now, Burress supporters point to his 19.9 yards-per-catch average, which ranked second in the league. Third in that category was another fifth-year receiver, Todd Pinkston, who's likely on his last legs in Philadelphia because of a perceived lack of courage. Pinky, the 36th player drafted the year Burress was drafted 8th, averaged 18.8 yards per his 36 catches. Burress caught 35 passes and outscored Pinky 5 TDs to 1. In their careers, Burress averaged 16 yards per catch and Pinky 15.3. If you hold Pinky in as low regard as Eagles fans do, you'll agree the YAC stat is overrated. There's also this guy: Gary Ballman. He played five years with the Steelers in the 1960s after being drafted out of Michigan State. In his fifth year, he caught 41 passes (16.2 avg.) and scored 5 touchdowns. He had a career YAC of 19.1 with the Steelers, but was shipped to the Eagles and became all but forgotten in Pittsburgh. Now, the Steelers won only 7 games the next 3 years, but that won't confuse me. Not after what I watched in the biggest game of Burress' career. He mistimed his jump on two big plays and wouldn't come back for a third pass. He's...just...not...that...good. Sorry, Ben.
FOUND IN THE E-MAIL
Ed finally decides to take a vacation. He books himself on a Caribbean cruise and proceeds to have the time of his life - until the boat sank. He found himself swept up on the shore of an island with no other people, no supplies ... Nothing. Only bananas and coconuts.
After about four months, he is lying on the beach one day when the most gorgeous woman he has ever seen rows up to him. In disbelief, he asks her, "Where did you come from? How did you get here?"
"I rowed over from the other side of the island," she says. "I landed here when my cruise ship sank."
"Amazing," he says. "You were really lucky to have a rowboat wash up with you."
"Oh, this?" replies the woman. "I made the rowboat out of raw material found on the island. I whittled the oars from gum tree branches; I wove the bottom from palm branches; and the sides and stern came from a Eucalyptus tree."
"But ... but ... that's impossible," stutters Ed. "You had no tools or hardware. How did you manage?"
"Oh, no problem," replies the woman. "On the South side of the island, there is a very unusual strata of alluvial rock exposed. I found if I fired it to a certain temperature in my kiln, it melted into forgeable ductile iron. I used that for tools and used the tools to make the hardware." Ed is stunned. "Let's row over to my place," she says.
After a few minutes of rowing, she docks the boat at a small wharf. As Ed looks onto shore, he nearly falls out of the boat. Before him is a stone walk leading to an exquisite bungalow painted in blue and white. While the woman ties up the rowboat with an expertly woven hemp rope, he can only stare ahead, dumbstruck. As they walk into the house, she says casually, "It's not much, but I call it home. Sit down, please. Would you like to have a drink?"
"No, no thank you," he says, still dazed. "Can't take any more coconut juice."
"It's not coconut juice," the woman replies. "I built a still. How about a Pina Colada?"
Trying to hide his continued amazement, he accepts, and they sit down on her hand-woven couch to talk. After they have exchanged their stories, the woman announces, "I'm going to slip into something more comfortable. Would you like to take a shower and shave? There is a razor upstairs in the cabinet in the bathroom."
No longer questioning anything, Ed goes into the bathroom. There, in the cabinet, is a razor made from a bone handle. Two shells honed to a hollow-ground edge are fastened on to its end inside of a swivel mechanism. "WOW! This woman is amazing," he muses, "what next?"
When he returns, she greets him wearing 'nothing but vines' strategically positioned, and smelling faintly of gardenias. She beckons for him to sit down next to her.
"Tell me," she begins suggestively, slithering closer to him, "We've been out here for a really long time. I know you've been lonely. There's something I'm sure you really feel like doing right now, something you've been longing for all these months. You know..."
She stares into his eyes. He can't believe what he's hearing!
"You mean ...", he swallows excitedly, "We can watch the Steeler game from here?"
Feb 1, 2005: It's been about 10 days since the apocalypse and I'm beginning to crawl out of my hole. Yes, the quarterback learned plenty, and the offensive line figures to improve next year with Kendall Simmons back and promising Max Starks in place of Oliver Ross, and the defense will take on the necessary additions Dick LeBeau needs for his pass rush.
All of those units failed miserably with the Super Bowl on the line, but because they figure to improve appreciably there's reason to believe the Steelers will be an even better team next year. They might not post that mind-boggling 15-1 record again, but could realistically improve as a team. So not all is depressing, however there's one numbing aspect I can't shake and that is the head coach. Now, I'm not about to begin working for firecoachcowher.com but it's the one aspect of the playoff loss to New England that's still disturbing. Bill Cowher is now 1-4 at home in the NFL semifinals. You want to cut the guy some slack because he did go up against an outstanding team with a rookie quarterback calling the shots, and for the most part the Pittsburgh media has cut Cowher slack this time around because Cowher did a brilliant job this season. He was a big reason for the success, the appearance in the semifinal. He kept the players focused, wouldn't allow injuries to become an excuse and, I thought, handled the media with aplomb. But the team went out and laid an a-plomb bomb in the playoffs. They squeaked past the New York Jets in the first round before laying the egg against the Patriots. Political writer (and Pittsburgh native) Howard Fineman may have put it best when he described Cowher as "inspirational but unimaginative." It's an apt description that did nothing to lift the depressing haze surrounding Steelers fans lo these 10 days. Can the guy ever win the big one? Is Cowher the classic tease that can roll through the regular season but never the playoffs? Would a 16-0 regular-season this calendar year be met with skepticism in the next playoffs? Will there ever be a payoff? The question was put to one of the great football writers of our time, Paul Zimmerman, this week, and he replied with optimism for Steelers fans, pointing out that both Tom Landry and Don Shula "couldn't win the big one" but both finally did. Landry went 4-5 in playoff games (1-2 in semifinals) before his championship 1971 season. Shula also went 4-5 in playoff games (0-3 in championship games, including the immortal upset loss to the Jets in 1969) before the undefeated 1972 season. Cowher was 4-5 prior to the 1997 season, so by statistical pattern that was the year he should've won. Of course, it didn't happen. Cowher is now 8-9 in the playoffs and the inspirational-but-unimaginative tag has never been more appropriate. But as Zimmerman pointed out, the Steelers are in great shape as a franchise. Cowher will have another chance. He knows how to position his team; now he needs the talent to take over. In that sense, Cowher is comparable to Mike Ditka, another unimaginative coach who stuck to his predictable game plan with the 1985 Chicago Bears and won through sheer might. That could happen with the Steelers. Fans can only hope that when the Steelers do have that sheer might and can steamroll any team in its path, Cowher doesn't change gears in an attempt to break from his mold. He is what he is. If he does some day put together a truly physical powerhouse, Steelers fans had better hope Cowher just gets out of the way and let's that team rumble.
This new off-season blog is a work in progress and we're hoping to update it 3-4 times a week, perhaps more if the news warrants it. To catch up on some old housekeeping, the Steelers added 10 players to their roster and sent five to NFL Europe. Now, tracking down the names of these players for this little entry was something of an adventure. The team's official site doesn't list any additions. I went to the Steelers roster at NFL.com, which lists punter Mike Barr. Knowing that can't be right, I called up the roster at NFLPlayers.com and it includes Dante Brown. Knowing that can't be right, I looked up the roster on our site and it includes Drew Caylor. Knowing that roster can't be right, I called the Steelers, and a spokesman said "We haven't officially released anything yet. Nothing's been finalized yet. We hope to have something soon." I asked about the five players sent to NFL Europe -- reportedly Matt Farrior, Bob Dzvonick, Lewis Moore, Sam Simmons and Lenny Vanderwade -- and the spokesman said, "That still has to be finalized." I'd expect the Trib to have the names right. Of those five, the first three are interesting in name recognition only. Farrior is the brother of James; Dzvonick played at nearby Shaler H.S.; Moore was a linebacker at Pitt. I doubt these guys are anything more than fodder, particularly Vanderwade, who looks like a few of my old stoner friends from high school. And if sending a wide receiver to Europe means anything in the way of development, the Steelers would've sent Walter Young -- a member of their 2004 practice squad and now (reportedly) on the roster -- instead of Simmons, who appears to be nothing more than a scrapheap pick-up.
Speaking of Shaler, the school may have turned out a winner in Dzvonick but it certainly turned out a loser in radio loudmouth Mark Madden. This piece of garbage spent the season spewing rumors gleaned by his cub reporters in the locker room this season and typically blew them out of proportion, including one ridiculous rumor in Madden's continued harassment of Jerome Bettis. Long-time radio pro Stan Savran finally called Madden "a coward" and it was reported by the Post-Gazette's sometime media critic Bob Smizik. Madden says you don't have to face an athlete after criticizing him, and he's probably right. But I don't operate that way and neither does Smizik. I remember starting out in the business and watching Smizik roll into a press conference and sitting in the front row the day one of his columns ripped the speaker at that press conference. He was there if the speaker had anything to say, which he didn't. I've admired Smizik's approach to his job ever since and have in fact attempted to emulate him. Today, I'm admiring Savran's work and laughing at the idiot Madden, a true coward in every sense of the word. He's been ripping me ever since I criticized one of his columns on the air, and of course I did so to him personally. He couldn't address the criticisms then, instead handling it the only way he knows how, through cowardice and lies. Have fun with him, Stan, but remember chewing him up and spitting him out will be an enormous task and one probably not worth the waste of your time.
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