Post-Gazette. Not that anyone figured the Steelers would find a way to avoid the reaper, in the end, for playing "cap games", but it's disturbing because I believe the future is more promising than the present."/>

If I Were A Carpenter ...

If I Were A Carpenter ...

There was a rather disturbing story in today's <a href="http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05063/466238.stm"> Post-Gazette</a>. Not that anyone figured the Steelers would find a way to avoid the reaper, in the end, for playing "cap games", but it's disturbing because I believe the future is more promising than the present.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, of course, is the future, and that future is being compromised by monopoly money.

The Steelers got lucky ... not fortunate ... not blessed ... they didn't win on the strength of their extreme diligence and intelligence ... they flat got lucky with Roethlisberger last year. This year, he'd be the No. 1 pick of the draft. He could've been last year, but Eli Manning presented a reasonable case. And to help create the perfect storm were Marty Schottenheimer, the Cleveland Browns and a crop of terrific athletes who appealed to teams that already had young quarterbacks. The Steelers were left with no choice but to take Roethlisberger. The Steelers were LUCKY to have landed a top-of-the-draft caliber quarterback with the 11th pick, and lucky he had the chance to step right in, and lucky he could gain as much valuable experience -- playoff experience at that -- as he did.

And what did that tell the Steelers? That the window of opportunity, perhaps Cowher's best and last, is open.

To backtrack, Cowher's lack of imagination reared its ugly head in the playoffs again. He's a coach who wins by instilling pride and focus during the season, and motivates his team through its lulls. But in the playoffs, when other coaches go to the whip, Cowher's whip is frayed. It could be a problem without solution. No coach has won a championship after not having won with the same team for so long. Bud Grant finally gave up after 18 years. That's the record, and Cowher's entering his 14th season.

But there is hope: Roethlisberger. Not that he showed the charisma of a Bobby Layne, a Jim McMahon, a Joe Namath, of a quarterback who can effectively protect a team from its coach and his stone-age ways, a quarterback who can hear the call in the huddle and say, "hey, screw that boys, let's go with this instead." Roethlisberger really didn't show that kind of charisma -- yet. The potential is there. But HE became the key to the Steelers's future last season, whether they won the Super Bowl in his first year or not. The key is to build around him.

Steelers fans must worry now. They must worry that the front office is doing all it can to keep the window open, when instead they should worry only about putting fresh kerosene in the small heater that's keeping the workers -- the ones building the foundation -- warm for the time being.

I'm not advocating tearing it all down. Not at all. I'm still intrigued by the open window, as much as my brain tells my heart otherwise. All I'm saying is this team will be better in the future -- when Roethlisberger develops real savvy and charisma and leadership skills -- than it can be this coming season with its unimaginative coach still in charge of the player's hearts and minds.

ROLL CALL

Well, well, well, the Tribune-Review's finally reporting that Jerome Bettis might not return to the team.

The story was broken Wednesday night by KDKA-TV, with stories rehashed the next day in just about every paper and on just about every web site, except of course the Trib's.

So today, they present it in a different manner. They call demoted beat man Jerry DiPaola out from the high-school beat to which he'd been banished, and he tells us Bettis is "leaning" towards coming back. He also corrects the one mistake in the KDKA story, that Bettis does not live in Atlanta. Real classy, Trib.

Yes, I'm harsh on the Trib, but this is a sports page that's trumpeted by cross-promoting radio and TV stations on a daily basis as some sort of local sports bible. Yet, on the first day of unrestricted free agency, and the last day of the draft combine, the lead of its sports page is a blowout on high-school fencing, and a poorly written one at that.

Before I blast away further, here's my personal agenda: The Trib bought my paper back in the late 1980s. It was a fine suburban paper, a real money maker with a fine sports staff, and when Vic Ketchman left to work for the Jacksonville Jaguars, I became sports editor. And the Trib let us die. They wouldn't promote me, wouldn't hire me later, wouldn't even call me back (after interviewing me) to tell me I didn't get a job, even after they'd used my Kendall Simmons-will-be-the-first-pick story on draft day 2002. They didn't even have the class to thank me.

So, as I watched them flounder the last few years with the Steelers, I could only laugh.

So anyway, they banished DiPaola, but called him back because they're getting their tails kicked in the only other sports season in Pittsburgh: Steelers's off-season.

The Trib also jumped this morning on an Associated Press story that Plaxico Burress is "interested" in playing for the Minnesota Vikings. Nice scoop. And they also got around to reporting this morning that Jeff Reed received the middle tender.

Sure I'm being harsh on this rag, but if you have to use a fencing story instead of a free-agent story, when you have the resources to put a man on the phone all day and the big name behind your paper to get call-backs, you should be excoriated. And I'm the man for the job.

I'm sure their coverage will pick up, but once they gain some footing they're sure to change the beat man again.

RIDDLE

This question was posed yesterday: Was there anything more useless late last season than Ron Wahl monitoring a conversation between DiPaola and Keydrick Vincent?

That confab went on seemingly every day down the stretch because DiPaola had anticipated a free-agent phone war with Vincent in free agency. Wahl was there because he knew Vincent liked to talk and was worried about bad PR.

All three have either been fired, demoted or allowed to leave in free agency by their organizations.

FUTURE ATTRACTIONS
Coming Sunday, tons of great information from the combine. Have a great weekend.


Feb 28, 2005: The signing of Jerome Bettis didn't come as a surprise to those who've studied the Steelers over the years. The tip-off was the early release of Chad Scott and Jay Riemersma. The Steelers just don't make moves until they have to, so when Scott and Riemersma were released with four days to spare, it meant the signing of Bettis was imminent.

Are we happy? Well, it's a solid move, let's put it that way. Bettis and Duce Staley were a winning one-two punch last season and there's no reason to believe it can't work again in 2005. To hear local TV reporters, though, one would think the Steelers just landed a 26-year-old Jim Brown. It was overkill for a player who'll contribute as a back-up. I think it's the reporters who sometimes force serious fans off the deep end, and sometimes I almost feel the hatred is justified. Almost.

Speaking of hatred, my wife quit smoking Sunday. She's smoked for 34 years. The hatred is pouring out of her. I'm a quiet writer. Shhhhh.

I'm giving up something too: adverbs. You can thank Stephen King. I'm reading his magnificent book On Writing. By the way, that link won't take you to his book, but I figured the essay is more usable than an ad at Amazon.com.

THE POINT

King would take a red pen through much of this drivel, so to the point: Where do the Steelers stand in terms of personnel after the recent moves?

One, they need to bring Willie Williams back. Scott is no longer a fallback. If they don't bring Williams back, they'll need to draft a cornerback and the Steelers prefer to fill any need prior to a draft if it's affordable, and Williams should be. He can be the fallback if Ricardo Colclough or Ike Taylor don't take the next step.

Two, Bettis closes the last spot at running back. They won't need to draft one, although my boy Nehiamiah Broughton ran a nice 40 at the combine and would be difficult to ignore in the sixth round. To dwell on Broughton for a second, I mistrust the 40 times flying around, but if it's under 4.7 on the Indianapolis carpet, the 250-pounder should be pleased. Don't move him up too high on your draft board. Running backs who lack any of the skill set -- and Broughton played Division I-AA and showed poor hands at the Senior Bowl -- are pushed deep down the board these days.

As for the third Steelers move, the release of Riemersma opens the door for the drafting of a tight end. And it appears the Steelers left the door open to bring him back should they fail to land a TE of their liking in the draft.

These are good, solid moves. The Steelers are (I need an adverb, give me a CIGARETTE!) well positioned for free agency. They have no must-fills, just a few small holes that can be patched in the draft if the free agents are too expensive. Remember, Casey Hampton and Kendall Simmons are coming back and Ben Roethlisberger will make big strides.

PLAXICO NEWS

It's just like the Ravens to provide comic relief : "We've already got a [Burress],'' one Baltimore official said Friday, the second day of the NFL Scouting Combine. "Moore is 6-6, and he's got a higher vertical [leap] than Plaxico."

The second part of the statement may be true, but it's laughable to suggest the two are comparable talents. While I'm down on Burress for the myths that have been created by the media, and the outrageous bonus he WILL receive, I've seen Clarence Moore, and sir ... well, you know the rest.

All we need to know about the offers Burress will receive were answered by the Chicago Bears, who gave 32-year-old Muhsin Muhammed a $12 million signing bonus. There are receivers all over the draft board, yet teams will overpay in free agency. It's a fact of NFL life, and Burress will get his share.

I FIGHT THE LAW

Ty Law's out there. Want him? Not me. But the Steelers are said to be interested.

It's difficult to believe, considering Law missed the last half of last season with the dreaded Lis Franc injury. Duce Staley is the only NFL player to have returned to a high level of play after such an injury. While signing Law would be hailed as a brilliant move by the same aforementioned teleprompter readers, I feel that signing Law would be a mistake. It's a different game with the new coverage rules. Move on. Leave the aging, injured players for the Cleveland Browns.

 WHAT SAYETH THE SCOUTS

Bob McGinn's pre-draft season outlook was published Sunday. It's a pay site, but I was able to open it and hope you can. If not, here are some of the interesting player evaluations by anonymous scouts:

Heath Miller, TE, Virginia: 6-5, 256. Not as athletic as Tony Gonzalez or Jeremy Shockey but an all-around player. "Very good," one scout said. "He might be a little more consistent blocker than Alex Smith. That's the difference." Junior. Showed more receiving skill in '03, when Matt Schaub was his quarterback, than in '04. "But this year he played with a lot of chronic groin strains," another scout said. "He toughed it out."

Alex Smith, TE, Stanford: 6-3 1/2, 257. Clearly the best senior tight end. "Smooth, polished guy," one scout said. "Good hands. Needs to get a little stronger." His father, Edwin, played four seasons for Denver in the mid-1970s. "There's some inconsistency there," another scout said. "Guys right now I talk to are 50-50 split on him. He blocks OK. He can get better."

Both tight ends were ranked in McGinn's second tier of players, which added up to 17. In a surprise, McGinn listed 40 players in his third tier. If that's the consensus among scouts, it might be a good idea for the Steelers to trade down a bit and add picks. Here are a few evaluations of third-tier talents:

Roddy White, WR, Alabama-Birmingham: 6-1, 207. Led Division I-A in average per catch at 20.5 and had 14 touchdowns. "He's got the best down-the-field ball skills of any receiver in the draft," one scout said. On the raw side but has shown steady improvement.

Mark Bradley, WR, Oklahoma: 6-1, 201. A converted quarterback from Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Suffered a torn ACL and transferred to Oklahoma as a walk-on. Sooners coach Bob Stoops called Bradley the best athlete on the team but didn't give him a scholarship until last August. "He's not as smart as Clayton but physically gifted he's better than Clayton," one scout said. "He's the intriguing guy. Fast. Athlete." His father, Danny, was a former starting quarterback for the Sooners.

Marcus Johnson, G-T, Mississippi: 6-6, 313. Four-year starter at right guard but also had a few starts at right tackle. "Love him," one scout said. "He got a chance to be first round." Has a thick build and doesn't make many mistakes. Agent is former Green Bay guard Rich Moran.

Demarcus Ware, DE-OLB, Troy: 6-3 1/2, 247. Registered 28 sacks in four seasons as a vastly undersized end but projects to outside linebacker for teams playing the 3-4 defense. "This guy is Leonard Little," one scout said. "He'd be perfect for a Pittsburgh-type defense." Another scout compared him to Jason Taylor. "He's a better player than Kabeer (Gbaja-Biamila)," another scout said. "Quicker. He's a pass-rushing Jesse. You'd have to look at him as a project. Can he gain 20 pounds?"

Matt Roth, DE , Iowa: 6-3, 279. Enrolled as a 240-pound linebacker. "He's a left end and a good football player," one scout said. "Way better than (Aaron) Kampman. He's got leverage." A self-made player with no quit. "Stiff," another scout said. "Those hard-chargers kill you. I want hard-chargers that can play. Being an overachiever is a weakness when you go to the NFL. It means you're playing over your ability. You can't do that here."

Carlos Rogers, CB, Auburn: 6-0, 195. Four-year starter who bounced back in '04 from a disappointing junior season. "Played pretty well this year," one scout said. "Little tight in the hips. I wouldn't be surprised if he goes bottom of the first."

Brandon Browner, CB, Oregon State: 6-3, 200. Intercepted six passes as a redshirt freshman in '03 but was penalized 17 times for holding or pass interference during a 2004 season in which he didn't intercept a pass. "He'll have to learn how not to hold - that's all he does," one scout said. "He's a lanky guy that plays hard. Somebody might take him in the first day. I wouldn't."

VIDEO FUN

Final word:


Feb 23, 2005: The deadline for using the franchise tag passed the Steelers by yesterday, meaning starters Plaxico Burress, Kendrell Bell, Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross will become free agents next Wednesday and are all but certain to leave Pittsburgh.

Not that any of it came as a surprise, however there's plenty of angst among fans who perceive the Steelers as stubborn for not franchising Burress, the most valuable of the group, in order to at least trade him within the next two weeks.

Obviously, the Steelers are too close to the cap to take on the $7.8 million hit March 2, the start of the new fiscal year. The Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette reported the Steelers could've had that additional week to accommodate the hit. The Tribune-Review's Mike Prisuta, a Michigan State grad, didn't bring anything new to the table, but did point out every last one of Burress's achievements. On his WDVE sports report Tuesday morning, Prisuta also trotted out Ben Roethlisberger's month-old quotes in support of Burress.

Elsewhere on the radio dial, Tim Benz interviewed Burress's agent, Michael Harrison. My notes aren't exact, but here's the meat of the interview:

TB: Could you characterize Plax's emotions?
MH: He's excited to hit the open market, and the lines of communication are open with Pittsburgh.
TB: Are the Steelers interested?
MH: Yeah. I think Pittsburgh would love to sign him, but there's also the practical side.
TB: Does Plax understand the economics of the situation?
MH: A lot of it will be decided by what's out there on the market.
TB: Is he frustrated that the Steelers aren't a passing team?
MH: I think he has been, but the best years are ahead of him. If you put him in a pass-oriented offense, I think you'll see a remarkable player.
TB: If he stays with Pittsburgh, could he evolve into a No. 1 receiver?
MH: I can't answer that one.
TB: Did he express resentment about the Mother's Day incident?
MH: No. Plax is one of the most professional athletes I've ever worked with.
TB: Was the decision to not franchise him made some time ago?
MH: I don't know. I talked to Kevin Colbert. They have economic issues but will keep the lines open. In a perfect world, they'd want him back.
TB: How tough are franchise tags to work around?
MH: They're tough. It affects the cap immediately.
TB: Is Baltimore a player?
MH: We'll find out March 2. It's premature. We want to be professional.
TB: Does Plax worry about his consistency?
MH: No. Plax knows what he can do. He's a great talent.
TB: In Plax's perfect world, would he want to come back?
MH: He'd rather be featured more. Every great receiver does.
TB: Does it come to that or is it money?
MH: I think it does. He wants to show people what he's capable of doing.
TB: But he told me he didn't care about stats. When did that change?
MH: It hasn't changed. He's a consummate pro. He wants to win and help the team by utilizing his skills.
TB: We're going to miss Plax's humor. Can you get him back for me?
MH: If you sign the checks and structure the offense, maybe.
TB: Does he still plan to hunt?
MH: Ask him.
TB: I'll miss his soundbytes. Give him my best.
MH: Right.

Some decent stuff. It's obvious the agent is selling a product, but it's also obvious Burress wants the ball. What receiver doesn't, right? The question that wasn't asked by Benz -- or Bouchette or Prisuta for that matter -- is why the Steelers didn't investigate the tag-and-trade option. My guess is they don't like the maneuver, and even if they do they wouldn't want to rush (Bouchette says a week; Harrison says immediately) their entire off-season accounting to fit Burress' big number into their cap, and then rush to trade him. I'm also guessing the Steelers don't like playing with lives in such a fashion. It's just not how they do business and I applaud their professionalism. Still, I would've liked an explanation. I also would've liked one of these interviewers to have asked whether the Steelers offered Burress anything. The last missed question -- and I may be way off here -- is whether that peculiar burglary at his home last January has anything to do with Burress wanting to leave Pittsburgh.

CLOCK RUNNING ON BETTIS

While the clock struck midnight on the aforementioned starters, it's winding down on Jerome Bettis, who has until Wednesday to decide whether he wants to play football or work in television.

I don't have a strong preference either way. On one hand, Bettis still has enough ability to provide quality depth. On the other hand, I'm ready for some fresh legs in the backfield. Not only would I like to see more of Verron Haynes and Willie Parker, I'd like to see someone the caliber of Ronnie Brown drop to the Steelers in the first round. With Bettis on the roster, the Steelers would have four tailbacks and probably pass on Brown.

But, imagine a scenario in which Bettis retires and Brown doesn't drop. With an opening behind Dan Kreider at fullback, the Steelers could then draft my favorite project, 250-pound Nehemiah Broughton of The Citadel, in the middle rounds. Broughton's a tailback who played fullback in the Senior Bowl, which is the perfect set up for the Steelers. Like Haynes before him, Broughton could prep at fullback for a future at tailback. He's considered a perfect fit for the Steelers's offense.

WHAT, ME WORRY?

The expected loss of the aforementioned free agents has set off a wave of violence. OK, maybe not violence, but the message boards are rife with rage. And it seemed as if drivers were in a particularly foul mood yesterday, too. And my, wife, uh, she kinda funny. Maybe it's the dismal weather. Maybe it's a continuing AFC Championship game hangover. Maybe it's the break-up of the Steelers. Heck, even an heretofore rational columnist such as Joe Starkey is calling for a break-up of the Steelers.

Funny thing, though. While Starkey's shipping every high salary out of town, he's calling for the return of Ross, the team's worst starter. Hey, whatever. Joe's still the best young writer in town.

Me? I'm not worried. I like the Rooneys's slow pace. It's something I can keep up with, like Bobby Knight's pattern offenses. But I really don't see these losses hurting the Steelers. In fact, I believe they'll improve with Kendall Simmons and Casey Hampton back from injuries and with Ben Roethlisberger playing quarterback a second year.

For those who believe the Steelers must sign old free agents such as Joey Galloway, and do all they can to win next year, I remind you Roethlisberger is a babe, yet the rock around which they must continue to build. I believe in drafting and signing free agents with a plan, and Colbert has stuck by his plan for five years. He shouldn't stop now.

REPLACEMENTS

I've written about T.J. Houshmandzadeh so often I think I can spell his name without looking it up. Give me a second just to be sure. Oh, yes! Got it. Yet, we're moving on to a free-agent receiver I feel is a better fit. His name's Corey Bradford. He's out of Jackson State, a.k.a. Walter Payton University, and he's 29 years old. A source with the Steelers once told me they like him because of his speed.

Bradford's best season with the Houston Texans was 2002 when he caught 45 passes and scored 6 touchdowns. He started only 6 games in 2003 but caught 24 passes with a 19.2 ypc average. Last year he started 10 games and caught only 27 passes, so the price should be right for the Steelers, who're only looking for someone to play split end on passing downs when Antwaan Randle El moves into the slot.

If the Steelers don't sign a mid-tier receiver such as Houshmandzadeh, Bradford or Tai Streets, they can find one just about anywhere in the draft. There's even a prospect coming out of a community college.

Speaking of the draft, I know I give Pete Prisco a hard time on occasion, but today he came out with a tremendous list of first-round prospects. He's dead-on with his assessment of the top five players, and then Thomas Davis and Mark Clayton. I love his negative assessment of Derrick Johnson, and also agree with him on Khalif Barnes, Carlos Rogers, Channing Crowder, and Jammal and Reggie Brown later in the round. I also believe his 30th-ranked player was placed with intention.

In another draft note, the NFL Network will televise this weekend's combine. Many of us have switched to the wrong satellite (DISH) network and are hoping for a little help on the message boards from the TV scouts. Please, help me!



Feb 21, 2005: I finally got around to watching "Jerry Maguire" and was surprised. I'd hesitated (only 9 years), figuring the movie pandered to the fanatics of the sports world by romanticizing agents and money-grubbing athletes. Far from it.

It's a great movie with a great soundtrack (thanks again Cameron Crowe) with sage advice sprinkled throughout. The one that brings me here today is the quick shot of an old man clapping his hands and exulting in waking up each morning. That's how I felt today, the day the first real draft story of the season annually comes out. But to my deepest chagrin, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel did not post his pre-combine rundown of the top prospects. It's always the first and best look because McGinn and his arsenal of anonymous scouts tell the truth and thus debunk what draftniks have blindly been telling fans the past month or so.

Disappointed, yet still looking forward to McGinn next Sunday morning, I moved on to Lenny Pasquarelli's Tip Sheet. Alas, there's neither a mention of the Steelers nor any of his typically astute info on draft prospects.

Scrambling for anything to read from national reporters, I moved on to Pete Prisco. Expecting the typical bloviation on his hometown Jacksonville Jaguars, I wasn't disappointed. Prisco ranks the Jaguars third on his list of five teams that will give the New England Patriots a run next season. Prisco, who covered the Steelers-Jags rivalry of the mid to late 1990s, left the Steelers off the list in favor of the Colts, Ravens, Falcons, Bills and his Jags. I could list flaws with each of those teams, but won't since it's Prisco who's obviously flawed. His bias against the Steelers -- a 15-1 team with a rookie quarterback that'll lose very little this off-season -- has been known for years. This time he flat out flaunts it.

Moving off the national scene, I looked first to the Post-Gazette since the Tribune-Review's Steelers coverage is undergoing radical changes. Once again, I was let down. Ed Bouchette wrote his second dull off-the-field story off an interview with team president Art Rooney II. The deadline for franchising players is Tuesday. Plaxico Burress and Kendrell Bell fans can only hope Bouchette is saving the good stuff for last since he won't have competition from the Trib for awhile.

WHO'S YOUR MAMMA?

This story slid off the radar here as I waited for something more concrete, but nothing materialized. The writer is convinced the Steelers will attempt to sign future free agent T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but didn't list a source.

The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. With Burress a near-certainty to leave, the Steelers will need to bolster their receiving corps. Even if Burress stays they'll need to draft a receiver, but if/when he leaves they'll need both a veteran in free agency and a draft pick since both Lee Mays and Antwaan Randle El can become unrestricted free agents next year, and also because the Steelers found themselves short at the position last season anyway.

Houshmandzadeh is typical of the free agent Kevin Colbert has chased in his five years on the job. Houshmandzadeh is young (27), productive (73 receptions in first season as starter) and will be available since the Bengals have Peter Warrick returning and a promising No. 3 man in Kelley Washington. Houshmandzadeh also figures to cost much less than the elite receivers in free agency for the same reason he was a 7th-round draft pick coming out of Oregon State: workout numbers.

I'm also not of the belief that the stereotypical deep threat is needed opposite Hines Ward. I'd just like to see a quality football player at split end and firmly believe Houshmandzadeh is that.

Look for the Steelers to bring him in early as they did Marcus Washington last season. Washington, who was ripped last season by (cough) experts such as radio loudmouth Mark Madden, went on to sign with the Washington Redskins and play in the Pro Bowl.

SENIOR BOWL III

From the notebook of a sportswriter who promises this will be his final installment from the best of college football's all-star games:
  • The Senior Bowl needs to become the Senior, Junior and Sophomore Bowl. Bring all of the prospects together. I really wanted to see Miami WR Roscoe Parrish, Oregon State CB Brandon Browner, Clemson CB Justin Miller, Maryland DE/OLB Shawne Merriman, Virginia DE/OLB Daryl Blackstock, Notre Dame DE/OLB Justin Tuck, South Carolina WR Troy Williamson and Florida RB Ciatrick Fason.
  • According to draftniks, Merriman and Blackstock won't last until pick 30. Neither will Williamson. Tuck, I'm understanding, will be drafted later. So that leaves Browner and Miller as potential picks at No. 30 from among the underclass. I wasn't too impressed with Fason in his bowl game, but with all of the draws Florida runs I couldn't be certain.
  • Parrish has his detractors as well, but I can't get past this story. My wife was reading as I watched Miami in its bowl game. As Florida lined up to punt, I interrupted her so she could watch Miami's punt returner Devin Hester. Yeah, he's that good.. Anyway, he fielded the punt and blazed through Florida for a 72-yard touchdown return and I raved about the kid's speed. Then the announcer said it was not Hester, but Parrish. I had confused the two. It's a mistake I won't forget as the draft approaches and Parrish, not Hester, is available.
  • The combine begins Feb. 23. The Pro Day workouts are underway.
  • Demarcus Ware is another prospect I can't forget about. He didn't impress me as a sometime-OLB for Troy in its bowl game against Northern Illinois. He showed great athleticism but poor instincts, particularly against the run. But he's a cross athletically between Joey Porter and Jason Gildon, and with the growing contingent of 3-4 teams in the NFL I don't suspect it'll be as easy for the Steelers to find 3-4 OLB "tweeners" as it used to be. Since blitzing wasn't allowed at the Senior Bowl, Ware put his hand down and played DE in the 4-3 and was handled by LT Khalif Barnes. But Barnes, I believe, is an outstanding prospect, so I don't want to dismiss Ware. And he did make 3 tackles on the 4 South kickoffs. Therefore, it could make sense for Ware to play special teams and hone his instincts and learn the OLB position behind Clark Haggans for a year or two. The pay-off could be rich because Ware has the athletic ability to become the best Steelers' 3-4 OLB since Greg Lloyd. For that reason, I can't cross him off my list.
  • On one kickoff, Ware blew up Darren Sproles, and then helped him up. Little things add up. Ware also ended Mark Clayton's 26-yard return.
  • Marcus Spears is said to be a legitimate top 10 prospect, and at times I saw why. I jotted down the name Courtney Brown next to Spears and don't know whether that's good or bad. I just don't know what to make of Spears, who's believed to be a 3-4 DE prospect. He just doesn't make enough plays. Shaun Cody, I think, has more potential.
  • North CB Stanley Wilson is the son of the former Bengal by the same name. I think that's a good thing, but am not sure.
  • G-T Marcus Johnson of Ole Miss is drawing raves but I don't understand it. With his slow feet, looked like a poor man's Keydrick Vincent at the Senior Bowl.
  • WR Vincent Jackson looks slow; ILB Alfred Fincher can't take on blocks; Darrant Williams can play but he's mouthy and small (5-8); DE-OLB Trent Cole is a solid mid-rounder; ILB Leroy Hill is a playmaker, but too light (223 pounds) to play LB for the Steelers.
  • Nehemiah Broughton, the 250-pound tailback from The Citadel, played fullback and dropped one bullet pass and another easy one. He did throw one crushing lead block that I'm aware of, but in general was playing out of position. Keep in mind that John Stallworth played defensive back at his Senior Bowl, to the glee of Steelers scouts who liked him as a wide receiver going into the game.




Feb 17, 2005: You might say the Steelers scratched their surface already this off-season with the renovation of their playing field. The surface that claimed the season (career?) of New England cornerback Ty Law was a mess by season's end, but the players often cited it as part of their home-field advantage.

Yet, as Ed Bouchette pointed out in today's Post-Gazette, those same players voted it one of the worst playing surfaces in a survey that flew under the radar of team president Art Rooney II. An odd story to be sure, but one we're certain is a preface to more interesting news regarding the Steelers' plans in free agency. One hand always washes the other, so look for something soon from Bouchette after this recent confab with Rooney.

What can we expect? Well, the Steelers have until Tuesday to franchise a player, and the player they'd like to tag is wide receiver Plaxico Burress. It would cost them approximately $7.8 million in cap space to franchise Burress, but they'd most likely have to clear some of that cap space first. To be certain, the Steelers have until March 1, when the 2005 salaries take effect, to clear all of the space. If they were to do nothing by March 1, the Steelers would be approximately $4.75 million over the cap (counting RFA tenders).

To move under the cap by March 1, the Steelers have several options. The most likely salaries to be chopped are Chad Scott's $3.9 million and Jerome Bettis' $4.5 million. Other potential cap casualties could be Jay Riemersma ($1.3 million) and Mike Logan ($715,000). Aside from Bettis' (if he chooses to return), the most likely salary to be renegotiated is that of Jeff Hartings, who's set to make $4.2 million this season. That all could add up to the approximated $12.55 needed to clear the cap number and also franchise Burress, but wouldn't leave much for draft picks and the renegotiation promised Hines Ward. He has a year left on his contract, as does nose tackle Casey Hampton. The Steelers would also like to bring back free agent Willie Williams. The other key player entering the final year of his contract is Antwaan Randle El, but his fate will likely be determined after Burress'.

ANY INTEREST?

An interesting thought cropped up while reading about the latest move made by the Buffalo Bills. They'll release Drew Bledsoe and commit to second-year quarterback J.P. Losman. A source with the Bills recently told me Losman is still very immature, a trait that turned off many scouts during his senior season at Tulane. I thought Losman was the worst pick in last year's draft and now the Bills will be flying without a net next season, a season in which they're expected to contend for the playoffs. In fact, Tom Donahoe's job may depend on it, so he must find that proverbial safety net. If Donahoe were to ask his coach, Mike Mularkey, he'd probably tell Donahoe to go after Tommy Maddox, who knows Mularkey's offense, has a few years left and wants to start. And Maddox has a better chance of beating out Losman than he does Ben Roethlisberger. The Bills might part with a second- or third-rounder for Maddox, and the Steelers could replace Maddox with Charlie Batch -- a favorite of the ex-Detroit Lions contingent in the front office -- for little cost. It makes sense all the way around, except for one thing: Donahoe would have to initiate the talks. He's done it in the past to hire Mularkey, but this time Donahue would probably have to talk to Bill Cowher. That could be the deal-breaker right there.

SENIOR BOWL II

I know. I know. It's a little late for this since everyone around the 'net has had their say. Here's a guy, in fact, who did a nice job:. I haven't read it since he posted it, so it shouldn't influence my analysis, but here are my second batch of notes after watching the game a second time:
  • Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan raved about ILB Barrett Ruud, but I don't understand it. Ruud is certainly physical enough to slug it out at the point of attack but he looks awfully stiff to me.
  • The ILB who impressed me most was Kirk Morrison. The guy was all over the field. He flashed the suddenness of Kendrell Bell, but since blitzing wasn't allowed we weren't able to see whether Morrison has Bell's explosiveness rushing the passer. But Morrison can cover and showed he's physical enough against the run. Morrison (6-0 3/8, 233) is much quicker than current Steelers mack ILB Larry Foote (6-0, 239), but his lack of great size may (cross fingers here) allow Morrison to slip to the second round. He'd be a steal at pick No. 62.
  • The first player the Steelers interviewed during the practice week was Syracuse LT Adam Terry (6-7 5/8, 324 -- in fact here are all the sizes), who's allegedly very quick for a man that size. I was hoping to get a peek since I didn't watch Terry closely during the regular seaon, but he didn't play in the Senior Bowl because of an injury. The other disappointment was the South squad's use of Fresno State OT Logan Mankins at left guard. Yes, my favorite mid-rounder showed the versatility the Steelers will require in the lineman they end up selecting, but playing guard was a waste in this game. Without any blitzing, the guard almost always had help from the center. Meanwhile, North DE Bill Swancutt dominated the pair of revolving doors the South used in Mankins' place at LT.
  • Because of the poor play of the South OTs, I hesitate to fawn over Swancutt or Matt Roth. The latter showed a great motor, but if the LTs were that bad, how bad could the RTs have been?
  • Alternating with Mankins at LG was Alabama's Evan Mathis, whom I remembered from the regular season as a very solid player. In fact, I like Mathis more than his celebrated sidekick, Alabama LT Wesley Britt. Again, evaluating Mathis in the Senior Bowl was a fruitless venture, but he did show those good feet again, as did Mankins, who pulled effectively when asked late in the game.
  • I really couldn't differentiate between Georgia WRs Reggie Brown and Fred Gibson. Apparently, Brown is judged by scouts as the more consistent player and a potential bottom-of-the-first-round guy. The WR I like is Michael Clayton, whom scouts consider a poor man's Hines Ward. Now, Clayton is only 5-foot-10 and probably won't run under 4.5. That turns off Steelers fans, I'm sure, since they envision some sort of stereotypical deep threat opposite Ward. But in my opinion you just take football players, and Clayton, one of the clubhouse leaders at Oklahoma, is flat out a football player.
  • While waiting on hold to be interviewed on air by Tunch Ilkin, he asked me if we could talk about potential Steelers draft needs. When I told him tight end, he said, "Nah, tight ends are too boring." Yes, they are at that, and the only one worth drafting in the first round would be Heath Miller. If Riemersma is indeed released, the Steelers will need one, regardless of the time put in by Matt Kranchick last season. Kranchick is just gravy. If he does come around, great, then they'll have a deep threat at the position, but otherwise the position requires immediate attention. Now, Miller is considered a top 15 athlete but many believe he'll slide not only because "tight ends are boring" but because the majority of teams choosing after the Detroit Lions have more pressing needs. That said, I wouldn't take the No. 2 TE, Alex Smith, with pick No. 30. While Smith flashed pass-catching skills at the Senior Bowl, his blocking was average, and frankly his offensive skills are still a mite questionable to me. He looks like a second-rounder. USC's Alex Holmes or Colorado State's Joel Dreesen would provide better value in the middle rounds.
  • Matt Jones once slept through a tornado that hit his house, and the Arkansas QB-turned-WR looked like he was sleeping through the Senior Bowl. Another guy who interests (maybe interest-ED) the Steelers, Jones did make a nice touchdown catch in the final moments of the game, but my guess is his status fell into the fifth round, at best.
  • Roethlisberger has been compared to Dan Marino this season by none other than Bill Parcells. Marino, though, never had the defense or running game required of Super Bowl champs. So the thinking here is the Steelers should fortify those areas to go along with their version of Marino, right? Well, when I looked it up I was surprised to learn that after Marino's rookie season, the Dolphins drafted two LBs and a RB with their first 3 picks in 1984; a RB, DT, LB and CB with their first 4 picks in 1985; a LB and DT with their first 2 picks in 1986; a DE and LB first in 1987; a DE and S in 1988; an RB, S and CB in 1989; and a T, G and NT in 1990. They never did put the defense and the running game with the QB.




Feb 13, 2005: It would've taken a Villanovan-type effort to knock off the giant that is McKeesport, and my Norwin Knights were not up to it.

They were trounced by the top-seed, 71-49, yesterday in the first round of the WPIAL Quad-A playoffs. You can't expect to knock off Goliath by shooting 24 percent from the field and less than 50 percent from the FT line. The defining scene came after Norwin's second timeout of the first quarter. They were trailing by 15 or so, very early, when the McKeesport student section began chanting "Go play soccer! ... boom, boom, boom, boom ... Go play soccer! ..." Ouch. The most humiliating of chants. Yes, my alma mater prides itself on its soccer prowess (and, you guessed it, its marching band too). While Norwin's boys were in a 12-8-1 soccer rebuilding mode last fall, the girls were 22-3-2 before losing in the state semis. McKeesport's soccer girls were 1-18 this season and the school is very proud, understandably, of that record. Those are probably the most defining records of the respective school's sporting philosophies. I wonder if Doug Plank would've been forced to play soccer if he were a kid growing up in Norwin in this era. (Hey, if Peter King can get away with it, why not me?) Now that that's out of the way:

BURRESS, AGAIN

It happens, oh, about once every three weeks. Someone in the national press makes a reference to a member of the Steelers and it's taken as gospel. Read it closely. Lenny Pasquarelli writes that "There is talk the Steelers won't permit Plaxico Burress to merely slip away." Lenny is linking that statement to the rumor we've discussed here in our message boards and chat rooms that the Steelers will slap the franchise tag on Burress and perhaps trade him. Yes, "there is talk" but if Pasquarelli had anything more, he'd at least write that "front-office types have told me off the record" or something along those lines. By saying "there is talk," I'm convinced, as I was last year, that Pasquarelli is a lurking, if not contributing, member of Steel City Sports. As for my opinion, I strongly doubt the Steelers will attempt to tag-and-trade Burress as the respected Pasquarelli implies. One, the Steelers have never been keen on circumcising -- oops, excuse the Bill Cowher slip -- circumventing the rules, and, two, the NFLPA is attempting to have the league outlaw the maneuver. And because of Burress' poor performances in the playoffs, and his desire for a big-time contract, I strongly doubt Burress would bring the Steelers a first-round pick in such a trade.

Here's a note that Burress fans will appreciate: One scout, I presume with the Patriots, weighed in on Burress in today's Boston Globe. Obviously, that scout loves Burress.

Everybody has their opinion these days, and here's another anonymous scout in this week's Pro Football Weekly (sorry, no link): "If (Raiders unrestricted free agent WR) Jerry Porter gets $10 million (signing bonus), especially from Oakland, fire the GM that hands him the check."

Since I have the magazine open, here's another "Audible": "Enforcing illegal contact should open some doors. Four years ago, Az Hakim made the Rams an exception. They weren't the traditional pro-style, two-WR offense. Brandon Stokley or Antwaan Randle El would just be guys without the rules (enforcement). Teams will start drafting that 'E' receiver, the slot. If you have that weapon, there's a domino effect not many defenses can counter."

Well, I don't agree that Randle El is just a guy. I believe he has the potential to do what Deion Branch did in the playoffs, if given the chance. He already has the quarterback who can make "a guy" appear to be more, and I already believe Randle El is more. He looked like Lynn Swann at training camp, and finished the season very strongly in Burress' absence. If the Steelers draft a split end first, it's my opinion Randle El would start at split end and then move back into the slot, with the rookie coming in at SE, on passing downs.

DYNASTY TALK


No, my name is not Art Martone but he did the same thing I did. Initially, I (and he) agreed the Patriots were a dynasty. But upon hearing everyone else say the same, it just didn't ring true with me. I looked up the definition for an earlier blog entry and came to the conclusion it was not a dynasty. I knew when I FLIP-FLOPPED that some erstwhile reader would catch it, and at this point I don't care anymore. I reserve the right to hash out an issue honestly, in my own mind, that day, without worrying about what I'd thought the previous day. I try to stay consistent, but feel it's more important to have an open mind, that changing it is acceptable in the pursuit of intellectual growth. In the Internet age, you can go back and find inconsistencies in probably every sportswriter who is asked to give several opinions every day. I'd rather not read those who refuse to change their minds anyway. I know it won't get me elected to anything, but I'm not going to stop giving my opinion just because I don't want to appear as a FLIP-FLOPPER. I'd rather give an honest effort at a fresh opinion every day. If someone "catches" me in an inconsistency, so be it because I'm not going to tread with fear.

YOUR MOMENT OF ZEN

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and since Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" is the best news and comedy show out there, I'd like to incorporate this new segment into my blog.

In reading Dennis Roddy's column in today's Post-Gazette, I was reminded of my own experience in asking a bartender in San Francisco what beer I should drink. As in previous road-trip stories I've shared with this site, I was out on the town with SCS partner and good friend Dale Lolley, among others, the night before an NFL game. Now, Roddy, asked the bartender what beer he should drink and writes that the bartender answered with personal information such as sexual orientation and political leanings. But when we sat down at this bar (years ago, before swearing off the demon), I gazed at the seemingly hundreds of brands this old bartender had at his disposal. Being in a foreign land, I asked for a recommendation. "Beer," this gentleman in the bow-tie bellowed, "is f-----' beer!" And with that, he has my everlasting respect.

ALL-STAR GAME

In honor of the worst professional all-star game this side of hockey, I'll begin my late, later, latest analysis of last month's Senior Bowl. I won't watch the Pro Bowl. I can't put my family through that, but let's begin our Senior Bowl analysis with perhaps the most impressive skill player of all: Darren Sproles. Now, the zippy halfback from Kansas State checked into the Senior Bowl at 5-foot-5 and three-quarter inches, 185 pounds. Much of the conversation in the booth (the underrated Craig James and the obnoxious Trev Alberts) focused on Sproles' potential to play in The League in spite of his tiny frame. But Sproles was in fact brilliant. His 24-yard touchdown run was the best offensive highlight of the game, and he did it against a front four of Matt Roth, Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson and Demarcus Ware as well as thunderously overrated MLB Robert McCune. Well, Sproles zipped past that tremendous line and was sprung by a great block from center David Baas on McCune (Baas owned McCune all game) and zipped into the end zone with that great speed and agility of his. He made several other startling runs. Even his 4-yard run to close the game showed off speed that was rare to that particular group of ballplayers. James, of course, loved Sproles, while Albert wasn't so sure he could make it in The League. They threw the conversation down to Mel Kiper who, when he wasn't hilariously ripping Alberts, talked so fast about Sproles that I wasn't sure of his stance. I think Kiper said Sproles would be drafted anywhere from the second to seventh rounds. Anyway, after the long touchdown run, the feed was thrown to Mark May on the sideline. Here;s the transcript of his interview with Sproles:
May: What did you see on the field?
Sproles: I seen a hole.
May: A big hole or a little hole?
Sproles: A big hole.
May: A big hole?
Sproles: Yeah. When I seen it, I just hit it and it was wide open.
May: Do you think you showed the scouts enough this week to impress your status in the draft?
Sproles: I don't know. I don't know. I could have, but I don't know.
May: Mel Kiper says you're probably going to be a second- or third-round pick. What do you think of Mel's projection?
Sproles: I don't know (laughs). I don't know.

Now, we all know that TV sideline interviews are replete with stinky-osity, to borrow a phrase. Really, the only worthwhile sideline interviews are done by the former jocks on radio. They have that odd knack for GATHERING INFORMATION. But TV guys (particularly girls) really stink at it and this was more proof. While Sproles' intelligence was knocked for a few days by listeners, I felt he just answered the questions. He missed a few tenses, but to me he didn't come off as having low intelligence. That honor went to May for wasting all of our time with his jock-talk questions. I guess they were apropos for TV, but I don't know if that's the way May wants his career to veer.

As for Sproles, I love him. I think he'll provide some team with a serious threat as a third-down back. Now, in the Senior Bowl, blitzing was not allowed so Sproles' deservedly questionable reputation for blitz pick-up wasn't tested, and that will be a factor when he slides into the fourth round, but I like him. The Steelers have no need for his set of skills, however, as they're surely ... hopefully ... please? ... prepared to take an even longer look at Willie Parker this off-season, and surely ... hopefully ... please? ... will expand his role.

More Senior Bowl analysis to come, but now I have to go play basketball with my 5-year-old daughter. No one will ever chant for her to go play soccer if I can help it.



Feb 10, 2005: To open with some small talk, I asked him what he thought of the Super Bowl.

"My sources with the Eagles," he started, "are disgusted. They think (Donovan) McNabb just quit on them."

Wasn't he sick? 

"Nobody believes that," he said, the day before McNabb himself disputed the story. 

Count me in as a non-believer as well. Highlights of the last two Eagles' drives show a functioning McNabb simply taking his time. There had to be an explanation, although Dr. Z, in his typically outstanding analysis, couldn't find one.

Jerome Bettis became the ninth member of the Steelers to be named to the AFC Pro Bowl team and my source wasn't all that thrilled.

"The cap is going to be very difficult this year," he said. "I don't know what kind of bonus money is attached to some of these guys, but I'll bet the incentives from this Pro Bowl are not going to be pretty. Guys like Aaron Smith, Marvel Smith, who knows, maybe even Bettis, they're going to reach bonus incentives from this past season that'll not only count on this year's cap, but will be doubled because they now become Likely To Be Earned for the upcoming season. It could become a problem. I think you're going to see a few veterans get the axe on March 1."

One more topic for my source: What about the tenders to restricted free agents? Does he see the team perhaps losing a Chris Hope or a Larry Foote for a draft pick if they're offered, in typical team fashion, the lowest tender of the three tiers?

"No. Not those two," he said. "You'd have a chance to match any offer. The guy you have to worry about is Jeff Reed. If he's given the lowest tender, and signs with someone else, they'll receive nothing in return. They may have to offer him the middle-tier tender, and that will be another unwelcome cap hit."

But he's just a kicker.

"Yeah, a kicker who's made 21 in a row," he said.

Back to Foote. Let's consider Kendrell Bell gone. Do you hope someone takes Foote off your hands so you can land someone, maybe an ex-Lion, in free agency to replace him?

"An ex-Lion?"

Yeah. Someone like Chris Claiborne.

"Can he play?"

Does it matter? He's an ex-Lion and was one of Kevin Colbert's draft picks there.

"Well, I haven't seen any film on Claiborne. We already have a guy, our guy."

Our guy?

"Yes. James Harrison."

Oh.

In perusing the local rags this morning, I couldn't help but chuckle over this story. To set the scene, in my final notes column (sorry, no link) for Steelers Digest, I mentioned Rasheed Marshall and how he interests me as a potential wide receiver. Well, the Trib made it their first draft story of draft season. It made me think back to the last time the Steelers had the 30th pick of the draft, in 2002, when I'd learned they were interested in Kendall Simmons. After I realized they wouldn't be able to land their true love that year, Ed Reed, I wrote they were going after Simmons. I was trying to land a job with the Trib (a position that was eventually filled by Karen Price), so I sent my story to both the Trib sports editor and beat man. After reading my story, the beat man become only mildly convinced they'd take Simmons, so he briefly mentioned Simmons in his story for draft day. He did use Simmons with the Steelers in his paper's mock draft that day, but left his Internet mock pick as Daniel Graham. The Trib's desk man, however, was a regular reader of my work (at that time on RealPittsburgh.com) and he went full tilt with the Simmons info. He dug out a picture of Simmons, blew it up and slapped an aggressive headline over the lukewarm story. Of course, the Steelers did draft Simmons. I remember looking back in the media room that day and seeing the Trib writer accepting congratulations from all around. I remember the correspondent from the Associated Press asking him "How did you know?" He just shrugged his shoulders and said, "hard work." I don't think I've ever forgiven him for not giving me any credit.

I know, poor, poor, pitiful me. So let's start on this year's draft and see if we can nail lucky No. 30 again. I know I'm late with my Senior Bowl analysis, but here's Part I. Oh, you mean I'm out of time? OK. We'll continue this over the weekend.



Feb 7, 2005: With all due respect to the New England Patriots, this is not a dynasty. Last night, the pundits were quick with that word because they have to be quick in order to be considered expert pundits.

So they all line up and say "Yep, dynasty. Yep, dynasty. Yep, dynasty." They're all weighing in and the answer is unanimous -- almost. I'm saying four years is too short of a time period. Don't you have to at least be re-elected to be considered a dynasty? What's the dictionary say anyway? (And for you kids out there, never, ever, use a 'Webster's calls revenge a ...' in your copy. That is poor sportswriting. Just poor.) So, Thorndike and Barnhart's says of a dynasty: 1. Series of rulers who belong to the same family; 2. period of time during which a dynasty rules. I think the key word here is "series." There's no series to these Patriots. I mean, they've had one powerful term in office, granted, but just do it a little longer. I didn't consider the 90s Dallas Cowboys a dynasty and I don't consider these Pats a dynasty. Yet.

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.

FLASHBACK

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.

"Great call."

"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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