Monday, August 8th
In order to sleep in a little this morning, I cheated. I wrote this last night. Drove to the top of Laurel Mountain and put the laptop out on the picnic table; Henry David Thoreau indeed. But a storm is creeping in. There's thunder on the mountain.
The offense killed the defense Saturday. The quarterbacks were pin-point, particularly in the red-zone drill. Since the goal-line drill of '01, we in the media have made such a big deal about that drill on the first Saturday in August, the red-zone drill before that is forgotten. And if you weren't paying attention this year, you'd have missed it. The offense got it done in a blink of an eye.
On the first play, from the 20, Ben Roethlisberger
threw an out to Antwaan Randle El for a touchdown in front of Janssen Patten. Regular pass. No laser; wasn't needed.
The second team needed two plays. Tommy Maddox
threw a high pass to Walter Young
in the end zone; Young went way up and Chidi Iwuoma
went way up -- and may have interfered (not called by attending game officials) – and the ball bounced away. On the next play, Maddox threw a beautiful fade in the back corner of the end zone to Cedrick Wilson
for a touchdown. Great pass and catch. Wilson is in line for a great season.
I'd erroneously reported that Roethlisberger threw the pass to Randle El. It was also my response to the harsh critiques being made of Roethlisberger's throwing so far at camp, which brings up an important topic: Roethlisberger's throwing.
In this changing media world, waves of internet reports are created by fans, many of whom are reporting that Roethlisberger's throwing has been off. They're right. He hasn't been sharp. Why isn't this being reported in the mainstream? Because we've seen it before. Anyone who's covered a football team long enough knows not to get too excited about passing ups and downs. Imagine the internet reports of a young Terry Bradshaw! So, this is not being reported. But Ben looks great in other ways. He's running like a young Bradshaw. During team scrimmage, first team against first, Roethlisberger scrambled away from James Farrior
– with ease – and gained 15 yards. His pass to Wilson that ended the one-minute drill the other day was a game-changer, the type of play he's capable of making at any time. Yes, he's fluttering some stuff up there; yes, I'm concerned about the ice on the hand. That's the story that needs watched. He won't talk about it; the trainers can't. And Bill Cowher, like any coach, won't acknowledge an injury unless the trainer's talking. So it needs watching, as does a defense that's been giving up too many touchdowns.
I went home Saturday night, a few miles down the road to Irwin, and had ice cream with my wife and daughter. The bill came to $6.66. The waitress got scared. And now … the winds are easing as the sky becomes darker … it's the quiet before the storm. There's an eerie quiet on the mountain.
Cedrick Wilson flat out looks great, and he came to play. The beauty of the Hines Ward
holdout is that Wilson and Randle El can play at the same time. It's giving the coaches a great look at both players. Antwaan's been good, but Wilson is winning the split end job. A stat whiz (footballoutsiders.com) took a comprehensive look at football in a new book called Pro Football Prospectus. He and his associates tore into football stats like the baseball guys have done, and the result is something I cannot yet understand. But the Steelers' section deals with Wilson and an exhaustive look at size and receiving. They claim that tall guys are overrated. I have read it twice and cannot grasp his theories, but his finding is that tall receivers are overrated. But here are some of Wilson's camp highlights:
1. He took a big lick from Chris Hope
, but on that day I remember Wilson chirping at Ben. I didn't see anything wrong with it. He thought he was open. Damn, he's cocky too. I took it as a good sign because Ben respects stuff like that.
2. The spin move that made Ricardo Colclough
fall down was capped by making Troy Polamalu
fall down. I remember the two DBs getting off the ground, not Wilson running in for a touchdown.
3. The deep catch of the 3rd-and-1 bomb from Roethlisberger during the one-minute drill. It showed – without any complicated stats – that any receiver can stand quietly and wait for his quarterback to reverse his field and flick his wrist.
Speaking of snapshots:
1. Brian St. Pierre scrambled right and threw a bullet to Zamir Cobb
for 20 yards. My view from the sideline was in perfect line to see the quick decision and then snap of the arm across his body – while on the run – St. Pierre had to make. Maybe I'm looking for good things from St. Pierre because the word is the coach loved him at mini-camp.
2. Willie Parker
hit a seam and was gone, but that snapshot was nearly lost amid the Roethlisberger one-minute heroics. In the team scrimmage preceding the one-minute drill Friday, Parker ran a draw out of the shotgun from a spread third-down formation. He looked so patient, confident, and then turned it up and was gone.
3. Noah Herron
ran over Ike Taylor
, so I bet Prisuta $10 to win $15 Herron will lead the team in preseason rushing. The other day, Parker, the betting favorite, broke through two collapsing arm tackles. I thought his No. 39 was No. 38, but Willie's probably stronger than Herron.
4. Speaking of gambling, we asked Kevin Colbert to bet on guys-to-make-the-roster with us. He turned around and laughed. He's a happy guy. His daughters, too, are the prettiest, sunniest teenage girls you ever could imagine. The older one, Kacie, used to work as an intern with the Steelers. She was just on "The View" dancing during a Faith Hill concert. His younger daughter is now working in the camp office and she's always smiling. I do believe the Colberts will be with the Steelers for a long time.
5. Heath Miller
was a great draft pick. He's a nice guy, but by no means a softie. He's smart, athletic and tough and he's just soaking it all in right now, becoming familiar with the terrain. He hasn't done much pass catching in team scrimmage yet, so we shall save the Todd Heap
comparisons for now. At least he's a Frank Wycheck
. Right now, Ben will take that.
6. Willie Parker just hit another seam. This was a couple of plays before the brilliant red-zone drill commenced. So again, Willie's big run was lost amid some shuffling. This time he cut back and got low and turned on the jets. The guy next to me said: "How can that guy not have been drafted?" They all say that. It's like being in the lounge at intermission after the North Mississippi Allstars have just warmed another act up. "Those guys were so good. How could they not have been drafted?"
7. It's starting to get spooky up here on the mountain.
1. Heath Miller – pro blocker; rangy runner; big, soft hands; says yes sir; keeps quiet even though he's smart enough to say a lot; still want to see him get open, although he hasn't been called upon much in scrimmages.
2. Bryant McFadden
– thinking too much now, so he's not using all the skills that were evident the first day; sticky in man but getting beat a few times has taken some of his aggression away; giving up big cushions in zone; needs time; don't we all.
3. Trai Essex
– playing right tackle, which is a change from the original plan, not sure what it means, but Essex has shown me he could survive in an emergency; just seems to get it done – at the expense of Alonzo Jackson
, Andre Frazier
that I recall – with decent feet, fights and claws and keeps his weight balanced; smart guy which is always good in a lineman; I feel good about him.
4. Fred Gibson
– the mystery man; where's he gone? Walter Young gets more playing time, so maybe Gibson's battling a nagging injury – like Young with his hamstring – or is being babied. (Note to self: Investigate this today.)
5. Rian Wallace
– big inside backer hasn't taken on blocks well nor has he run well; don't know what the films are showing but I don't see anything here; am, of course, willing to be persuaded otherwise this week.
6. Chris Kemoeatu
– has punched people off balance; has decent feet; will be a masher if he understands what's being taught him. I criticized this guy before for not being too smart, but the next day he took in coaching instruction, did what was told and improved to Russ Grimm's delight. This is the guy who ran his last few 40s in the run test without a shirt, while his pants were falling down, akin to today's style. It was quite a scene. Hope to one day say, "Why I remember that kid when he ran naked around these fields."
7a. Shaun Nua
– interesting athlete who needs to put weight on; ideal for the practice squad -- if he's picked up, oh well, because some team will have to keep a light DE the whole year.
7b. Herron – tough, smart and shows flashes of speed at times; will get plenty of carries in the preseason so all of us will know more soon enough, but he looks to have strength, enough quicks, hands, blocking ability, smarts.
– not a nose tackle and you wonder why they even tried this 280-pound backup from Arkansas at the nose (toughen him up?), but he has flashed at end. He ran over – ran over – Max Starks
in a one-on-one drill; not near ready as Eric Taylor
seems to be, but shows more flashes than the WVU kid they liked the last few years. (Note to self: See what's up with Eric Taylor today. Seems to be coming on strong, plus has a cool hairstyle.)
– smooth strider who is a candidate for the practice squad; not ready yet; lacks confidence, but enthusiastic and perhaps big enough and fast enough.
Andre Frazier – word's out he has a chance but frankly haven't seen it so I'll defer to others on this one; someone to watch while remembering that OLBs making the change from DE need time.
Well, it hasn't rained. The mosquitoes are biting, though. They're hungry for blood on the mountain.
Friday, August 5th
Last year, I reported to camp enthusiastic and open-minded before devolving into insanity. The overkill, I believe, did me in. The media up here is flat-out cuckoo. So to counter that, I reported to camp this year already insane and am currently evolving into a normal functioning human being. In fact, I feel like the sanest guy up here. The frenzy over Ben Roethlisberger
's alleged "injury" was over the top. I did not see a collision, even though I watched every play closely; I did not see Ben limping, even though he did not miss a snap; I did not report any of this to the Associated Press, which pays for such dispatches. So they sent an e-mail expressing their disappointment. "What are the viewers of KDKA going to think?" Apparently, that station interrupted its newscast with "an exclusive" on Ben's injury. And because of that, I'm supposed to cover their butts and clear up any misunderstanding.
Now, Ben's wrapped right hand may be cause for concern. He really hasn't looked sharp up here and a hand injury would certainly explain that. It will be a difficult nut to crack because everyone's so tight-lipped about minor-but-nagging injuries. I know you'd like to know more about it, but that's all I have, and if it's carried over from last year, it would explain his playoff slump.
But back to my media rant: It's not the volume of the coverage here that's out of control, as it has been in years past, it's the unabashed cheering, and I'm not even going into the one-sided reporting of the Hines Ward
At lunch, I had the opportunity to make monkey-shines behind Andrew Stockey's "podcast". It was fun because it was a live interview with Mike Logan
at lunch! Wow! Andrew signed off something like: This is your friendly neighborhood jackass saying, "Goooo Steelers!"
Objectivity doesn't matter anymore because people want to see open cheering from the press; it's what drives ratings. Sigh.
I saw Max Starks
in the morning. He was preparing to appear on the Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley radio show. I told him he looks like a completely different person in the one-on-one drills than he did a year ago, and he agreed. I told him I'd keep the contrast in mind when judging rookies in the future. He agreed that I should. Then he went on the air and Tunch raved about how well Max looked in the one-on-ones.
OK, fast-forward to Thursday afternoon's practice. Starks lines up, all confident, perhaps pleased with his bad self, and promptly gets run over by rookie free agent Elliott Harris
. Now, understand, undrafted rookies have a tendency to take these drills a lot more seriously than starters do. It's why Eric Taylor
beat Alan Faneca
. So while it may have been an aberration, Max never seemed to recover. He was beat the next time up by seventh-round pick Shaun Nua
. It was obvious Starks's confidence had waned.
The reason I'm not concerned by any of this is what happened between Starks's stellar performances early in camp compared to yesterday. I'd focused on Starks during the 9-on-7 run-game drill. Starks absolutely killed Haggans; looked like Jonathan Ogden
doing so. The 6-foot-8 Starks showed up in the best shape of his life, muscled-up at 347 pounds. He's the son of Ross Browner, so he has the bloodlines. Watching Starks play at times in camp makes me believe he could not only become an effective player this year, but a Pro Bowler, if not eventually a Hall of Famer. There isn't anyone else up here with the potential for greatness that Starks has. What a great third-round draft pick last season! So, while his confidence sagged, it's only a one-on-one drill. And I know, the play that fired me up was done against an average linebacker, but the potential is blatant.
OK, so let's update some pluggers. Obviously Harris is a better end than nose tackle. He also killed Marvel Smith
in the one-on-ones before being stoned by Ben Claxton
, the Mall Guard, at center. Before I believe Claxton is a sleeper, I'm going to believe the 280-pound Harris is a better end than nose tackle. I mean, even a half-insane podcaster can put two and two together sometimes. Taylor also looked good and not just against Faneca. Perhaps the second-year D-lineman is coming along. During the run-game drill, rookie third-rounder Trai Essex
stoned Alonzo Jackson
easily. By the way, Essex, at 6-feet-4, 324 pounds, looked like a midget coming in to replace Starks at right tackle. Essex shows signs of becoming a serviceable tackle. That's all I can say at this point.
More plugger news: I wonder if Grant Bowman
, now in his second camp with the club, can develop into a Chris Hoke
. He's stout at nose tackle, and he did play at Michigan
, so he's not overwhelmed by any of this. Perhaps he can emerge into a serviceable back-up some day and then effectively replace a starter when needed, as Hoke has done. This much is certain: Bowman is a nose tackle; Harris is not.
Much ballyhooed rookie free agent Andre Frazier
, the OLB insiders here say will replace Jackson, hasn't shown me much. Josh Burr
handles him easily. Frazier is a rangy athlete, and OLBs converting from college defensive ends DO take time.
While watching line drills, I couldn't watch the 7-on-7 passing drill on the other side of the field. I was told Brian St. Pierre was impressive and was "the only quarterback who attacked down field." And so I watched the Saint in team scrimmage throw wildly to an open Fred Gibson
. The ball couldn't even have been intercepted by the out-of-position cornerback. Maybe it's just me with St. Pierre. I hope I'm not causing the kid any bad luck.
dropped a couple more passes, but for some reason Walter Young
was not thrown to all day. I just don't understand what the coaches are doing some times. Perhaps they don't want Young to become too confident after what he called his best practice day with the Steelers. Sheesh.
Thursday, August 4th
missed Wednesday morning's practice with a hamstring problem, so as he walked to lunch I asked him if he would practice that afternoon. When he said he would, I nodded and told him he'd better because there are some hungry players behind him. "I'm hungry, too," he said as he walked away.
Well, at least Mays has the right attitude, but after two days of camp I don't know if he'll make the team. It was a ludicrous suggestion over the summer, I'd believed. Folks loves to trash Mays, but why, I believe I asked in print, would the Steelers nurse him along for three years and then cut him after he'd made strides and was peaking athletically? But he played poorly his first time out this week, and then had to miss with a minor injury. In his place, guys like Walter Young
, Zamir Cobb
and Nate Washington
are performing well.
Young is a tall target who doesn't have the deep speed of say Fred Gibson
, but he keeps catching deep passes. He's not just a possession receiver and looks like he, in fact, could've been the fourth-round draft pick and not Gibson. And please, don't take this is a knock against Gibson, who has his moments but is not as consistent at this early stage.
Cobb has picked up from where he left off last season. His one-handed catch, made after turning his body back, back, back, is so far the catch of camp. He's also returning punts.
Washington has a smooth gait and soft hands. The scout who recommended him out of Tiffin said last spring that Washington could be the camp sleeper, and on the first day he hauled in a bomb over Willie Williams
Any of these three players could knock Mays from the roster. And if Chidi Iwuoma
, who intercepted Brian St. Pierre for a touchdown Tuesday, continues to play well and vie for that last special-teams spot, Sean Morey
could be in trouble as well.
Speaking of St. Pierre, word here – from another reporter who received the unsolicited tip last spring – is that he has a roster spot locked up. The loser of the battle for the No. 2 QB job, Tommy Maddox
or Charlie Batch
, will apparently be cut.
That doesn't make sense to me, but Bill Cowher supposedly loved the way St. Pierre played in the spring.
He looked like the same St. Pierre to me, and then in camp threw the aforementioned pick for a Chidi TD. That was preceded in the 7 on 7 drills by an interception to rookie linebacker Rian Wallace
Both Maddox and Batch have played better. Unless that changes, those are the two players who should be backing up Ben Roethlisberger
. St. Pierre has made too little progress since he was drafted in 2003.
When will this time warp expire? I was certain Jerome Bettis
should've retired after last season. He struggles walking up a flight of stairs, but guess what? There are no stairways on the field. He still has those quick feet and he won't go away. Duce Staley
, meanwhile, had to miss Wednesday afternoon's practice with an inflamed knee. That's not a 30-year-old who struggled with a hamstring injury last season.
Behind them, Verron Haynes
looks like a bull; he could be in store for a strong season and should have the opportunity. Willie Parker
and Noah Herron
are also running well. In fact, I thought I saw Parker blow through a hole yesterday morning, but it was instead Herron, who isn't supposed to be anywhere near that quick. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's Herron. I never like to mistrust my instincts. And to Parker's credit, as he broke through a pair of arm tackles during team scrimmage Wednesday afternoon, I thought at first glance that he was the bigger Herron.
Now, Parker wears No. 39 and Herron wears No. 38, so that's part of the identity problem. The other part is that Herron just might be another camp sleeper, as Parker was last year.
One of my favorite Steelers is superscout Bill Nunn, the guy who played such a big role in building the team of the '70s. Nunn enjoys dispensing wisdom to us youngsters, and his style is low key; he preaches not to become too excited over one play, one practice, one week, even one season. So after the first full practice, the one that sent reporters like me over the edge in their dispatches, I asked him what he liked out there.
"You know me better than that," he said. "Haven't you listened to anything I've said to you?"
I told him I was joking. I also told him I was disappointed that he wasn't mentioned in the outstanding 2004 book "America's Game", which chronicles the rise of the NFL. He said that he wasn't disappointed because he really wasn't the first to scout the black colleges, that it had been the Los Angeles Rams.
"But they used my (black college) All-America teams," Nunn said with a laugh.
Nunn, of course, was a sportswriter before Chuck Noll talked him into scouting for the Steelers.
I told Nunn that I'd watched clips of Marion Motley, the huge Cleveland fullback from the 1950s, and said he'd still be a star in today's game.
"You should've seen him play linebacker," Nunn said. "In his first game in the NFL, against the Eagles, the Browns threw him out there at the goal line. The Eagles ran at him three times and he stopped them cold each time. He was a great one."
Back at you, Mr. Nunn.
Monday, August 1st
is not playing football and Kevin Colbert is talking tough.
As the great Vince Lombardi might ask in a raised voice: "What the hell is going on around here?"
I expected a strange camp, but not for this reason. I expected a team -- a team built with an underdog's chip on its shoulder -- to have difficulty assuming the mantel of 15-1 elitists, and I still expect that difficulty. Chris Hoke
is a fighter, a scrapper, an underdog, and there are 40-some guys just like him on this team. The questions should involve how they will cope in their new environment, but those questions are now on the back burner. The front burner is represented by Ward and Colbert, who are doing the exact opposite of what's in their nature.
From the back of the media room, Dan Rooney listened to Colbert repeat that the team would not negotiate further. After Colbert was done with the press, Rooney quickly grabbed his arm and walked with him down the hallway. He had something important to say. Had Colbert not represented what was intended? Had he not answered the ugliest question properly?
"Does Ward now crawl back to camp or is his season over?"
Rooney would've corrected that question before answering, and perhaps would have chuckled at its seriousness. Colbert let the question pass before saying "no".
Was Rooney instead re-shaping team policy with Colbert on this one?
I don't know but I would've loved to have eavesdropped on that one.
Bill Cowher started the day by instructing his assistant coaches not to comment. Now that's the type of solution I expect from him: Don't let the assistants say "Sure we'll miss him but I'll just coach the guys who show up and we'll be fine." Or something along that line of blather, but shutting them up fits Cowher. Ward not playing football and Colbert talking tough does not fit either of those men. Steeler fans might want to hope this dream ends soon because it's turning strange.
The numbers? I'll need more time. We're dealing with experts in the field of keeping quiet when you're dealing with the Steelers and Ward's agent Eugene Parker. Here's what we do know:
According to last Friday's Post-Gazette, the Steelers have offered "more than $8 million in a signing bonus and it might be closer to $9 million."
Yes, a very strange way to put it. If the first part is right, and the Steelers offered Ward eight million and one dollars, than eight million and two dollars would allow the second part of the sentence to also be correct.
Alas, it's being accepted now by fans that the offer is $9 million. Until proven otherwise, let's keep it closer to $8 million, but up over the $8.1 million paid to Kordell Stewart, which the Steelers now claim is their team record.
The night that story was released, by the way, a TV station that's close to the Steelers announced that "a source" put Ward's asking price at $15 million. Now wasn't that timely?
No matter how hard they try to make Ward look like the bad guy, and no matter how many fans buy this $9 million offered/$15 million asked parameter, I'm going to keep believing this will be settled at $10 million, even $9.5 million. That's where my gut tells me these two sides are hoping to go. They're just taking the long cut, and it might have grown longer with Sunday's strange unfolding of events.
Radio analyst and former player Tunch Ilkin believes Ward will settle after the third preseason game. He believes a player in Ward's shape needs a week to get used to the game again and another week to get ready for the opener. Ilkin ought to know. He was one of the last veterans to hold out from training camp.
Ilkin, Louis Lipps, Carnell Lake and Thomas Everett all held out in 1992. Ilkin came in after a month with only one day of camp left; Lake a few days later. Those two succeeded. Everett, though, was traded to the Cowboys and Lipps was waived after the season started.
Before that, Mike Merriweather, a three-time Pro Bowler, held out the entire 1988 season and was then traded to the Vikings.
A story went around yesterday about how Larry Brown ended his holdout. After agreeing to a contract, Brown told Rooney, "You know, I signed this thing too early. I'm getting too old for two-a-days, and I really could've used a few more weeks with my family."
Rooney said "If you don't tell anyone, I won't."
And so the agreement was made, but not announced until Brown could enjoy another couple of weeks off.
I fear we're not in those friendly confines anymore.
Read "The Morning After" three times a week for Jim Wexell's thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers as they train for the 2005 season at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.