Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Finding new team chemistry a challenge for Steelers in '06

Jerome Bettis celebrates with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after the running back scored on a 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of the game against the Bears in December.

By Mike Prisuta
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

With an insider's knowledge of the operation and the acumen of a Super Bowl champion, wide receiver Sean Morey looked ahead to NFL free agency and assessed its potential impact on the Steelers.

"Here are a couple of roster moves you can count on," Morey said. "I'm pretty sure Ben will be back and I'm pretty sure The Bus is retiring."

Beyond that, Morey isn't certain what to expect.

Yes, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is signed through 2009, will return in 2006.

And yes, running back Jerome Bettis retired following the 2005 season.

The fates of the Steelers' 16 free agents are more difficult to determine.

Wide receiver Quincy Morgan, quarterback Charlie Batch, cornerback Deshea Townsend, free safety Chris Hope, running back Verron Haynes, linebacker Clint Kriewaldt, defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, offensive tackle Barrett Brooks, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, tight end Jerame Tuman and defensive end Brett Keisel are unrestricted free agents as of Friday.

Cornerback Ike Taylor and Morey are restricted free agents,
Running back Willie Parker, linebacker James Harrison and defensive end Shaun Nua are exclusive-rights free agents.

The Steelers must tender qualifying offers by Thursday to retain the rights to first refusal and potential compensation for their restricted free agents, and the rights to those in the exclusive-rights category.

On Friday, the free-agent feeding frenzy commences.

Morey has turned down an initial contract offer from the Steelers and intends to test the restricted waters.

"They offered me a contract to see if I would sign it, and then they might not have to compete with other teams," Morey said. "That's a smart move. I know they're tight against the salary cap and I'm comfortable with that.

"By the same token, free agency is for the players. I'll use the program that's in place."

Morey would like to return to the Steelers and take a shot at defending their Super Bowl championship.

"I'm sort of consumed by trying to win this game again," he said.

But he's also aware the dynamic of the 2005 NFL champs has already been altered.

"Losing Jerome, who was so loved and so respected by everyone, that'll change the chemistry in the locker room," Morey said. "Obviously, losing a guy like JB, a person like JB as a teammate and a friend, that's critical.

"As well as I know Jerome, his best friend on the team was (wide receiver) Hines Ward. Just from the outside of that relationship, it was great to see them coming to practice and joking around, keeping it loose and enjoying football day in and day out. That affects your mentality.

"In the next 10 or 15 years, there will be another running back coming through Pittsburgh that will have success. But I doubt he'll have the same respect or compensate for the voice of Jerome Bettis."

As for the rest of the anticipated free-agent comings and goings, "It's human nature just to take inventory of who will be around and who won't, but as players you don't want to do that because you don't want to see friends go," Morey said.

"Reality is teams will change from one year to the next. But that also means there will be new faces and new excitement and new friendships in the locker room, that chance to get to know different people and start jelling again as a team."

Mike Prisuta can be reached at ptrsports@tribweb.com.

Crosby Keeps Improving

Crosby keeps improving, has plenty to play for in final 23 games
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Canada couldn't find a roster spot for Penguins rookie Sidney Crosby for the Olympics, which ended two days ago.

That decision perplexed a lot of people and angered others, but Crosby never uttered a harsh syllable about the selection process, or the men behind it. And he obviously doesn't hold a grudge about being overlooked.

He makes it quite clear that if officials of Hockey Canada decide they want him for the world championships this spring in Latvia -- and it's almost unthinkable that they wouldn't, since the available talent pool is far more shallow for that event -- they probably won't need to issue the invitation more than once.

Asked if he would be willing to play in that tournament, Crosby didn't hesitate.

"Oh yeah," he said. "Definitely. It's going to be tough if [the Penguins] are not there in the playoffs, obviously, so I'd like to keep playing, and I'd love to represent my country. We'll see what happens, but it would definitely be something I'd be excited about doing."

First, of course, Crosby must complete what has been an extraordinary debut season in the NHL.

The Penguins have 23 games remaining, beginning with a visit by Ottawa to Mellon Arena at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow, and there is much the team, and its most celebrated player, can try to accomplish.

Crosby is hard-wired to focus on team objectives, not individual ones, but there are a few personal achievements with his grasp.

He trails Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, 69-65, in the rookie scoring race and is widely regarded as being behind him in the competition for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the NHL's top rookie. With more than a quarter of the season left, Crosby has a chance to hurdle Ovechkin on both counts.
He's well aware of the situation but hardly consumed by it. He figures, probably with good reason, that getting up in such things would be counterproductive.

"I'd love to have the opportunity to win [the rookie scoring title], but I don't think that's something that's going to be in my mind," Crosby said. "I've played hockey enough to know that when you start thinking about those things, you're not worrying about doing your job and playing.

"I'm going to try to have the strongest 23 games possible. Everyone knows [the Calder] is based on your season. If I can focus on just finishing off the year as strong as possible, having the best however many games I play, we'll see what happens."

This season will go down as one of the most disappointing in Penguins history, and the list of players who did not perform to expectations is practically as long as the roster. Crosby will be nowhere near it, because he has exceeded all but the most outrageous expectations anyone could have had for an 18-year-old.

"He's really dependable," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said, "and he takes a lot of pride in the way he plays."

More important, Crosby is astute enough to realize that, as good as he is, he can upgrade every facet of his game.

"I'm always trying to work on everything," he said. "I don't think you can ever stop learning. I'm trying to stay open-minded, learn new things. Find any way I can to get an edge."

That mind-set has allowed him to improve dramatically in his own zone -- "That's something I really tried to work on as the year went along," he said. "I'm still learning a lot, but I think I've learned to be responsible defensively" -- and on faceoffs.

It's no coincidence that Crosby, who was 30-62 on draws in his first five games in the league, was 61-65 in the five games leading up to the Olympic break.

"When he started as a centerman when I got here, he was struggling with his faceoffs," Therrien said. "Now, he's worked at it -- worked at it after practice -- and he's really, really decent. There are lots of games when he's probably one of the best centermen on faceoffs."

And there will be a lot more, for a lot of years. The Penguins believed they were getting a player around whom they could build when they drafted Crosby in July; now, there can be no doubt that they did.

"He's a leader of that team," Therrien said. "He's a great example for young players, with his work ethic. He makes a huge commitment to fitness. He makes a huge commitment to what it takes to become a great player."

(Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.)

Monday, February 27, 2006

Bob Smizik: McClendon critics way off base

Monday, February 27, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Poor Lloyd McClendon. He has been thrown under the bus so many times by the media and his former Pirates players that his features are barely distinguishable amid all the tread marks.

It started earlier this winter when, in an interview with Tim Benz of ESPN Radio, Zach Duke was critical of McClendon's communication skills. Say what? Duke was 8-2 with a 1.81 earned run average as a rookie last season. The only thing McClendon needed to say to him was this: "Here's the ball," which he did just about every five days.

The message coming out of Bradenton so far has been somewhat more subtle but nevertheless disparaging toward McClendon. Everything about spring training is better. The drills are crisper, the players happier, the teaching more passionate. With all the adulation being directed toward Jim Tracy, McClendon's replacement, and new pitching coach Jim Colborn it seems as if the only thing that stood between the Pirates and respectability was Mac.

Funny, I thought the reason the Pirates finished tied for the worst record in the National League was because they finished 12th or lower (out of 16) in the following offensive categories: runs, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walks and pinch-hitting batting average. I also thought it was because they finished 12th or lower in the following pitching categories: ERA, walks and hits per inning, strikeouts-to-walks ratio and opposing batting average.

Usually, when a team is so deficient in so many areas, it will find a way to the bottom without any help from the manager.

There is a fervent belief among the general public that the man in charge, manager or coach, can make a mighty difference. To the contrary, it long has been a theme of this column that coaches, in general, and baseball managers, in particular, don't have nearly the influence on their team's success as most people think.

Much of the belief that coaches and managers are vitally important has to do with television. Color analysts, who don't have anything else to say and who want to ingratiate themselves, will speak so glowingly of managers and coaches and, in football, offensive and defensive coordinators, that the public begins to believe those people border on the omnipotent.

That simply isn't so.

Take, for example, Colborn, the Pirates' pitching coach. He has been lavished with praise. I have no doubt he is good at what he does.

Let's suppose, for the sake of discussion, he's the best pitching coach in baseball. That makes him a 10. But that doesn't make the other pitching coaches 1s and 2s. They're all 8s and 9s or they wouldn't be working at the highest level of their professions. The difference between the best and the rest isn't so much as to make a significant difference.

If Colborn was a significant difference maker, he wouldn't be earning a low six-figure salary, he'd be taking home a seven-figure paycheck.

Spin Williams, Colborn's predecessor, has, like McClendon, taken some indirect hits from comments in the media. Toward that, here are some interesting statistics.

Last season, the Pirates were 13th in the majors in ERA. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom Colborn was the pitching coach, were 12th. In opposing slugging percentage, Pirates pitchers were 11th; Dodgers pitchers were 13th. In percentage of successful saves, the Pirates were second; the Dodgers were ninth.

Does this mean Williams was a better pitching coach than Colborn? Absolutely not. The numbers are presented only to show Williams, better or worse, is in the same league with Colborn.

The point is this: If the Pirates are to be a winning team this year, it will have considerably more to do with Duke and Paul Maholm continuing to pitch well with Oliver Perez regaining his 2004 form and with new acquisitions Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa upgrading the offense than with anything Tracy and his staff do.

Smoke and mirrors don't work. Production does.

Bill Virdon has been going to spring training for more than 50 years and at least 25 of those with the Pirates. He has been to camps in Bradenton that were run by Danny Murtaugh, Jim Leyland, Gene Lamont, McClendon and now Tracy.

Here's what he said about the current camp. "To me, it doesn't look that much different than how it's been done here for years."

It's not about managers and pitching coaches and it's not about what happens in February and March. It's about players and their production or lack of it and what happens from April through September.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.)

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Our town's colorful history (or where did we find that black and gold?)

Sunday, February 26, 2006
By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Hey there, you in the black-and-gold sweat shirt, jacket, baseball cap, socks and probably underwear: Any idea why you're not wearing, say, red and black or blue and white?

Well, says you, Pittsburgh's colors are black and gold.

Right, but have you any idea why?

Not a clue, says you.

Then allow me to buy you one: One hundred and seven years ago this week, a committee of Pittsburgh councilmen rejected blue and white, red and black, and a number of other chromatic pairs and settled on black and gold as appropriate colors for the city flag.

"Black was selected as one of the colors for several good and sufficient reasons, among them being the fact that both coal and iron, typical of the principal industries of the city, are ebon-hued," reported the Pittsburg Dispatch on Feb. 25, 1899.

"The argument that the pall of smoke hanging over the city is also black, was also a good one," the newspaper continued, at least until councilmen learned that Public Works director Edward Bigelow was "contemplating prosecution of smoke-makers." Pittsburgh had passed its first smoke-control ordinance in 1895, but the courts declared it invalid in 1902. The smoke would hang around for another 50 years.

Now, about the gold, which has a lot to do with the smoke.

"[M]ost of the industries of the city are bringing in golden streams to the city and that prosperity and stability, alike indicated by gold, are characteristics of Pittsburg," the paper said. "There were many other reasons also."

The Dispatch doesn't list them, nor do any other papers of the day. But one of those reasons likely was that black and gold, along with blue and white, appear on the family crest of William Pitt the Elder, first Earl of Chatham, in whose honor the city was named. In 1816, when Pittsburgh was incorporated, it adopted a city seal inspired by the Chatham crest.

The gold of the Chatham coat of arms is literal: three Roman coins that appear against a black background. On the city's seal, the gold coins have morphed into circles, each containing a black bird with outstretched wings.

"There is apparently no particular significance to [the birds'] presence on the seal," wrote Alexander Guffey in 1926, in a paper he presented to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania.

The blue-and-white checkered band that partitions the Chatham crest also divides the city's seal. Blue and white are the colors of the Chatham livery -- the uniforms worn by male servants and retainers -- and are considered the most important colors of the armorial shield.

"Why were these colors not chosen for the city colors?" Mr. Guffey asked at the end of his paper. "Why then 'black and gold' as suitable and appropriate colors for the City of Pittsburgh?"

The answer might have been lost forever had not Diana Ames, of Friendship, happened upon the Dispatch article last week as she scrolled through microfilmed newspapers at Carnegie Library, in Oakland, while researching the architect Frederick Osterling, her husband's great-uncle.

"I thought, aha, this explains it, this black and gold fever," said Ms. Ames, who also is chair of the city's Shade Tree Commission.

Today, some city fire trucks and hydrants wear the black and gold, as do the jackets of bicycle-riding police officers. And most Pittsburgh cop cars and trash trucks carry the black-and-gold city seal.

Western Pennsylvania teachers and Holocaust survivors took the city colors to Poland last year, wearing gold ball caps emblazoned with black "Pittsburgh" lettering for the annual "March of the Living" from Auschwitz to Birkenau. On the two-mile walk, the bright caps stood out among the thousands of marchers on that dark, rainy May day.

Since the late 1940s, of course, the city's colors also have been carried into the world by Pittsburgh's professional sports teams and their far-flung fans. In 1948, the Pirates replaced their blue and red colors with black and gold, and a year or two later, the Steelers added a black stripe to their gold helmets. The Penguins debuted in 1967 in blue and white, but after the Pirates and Steelers became national champions in 1979, the Pens switched to black and gold the following year.

"The purpose of armory," Mr. Guffey wrote, "was to present simple patches of color as to be recognized at a great distance."

Not unlike the way black and gold is worn today, even if the opponent is never more a football field away.

(Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Bob Smizik: When topic is incompetence Penguins have all the answers

Saturday, February 25, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

With the Steelers' season memorably behind us and with the baseball season in the early days of spring training, it's about the right time to discuss Pittsburgh's least successful pro sports franchise.

We're talking about a team that has taken losing to new heights, a team that has displayed inadequacy in every phase of the game, a team that rightfully calls last place home.
We're talking about, of course, the ... Penguins.

That's right, the Penguins.

Pretty much while no one was noticing the Penguins have eclipsed the Pirates as the city's worst franchise. No, the Penguins can't match the Pirates' long string of futility, which includes 13 consecutive losing seasons. But it's what the Penguins have done lately that is so, uh, impressive.
Truth be known, for sheer incompetence the Pirates can't match the Penguins.

The Pirates have finished last in divisional play once in the past seven years. The Penguins are headed for a fourth consecutive last-place finish. What's more, every year they get worse.

In 2001-02, coach Ivan Hlinka was fired after four games and the Penguins won 28 times on their way to a fifth-place finish in the five-team Atlantic Division. They fell to 27 wins in 2003 and 23 in 2004, with both totals leaving them in last place. This season, with 23 games remaining, the Penguins have 14 wins and might not reach 20. Not only are they in last place in the Atlantic Division, they have fewer points than any team in the NHL.

The mark of a truly bad team is one that continually gets worse. The Penguins are that.

What is so special about these woeful records is that often there has been legitimate high expectations for the team, something only a small band of cockeyed optimists have had for the Pirates.

In 2001-02, the Penguins were coming off an appearance in the conference finals and, with Mario Lemieux back with the team, there were expectations of something similar. Then, Hlinka was fired. He was replaced by Rick Kehoe, a loyal soldier of the Penguins' organization but with no qualifications for the job other than a close proximity to general manager Craig Patrick, who doesn't like to get bogged down in messy job searches.

This season, expectations were over the top. Not only had the Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby -- the rare player who has lived up to his hype -- they had acquired a handful of high-priced veterans who figured to take the team deep in the playoffs, if not all the way. That was particularly true because the team, we were told, had such an outstanding crop of young talent.

After going 11-46-5 in 2003-04, these young Penguins had rallied to go 12-5-3 in their final 20 games. It was a remarkable turnaround and, we were led to believe, this was a team that would only get better in the future.

The leading scorers from that team were Dick Tarnstrom, Aleksey Morozov, Ryan Malone, Milan Kraft, Rico Fata, Ric Jackman and Konstantin Koltsov.

Not exactly a group to build around, though. The remaining players from that group are Malone, experiencing an immensely disappointing season, Jackman, who can barely get on the ice, and Koltsov, the once-heralded No. 1 draft choice who has no goals and two assists in 37 games.

Like the Pirates, the Penguins have become superb in building up the hopes of fans with bogus prospects.

Pittsburgh, we're told incessantly, is a blue-collar town that cherishes defense. The Penguins are 30th and last in the NHL in goals allowed, as they were in 2003-04. In the two seasons before that, they were 29th and 26th. Even the Pirates' harshest critics would have to admit they haven't been close to that level of incompetence in some time.

We hear a lot of cheerleading about how the Penguins are set for the future with Crosby, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and prospect Evgeni Malkin, said to be the equal of Crosby. No question, that has the look of a formidable threesome. But it takes more than three players.

That's what is so troubling. When it comes to building a team, the Penguins are clueless. In the front office, Patrick's moves continue to defy belief. For administrative incompetence, the Penguins have it all over the Pirates.

If the team's future is at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, its top minor-league club, why is this young talent being groomed by Joe Mullen? Mullen was a Hall of Fame player, but he has no credentials as a head coach and his only experience as a Penguins assistant were under Kehoe and Eddie Olczyk, two failed regimes.

The only hope is the somewhat level playing field put in place after a work stoppage eliminated the 2004-05 season. Such circumstances should allow a team to become competitive. But with one as mired deeply in defeat as the Penguins, that's a hard concept to grasp.

Sidney Crosby will need better players around him if the Penguins want to get better.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.)

Friday, February 24, 2006

Joe Starkey: Canada got what it deserved

Joe Starkey
Friday, February 24, 2006

When he played, Wayne Gretzky saw everything.

Now, apparently, he sees nothing.

His top assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes was allegedly involved in a gambling ring?

Had no idea.

His wife allegedly placed $100,000 worth of bets in said gambling ring?

Um, you'll have to ask her.

Team Canada was bounced from the Olympics in humiliating fashion?

We're assuming even Gretzky knows about that, seeing as he's the one who formed Canada's roster.

He couldn't have mangled the job any worse.

Somebody must have forgotten to hand Mr. Oblivious a copy of the NHL scoring leaders when it came time to choose his Olympic team. He would have seen that Carolina's swift-skating, 6-foot-4 center, Eric Staal, was among the top few on the list (and is currently third with 75 points). Staal is a legitimate MVP candidate in the league, but he wasn't good enough for Team Canada.

Neither was Sidney Crosby, who is 12th in the NHL in scoring (sixth among Canadian players) and undoubtedly would have used his blazing speed to torture opponents on the large Olympic ice surface.
Crosby, 18, and Staal, 21, evidently were too young to play for Team Can't-ada (and you didn't know there was an age limit).
It's incredible that so many Canadian observers aren't convinced that Staal and Crosby would have made a major difference. Did they not see what Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin did for Team Russia?

Canada's brass outsmarted itself, opting for the likes of Kris Draper, Todd Bertuzzi and Shane Doan (Doan being one of Gretzky's players in Phoenix). They weren't going to choose the best players, or the players having the best years. They were going to fill out their team with "role players."

The truth is that great players can play just about any role. In fact, they ought to be able to play a given role better than a role player. Mario Lemieux, when he felt so inclined, was the best penalty killer in NHL history.

Bertuzzi was an idiotic choice from day one, a bad penalty waiting to happen and a potential public-relations nightmare because of his well-known assault on a defenseless opponent during a game two years ago.

Gretzky instead could have picked a PR sensation in Crosby but obviously had his team chosen before the season. He and his cabinet - including Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini, Pat Quinn, Ken Hitchcock, Jacques Martin and Wayne Fleming - favored experience above all else. As if nothing had changed since Canada won a gold medal four years ago in Salt Lake City.

Did this team really need Kris Draper?

Simon Gagne wasn't exactly an inspired pick, either. His unusually high goal total this season is largely the result of playing next to Peter Forsberg.

How fitting it was that Ovechkin beat the Canadians with Bertuzzi sitting in the penalty box on account of a foolish offensive-zone interference penalty.

Canada did not score in 15 of its final 16 periods. Long after the last one of those, Gretzky still didn't get it, lamenting to NBC's Bob Costas the fact that Canada was without Lemieux and fellow fossil Steve Yzerman.

Lemieux, on the other hand, spoke the truth at his retirement news conference when he said today's game is for the younger players. Somebody should deliver the message to Mr. Oblivious, and, while they're at it, to the boys running Team USA.

Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bettis says depth could be issue for Steelers

By Mike Prisuta
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Steelers have some issues to sort through before beginning the defense of their Super Bowl championship in 2006, but depth at running back isn't one of them.

So says running back-turned-NBC analyst Jerome Bettis.

"I really believe Duce Staley can fill that void, and definitely, he can excel in that role if that's the role that's asked of him," Bettis said Monday.

Speaking from Turin, Italy, on a conference call to promote his new job as a studio analyst for NBC-TV's "Football Night In America," Bettis endorsed Staley as a potential backfield complement to Willie Parker _ the role Bettis handled in 2005, the last of his 13 NFL seasons.

"No question he can still play," Bettis said of Staley.

Staley didn't play any role at all for the Steelers after carrying three times for 2 yards on Dec. 4 against Cincinnati.

He was designated inactive for the final four regular-season games and the Steelers' first three playoff games.

Staley dressed for Super Bowl XL on Feb. 5 in Detroit but didn't play in the Steelers' 21-10 victory over Seattle.

"When I was activated, that lets you know I was healthy and (head) coach (Bill Cowher) believed in me," Staley said following the game.

Staley, who turns 31 on Feb. 27, finished an injury-plagued season with 38 carries for 148 yards.
He carried 15 times for 76 yards and a touchdown when pressed into service despite not being fully recovered from preseason knee surgery in a 20-10 win Nov. 6 at Green Bay.

"Nobody knows this because this was internal, but he went to Coach Cowher after he was about 80 percent, getting close to 100 percent - at the Green Bay game he wasn't 100 percent but was still able to carry the load for us - and he said, 'If there's a question about who plays when I get to 100 percent, I want Jerome to play because this is probably his last year,'" Bettis said. "Because of the criticism he was going to take for not having played, that was a very unselfish approach he took."

Staley had expressed a similar sentiment to the Tribune-Review in late October, insisting, "This is the last time you might see No. 36 in that uniform. I would rather for him to actually go out with a bang. If it was up to me and him battling for the last little piece, I would willingly give it up to him."

Staley is scheduled to earn a base salary of $2.5 million and cost the Steelers $4,371,250 against the salary cap in 2006, the third year of a five-year deal.
"I really believe he has a lot left in the tank," Bettis said. "If he stays with the Pittsburgh Steelers, I think he's going to be very valuable. He's going to be very valuable, regardless, because he can still play."

As for the rest of the Steelers' offseason picture as Bettis sees it:

"I think they need depth at the offensive line position. There's another question about whether (starting center) Jeff Hartings is going to continue. I think you have to think long-term and start grooming somebody if (backup) Chukky Okobi is not the person they want.

"I look at the defensive line, and it is sorely in need of a young defensive end that can help them in that department. (Free agent) Kimo von Oelhoffen, you don't know what his future holds, so that is another (question). I think you have to figure out about (free agent wide receiver Antwaan) Randle El, if he is truly the No. 2 guy or if he is expendable. Do his punt returns offer him enough leverage to command the dollars that he's asking? I think that is going to be a difficult choice they are going to have to make.

"Then you look at (free agent free safety) Chris Hope, you possibly think maybe you could stand to lose Chris Hope because of the dollars he's going to command. But that's an area of concern, because you don't have a viable backup for him.

"All around there aren't a lot of key areas (in question), but I think depth is definitely an issue. At the key areas, I don't believe they have the depth to lose anybody."

Mike Prisuta can be reached at ptrsports@tribweb.com.

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Bettis steps into role as football analyst

Tuesday, February 21, 2006
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jerome Bettis had to wait 13 seasons before achieving the highest team honor in the NFL when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL earlier this month. His climb to the top began with the Los Angeles Rams in 1993 and had many frustrating near-misses along the way.

He'll have no such wait to reach the highest pinnacle in his post-NFL career. Bettis is starting at the top.

If there was any doubt that Bettis was in demand as a television analyst it ended with the announcement that he will be part of NBC's "Football Night in America." NBC has attracted a legendary list of broadcasters to usher in its return to the NFL. Bettis is in extraordinary company.

NBC lured away Al Michaels and John Madden from "Monday Night Football" to handle the calling of the games -- the NFL opener Sept. 7 at Heinz Field and 16 Sunday night games.
NBC's agreement runs through 2012 and includes flexible game selection the final seven weeks of the season, an option the NFL has never given another network.

Bettis will be part of the pregame show, "Football Night in America," which will have Bob Costas as host. Costas has won 17 Emmy Awards and is regarded as the best in the business. Former NFL wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, whose post-playing career includes five Emmys, will be a co-host.

Bettis, who retired as the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history, is the third person on the panel. Dick Ebersol, the head of NBC sports, said at least two more people "in various roles," will be added.

In speaking of Bettis, Ebersol said: "We put one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle together, an extraordinary important piece to get a contemporary player fresh from the game, who not only played the game at the highest level, but knows how to relate to the fans.

"He made it evidently clear to us back in late October, when he flew into New York less than 12 hours after a Monday night game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. He did his audition with Cris and Bob and literally blew us away. He really knew the inside story of so many people in the league, which I can believe comes directly from the fact that he is so widely respected by the players."

"It's great to be part of a new team," Bettis said. "My last team won a championship. We have different goals but the same outcome. We want to be champions."

Bettis indicated he had other options but none as good as this one. "This was clearly the No. 1 opportunity for me," he said.

Bettis was asked if a nice guy such as himself could make critical comments about NFL players, many of whom are his friends.

"I've always told the truth," he said. "I think honesty is the best policy. If a guy is not playing well, he knows it. I'll just be telling the truth. As long as I call it as I see it, I think I'll be fine."

Ebersol related how the NFL scheduling relieved Bettis of some high-level anxiety.

"He was actually worried, when he first got here and sat down with me last night, that he would have to choose between being in the studio on the very first night, which he knew he had to do, when his team was going to get their Super Bowl rings. Now he has the best of both worlds: The Bus will pull up outside of Heinz Field and he will be there for the ring ceremony and he will be there with Bob [Costas] and Cris Collinsworth to cover the game for us."

(Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Spring Training: Jack is back, and bigger than ever

Wilson reports to camp with 20 pounds of muscle
Saturday, February 18, 2006
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- This spring, Jack Wilson has traded feeling sick for getting thick.

The Pirates' shortstop raised eyebrows around the team's training complex yesterday after reporting nearly 20 pounds heavier than his previous playing weight, with every fiber of that being hard muscle that was hard won.

"A whole 205 pounds," Wilson said, beaming. "Everything definitely feels different."

He spent all but two weeks of the past four months engaged in an unprecedented, grueling conditioning regimen that covered five days a week, three hours a day. A personal trainer and old friend, Trevor Tom of Pepperdine University, came to his home in Camarillo, Calif., daily to provide instruction and motivation.

Or, as Wilson put it, "The dude kicked the crap out of me."

Wilson's primary goal was to avoid losing as much weight over the course of the long season as he has in the past, often up to 20 pounds. His primary motivation, though, was recalling how much better he always has hit when he is at or close to peak strength.

"It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out you're going to do better when you're feeling better," he said. "And I think my career has shown that."

It certainly showed last year, though not for the better.

When Wilson reported for spring training last season, he was less than two months removed from an emergency appendectomy that caused him to drop from 193 pounds to 172. He reported to Bradenton wiry and weak, was held out of exhibitions and performed poorly at the plate once he resumed playing.

Because of his weakness, his swing usually was late, the contact soft. That lingered deep into the season, and the result was a seemingly endless string of meek grounders to the right side and a .199 average through May 29. It took two solid closing months -- .267 in August and .350 in September -- to boost his average to .257.

"I wouldn't say it was the appendectomy itself, but not getting my strength back for such a long time," Wilson said. "Those numbers speak for themselves. But you know what? I still had a job to do in going out there and playing good defense."

Wilson reported to camp this year four days before position players are due, which is unusual for someone so entrenched at his position. To hear him tell it, though, he will be in a battle this spring almost as much as some players on the bubble.

"They want me to be the No. 2 hitter in the lineup, and I want to prove I can do it," Wilson said. "That's my battle. That's how I'm looking at it."

Manager Jim Tracy has had several conversations with Wilson this offseason, including a lunch in California two weeks ago, in which he has detailed his goals and expectations for Wilson in batting behind leadoff man Chris Duffy.

"Jack needs to be able to do the right things, the little things to keep Duffy moving on the basepaths," Tracy said. "That might be a grounder to the right side. It might be a bunt. It might be a hit. Jack knows what I expect from him and how important I feel that job is. And I see Jack as someone who can do very, very well in that role."

There is evidence to support that. Over the past three seasons, Wilson has a .275 overall average, but has hit .286 when batting second. In his All-Star year, 2004, he batted .308 with 201 hits, almost all at No. 2. He also has shown an ability to bunt, his 11 sacrifices last year topping the Pirates.

But his on-base percentage, a key figure for top-of-the-order types, always has been modest relative to his average, mostly because of low walk totals. His on-base percentage was .299 last year, .335 in his All-Star year. His walks were up slightly last season, but he still averaged only one every 21 at-bats.

Wilson is optimistic he can do what Tracy is seeking.

"I love doing it, being in that spot. I'm the type of guy where I don't care how many hits I get. If I have to hit a grounder to move the runner up 100 times, I'll take it."

He might show a bit more bop than in the past, given his new bulk, although he does not sound as if he will make that a priority.

"I just want to make sure I'm getting the most out of myself and not letting my performance slip. Last year, I didn't have a chance to use my offseason to get in shape. This year, that's not the case. I'm ready to go."

(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com.)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Obituary: Ernie Stautner

Hall of Fame tackle, his No. 70 the only one Steelers officially retired

April 20, 1925 - Feb. 16, 2006

Friday, February 17, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ernie Stautner spent Super Bowl Sunday in front of a television in his hospital room in Colorado, surrounded by four of his daughters, watching his beloved Steelers win another NFL championship.

Ailing with Alzheimer's disease the past eight years, he nevertheless knew he was watching them in the Super Bowl Feb. 5.

"Everyone went up there to make sure he had the Steelers on," his wife, Jill, said yesterday. "He was really proud. He might forget it in a few seconds, but he knew what was going on."

Mr. Stautner, a Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle who played all 14 of his NFL seasons with the Steelers, died early yesterday morning in a Carbondale, Colo., nursing home. He was 80.

His No. 70 is the only jersey number officially retired by the team.

"He loved the Steelers," Jill Stautner said. "He hated that he never got to win there."

The Steelers did not have a championship season during Mr. Stautner's playing days from 1950 through 1963, but they received memorable play from their nine-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle. Undersized even for those days at 6-1, 230 pounds, Mr. Stautner used his incredible strength to dominate offensive linemen.

"What made him was his strength," Dan Rooney said yesterday. "This was a time players didn't have strength. I remember we were playing the Giants at Forbes Field one time and it was a very close game, and they were moving the ball. He sacked the quarterback three times in a row."

"He was one of those Germans, know what I mean, a tough dude," said former teammate Jack Butler. "Quick off the ball, he'd explode off the ball, make great contact and pound the hell out of offensive tackles. And he could chase. He was all football and a team player all the way, a good guy."

Mr. Stautner, born in Bavaria, moved with his family to Albany, N.Y., when he was 3. He served in the Marines and then played at Boston College.

The Steelers picked him in the third round of the 1950 draft. He made his first Pro Bowl in 1953 and his ninth in 1962. He missed only six games during his pro career, playing through injuries that included broken ribs, shoulders, hands and, often, a broken nose.

He made the NFL's official all-1950s team at defensive tackle, although he at times played on offense as well, at guard.

"I always termed him a smaller Joe Greene," said former teammate Bill Priatko. "He had the same type of quickness and strength to dominate a football game like Joe Greene. He was just a durable, tough, tough, football player."

The official Ernie Stautner Web site quotes Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jim Parker, who dueled with Mr. Stautner in the 1950s, saying, "That man ain't human. He's too strong to be human ... He's the toughest guy in the league to play against because he keeps coming head first. Swinging those forearms wears you down. That animal used to stick his head in my belly and drive me into the backfield so hard that, when I picked myself up and looked around, there was a path chopped through the field like a farmer had run a plow over it."

Mr. Priatko remembers a game in 1957 at Baltimore, a year before the Colts, with Johnny Unitas at quarterback, would win the NFL championship.

"He was just awesome," Mr. Priatko recalled. "We beat Baltimore, 19-13. They could not keep him out. He gave Unitas and that whole offense a rough time. He was consistently in their backfield and causing havoc."

He helped prevent it off the field for quarterback Bobby Layne. The two became fast friends and Mr. Stautner served as Mr. Layne's "bodyguard" during the quarterback's steady tour of Pittsburgh nightspots.

He later became friends with another famous Steelers quarterback who would join him in the Hall of Fame, Terry Bradshaw.

"Terry liked him a lot," Jill Stautner said. "I don't know how they connected. He lived close to where we were in the Dallas area."

Mr. Stautner was an assistant coach under Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys from 1966 through 1988, the final 16 years as their defensive coordinator. He was on the sideline for the Cowboys' two Super Bowl losses to the Steelers, but he also had two Super Bowl victories in Dallas.

"He was proud of his Cowboys Super Bowl rings," his wife said, "and the proudest thing he had in the world was his Hall of Fame ring."

Mr. Stautner was inducted in 1969, his first year of eligibility.

Out of a job when Landry retired after the 1988 season, Mr. Stautner made his home in Dallas and came out of retirement to coach Frankfurt of the World League in his native Germany. He coached the Galaxy from 1995 through 1997, winning the first World Bowl in his first year as coach.

Survivors include his wife, five daughters and six grandchildren.

Services will be in Lewisville, Texas, where he will be buried Monday.

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

An Appreciation: Ernie Stautner

Ernest Alfred "Ernie" Stautner

Pittsburgh Steelers Defensive End/Tackle

(April 20, 1925 – February 16, 2006)

Ernie Stautner's Bio
Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney's Statement


He was the franchise's first great home-grown player, and he is the only player in the 73-season history of the Pittsburgh Steelers to have his number retired officially.

Ernie Stautner contributed a lot of things to the Steelers during his 14-year career with them, and one of the most meaningful things he gave them was their reputation.

To this day, the Steelers are thought of throughout the sports world as a tough, physical football team that strives for excellence through the basic fundamentals of the sport. That reputation was forged during Stautner's 14-year career with the team, and that reputation started with him.

Stautner, a Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, passed away this morning at the age of 80.

"Strength is what made Ernie Stautner special," said Steelers chairman Dan Rooney. "He would be a little bit like Casey Hampton in that he was so strong. They didn't have strong guys in that era, the 1950s, because they didn't lift weights. They did running, mainly. He was quick, but strength was his biggest forte. And tough. He was a tough guy."

A second-round draft choice in 1950, Stautner was considered undersized for a defensive tackle, but packed into that 6-foot-1, 230-pound body were other qualities that couldn't be measured. Today, NFL scouts refer to those as intangibles.

Stautner's Pro Football Hall of Fame biography reads, "Blessed with excellent mobility and burning desire, the Boston College star went on to excel in the game of giants. For the next 14 years, Stautner was a fixture at defensive tackle, a veritable folk hero with long-suffering Steelers fans and a major factor in the Pittsburgh defense, one of the most punishing in the NFL at the time."

Through the early years of the NFL, scouting was not as sophisticated as it is today, and teams often learned of good college players by word of mouth. Teams also were known to draft guys they never had seen play. But maybe this is where the Steelers had a possible advantage with Stautner, because Boston College is run by the Jesuit priests, and Art Rooney Sr. was a devout Catholic.

"How they got him, I don't know the facts," said Rooney. "My father had a lot of friends in Boston, and they might have told him about Ernie. It's also possible the priests told my father about him, too."

However it was that Stautner came to Pittsburgh, it didn't take him long to establish himself as a force in the NFL. It's important to understand that defense really wasn't noticed by NFL fans until the late 1950s, and then it was the New York Giants who made it popular. In fact, it would be another decade before a team's defensive play would be featured on its annual highlights film.

But Stautner was part of the generation of players who changed all that.

"He was a tremendous player," said Rooney. "He was the first one who really made an impact from a defensive standpoint, almost in the whole league. I remember a game against the New York Giants at Forbes Field, and it was one of those games where it was close and they were moving the ball, and he tackled the quarterback three straight times – first down, second down, third down – and then they had to punt. And we went on to win the game."

Stautner earned All-NFL honors in 1955, 1956, 1958, and 1959. He was named to nine Pro Bowls and is a member of the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1950s. His play earned him first- or second-team All-NFL honors nine times; his three career safeties tied him for a then all-time NFL record, and his 23 fumble recoveries placed him third on that list.

"Yet Ernie's true worth on a football field could never be measured in lines in a record manual, for statistics can't measure such assets as competitive nature, team spirit, grim determination, and the will to win," continues his Hall of Fame biography. "Extremely resilient, the native of Bavaria missed only six games during his entire NFL career. That's not to say he didn't suffer a number injuries. His maladies included broken ribs, shoulders, hands, and a nose broken too many times to count."

Born April 20, 1925 in Prinzing-by-Cham, Bavaria, Stautner is one of eight members of the Hall of Fame born in a foreign country; he was inducted on Sept. 13, 1969; and there is that photo of Rooney and Stautner on the sideline at Pitt Stadium on the day the Steelers retired his No. 70 jersey.

"It was a big deal, because everybody thought he was our best player before Bobby Layne and those guys came," said Rooney. "(Pittsburgh Press sports editor) Pat Livingston wrote a story in the newspaper saying the Steelers definitely should retire Stautner's jersey because it would be a sacrilege to let somebody else wear it. And it just caught on.

"He was a lineman, and he made an impact."

Stautner also was one of the first players in Steelers history to be granted some leeway because of his superstar status. The owner of a drive-in theater – and those were very popular at that time – Stautner always reported late to training camp, because drive-ins were busiest in the summer.

"The team in the 1950s was a lot better than anybody knew," said Rooney. "They played well. They didn't win championships, but some of that was because of injuries. Our reputation for being a tough team started a little bit before Ernie, but not to the extent that he would take it to.

"When people thought of the Steelers in the 1950s, they thought of Ernie Stautner."

Monday, February 13, 2006

AP: Hampton sounds off on refs

Posted: February 9, 2006
Associated Press

KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- Joey Porter passed on the chance to pile on Jerramy Stevens or weigh-in on the Super Bowl officiating after taking part in his first Pro Bowl practice.

Casey Hampton filled in nicely for his usually outspoken teammate.

Leading up to the Super Bowl, Porter called Stevens soft in response to Stevens saying he didn't think Steelers running back Jerome Bettis would be leaving Detroit with the championship trophy.

Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl 21-10 and Stevens dropped several passes, though he did score Seattle's only touchdown.

"It's hard to harp on a situation that's over with," Porter said Thursday. "It's tough enough for him to lose. I'm not going to dog him in the paper."

Porter also said he had no reaction to ongoing criticism of the officiating.

"It really doesn't matter to me," Porter said. "The game is over."

Hampton, a 28-year-old defensive tackle playing in his second Pro Bowl, had a much different take, expressing disgust with anyone who's complaining about the officiating.

Several calls were questioned during and after the game, mostly by the Seahawks and their fans.

"I don't care anything about that," Hampton said. "People crying about what happened, that's crazy. It doesn't matter. You can't talk about what might have happened. Two or three years from now, people won't remember who we beat in the Super Bowl, just that we won.

"We went in feeling like we were going to win. We got that ring. Believe me, nobody on our team is worried about that. What is crying going to do? Whoever is supposed to win is going to win. That's how it feels."

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren expressed dismay over the officiating since the Super Bowl last Sunday, but neither he nor his players have publicly denigrated Pittsburgh's victory.

Porter, Hampton, center Jeff Hartings, guard Alan Faneca and safety Troy Polamalu are Pittsburgh's Pro Bowl representatives.

Several high-profile Steelers, including Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Parker and Antwaan Randle El, weren't selected.

"There were no real stars on our team," Polamalu said. "I think that's been the key to our success."

Said Faneca: "We're a team-team. It's not one person, it's not one group. It takes all of us to get the job done."

And that's what the Steelers did, capitalizing on big plays to win the franchises fifth Super Bowl title and first in 26 years.

Hartings said he wondered whether he was destined not to be part of a championship team, especially considering the Steelers had a 15-1 record in 2004 but didn't reach the Super Bowl.

They were 11-5 this year and the sixth and last seed in the AFC playoffs. But they beat Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver on the road on their way to the Super Bowl.

"To play nine years falling short, you almost stop thinking about it," Hartings said. "I was really able to enjoy the (Super Bowl) week, have a lot of fun. If we can go into next year with the same focus and attention to detail we had the last eight weeks, that will give us a chance again."

Hartings said he felt bad about the officiating controversy for the officials themselves.
"It's just like a player whenever a player makes a mistake, the fans and media want to single someone out for being a goat," he said. "I think that's a shame.

"My comment on the whole thing is these guys are men, they have families, they have wives, they have kids. They've been negatively affected by this. The game is being affected by this."

Polamalu, a three-year pro, graduated from Southern California a year before the Trojans won the first of two straight national championships.

And then, the Steelers had their great season in 2004 only to fall short.

"I'd never experienced anything like what we've done this past year," he said. "The thing about the playoff system is you don't have to be the best team during the regular season, you have to be the best team in the playoffs.

"We were the best team in the regular season last year and the best team in the playoffs this year."

Porter, a seven-year veteran playing in his third Pro Bowl, is buying 28 tickets for Sunday's game at Aloha Stadium, giving him a total of 30 since each player gets two comps.

The tickets cost $90, meaning he'll shell out $2,520.

"That fee is small compared to how much fun I'm going to have," Porter said. "My family's coming out. When I get a chance to do something like this, I want to enjoy it with my family."

Len Pasquarelli: Ward a fitting MVP

Updated: Feb. 7, 2006, 2:30 PM ET

Ward a perfect symbol of selfless Steelers


DETROIT -- Next to future Pro Football Hall of Fame tailback Jerome Bettis, wide receiver Hines Ward is inarguably the player who is most often cited as personifying what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler.

As confetti rains around him, Steelers receiver Hines Ward describes what it feels like to be named Super Bowl MVP.And so it was only fitting that, on an evening in which the retiring Bettis was finally able to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy as confetti rained down on him, Ward was chosen as the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl XL. Fitting because Ward, an eight-year veteran, has played for one franchise, one owner and one head coach his entire career, and figures to retire in a black-and-gold uniform.

Fitting, too, because Ward is often noted by teammates as a great team leader, a veteran who exemplifies what the selfless Steelers are all about.

"You know, with the [franchise] records I've been setting the last year or two, people like to keep comparing me to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth," said Ward, conjuring up the names of the Steelers' two Hall of Fame wideouts from Pittsburgh's halcyon days of the 1970s, when the club won four titles in six seasons. "Until tonight, I never really thought I should even be mentioned in the same breath as those two. But you know what? Winning a Super Bowl, being the Most Valuable Player, now I feel like I belong in that club with those two."

This was a season -- and a Sunday -- that began unevenly for Ward, a four-time Pro Bowl performer who's known almost as much for his down-field blocking as his receiving. Ward missed the first week of training camp in a contract dispute. On Saturday, Ward was so anxious about his first Super Bowl appearance, he missed a good night's sleep.

Ward awoke at 5:30 a.m. Sunday, ready then to play the game. Ironically, once Super Bowl XL kicked off, he felt like he was sleepwalking through the action.

In the second quarter, he missed a touchdown catch when he was wide open in the right corner of the end zone. His feet seemed to get tangled on the play, set up by a nifty pump fake by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and he misjudged the ball. At best, it would have been a difficult catch, but it was a catch Ward has made many times before, and felt he should have made on Sunday night, too.

"I don't know, for as anxious as I was to play this game, it took me a long time to really get into it," Ward said. "I think it was maybe the second quarter when I woke up and thought to myself, 'Hey, man, you're playing in a Super Bowl. Snap out of it.' Once I got through that, I think I was fine."

Finer than fine, in fact, was Ward, who finished with five catches for 123 yards, and a 43-yard touchdown grab from fellow wide receiver Antwaan Randle El on a well-executed reverse in the fourth quarter. Ward also added 18 yards on a second-quarter reverse.

On the touchdown pass, Ward and Randle El switched positions, with the latter moving into the "X" receiver spot. Ward sold the reverse well, and when backup safety Etric Pruitt bit and moved up into the intermediate zone area, Ward burst past both he and cornerback Marcus Trufant and into the open. The touchdown was critical, given that the Steelers had squandered some promising scoring opportunities, and it boosted Pittsburgh into an insurmountable 21-10 advantage.

"At times like that," wide receiver Cedrick Wilson said, "you want your premier guys to step up for you. You want athletes to do athletic things to win the game. And we put the game into the hands of two of our best athletes. And you see what happened, right?"

Ward, 29, hasn't always been recognized by those outside the game as one of the NFL's great wide receivers, but don't try telling that to his teammates or to most opponents who appreciate the diversity of his skills. The former University of Georgia standout, who played five positions during his Bulldogs' career and wasn't selected until the third round of the 1998 draft, catches, runs and blocks.

He has posted a 112-catch season, four 1,000-yard campaigns, and once again led the Steelers in receptions (69), receiving yards (975) and touchdown catches (11) in 2005. But he also, characteristically, subjugated elements of his game for the common good. Talk to opponents and they generally rave about him.

Said Seahawks cornerback Kelly Herndon late Sunday night: "I don't know anyone in the league who ever underrates the guy. He's a player's player, you know? He does all the little stuff well. Guys around the league respect the heck out of him. I know we tried to pay a lot of attention to him."

In becoming the fifth wide receiver to garner MVP honors -- Swann, Fred Biletnikoff (Oakland), Jerry Rice (San Francisco) and Deion Branch (New England) are the others -- Ward won't have to worry about a lack of attention now. Then again, he never really fretted very much about individual accomplishments, which is why he is so respected by his teammates.

"Doing this with this team, man, it means so much," Ward said. "Honestly, this is what my holdout last summer was all about. I wanted to be with these guys, finish my career with this organization, and be an important part of this franchise's great legacy. Hey, a lot of great players never got this opportunity. Believe me, it's humbling, and it's something I will never forget."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .

Joe Bendel: Steelers took the scenic route

Joe Bendel
Monday, February 13, 2006

Casey Hampton wrapped himself in a luxurious bathrobe and puffed on a pricey Cuban cigar in the Super Steelers' locker room. The image of the hulking nose tackle was one for the ages.

So, too, were the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Led by a never-say-die coach and a keep-the-faith owner, these Steelers took the road less traveled en route to capturing that "One for the Thumb" Super Bowl title with a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 5 at Ford Field in Detroit.

The ever-smiling Hines Ward was their MVP.

The ever-engaging Jerome Bettis was their heart and soul.

The ever-confident Bill Cowher was their bedrock.

And the ever-patient Dan Rooney was their motivation.

Loudly and proudly, they finally got to proclaim, after a 26-year wait, "We are the champions!"

"It is ... the greatest feeling ... IN THE WORLD," boisterous linebacker Joey Porter announced.

These Steelers took the scenic route to NFL immortality, doing the near impossible by winning three road playoff games as the sixth-seeded team out of the AFC. They toppled No. 3 Cincinnati, No. 1 Indianapolis and No. 2 Denver before knocking off top-seed Seattle from the NFC at Ford Field in Detroit.

Not only was it an unprecedented run, but it was a run that might never be duplicated. Indeed, these Steelers were history makers. Super-sized history makers.

"Nobody believed, except us," Ward said.

Even the Steelers might have been questioning themselves after a Week 12 home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals extended their losing streak to three games and dropped their record to 7-5. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and the defense was giving up uncharacteristic point totals, notably the 38 piled on them by the Bengals at Heinz Field.

This is where Cowher could have hit the panic button. But he did no such thing.

He simply put his team back in full pads at practice -- "We're going back to the basics," safety Chris Hope said. -- and wiped the slate clean. All he asked was that his players play one game at a time.

The response was overwhelming. The Steelers won their final four regular-season games, knocking off the streaking Chicago Bears at snowy Heinz Field, the streaking Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis and the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions.

The running game averaged 185 yards in those victories. Roethlisberger was nearly flawless. And the defense was back to playing Steelers defense.

The rest of the league didn't stand a chance.

Eight wins later, the Steelers were celebrating the fifth Super Bowl in franchise history, with Cowher proving he could win the big game, Bettis proving dreams can come true (he got to announce his retirement in his hometown of Detroit), Roethlisberger proving he's a franchise quarterback and Hampton proving how Super sweet a championship-game victory can be.

Joe Bendel can be reached at joecbendel@aol.com or (412) 320-7811.

Mike Prisuta: Decisions, decisions

Mike Prisuta
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Jerome Bettis' grand finale couldn't have been any better.

For others, only their Steelers careers have ended.

Free agency dictates roster changes, especially for Super Bowl champions.

The Steelers aren't immune.

They'll try to keep as many of their 11 unrestricted free agents as possible, but they won't be able to keep them all.

That means difficult decisions will have to be made on the likes of:

QB Charlie Batch -- He's a quality backup to Ben Roethlisberger: Keeper.

RB Verron Haynes -- Getting benched Nov. 28 and Dec. 4, Cincinnati emphasized, in retrospect, the invaluable role Haynes plays as the Steelers' third-down back: Keeper.

TE Jerame Tuman -- He's a starting tight end in the NFL and he can't be that with Heath Miller ahead of him in Pittsburgh. Now that he has a Super Bowl ring, Tuman can move on sans regrets: C-ya.

WR Quincy Morgan -- He has a track record of achievement in the league, he'll be relatively affordable, and at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds he adds an element of size Antwaan Randle El and Cedric Wilson can't match at wide receiver: Keeper.

Randle El -- As much as the Steelers would love to keep him, they'll get priced out of the market. And they can't afford to overpay for a guy who's greatest contributions come on punt returns and gadget plays (Morgan can pick up the special-teams slack on kickoff returns and Hines Ward or Wilson can throw the subsequent reverse-passes): C-ya.

OT Barrett Brooks -- Good guy to have around, and the price is right: Keeper.

DE Brett Keisel -- It's time to allow Keisel to evolve from special teams demon and valuable reserve into the Steelers' next Aaron Smith. Keisel should be priority No. 1 this offseason: Keeper.

DE Kimo von Oelhoffen -- As heroic as von Oelhoffen was this season, in general, and during Super Bowl XL, in particular, Keisel's presence and von Oelhoffen's age (35) make Kimo expendable: C-ya.

LB Clint Kriewaldt -- He isn't looking for a monster payday or an upgrade in responsibility. And it's unlikely the Steelers would find a guy as valuable on special teams or as reliable on defense if needed: Keeper.

CB Deshea Townsend -- Another guy who had a solid season and a spectacular Super Bowl, but also another guy who's being pushed out by a young player (Bryant McFadden): C-ya.

FS Chris Hope -- Having to replace half the secondary would put an unnecessary strain on the Steelers' title defense. That makes Hope's return critical: Keeper.

Also falling into the "Keeper" category are CB Ike Taylor, WR Sean Morey (restricted free agents), and RB Willie Parker and LB James Harrison (exclusive rights FAs).

All of that ought to make the offseason as challenging for the Steelers as the postseason was unforgettable for Bettis.

Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Joe Bendel: Steelers believed from Day 1

Joe Bendel
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Underneath a baking August sun, eager men in black helmets moved in unison at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. Beads of sweat trickled down their faces and across their necks as they attempted to defy the enervating heat.

"We're loving it," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said, seemingly in a state of euphoria. "This is what it's all about. We're out here trying to win a championship."

Foote's words were powerful, but hardly unique. Most football players enter training camp with unbridled enthusiasm, with hopes of winning the game's ultimate prize: The Super Bowl.

Turns out, Foote got it right. The Steelers ended 26 years of franchise frustration last Sunday with a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL in Detroit.

So, why was Foote so sure of himself?

"I just have a good feeling about these guys," he said then. "We have the right type of mix."

The Steelers had a clean slate on that sweltering day when Foote was doing his prognosticating -- no wins, no losses, no AFC Championship game letdown. The preseason magazines were delivering mixed reviews, with some listing them as legitimate contenders and others as pretenders.

In one publication, the author wrote: "While the Steelers will make a pass at being less predictable by opening the playbook, don't expect too much to change, including the team's postseason frustrations."

Another scribe put it this way: "The Steelers are favorites to repeat as AFC North champions. If (quarterback Ben) Roethlisberger takes a step forward in his development and if the defense remains a force, something could come of those AFC title aspirations."

In the midst of these "pretender/contender" debates, the Steelers were dealing with the holdout of Pro Bowl wide receiver Hines Ward and the less-than-stellar play of Roethlisberger.

Ward eventually returned to the team, 15 days after the start of camp, but some wondered if the chemistry would be affected by his extended absence.
Roethlisberger, who had two substandard games in the '04 playoffs after going 13-0 in the regular season as a rookie starter, looked like he might be in postseason form -- which was not good.

His passer rating in the preseason was 32.8 and some wondered if he could come close to duplicating his rookie season, during which the Steelers were 15-1 and reached the AFC final for the second time in four years.

Might these Steelers be in big trouble?

You never would have guessed it in observing the demeanor of the man in charge -- 14-year veteran coach Bill Cowher.

He was their rock.

"We feed off of him," Foote said. "He's our leader."

And while it's true that Cowher once said the passing game was becoming a "concern" late in the preseason, his typical response to questions about Roethlisberger was, "Ben will be fine."

He also refrained from saying a derisive word about Ward's holdout, even though his star wide receiver still had a year remaining on his contract. And he was not shaken when expected starting tailback Duce Staley required athroscopic knee surgery at training camp or when Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter required arthroscopic knee surgery for stomping his foot after beating a free-agent offensive lineman in a pass-blocking drill.

He was already without two starting offensive linemen and a former first-round wideout in Plaxico Burress from the previous season, but Cowher was the picture of stability, no matter how bad things might have looked from the outside.

His team kept sweating, kept plugging away.

Bearing down

Underneath a frigid December sky, self-assured men in black helmets walked with a purpose. Snow and rain fell in front of them and their home field looked like a mosh pit.

They were undaunted.

"This is our kind of weather, Pittsburgh Steelers weather," running back Jerome Bettis proclaimed.

Bettis and his teammates went out and played Pittsburgh Steelers football on this day. He ran for 101 yards, with 100 coming in the second half, and the Steelers ended the Chicago Bears' eight-game winning streak with a 21-9 victory.

More importantly, the Steelers set the tone for the rest of the season. They had been staring at a 7-5 record following three consecutive losses, but they stayed the course against the up-and-coming Bears.

"We had to win, so we went out and did it," safety Chris Hope said. "But it has to be about one game at a time from here on in."

It was.

The Steelers never lost again. They beat Minnesota, a team riding a six-game winning streak, 18-3. They beat Cleveland, 41-0. And they beat Detroit, 35-21, to secure a playoff berth in the regular-season finale.

It wasn't one particular player who got them to the postseason, it was a group effort.

"Coach Cowher kept us focused," center Jeff Hartings said. "He preached one game at a time. We believed in what he was saying."

After a 38-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 4 at Heinz Field -- the third straight defeat for the Steelers -- Cowher wiped the slate clean. He put his team back in full pads for practice, spoke to them about overcoming adversity and, most important, never let them see him sweat.

"We basically took on his personality," Hartings said.

The Steelers entered the postseason as a No. 6 seed -- with the knowledge that no sixth-seed had made it past the divisional round -- but they played like champions. They went on the road and plowed through Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver -- the top three seeds in the AFC -- and became just the second team in history to win three road games en route to the Super Bowl.

The next stop was Detroit, site of Super Bowl XL and the home of Bettis.

"I promised him I would get him there," Roethlisberger said.

Promise delivered.

Big Ben Strikes Two

Underneath a dimming August sky, a young quarterback holding a black helmet showed his fiery side when an inquisitor asked him if he expected to be haunted by the sophomore jinx.

"Well, all you guys say I'm going to have it, so I'm not going to," Roethlisberger told media members, defiantly.

Roethlisberger's words, like Foote's, were powerful, but hardly unique. What competitive athlete is going to agree with a theory that puts him or her in a negative light? Roethlisberger said what he needed to say, but was he going to be able to back it up?

Was he capable of working his magic for another year?

There were rumblings that he might have lost some of his humility in the offseason -- he even taped a commercial for Fat Head products -- and that he was becoming too rebellious, evidenced by riding a motorcycle without a helmet even though Cowher publicly said he did not "condone" such behavior from his quarterback.

Then there was that awful preseason, during which Roethlisberger badly underthrew and overthrew targets. He went 16 of 36 for 145 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

"I told you 100 times, I'm not concerned yet," Roethlisberger said after the Steelers' final preseason game in Carolina. "I'll let you know when I am concerned -- and I don't think it's going to happen."

Teammates tried to support their franchise quarterback during this precarious time.

"I'm not worried about Ben," wide receiver Hines Ward said prior to the sseason opener Sept. 11 against the Tennessee Titans. "I'm not worried at all."

Ward didn't have a crystal ball in his hands when he uttered these words, but he might as well have. Roethlisberger went out in the opener and posted a perfect passer rating of 158.3, becoming the first quarterback to accomplish the feat in two years. The Steelers won, 34-7.

Question marks about the running game, sans Staley, were answered when second-year free-agent Willie Parker raced for 161 yards against the Titans en route to 1,202 on the season. Roethlisberger had what he needed -- a good back, a solid offensive line and a coach who believed in him.

He went on to lead the Steelers to nine of their 11 wins -- he missed four games with knee injuries, including a torn meniscus that turned the Steelers practice facilities into a media zoo -- before posting the fourth-best passer rating in NFL playoff history.

What sophomore jinx?

"The best way I can describe him is that he's Elway-esque," offensive guard Kendall Simmons said after Roethlisberger masterfully picked apart the Denver Broncos in the AFC final. "He's our leader."

A leader who became the youngest quarterback in history to carry his team to a Super Bowl title.

One For The Thumb

Underneath a cozy roof in February, grown men in black helmets -- and coaching hats -- cried.

They had just completed a journey that saw them overcome the holdout of their star wideout, the training camp struggles of their franchise quarterback, the effects of a three-game losing streak, the stigma of being a No. 6 postseason seed and the ghosts of AFC Championship games past to emerge as Super Bowl XL champions.

Steelers 21, Seahawks 10.

Their Terrible-Towel waving fans came to Ford Field in droves. Upwards of 50,000 revelers waved those yellow pieces of cloth as Parker tore off a Super Bowl-record 75-yard touchdown run, as Ward became the Super Bowl MVP, as Casey Hampton, Deshea Townsend, Troy Polamalu and Clark Haggans played Steelers-style defense and, as Bettis won his final NFL game in his backyard.

Team chairman Dan Rooney embraced the Lombardi Trophy, which had eluded him for 26 years, just as he did the previous four trophies in the Super 70s.

Cowher raced down the sideline and hugged his wife and three children, ending all talk about his inability to win the big game.

"He deserves this," Ward said, holding back tears. "Coach Cowher's been at it a long time, and he's an unbelievable coach. He got us all to believe that we could do this. Nobody else believed it, but he did -- and he made us believe it. This team made history."

Books will be written about these Steelers. Photos will adorn the team offices for a lifetime. Things will never be the same for them.

And to think, these great moments were born six months earlier, on that opening day of training camp in the Westmoreland County heat.

"We did it," Foote said, in a locker room filled with cigar smoke, celebrating what he so strongly believed in early August. "I knew we could do it all along. I just knew it."

Joe Bendel can be reached at joecbendel@aol.com or (412) 320-7811.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Joe Starkey: Time to reflect on magical season

Joe Starkey
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

DETROIT -- Dick LeBeau had spent 47 of his 68 earthly years working in professional football and had never experienced a championship, so his post-game reaction seemed perfectly logical.

"As soon as the game was over, and I realized it was over, I just kind of walked around and kept looking at the scoreboard," LeBeau said Sunday night in the Steelers' locker room, long after their victory over the Seattle Seahawks. "And guess what? It didn't change. It kept saying 'Pittsburgh 21, The Other Guy 10.' "

As LeBeau spoke, the last of the coaches and players were filtering out of a suddenly tranquil room. The champagne shower had long since ceased. The cigar smoke had dissipated. This particular group of men, as comprised on Feb. 5, 2006, never again would share the same locker-room space.

Bill Cowher called it "the closest team we've ever had."

Bad-boy linebacker Joey Porter made his late exit dressed, fittingly, in all-black, sporting sunglasses and a hat I won't even begin to describe.

Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was talking to a Sports Illustrated writer as he left. It might have been his final interview as a Steelers employee. Whisenhunt is expected to meet with the Oakland Raiders about their head coaching vacancy, and if Raiders owner Al Davis has a brain in his head, he'll offer Whisenhunt the job.

One of the last players to dress was veteran defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, who was surrounded by his three beautiful young daughters.

"Daddy," said the smallest of the three, waving a piece of colored ticker tape, "are you going to keep this?"

Oh, he'll keep it, all right. He'll keep it forever tucked inside that fiercely beating heart of his.

Von Oelhoffen didn't have to wait 47 years to win a championship, but he was stuck in the NFL hinterlands of Cincinnati for the first six years of his career and went two more before he even experienced a playoff game. At 35, this was extra sweet, but von Oelhoffen knew his coaches had waited longer.

Cowher waited until his 14th year as a head coach, longer than any winning coach in Super Bowl history. LeBeau had spent nearly four times as many years as a player, an assistant and, briefly, a head coach without winning it all, though he'd been to the three Super Bowls as an assistant.

One of those times was Super Bowl XXX, when the Steelers stood toe-to-toe with the mighty Dallas Cowboys before losing on a split decision (as in, Andre Hastings split one way, and Neil O'Donnell went the other). Another was Super XXIII, when, as the Bengals' defensive coordinator, LeBeau saw Joe Montana carve him up with an 11-play, 92-yard drive as time ticked away.

"Win or lose, coach LeBeau has always given his heart to this game, to his players," Von Oelhoffen said. "So has coach Cowher. They deserve this, man. They deserve this so much."

His voice grew louder: "They have fought and fought for years!"

Cowher's calling card always was defense. LeBeau is nothing less than a defensive guru -- and it was on that side of the ball that the Steelers won Super XL. They held NFL's highest-scoring team to its lowest output of the season and NFL MVP Shaun Alexander without a touchdown for only the fourth time all season.

Matt Hasselbeck experienced his first three-sack game since November and was picked off for the first time in 23 quarters.

One key, ironically, was that LeBeau -- inventor of the zone blitz -- called off the dogs in the second half. He dropped people into coverage and invited Hasselbeck to play the patient game. Hasselbeck refused the invitation, tossing a game-changing interception to Ike Taylor on third-and-long in Steelers territory. Seattle should have played it safe and settled for a field goal there. It would have cut the Steelers' lead to 14-13.

Yesterday morning, Cowher and Hines Ward arrived at The Renaissance Center downtown for a news conference. Ward picked up his Cadillac Escalade as the game's MVP. Cowher spoke of how it all still felt "surreal."

Neither was of a mind to talk about the future. Cowher said he was going to take a week to reflect on this magical season, and that seems like the right thing to do.

One guy, however, was thinking about next year even before he left the locker room.

"Honestly? I can't wait to get back in April," said Von Oelhoffen, an unrestricted free agent who sounds as if he's not going anywhere. "We will contend for the Super Bowl for a long time, bro."

That remains to be seen, but nobody can change what happened Sunday. The score is etched in NFL lore.

Steelers 21, The Other Guy 10.

Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com

Mike Prisuta: One for the humble

Mike Prisuta
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

DETROIT -- It was finally time for Bill Cowher to reflect on Monday, but in doing so, the winning coach in Super Bowl XL couldn't resist a brief look ahead.

"You don't just pick up where you left off," Cowher said. "We've got some work ahead of us."
The first stumbling block toward a potential repeat next February in Miami will be free agency, where the Steelers will once again have some difficult decisions to make.

Among those are what to do about the impending unrestricted status of wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, quarterback Charlie Batch, tight end Jerame Tuman, running back Verron Haynes, defensive ends Brett Keisel and Kimo von Oelhoffen, cornerback Deshea Townsend and free safety Chris Hope.

Randle El, von Oelhoffen, Townsend and Hope are starters.

All played integral roles in the Steelers' unprecedented climb to the top of the NFL's mountain.

Not all of them will be back.

Then there's the matter of whether the Steelers can afford to pay center Jeff Hartings $4 million in 2006 and allow him to cost $8.129 million against the salary cap.

And the question of how much more starting running back and budding star Willie Parker deserves than the $305,000 base salary he earned in 2005.

Yet the inevitable economic fluctuations this offseason will constitute just half the battle in the Steelers' upcoming title defense.

There's a chemistry that must be formed again among the players and coaches, a work ethic that must be established, a commitment that must be invested individually and collectively before a team can begin to even contemplate accomplishing what the Steelers achieved this season.

"We'll have to start over," Cowher allowed.

They'll do so with a championship-caliber nucleus of rising stars and core veterans on both sides of the ball.

So if anything, the organization's window of opportunity remains wide open.

Still, as Cowher is painfully aware, there are no guarantees.

In speaking to the media one final time when wide receiver Hines Ward received the Super Bowl XL MVP trophy and a new Cadillac, Cowher also personified what it means to be a true champion.

In what could have been an in-your-face declaration to his detractors, Cowher instead spoke with humility and respect for the game and his players.

He offered keen insight into the NFL's sometimes cruel championship quest, not having forgotten hours after finally winning one that sometimes no matter what you do, it just isn't enough.

In as eloquent an address as he's delivered in 14 years with the Steelers, Cowher quickly praised the Seahawks and head coach Mike Holmgren.

Cowher also credited his relentless staff of assistants for comprising "the best coaching staff, I think, in the National Football League."

And Cowher reminded the media lingering in the Motor City to see whether Ward would select a white or black Escalade that while the Steelers might have beaten the Broncos and Colts on their way to Ford Field, all that established was that the Steelers had been the better team "on that day.

"There's a fine line," Cowher insisted yet again.

Finally seeing it from the other side hasn't dampened Cowher's appreciation of that.

Joe Bendel: Steelers face a number of tough decisions

Joe Bendel
Thursday, February 9, 2006

Bucking tradition, Bill Cowher did not hold his annual "exit meeting" with his players this week. He let them scatter after celebrating their Super Bowl XL victory in the streets of Pittsburgh on Tuesday afternoon.

This should come as no surprise, given the postseason with a Super Bowl victory for the first time in Cowher's 14 seasons.

The Steelers coach, however, will meet with his player-personnel staff in the coming days to discuss the Scouting Combine, player performances and free agency.

The combine, featuring the top college prospects, runs from Feb. 22-28 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Free agency begins March 3.

Eleven Steelers players become unrestricted free agents on that date, including wideout Antwaan Randle El, free safety Chris Hope, cornerback Deshea Townsend, tight end Jerame Tuman, defensive end Brett Keisel, running back Verron Haynes, defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, quarterback Charlie Batch, wide receiver Quincy Morgan, offensive tackle Barrett Brooks and linebacker Clint Kriewaldt.

These players are entitled to sign with any NFL team if the Steelers don't sign them before the March 3 deadline.

Also, two Steelers players are restricted free agents -- cornerback Ike Taylor and wide receiver Sean Morey -- meaning those players would receive a qualifying offer (as predetermined by the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement) and could negotiate with any other team until April 15. If either of those players would receive an offer sheet from a different team, the Steelers would have "first right of refusal" and be able to match the offer.

If the Steelers choose not to match the offer, they could receive draft-pick compensation.

There is also the issue of re-working the contract of Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings, who will count $8.12 million against the salary cap under his current deal, and, potentially re-working a deal with backup tailback Duce Staley, who is scheduled to make $2.5 million next season and count $4.37 million against the cap. Staley is signed for three more seasons.

If the Steelers can strike a deal with Hartings and possibly Staley, coupled with the $5.35 million they won't have to pay retired tailback Jerome Bettis, they'll have room to maneuver.

But how they maneuver is yet to be determined.

Randle El, who is reportedly coveted by his hometown Chicago Bears, had an MVP-like performance in the Super Bowl, passing for the game-clinching, 43-yard touchdown to MVP Hines Ward, making a big third-down catch in the second quarter and tackling the Seahawks' Kelly Herndon 20 yards short of the end zone on his interception return midway through the third quarter.

If the Steelers lose Randle El, who returned two punts for touchdowns and averaged 15.9 yards on 35 catches last season, they could target other wideouts in free agency, look to re-sign Morgan or take one in the draft the weekend of April 29-30.

Hope and Townsend, both of whom were instrumental members of a defense that ranked fourth in the NFL, should draw interest around the league, particularly Hope, 25, who played well on Super Bowl Sunday.

Townsend, who will be 31 at the start of next season, does not fall under the "expendable" list, but the Steelers have young cornerbacks ready to play in Bryant McFadden, and, to a lesser extent, Ricardo Colclough.

Von Oelhoffen, who will be 35 next season, said after Sunday's game that he wanted to return to the Steelers, but the team likely will have to throw some money at Keisel, a special-teams demon who appears to be ready to step into a starting role.

Haynes, 26, a third-down back, played well this season and showed no ill-effects of previous knee problems. And, with the running back situation somewhat precarious, he could be a good option for the Steelers.

Earlier this week, Cowher said that the Steeelers wouldn't look exactly the same next season. His job, along with his staff, is to try to make it look exactly as super.

Joe Bendel can be reached at joecbendel@aol.com or (412) 320-7811.