Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Joe Bendel: The Legend of Willie Parker

By Joe Bendel
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

On the side streets of Clinton, N.C., folks used to line up to watch Willie Parker race pit bulls.
"You should have seen it," Willie Parker Sr., said "I don't know where the idea came from, but they'd have a guy on the far end calling for the dog when the race started. You'd see those two at full gallop, running to the finish line. Willie didn't win, but it was amazing to see so much speed."

This is just another chapter in the legend of "Fast" Willie, a man who's been clocked at 4.23 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a man who hasn't lost a foot race (to a human being) since he finally beat a neighborhood kid nicknamed "Rabbit" his freshman year of college, a man who'd sprint by his father's car so he'd get home before the old man.

And a man who figures to start at tailback for the Steelers in the regular-season opener Sept. 11 against Tennessee.

"There's one word to describe him: 'Speed,' " cornerback Ike Taylor said.
Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El offered another.
"Mo-o-o-ving," Randle El said. "Man, can he move."

Parker, an undrafted second-year player from the University of North Carolina, is moving up the Steelers' depth chart with all the speed of those pit bulls, most recently surpassing Verron Haynes as the top backup to Jerome Bettis (calf) and Duce Staley (knee).
The best Parker can remember, he earned the nickname "Fast" in junior high.

"I was about 12 or 13 when I started to beat everybody in the neighborhood in races," Parker said. "But there was this one girl who used to beat all the boys -- and she even beat me. So, I started practicing on my speed, because I couldn't take a girl beating me. I finally beat her."
And the legend of "Fast" Willie was born.

Soon after, Parker was blazing his trail in the pee-wee football leagues of Clinton. Legend has it, his first run from scrimmage went for a 70-yard touchdown. The shows kept going from there.
"I would sit in the stands at his games and ask, 'Who is that fast boy running up and down the field,' " said Willie Sr., who coached his youngest son in grade school. "People would turn and say, 'That's Willie.' "

Those words were heard frequently during Parker's prep career at Clinton High. He ran for 1,801 yards, averaging 12.3 per carry, in leading Clinton to the state playoffs his senior year. As a junior, his 11.8 yards-per-carry average took Clinton to the North Carolina state title.

All was good in "Fast" Willie's world back then, especially when Carolina coach Carl Torbush handed him a scholarship.

"I was happy for the time being, but ..." Parker said.

This is where the legend of "Fast" Willie took a lengthy detour.

First, Torbush was replaced by John Bunting after Parker's freshman year, a year in which Parker ran for 355 yards on 84 carries. The Bunting-Parker pairing was the worst since Mike Tyson and Robyn Givens.

Bunting wanted Parker to gain weight and become more of a power back. Parker, who was 200 pounds at the time, wanted nothing to do with Bunting's plan.

"He said to me, 'If Willie ain't going to do it, it's my way or Willie's going to hit the highway,' "
Parker said of a conversation he had with Bunting.

Parker would never carry more than 83 times in each of his final three seasons, despite opening the year as a starter in his sophomore and junior seasons.

"They told him he (stunk)," fellow linebacker Joey Porter yelled earlier this week, when Parker was being interviewed about his college career. Parker shook his head in agreement.

But that might not be a complete characterization of what the North Carolina staff truly thought of Parker. Andre Powell, the running backs coach at UNC, arrived at Chapel Hill with Bunting in 2001. He offered some thoughts on Parker's unfulfilling college career.

"In retrospect, we probably could have done some things differently with Willie," Powell said Monday. "But we were trying to develop our own style. When we got there, North Carolina was a finesse team, but we were bound and determined to be a (physical) running team. We wanted things done a certain way. We have more 1,000-yard rushers in our history than any other program. We hadn't had one since 1997. We wanted to get back to that."

Parker, though, never bought into the new staff's power-ball philosophy.

"For whatever reason, we never could get on the same page," said Powell, who helped mentor Tiki Barber at the University of Virginia. "But we have a lot of respect for Willie here. In fact, of all the players I've coached, I'm most proud of him. He left here and went undrafted and now look at him -- he's on the verge of starting for the Pittsburgh Steelers."

Parker's father said Willie's problems at UNC went far deeper than a coaching change. Willie's best friend from home was murdered his sophomore year.

"He crumbled when he heard that," Willie Sr. said. "The coaches thought they could get him to open up, but they couldn't. He was down for a long time. But through all of this, Willie took everything like a man. He didn't complain about not playing at North Carolina. I'm surprised he didn't leave and go somewhere else. But he held strong, and he's made his way now."

The Steelers have seen Parker go from project to projectile, a bullet-fast back who is stronger than some might believe.

"It wouldn't be right to say he lacks power because he's not as big as Jerome and Duce (Staley)," free safety Chris Hope said of Parker, 5-foot-10, 209 pounds. "He doesn't have much body fat on him. That's all muscle. He has the combination -- speed and strength."

Parker has stood out in the preseason, rushing for 112 yards on 11 carries (10.2 per attempt), including sprints of 51, 37 and 21 yards. Cowher is so enamored with him that he's holding him out of tomorrow's preseason finale at Carolina to keep him healthy for the opener.

Teammates such as Bettis and Ben Roethlisberger sang Parker's praises in the locker room as recently as yesterday. He continues to sell himself to the coaching staff with his work ethic.

Parker's goal is to keep the legend of "Fast" Willie going, though he takes nothing for granted.

"I feel like a fighter, but it's not over," Parker said. "I got to keep fighting. There are a lot of people out there who don't know what Willie Parker can do because Willie Parker has been on the sideline for so long, even at Carolina. So, I really haven't made it yet. I haven't done anything yet."

Joe Bendel can be reached at or (412) 320-7811.

Today's Most-Read Articles
1. The legend of Willie Parker
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3. Cowher satisfied with line play
4. Irish have leg up on Panthers' line
5. Hundreds of fetus remains found in McKeesport

Paul Meyer: Rookie Maholm Winner in Debut

Pitches 8 innings as Pirates roll, 6-0
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Pirates Coverage:
Pirates Notebook: Don't overlook Milwaukee
Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic
Pirates game log, scoring highlights and box scores

MILWAUKEE -- Paul Maholm received good news before the game, then made news a few hours later while leading the Pirates to a 6-0 victory against Milwaukee.
The left-hander, the Pirates' top draft pick in 2003, yielded just four hits and three walks and struck out five in eight innings. He also got his first major-league hit, an infield single in the fourth.

Maholm became the first Pirates starter to win in his debut since Joe Beimel, another left-hander who went five innings in a 9-3 victory at Houston April 8, 2001.
Maholm, who just purchased a new home near Biloxi, Miss., took the mound knowing his house and his in-laws, who live 2 miles from it, were OK.

Which seemed amazing, considering the Biloxi area took a direct hit Monday from Hurricane Katrina.

"The house is really pretty good," Maholm said. "There was some damage to a fence, and we lost some shingles, but everybody's fine."

"I had a good conversation [about it] with him Monday," manager Lloyd McClendon said before the game. "He did not seem overly concerned. He left me with a pretty comfortable feeling as far as his mental state."

Pitching coach Spin Williams saw Maholm a bit during spring training and in one bullpen session Sunday after he joined the Pirates.

"I like his poise," Williams said. "I like his bulldog-type attitude."

That's no surprise. Maholm is a product of Mississippi State, home of the Bulldogs.

"He goes out and throws four pitches for strikes," Williams said. "He seemed to be pretty focused in spring training, the little bit I saw him, and handled himself very well. Being from a major college helped him, I'm sure, but he's got very good mound poise."

"He's a strike-thrower," McClendon said. "He knows what he's doing. He's certainly capable of following the scouting report and a game plan."

Maholm, who comfortably throws his fastball in the 88-90 mph range, made his debut on the same mound another promising Pirates left-hander -- Zach Duke --did July 2.

"Makeup-wise and competitive-spirit wise, he's a lot like Duke," McClendon said. "He's real poised and off the charts with his makeup. He's not going to be overwhelmed by the situation."
Maholm began this season with Class AA Altoona, then moved to Class AAA Indianapolis July 19. He was 1-1 with a 3.53 earned run average in six starts.

"He was aggressive in the zone and he threw strikes," third baseman Ty Wigginton said. "Anytime you have a pitcher who's willing to go out and let his defense work for him, he's going to be successful."

In the hours before his debut, Maholm did a lot of pacing, watching TV and reading magazines in the clubhouse.

Then, he watched his teammates present him with a 5-0 lead before he threw his first major-league pitch.

Milwaukee starter Doug Davis, 0-3 with nine no-decisions in his previous 12 starts, quickly got the first two outs in the first before he lost the strike zone.

He walked Jason Bay and Craig Wilson on 3-2 pitches. Ryan Doumit dropped a run-scoring single into short left-center field. Brad Eldred, who entered the game 1 for 24 with 16 strikeouts, and Wigginton also walked on 3-2 pitches. Wigginton's walk forced in the second run.

Jack Wilson sliced a pop fly into right field near the foul line. The diving Corey Hart had the ball in his glove, but it fell loose when he hit the ground. The double boosted the Pirates' lead to 5-0.
On a 1-1 pitch to Maholm, Wilson apparently misread a sign and stole third, safe only because of a low throw from catcher Damian Miller.

Maholm looked at a third strike on Davis' 41st pitch before beginning his mound career.

He yielded a leadoff double to Brady Clark, but struck out Rickie Weeks, retired Lyle Overbay on a bouncer to second base and set down Carlos Lee on a fly to right.

Clemente Crusade: Group Wants MLB to Retire #21

Clemente crusade: Group wants major-league teams to retire Pirates great's No. 21

Wednesday, August 31, 2005
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Fernando Mateo, president of Hispanics Across America, has a vision for July, when baseball's All-Star Game and its activities come to PNC Park.

He wants to see legendary Pirates right fielder and Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente's uniform No. 21 retired across the major leagues.

"One of the proudest days of my life will be to see Mrs. [Vera] Clemente with her three children watching that No. 21 being retired," Mateo said yesterday before he had a scheduled news conference in New York to promote his idea.

"Our goal is to get it retired by the All-Star Game," Mateo said. "We're starting a national campaign."

No. 42, worn by Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier, is the only uniform retired across the major leagues.

Mateo believes Clemente is worthy of the same honor, and his organization is conducting a petition to gather support.

"The bottom line is that in this era of so many Latin ballplayers being caught up in scandals, and looking back at Roberto Clemente who was our true national hero in terms of baseball, the way he lived his life, the way he died to help save others -- that merits his number being retired by every ballclub," Mateo said.

Clemente spent his 18-year major-league career with the Pirates. He was a 12-time All-Star and a 12-time Gold Glove winner. He won four National League batting titles and had a career average of .317. In his last at-bat in 1972, Clemente got his 3,000th hit.

The following New Year's Eve, he died in a plane crash off the coast of his native Puerto Rico while on a relief mission to Nicaragua.

In 1973, the Pirates retired his No. 21, and he became the first Latin American to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame when the standard five-year waiting period was waived.

"We think we have a very strong argument," Mateo said.

Ray Schulte, agent for the Clemente family, said his clients support the campaign.

"The Clemente family would be honored," Schulte said. "We know there are people out there who admire him and feel the same way. There's so many people out there who loved him, so it doesn't surprise the family that somebody has undertaken this.

"Not only would it perpetuate his name, but it would help the Roberto Clemente Sports City."

Clemente's widow runs the sports complex in Puerto Rico.

Mateo said he wrote baseball commissioner Bud Selig about his idea.

"The response was fairly positive," he said. "They understand what our concerns are, they understand who Roberto Clemente was for our community, and they're going to very seriously consider it."

Richard Levin, spokesman for MLB, acknowledged correspondence with Mateo.
"We told him we would take it under advisement." Levin said, declining to speculate on any further action.

A Pirates spokeswoman said the team would defer comment to Major League Baseball.
"Right now we're at the beginning of a huge crusade and we're going need all the help we can get," Mateo said.

(Shelly Anderson can be reached at or 412-263-1721.)

On the Internet
To sign the online petition, in English or Spanish, go to Mateo is looking for volunteers to collect signatures at all major-league ballparks. To get involved, call Hispanics Across America at 212-481-1820 or visit

Monday, August 29, 2005

Gerry Dulac: Polamalu to Have Big Influence on Defense

Polamalu to have big influence on the defense this season
Monday, August 29, 2005
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Steelers:
Bettis to miss at least 2 weeks
Steelers Notebook: Wilson drops behind at WR

Trying to find Troy Polamalu in the Steelers' defense is like playing a game of "Where's Waldo?" He lines up at strong safety, deep safety, cornerback, linebacker, sometimes even on the line of scrimmage. Perhaps with a few more pounds, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau might be tempted to use Polamalu at nose tackle.

Polamalu is a strong safety, by position, but he wears more disguises than Inspector Clouseau. He is positioned in so many spots opposing offensive coordinators wear out the rewind button trying to determine his role in the Steelers' defense. But, if they thought it was difficult trying to identify where Polamalu was positioned last year, when he made the Pro Bowl in his first year as a starter, wait until this season.

Polamalu gets moved around more than living-room furniture, an attempt to take advantage of his ability to run like a cornerback and hit like a linebacker. There he was in Saturday night's 17-10 preseason loss in Washington, playing man coverage on wide receiver James Thrash, picking off a hurried pass by quarterback Patrick Ramsey and returning the interception 34 yards for a touchdown -- the third scoring return by the defense in three preseason games.

"He just is all over the place," said linebacker Clark Haggans, the player who forced Ramsey into a hurried throw.

Polamalu was nicknamed "The Tasmanian Devil" by safety partner Chris Hope, and for good reason -- he is all over the place, whether by design or accident. The long, curly hair that flows from underneath his helmet -- a sign of his Samoan heritage -- only accentuates the manner in which he buzzes around the football field.

But it is his combination of speed and power that sets him apart, making him the Steelers' most unique safety since Carnell Lake. That's why LeBeau, who had Polamalu single cover Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in the slot last season, has devised even more roles for his third-year safety this season.

"He's a special player," LeBeau said.

Polamalu does not see it that way. An aggressive player on the field, he is soft-spoken and extraordinarily humble off the field, and merely attributes his presence on the field to being "more comfortable with the defense."

Polamalu, a first-round pick in 2003, was tied with Hope as the team's second-leading tackler last season, behind inside linebacker James Farrior. He led the team with five interceptions and was second only to cornerback Deshea Townsend (14) with 12 passes defended.

This year Polamalu could be even more active around the line of scrimmage. He will play as a linebacker/corner in the team's "quarter" defense -- a variation of the Steelers' dime package in which six defensive backs are deployed -- which should give him more freedom to blitz.

The quarter defense differs from the dime because three safeties -- Polamalu, Hope and Russell Stuvaints -- are used in the quarter. The dime defense features two safeties -- Polamalu and Hope -- and four cornerbacks. Polamalu is responsible for more deep coverage in the dime.

"He's all over," said Hope, a third-round pick in 2002 who also is in his second year as a starter.
"Some packages he gets in, Troy has the opportunity, where we have an extra safety, he has the ability to roam around and be Troy. It looks like he's out of position. But he's really disguising it when he's up on the line of scrimmage."

Polamalu said he likes playing closer to the line of scrimmage, a role he often assumed when he played at Southern California.

"I do," he said. "I think when you're at linebacker, you have an excuse to get beat deep."

Polamalu was joking, his attempt to deflect attention from himself. But there is no deflecting attention from him on the playing field, where he has quickly become one of the best players on a defense that sent four players to the Pro Bowl in 2004.

In his first season as a starter, he was named second-team All-Pro, finishing behind Baltimore's Ed Reed.

"With time you get more comfortable," Polamalu said. "You study the defense and know what to do, how to disguise things and the timing of your coverages. You know what's good for the defense, what's bad for the defense and what you can get away with."

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Rob Rossi: Month of Change for Pens

By Rob Rossi
Sunday, August 28, 2005

Mark Recchi's job placed him in Philadelphia and Montreal after the Penguins traded him in 1992, but he's been a Pittsburgher all the while -- maintaining an offseason home in the city where his NHL career began.

And, he does know that the Steelers come first, and everything else, a distant second.
But, that's changed over the past month.

"Everybody's talking about us," Recchi said. "It's not too often you can upstage the Steelers when they are in training camp, but we've made some noise. We'll take that and run with it."

The noise the Penguins have made since a magical Friday in late-July has resonated not just in Pittsburgh but around the hockey world.

"I'm really thrilled that the Penguins are back on the map," said Bill Clement, a hockey analyst for ESPN. "They were on their death bed, and they were told there was no cure, and then, somehow, they got a cure for what was ailing them.
"It was a miracle cure. It's really unbelievable."

For the Penguins, it came in dosages.

First, the NHL resumed business July 22, coming back from a season-long absence with a new collective bargaining agreement that included the salary cap necessary for competitive balance.

Later that day, the Penguins won the NHL's draft lottery, thus giving them the opportunity to draft Canadian teenage phenom Sidney Crosby, whom they selected in the July 30th draft.

And from there, everything went crazy.

On Aug. 3, the Penguins made their big splash in free agency by agreeing to terms with offensive-defenseman Sergei Gonchar. They landed a much-needed enforcer, Andre Roy, the next day. With Aug. 8 came the inking of high-scoring winger Zigmund Palffy. Two days later, the club traded for and then signed goaltender Jocelyn Thibault. They apparently capped their spending spree with the signing of bruising power forward John LeClair on Aug. 15.

Perhaps, there is no greater indication of just how far the Penguins have come over the past month than the following statement from agent Steve Bartlett:
"It's funny: I called (general manager Craig Patrick) about a couple of free agents I had, and the first thing out of Craig's mouth was, 'We're aiming higher.' "

From landing Crosby to all their free agency moves, the Penguins have gone from a team that finished at the bottom of the league when NHL games were last played in 2003-04 to one that has all the makings of Stanley Cup contender in the near future.

"I've never seen anything like this," Recchi said. "Getting Crosby changed the gameplan. Obviously, they believed in Crosby, that they had a player they could build the franchise around, and they set out to put some established stars around him.
"Then, when they got Gonchar, they showed that they were serious about winning. Other guys around the league took note of that."

Guys such as LeClair, who built a deep friendship with Recchi while the two played together in Philadelphia. Still, that friendship wasn't what sold LeClair on the Penguins.

"Mark didn't exactly have to sell me hard on Pittsburgh at all," LeClair said. "The Penguins, after all the moves they had made, weren't really a hard sell."

Such words are music to team president Ken Sawyer's ears, especially as the franchise tries to make good on his goal of selling out every game for the 2005-06 season.

The Penguins sold only 475,080 tickets during the 2003-04 season, good for a league-low average of 11,877 per game. To date, they have already exceeded that total for the upcoming season -- and individual tickets don't go on sale until Sept. 17.

"We knew we would have an exciting team because we have some good young players, and we planned to be active in free agency, but we didn't expect sales to be like this," team president Ken Sawyer said. "No question, Crosby was the catalyst, and the signings have sustained (ticket sales). Everybody seems to realize that we'll be one of the more exciting teams in the league.

"It's pretty obvious that there was a pent-up demand for winning hockey."

What isn't so obvious is whether or not winning hockey -- or, at least, the prospect of winning hockey -- will be enough to land the Penguins the new arena they so desperately covet.

The club is trying to put some political pressure on lawmakers to back their bid for slots license by upgrading their on-ice product. The thinking is that allowing the Penguins to leave when their lease at Mellon Arena expires after the 2006-07 season would prove more difficult if the team is selling out the building deep into the playoffs.

"I think what the Penguins have done over the past month dramatically enhances their position, politically, because now they have expressed by finance their faith in the city of Pittsburgh by rebuilding their franchise," said Jerry Shuster, a political communications professor at Pitt and Robert Morris. "They're putting their money where their mouth is.

"The Penguins are saying, 'We're planning to go out there to win.' They are sincere in their effort to make their team a viable contender for the Cup. They can use that as an argument that their faith is in the city of Pittsburgh -- they can say to the city, 'Where is your faith in us?'"

Before rejoining the Penguins prior to the NHL lockout, Recchi put his faith in owner/player Mario Lemieux and Patrick to rebuild the once-proud franchise. He is beyond pleased that such faith has been rewarded.

"I just can't wait to put that jersey on the first night (Oct. 5)," he said. "Part of the fact with coming back was getting this franchise back to where it should be."

A little more than a month and it is well on its way.

Rob Rossi can be reached at or (412) 380-5635.

Today's Most-Read Articles
1. Analysis: Time to make cuts
2. Notebook: Parker played ahead of Haynes against Redskins
3. Steelers offense continues to struggle
4. Month of change for Pens
5. Revis in 'comfort zone'

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Ron Cook: Is it Too Early to Start Worrying?

Saturday, August 27, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

LANDOVER, Md. -- Maybe Fast Willie Parker will be just fine as the Steelers' savior at running back. There's no doubt he has the speed and quickness to do it. But is he tough enough to take the pounding if he has to play every down early in the season? In the power offense that the team loves so much? Here's a little secret for you: Parker had better be.

Maybe Ben Roethlisberger will find a cure for all that ails the Steelers' passing game. You still like his chances, don't you? It's not even September yet and Big Ben really is a smart guy. He knows he can't keep throwing high to Antwaan Randle El, can't keep bouncing the ball in front of Cedrick Wilson, can't keep dumping it at Verron Haynes' feet. Sure, it would be nice if the receivers bailed Roethlisberger out once in a while with a tough catch. And it really would be wonderful if Hines Ward started running his patterns deep enough again so that he doesn't keep coming up a yard shy on those critical short third-down passes. But let's be real here.

Roethlisberger has to stop playing like Kordell Stewart and start playing like, well, Big Ben. And he only has two weeks before the Sept. 11 opener against Tennessee to do it.

Who knows?

If it happens, maybe the Steelers' offense will score a touchdown before November.
OK, so that seems like a big maybe right now.

The Steelers lost last night against the Washington Redskins, 17-10, but that was the least of their troubles. Their first-team offense did score its first points of the exhibition season, but it was mere 24-yard field goal by Jeff Reed after Roethlisberger and his pals couldn't punch the ball in after a first-and-10 at the Redskins' 15 early in the second quarter. Worse, the team lost running back Jerome Bettis in the first quarter with a "strained" right calf injury. The severity wasn't known late last night, but bet the ranch on this: There's no such thing as a minor leg injury for a 33-year-old running back who carries Bettis' weight and has his mileage.

The loss of Bettis even for a long period wouldn't be nearly so worrisome if the Steelers' weren't already thin at running back at the top of their depth chart. Duce Staley is unlikely to play until late September or even into October because of a knee injury. If Bettis is out for any length of time, that means the team will go into the season without the two backs who combined for 442 carries, 1,771 yards and 14 touchdowns in their romp to 15-1 last year.

Fast Willie really had better be the real deal.

"He keeps showing up, keeps making plays," offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said.

Parker tantalized again last night with a terrific run late in the first quarter. He hit quickly into the middle and found a big hole, then made the most of it with just about the sweetest move you'll ever see. He cut to the inside to beat safety Omar Stoutmire, then turned back outside for a 51-yard gain. It was the type of home-run play that Bettis and Staley can't make. The only surprise was that cornerback Shawn Springs somehow ran Parker down even if Springs did have the angle.

Bill Cowher immediately got Parker out of the game and didn't play him again.
Can you blame Cowher for being more interested in beating Tennessee in a real game than the Redskins in a meaningless one?

"You might not see him again until Tennessee," Cowher said.

Parker's spectacular run was a continuation of what he did against the Miami Dolphins last week when he had gains of 37 and 21 yards and caught a 20-yard pass. Actually, he teased us with that fabulous speed in the final regular-season game at Buffalo last year when he ran for 102 yards, 58 on one play.

But that's about it for Parker's resume.

It's not as if he has much of a track record to convince you the Steelers' Super Bowl hopes are in safe hands.

I don't know about you, I'll sleep a lot better after I see Parker do it a few more times and stand up to the punishment.

It's nice to think Roethlisberger will ease the pressure on Parker, but he has a ways to go just to get back to being functional. Forget the interception he threw late in the first half; that was a desperation pass. But go ahead and fret about Big Ben's other numbers: 6 of 15 for 57 yards and a passer rating of 23.5.

Are those Kordell numbers or what?

"We're not where we need to be," Cowher said, speaking generally about the offense.
Said a much more optimistic and perhaps delusional Roethlisberger, "I think we're close."
And speaking of optimism, how about this gem from Randle El: "You don't want to peak too soon."

In Roethlisberger's defense, he again didn't have Ward on the field for long. Ward played just the first quarter, long enough to catch an 11-yard pass on the first play and, unfortunately, to come up that blasted yard short on a third-and-6 sideline pattern a little later. That's the second time in two weeks since Ward ended his holdout that that's happened.

Yes, it's still early and absolutely no time to panic.

But that doesn't change one of football's most recognized truisms.
You have to be able to score to win.

Right now, the Steelers can't.

(Post-Gazette sports columnist Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525.)

Friday, August 26, 2005

Mike Prisuta: It Was an Interesting Month at Latrobe

By Mike Prisuta
Friday, August 26, 2005

Although their stay at St. Vincent College has at long last been completed, the Steelers will endeavor to rely on the foundation they established on campus throughout the upcoming season.
The work habits.

The dedication to preparation.

The camaraderie.

The cliches that somehow combine to become a mission statement.

It's been an interesting month, one worth documenting for the record heading into preseason game No. 3 tonight against the Redskins:

Best camp gimmick: Linebacker Joey Porter and running back Duce Staley keeping score during practice repetitions.

Although Staley didn't last long as a participant, the idea caught on quickly, fostering a constant atmosphere of competition between the offense and defense, one that had grown from the recent habit of keeping track of which unit had "won" traditional showdown periods such as "Goal Line," "Red Zone" and "One Minute."

Although the players quickly lost count, a competitive tone was set and the Steelers were off and running on their way to a productive camp.

Best drill: "Backs on 'Backers." These one-on-one confrontations were as compelling as they were combative, to the extent that the exercise has replaced the formerly furious "Goal Line" drill as the most-anticipated and enthusiastic activity at St. Vincent.

Best camp: Linebacker James Harrison, who is suddenly backing up the mean-as-he-needs-to-be persona with relentless productivity on defense as well as special teams.

Best camp phenom: Wide receiver Nate Washington, who is on the cusp of successfully completing the leap from Tiffin to the big leagues.

Quietest camp: Tight end Walter Rasby. Other than a fight with rookie-free agent linebacker Andre Frazier, Rasby was hardly noticed. But he's going to make this team all the same.

Most determined camp: Tight end Jerame Tuman. Challenged by the drafting of Heath Miller No. 1, Tuman responded by elevating his game. As impressive as Miller has been, Tuman is still starting and still very much in the plans (at least on running downs).

Most stubborn camp: Cornerback Willie Williams. The Steelers threw Ike Taylor, Ricardo Colclough and Bryant McFadden at Williams in anticipation of someone taking Williams' job. But Williams will not be moved.

Most improved at camp: Guard Chris Kemoeatu, who has come so far so fast he replaced left guard Alan Faneca with the first-team offense on Tuesday (honorable mention: linebacker Rian Wallace).

Camp bust: Wide receiver Fred Gibson, who never realized mental errors are unacceptable at this level.

Most disappointing camp: Wide receiver Zamir Cobb, who would have made the team last year had he not gotten hurt. This year, Cobb hurt himself by failing to seize an opportunity that ultimately slipped through his grasp.

Best debut: Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. If departed free agents could always be replaced as seamlessly and economically as the Steelers have apparently replaced Plaxico Burress, there would never be a need to extend anyone's contract.

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

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Jim Wexell: Steelers' Marvel Smith Striving to 'Get Better'

By Jim Wexell,
For the Uniontown Herald-Standard

LATROBE - It's the final week of training camp, so even the hard-core members of the after-practice bunch are checking out a little early.

Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu - two charter members - are over by the fence signing autographs.Alonzo Jackson, well he's making one last desperate lunge for his job.

Two undrafted rookie free agents are working way out there on the blocking sled.

There are reporters, coaches, team employees wandering around the thinning practice field.

There is one veteran, but Marvel Smith's always on the field long after practice ends. No one's sure how long he stays because, well, he's always the last to leave. Rumor has it that when Smith's done running sprints and working with his stretch rope and perfecting his drop steps like some kind of lonesome shadow boxer, he goes up into the weight room and lifts. And then he goes to dinner. Sometimes there's food left.

Shouldn't somebody tell Marvel Smith that he made the Pro Bowl last year? That he, in general, has it made?

"I'm just trying to continue to get better," said Smith, the Steelers' left tackle. "I know what I'm doing out there but I just want to get to the point where I can dominate every single play, and I'm not to that point yet."

Dominate every play? Is that possible?

"It's a goal," he said. "You might as well shoot for it. I mean, it would be wrong to go out there and not think I can dominate."

Smith works on his technique every single day. And he carries a notebook with him to and from meetings and meals in case he needs to jot down something he'll need to work on later.

And the stretch cord after practice?

"I'm trying to work it so that I can do the right technique even when my muscles are fatigued," he said. "You get that resistance band on there and I can fire my muscles a lot quicker."

Marvel Smith, 27 and entering his sixth pro season, is moving into the elite class of NFL left tackles. It's a small and wealthy class, and Smith's hard work is putting him there. He's become a technician, which fits nicely with his natural skills.

"Marvel is very quietly moving into the upper echelon of left tackles in the NFL," said Tunch Ilkin, a former tackle who travels around the country in the off-season to teach technique to young tackles.

"You do take him for granted," Ilkin said. "He's very quiet, but his technique is fantastic. His sets are the same every time. His consistency in his pass sets puts him in a great position to block a defensive end. Angles are everything; pass sets are everything. He uses his hands well. You see him every day after practice taking extra sets. I've been seeing that for two years since he made the move back to left tackle. He's physical; he's tough; looks bigger and stronger. When you watch Marvel Smith play the game, you can't help but go 'Wow'. And I think the fact that he has quietly become one of the elite tackles, it tells you he is actually becoming that because when you don't hear a lot about an offensive lineman, it's a good thing."

You don't hear much about Smith because he plays next to Alan Faneca, the best guard in the game. In the middle is Jeff Hartings, an engaging go-to guy for reporters. On the right side, Kendall Simmons and Max Starks are replacing last year's starters, so they're receiving plenty of attention.

Not that Smith cares about publicity."I don't have any obligations," he said, "other than to try to dominate every single play."

"Marvel is the reason why I'm still playing football. Bottom line," said defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen. "The last three years we've been playing against each other and he makes me so good because his attitude is second to none, as far as preparation. There's nobody on the team that works harder than Marvel Smith. There isn't. You go in the weight room every day after practice and he's in there. He's getting better. His mechanics are superb, man. He stays square; his hands are great; his feet are good. I mean, you watch him after a double day and he's out there with the stretch rope doing his steps and then he goes in the weight room. He won't let anyone outwork him or outplay him. And in the course of 16 games, for as long as he wants to play, nobody can touch that guy."

Two years ago, Smith's health threatened all of that. A pinched nerve in his left shoulder cost him 10 games.

The Steelers finished 6-10. The shoulder bothered him last year, and he won't say he's healthy now.

"I don't think about it," is all he'll say on the matter.

Rob Rossi: Haggans on Verge of Breakout Season

By Rob Rossi
Thursday, August 25, 2005

This time last year, Steelers outside linebacker Clark Haggans was sidelined with a fractured hand, an injury he suffered as the result of an offseason weightlifting accident.
It wasn't exactly the way he wanted to begin his first season as a starter.
This year, Haggans' hand is healthy.

So too, is his game, which has provided a spark to the first-team defense.

Haggans' solid play during the preseason could be a precursor to a breakout season. Similar to fellow linebacker James Farriors' All-Pro performance last season.

"I don't know about that," Haggans said Saturday night after he recorded a highlight-reel sack of Dolphins quarterback Gus Fererotte. "I'm just trying to do what I can to help the defense."
There remains little doubt Haggans can elevate his game to level of Farrior's and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Joey Porter.

Farrior, for one, believes Haggans is on his way.

"Clark is a guy who has no end to his motor. He's always going to work hard and you know what you're going to get from him every time," Farrior said. "I'm sure he's due for a great year."
Haggans recorded six sacks and 30 solo tackles last season, but his production waned during the second half of the season.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher said Saturday he is counting on Haggans' quick start to result in a more consistent regular season.

"I feel a lot more comfortable this year than I did this time last year because this time last year, the question was still out there: Can I play?" Haggans said. "I had hurt my hand and didn't have a lot of time to practice -- it was just one of those things where I was working on things and trying to get better.

"Last year was my first year starting and I wasn't really sure what to expect. I had a different approach going from special teams to starting football games. I had to get adjusted to it.
"Now, it's one of those things that I know what to expect going into this season."
Farrior agrees.

Farrior said his better understanding of the Steelers' 3-4 scheme played a factor in his breakout season.

"Getting comfortable in this defense just comes with getting a year older in this defense and being a year wiser," Farrior said. "Clark's really coming into his own right now."

If Haggans is coming into his own, then a trip to Hawaii might not be out of the question.
"I don't know if this is my time," Haggans said. "I just know I've got to go out, do what the coaches say, do my job successfully and keep pushing forward.

"I'm just glad that I'm healthy right now with my hand. I can play the piano again, so I'm alright."

Rob Rossi can be reached at or (412) 380-5635.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Ed Bouchette: Some Late Training Camp Thoughts

Wednesday, August 24, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Entering the final day of training camp:

Bill Cowher said yesterday he would "entertain" keeping just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. Someone will pick up Charlie Batch if he's released. Brian St. Pierre may be another matter and, if no other team signs him, he can go on the practice squad the way he did to start the 2004 season. The presence of Antwaan Randle El, former Indiana U. starting quarterback, allows them to do that.

The reason they may go with two quarterbacks is they want to keep one more running back to get rookie Noah Herron on the team, and perhaps one more wide receiver. If they keep one extra at both positions, that means two quarterbacks and probably three tight ends instead of four.

Steelers coaches were surprised that Cleveland traded wide receiver Andre Davis to New England for a fifth-round draft choice. They called it a favor by Romeo Crennel to his old buddy with the Patriots. Had they waited, they believe the Browns could have gotten a pick in the second or third round for Davis.

Those same coaches do not believe anyone will offer anything to the Steelers for either Tommy Maddox or Charlie Batch in a trade. It's too late in the year, they said, for a quarterback to learn a team's offense well enough to operate it effectively.

At his news conference yesterday, Cowher said this about linebacker Alonzo Jackson: "Alonzo's been solid, nothing spectacular.'' Solid as in solid waste?

Tight end Matt Kranchick looks like he can be a wonderful target but he cannot block and that is what tight ends do here. So unless the Steelers start thinking of him as a wide receiver, he may have to go if they keep three tight ends instead of four.

Tick, tick, tick. That's the clock counting down on Hines Ward's contract extension talks, which will end by Sept. 11 one way or the other.

If Ward signs, it will put the Steelers in good shape for several years across the board. It will make signing Antwaan Randle El extremely difficult, because there's no way they're going to make Ward one of the highest-paid receivers in the game and follow by putting El where he wants to be. Plus, they have Cedrick Wilson for four years at a good price.

Here's the good news: Alan Faneca is signed through 2007, Marvel Smith through 2008, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans through 2007, James Farrior through 2008. They signed up Larry Foote, Chris Hoke and now Casey Hampton this year.

Troy Polamalu has three years left and, while Deshea Townsend and Willie Williams enter their final years, they have three young cornerbacks nipping at their heals anyway and should take over. Heath Miller signed a five-year deal. Ben Roethlisberger signed for six last year.

Oh, Big Ben. That's the one worth watching. If he has, say, two more sensational years, that six-year contract won't be worth the paper it's written on. Agent Leigh Steinberg will be demanding a new deal and if you think Hines Ward's negotiations were difficult, just wait until that one happens.

But they don't have to worry about that one, either, for at least another two years and maybe three. So, if they sign Ward, there will be labor peace in Steelers land. They will have players become free agents in March, but no one they either can't lose or haven't planned on losing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Mike Prisuta: Steelers' Defense Featuring Polamalu Running Amok

By Mike Prisuta
Monday, August 22, 2005

Finding Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu on a given snap is growing tiresome this August for Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.

Wonder how Whisenhunt's counterparts across the NFL are going to enjoy it come September?
Like the players he coaches, Whisenhunt has emerged frustrated, at time,s trying to figure out where Polamalu is going to line up and what he's going to do during training camp practices. It's a daily battle that can be draining and deflating, but also one the Steelers' offense will be better for having fought so often, Whisenhunt maintains.

"We see things that other people don't see," he said.

What they're seeing this season, and what the Miami Dolphins saw on Saturday night, is Polamalu playing strong safety at times, and a strong safety/linebacker hybrid at others. For while the Steelers' "quarter" package features six defensive backs, as the "dime" traditionally has, it also features Polamalu playing a "hero" or "rover" role that's designed to take advantage of his ability to anticipate and accelerate in pursuit of collisions.

In "dime," linebacker Larry Foote and a lineman are removed and replaced by a couple of cornerbacks.

In "quarter," Foote comes out and is replaced, in essence, by Polamalu, while another safety also is added.

Technically, there still are six DBs on the field. But in most instances Polamalu is a defensive back in name only, and can be spotted crowding the box, charging the line of scrimmage, dropping into coverage, anything he can think of to disguise what the Steelers are playing and at the same time free himself up to fly to the football.

"You definitely have to account for it," Whisenhunt said. "It takes time. You have to really prepare for that, because if you don't, you're going to get hit in the backfield, because he's going to come free.

"He's in so many different places. You have to make sure you're protected, scheme-wise."
And even then, a second of hesitation, miscommunication or indecision can be enough to get your quarterback hit in the mouth.

The theory is similar to the freedom the Dolphins are affording Jason Taylor this season, except neither the Dolphins nor anyone else has taken the concept as far as Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has with Polamalu, in Whisenhunt's estimation.

"They don't do as many things as Troy," he said, "and obviously Troy's a special player."

Polamalu was special enough to make second-team All-Pro in 2004, his first season as a starting safety.

The Steelers envision Polamalu doing even more this season, and are doing everything they can schematically to make it happen.

"Troy's growing as a player, just like some of the other guys are, and they're doing more things with him," Whisenhunt said.

Where's Troy?

Figuring that out will be the Tennessee Titans' problem come Sept. 11.

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

Stats Geek: Bay Carries Too Much of the Load For Pirates

Tuesday, August 23, 2005
By Brian O'Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

An extraordinary event occurred Friday night in Philadelphia. The Pirates plated 11 runs and Jason Bay didn't score any of them.

Bay would score two of the next four runs the Pirates would have in the three-game series, which is closer to our expectation. This slugging/on-base machine has scored more than one of every six runs the Pirates have put on the scoreboard this year.

Bay has 90, third in the National League and sixth in baseball, and is 41 ahead of the closest active Pirate, Jose Castillo, with 49. Matt Lawton had 53 before his trade to the Cubs three weeks ago.

Looking around for a player who has plated a greater share of his team's runs, I found only Derrek Lee, the Cubs' Triple Crown threat. Going into last night's games, Lee had scored 17.4 percent of the Cubs' runs and Bay had scored 17.2 percent of the Pirates'. (Obscure stats like that are why it says "Geek" right on the label.)

I can't calculate the degree of difficulty in Bay being sixth in the majors in runs while his team is 27th, but his remarkable year had me wondering if there had ever been a Pirate this far ahead of his nearest teammate in runs, and whether any other Pirate had a higher share of the team total.
Before I get to the answers, let's get to the stat itself. Runs are the Rodney Dangerfield of the leader board, getting only a little more respect than, say, doubles (Bay has 37, tied for second in the NL) or extra-base hits (Bay is second again, with 66). They aren't nearly as important to ardent fan as runs batted in, and Bay is 18th there, with 72 RBIs.

Why should driving another man home be considered a more manly act than scoring? I'll leave that question to Dr. Freud, but Bay is hitting .340 and slugging .642 with runners in scoring position and hitting .335 and slugging .597 with runners on, so it's curious that he doesn't have more RBIs. The explanation for that is complex, but the reason Bay scores so often is simple. He plays every day, he is on base 40 percent of the time, nearly half Bay's hits are for extra bases and he's an excellent baserunner, stealing 14 bases in 14 attempts.

Give the Pirates hitting behind Bay all the credit for getting him home if you like, but seasons like his don't come around often.

I make no pretense that I conducted a thorough search, but a quick workout of my keyboard on netted two Pirates left fielders who also thoroughly dominated the scoring for bad teams: Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner and Brian Giles, a two-time All-Star whom the Pirates traded for Bay and Oliver Perez.

Kiner finished in the top five in scoring every year from 1947-51, which is hardly surprising. Those five seasons fell within Kiner's seven-year run of leading the league in home runs. In only one of those years did the Pirates have a winning season, finishing fourth in '48 at 83-71.

Scoring about 40 more runs than the nearest Pirate was nothing for Kiner in that span, but his loneliest season was probably '51. That year, Kiner tied Stan Musial for the NL lead in runs with 124, which was 44 more than teammate Gus Bell and 18 percent of the team total.

Time has shorn the bitterness from those losing years, but Giles' 715 games as a Pirate represents only about a third of the team's ongoing 13-year Lossapalooza, so no one is looking back fondly. Giles never finished higher than 10th in runs, which he did in 2000 and '01. In the latter year, the Pirates lost 100 games and Giles scored 116 runs, 32 more than Jason Kendall and 17.7 percent of the Pirates' total.

I'm sure other bad teams have had their own prolific scorers, but you get the point. If Bay is lucky, he won't top Kiner or Giles in these deservedly obscure categories, and he'll never have another season where he's so alone in the lineup.

Kiner, Giles and Bay all have this in common with nearly all scoring leaders: a high on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). Kiner led the league in OPS three times and was never lower than sixth for six consecutive seasons. Giles finished in the top 10 for five consecutive seasons. Bay entered last night sixth in OPS, at .968, up from .907 in his rookie season.
They just got no help. That's a Pirates epitaph that needs to be retired.

(Brian O'Neill can be reached at or 412-263-1947.)

Ed Bouchette: Hampton Inks New Deal

Ward gets all the attention, but Hampton gets a new contract
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The duties of his position require nose tackle Casey Hampton to take on many blockers so Steelers linebackers are free to swoop in and make plays. This time, though, he ran a reverse and let Hines Ward clear out the field for him.

With Ward running all the interference on the contract front, Hampton scored a new five-year deal yesterday that was negotiated outside the limelight. Like the 324-pound Hampton, it was not small. He received a $6.975 million signing bonus, the third highest in team history, as part of a total package worth $22.775 million through 2009.

"Everybody worried about him," Hampton said of Ward, "and I just snuck in through the back door and got mine done."

Steelers president Art Rooney said there's plenty of room under the salary cap for the team to sign Ward and "others" such as receiver Antwaan Randle El and safety Chris Hope, but acknowledged that time is running out. The Steelers have held to a policy of not negotiating contract extensions once the regular season starts. They open Sept. 11.

Each of those three players is entering his final contract year, and chief negotiator Omar Kahn is discussing deals with all of them.

"This does not affect our ability to sign some of the other players we're talking with," Rooney said, "and, hopefully, we'll have other announcements in the future. ... Omar is capable of doing more than one thing at a time."

Ward, who returned to the team last week after a 15-day holdout to protest the lack of movement on his negotiations, said he was unaware of Hampton's new deal until reporters informed him of it on the field at St. Vincent College after practice.

"Hmmm, congratulations," Ward said.

He said it does not affect his own deal that he said Saturday night was "close."

"All I can say is they're negotiating with my contract," Ward said.

Ward's contract would be the highest in team history in signing bonus and total amount, if it gets done. Until then, Hampton's signing bonus ranks only behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's $9 million (or, as some calculate it, $7.8 million) and Kordell Stewart's $8.2 million in team history.

Club officials felt it was well worth it for a player who made the Pro Bowl in 2003 and proved this summer his knee has returned to full strength after a torn ACL in the sixth game ended his 2004 season prematurely.

"I think Casey's the prototype nose tackle for the 34," coach Bill Cowher said. "He has great balance, very powerful and he can move.

"It's hard to block this guy one on one. You see him take up two blockers, which frees up Larry [Foote] and James [Farrior]. Trust me, they're the ones who take him out to eat every week."
End Aaron Smith, who sets up to the left of Hampton in the team's three-man line, also wants to nourish him.

"Casey's a building block that everything else is built around," Smith said. "Our defense is designed for him to hold the point, and then after that everybody else plays off him."
Hampton has good range for a man his size; Cowher noted how he moved outside and caused a fumble Saturday night against the Miami Dolphins.

"He's a lot faster runner than you would think for a man of his dimensions," coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "But his real strength of course is anchoring and inverting the line of scrimmage and letting us play around him."

Even though the Steelers won every game they played without him until they lost in the AFC championship, it did not diminish his importance to their defense. They signed Chris Hoke, who played nose tackle in Hampton's absence, to a contract this year to protect themselves, but they wanted Hampton back.

"We missed him," Cowher said. "Yeah, we won some games, but this guy is one of the best at his position in the National Football League and is recognized as such."

Hampton believes he had to prove that again to them this summer because of his injury.
"I really did feel that it was just a matter of them seeing that I was ready to play and my knee was going to be OK. Once that I showed them that, I felt they would try to get the deal done."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878.)

Monday, August 22, 2005

Ed Bouchette: A Look at Who's Playing Well, Who's Not

Haggans, Foote, Harrison are awesome; Jackson is an embarrassment
Monday, August 22, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's often difficult to determine who performs well and who does not during preseason games, when starters sometimes play but a few series and the game-day rosters are 80, not 45.

Ben Roethlisberger, for example; is he passing poorly or, as Hines Ward and Ken Whisenhunt proclaim, is it merely the timing that's off?

There is one area of this team, though, that leaves little doubt as to its caliber of play -- the linebackers. Even with Joey Porter out, there's no denying the talent these guys have.
Clark Haggans is playing as if he's Greg Lloyd in his prime. He's been all over the field making plays, getting to the quarterback, forcing him into errors and looking every bit like an All-Pro. He says one of the reasons for his improved play is that his hand is healthy now. Remember, he broke his hand lifting weights one week before the 2004 training camp opened. Now, he says, he can even play the piano with it. The way he's going, it looks as if he can lift a piano with it.

James Farrior is a carbon copy of . . . James Farrior, 2004, when he made his first Pro Bowl and was voted the team's MVP. The guy next to him is playing like Kendrell Bell in his prime, only without the pizzazz -- Larry Foote. He keeps showing up at the right place at the right time and making the tackle. I've got a nickname for him -- Sure Foote.

Then there's James Harrison. Undrafted, unwanted, about to put his Kent State degree to good use when the Steelers called him up to fill in last summer for the injured Haggans. He's playing like Joey Porter. When Porter returns to the lineup, they still need to find a way to get Harrison on the field on occasion.

Guess what all these guys have in common? None was drafted in the first two rounds by the Steelers. The Jets drafted Farrior in the first round, but did not know how to use him. It wasn't until he came to the Steelers and they put him inside in their 3-4 defense that he became a star.
And that brings us to Alonzo Jackson. Put him on your cut list right now. He may be gone in the first cut. Embarrassing, one scout told me Saturday night. Can't play. He was drafted in the second round. Bill Cowher, I'm told, wanted to draft him in the first round before the Steelers traded up in that round in 2003 and took Troy Polamalu instead. Whew!

One problem is no other outside linebacker is doing much to press the issue. Dedrick Roper has been a disappointment this summer only because he hasn't made it easy on Cowher to dump Jackson. My feeling is, if that's the case, keep an extra defensive end and go with one less linebacker. Better that than to keep a bad player for one more year so you don't look bad for taking him in the second round.

Cut your losses, and don't look back. It's happened before on the second round with guys such as Scott Shields and Jeremy Staat. It's just that Jackson is the first failure by the Cowher/Kevin Colbert team in the top two rounds. The more he sticks around, though, the more he reminds everyone they goofed on this one. Big time.

Bob Smizik: Steelers' Holes Are On Offense

Monday, August 22, 2005
The Pittsburgh Press

How do the Steelers improve on the 15-1 record they achieved last season? They don't. Even duplicating such a record would be close to impossible. That does not, however, mean 2005 can't be a more memorable season.

The Steelers are eminently capable of improving on their postseason record.

After two exhibition games, both wins, the Steelers stand pretty much as expected. They have a defense that is championship caliber and one that can become dominating and an offense rife with question marks and one that can be their undoing.

Improving on last season's playoff performance would involve advancing further than the New England Patriots, the team that has won three of the past four Super Bowls -- a major challenge. The Patriots look as loaded as ever, but the very nature of the NFL, more so than any excellence on the part of the Steelers, will move them aside. Winning three of four Super Bowls is a stunning achievement. The fates will catch up to the Patriots. In an NFL where parity usually rules, the Patriots are overdue for a tumble.

Which is where the Steelers can step in.

It won't be easy because the offense needs to be upgraded.

What is unusual about the Steelers' offensive shortcomings is that they are not a result of the players who have left but of the players who return.

The departure of the right side of the line -- Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross -- will be more than overcome by the return from injury of Kendall Simmons at guard and the emergence of second-year player Max Starks at tackle.

Nor will the loss of Plaxico Burress cause the offense to stumble. Eventually, it can only be hoped, the Steelers will begin to utilize the skills of rookie tight end Heath Miller. He'll pick up some of what Burress did. The elusive and electric Antwaan Randle El, who is neither as fast nor as tall as Burress, will present defenses with just as many problems and be a more-than-adequate replacement.

The offensive concerns for the Steelers can be found at positions that are expected to be a team strength -- quarterback and running back.

Ben Roethlisberger seemingly has shrugged off his late-season slump, which began before his playoff meltdown, and that's good. Lack of confidence is not a shortcoming for Roethlisberger. That doesn't mean that slump can be dismissed or that it was a case of the quarterback suffering a case of late-season fatigue, as he has suggested.

Roethlisberger was unimpressive Saturday against the Miami Dolphins. Exhibition games are usually meaningless, but Roethlisberger needs to have a good preseason performance. His confidence in his ability might not be waning, but his teammates' belief in him might.

At running back, it's more a case of health than anything. Will Duce Staley, who has averaged only 11 starts the past five years, be durable enough to be the workhorse feature back this team needs? If not, does Jerome Bettis have another miracle season left?

The defense that was No. 1 last season only figures to get better. Such a unit can make up for a lot of offensive shortcomings.

All of last year's starters return along with the kind of depth not found in the salary-cap era. There's reason to believe this unit can become dominant.

"We've got the group to do even better," said James Farrior, who emerged as one of the NFL's best inside linebackers last season. "The coaches have done a great job of coaching us up. We've tweaked our defense a little bit and added a few new things.

"Everybody feels comfortable, everybody knows how everybody is going to play."
The front seven are excellent with remarkable depth. Nose tackle Chris Hoke and linebacker James Harrison stepped into starting roles last season and performed well above expectations. With Casey Hampton healthy, Hoke returns to a backup status. When Joey Porter returns, probably for the season opener, Harrison also goes back to the bench. Few teams have that kind of talent not starting.

Third-year cornerback Ike Taylor, a project whose time has come, is pushing starters Deshea Townsend and Willie Williams. Rookie Bryant McFadden will be an NFL starter.
If Roethlisberger can just come close to his rookie standard and if the running backs stay healthy it can be a better season for the Steelers.

Bettis said it best: "The sky's the limit for this team."

(Bob Smizik can be reached at or 412-263-1468.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Bob Smizik: Steeler Way Works Again and Again

Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As sappy as this sounds, and this is so syrupy sweet it might sicken anyone with a cynical bone in his body, there's no denying the Hines Ward holdout and its kiss-and-make-up ending is proof again that the Steeler Way works.

What had the face of an ugly confrontation that no less than Jerome Bettis said could affect the team's entire player-owner relationship ended in a convincing victory for the Steeler Way. It was convincing not because Ward ended his holdout Monday and will report to training camp today, but because it ended with the player involved having that ever-so-famous smile plastered across his face.

Ward reports to the Steelers with no guarantee his contract wishes will be met and with the possibility -- the one that faces every NFL player -- that his career could be wiped out in some meaningless training camp or exhibition-game hit, which would leave him with lifetime football earnings of 10 cents less than a dime.

The beauty of the Steeler Way is that Ward didn't have to come crawling back. He came back a hero. The Steelers gave him the floor Monday night in the Heinz Field conference room to present his side of the story. Neither Dan Rooney, nor Art Rooney II, nor Kevin Colbert were there. Ward told his story, and, as he can do, won over the crowd of reporters and won over the Steeler Nation, which was listening in rapt attention.

When Ward said, "I want to retire a Steeler," even those fans who had spoken and written bitterly of his greed were totally forgiving.

What made this scenario all the more dazzling was that it came about an hour before the Steelers would kick off to the Philadelphia Eagles, a team embroiled in an ugly contract disagreement with its No. 1 wide receiver.

The Steeler Way never would permit a player of Terrell Owens' propensity for creating distractions to be a member of the team. No matter how dire their need for a wide receiver might be, the Steelers never would take on the trouble that Owens can bring.

The Eagles knew this and gambled. Now, they're losing. Sure, they got to the Super Bowl and almost won it with Owens last season. Some teams might consider that worth the risk. Not the Steelers. It's not the Steeler Way.

This wasn't always the manner in which the Steelers did business. Art Rooney, the Chief, didn't enter the NFL with a concrete tablet on which the Steeler Way was engraved. Nor did he hand over any specific directive to his son, Dan. What he did bequeath Dan was an uncanny amount of common sense, a large passel of humility and great understanding of the human condition. With those attributes and through trial and error, the Rooneys learned the best way to do business.

Bill Cowher learned, too. Early in his tenure, several players became disruptive in the locker room he had inherited from Chuck Noll. Two of them, defensive lineman Donald Evans and tight end Adrian Cooper, were ordinary players and were gone after Cowher's second season. A third, Pro Bowl tight end Eric Green, left via free agency after Cowher's third season when the Steelers decided his baggage wasn't worth the talent he brought to the table.

There have been mistakes along the way and there will continue to be. No way is foolproof. Some might regard Plaxico Burress as one of those mistakes. That's not true. Burress, despite his flakiness and easy drift toward trouble, wasn't a bad guy. Maybe in a lesser locker room, Burress could have been a distraction, could have been something approaching an Owens. But in a locker room where Bettis, Ward, Alan Faneca and Joey Porter hold key leadership roles, any dark side there might have been to Burress never was permitted to surface.

There is no right or wrong to Ward's contract squabble with the Steelers, as much as some might want to place blame. That's especially true considering no one knows the figures being exchanged. Ward is entitled to his opinion of his value, the Steelers are entitled to theirs. In other sports, arbitrators can make a decision in some contract disputes. Football doesn't have arbitration, which means, people being people, there always will be differences of opinion -- especially over money.

Nor is this a matter of greed as so many have tried to portray it. Ward is no more guilty of being greedy by seeking what he believes he's worth than the Steelers are by trying to hang on to as much of their money as they can.

It's a dispute common to professional sports. Some, like the one between Owens and the Eagles, turn ugly. Others do not. Doing things the Steeler Way allows for a greater chance of the latter than the former.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at or 412-263-1468.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Gene Collier: Good Times for Ward, Steelers Again

Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Don't know whether it was the faded brown bucket hat, the T-shirt displaying the cast of "Good Times," the mile-wide Dy-nomite smile or the typically blinding diamond stud earrings, but the composite Hines Ward look again somehow dripped authenticity.

Back with the Steelers as of last night after a 15-day holdout he ended with all the bravado of a little lost lamb, Ward nonetheless electrified the atmosphere of the club's first exhibition game with the kind of genuine black and gold soliloquy that makes the fan base love him to death.

"I'm never going to put on another uniform but the black and gold," Hines was saying an hour before the Steelers confronted the Terrell Owens-less Eagles at Heinz Field, a political dichotomy lost on no one. "I don't even think I'd look right in another uniform. I want to thank the fans. I know this can be an ugly situation, but to know that the fans support me is very special. I want to be here, especially in a game-time situation. I want to support the guys the way they've supported me."

Anybody else, you would be frisking him for a public-relations degree, but Wards' motives are pure. That wasn't Evian he was using to weep on camera for Jerome Bettis after the AFC championship game loss to the Patriots in January. Ward feels the game, feels the people, and likely feels too much for his own good.

It wasn't a stretch to assume that, while Ward was complimenting the city and the organization and his teammates for enduring his holdout in good spirits, a certain Mr. Eugene Parker was less than amused. Parker is Ward's agent, and agents have had better days.

There is still no deal between the club and the four-time Pro Bowl wideout, and any chance Parker had of getting the optimum deal for Ward likely went through the floor about 10 minutes after Ward decided unilaterally to telephone Bill Cowher Sunday night. The head coach, a closet sweet-talker from way back, melted Hines' soft heart.

Ward and the Rooneys will work something out now, but it won't be anything Parker will able to show his other clients with any particular pride, and it won't be anything like Ward might have gotten had he said all the nice things he said last night in front of a St. Vincent dorm July 31.

"He works for me," Ward said. "He just gives me the options; I make the decisions. The options he presented -- you could go back and you could get hurt and lose everything. You could go back, have a good year, and they could put the franchise tag on you. I don't care. I'm here to show good faith because I want the opportunity to retire as a Steeler."

To be sure, most business models that include every implication for the financial future of Ward, 29, vary very little in real-world terms. Ward is and will be either rich, very rich or absolutely filthy. The Steelers don't much care, except that the corollaries are paid, overpaid and 5-11 for the next four years.

"This organization has done so much for me and for my family, so I'm doing my part," Ward said. "I'm here and that puts the ball back in the organization's court. I wanted to put an end to all the speculation, all the talk that, you know, greed and he wants Marvin Harrison money. I don't want what T.O. or Randy Moss or Marvin Harrison gets. Those numbers are ridiculous, not to say that I'm any less of a player than they are. But I know the way this organization works."

The way that this organization works -- not negotiating with players who are absent but under contract -- and the way Ward works -- always putting the club's larger mission above his personal needs -- are proven quantities in an equation with an unknown variable: the possibility of injury.

A debilitating injury in the near term is the difference between Ward being rich for a while and rich forever.

For my tastes, Ward is here too early. Cowher will be tempted to let him play Saturday against the Dolphins and will pretty much have to put him out there in subsequent exhibitions at Washington and Carolina, which are very dangerous situations. Aug. 27 would have been fine for last night's entrance. It's not like he doesn't know the offense. Ward could teach the offense. It's not like his teammates wouldn't have welcomed him back. Another 12 days wouldn't have done much to his leverage either.

So after seven seasons, 500 catches for 6,000 yards, 41 touchdowns and four consecutive 1,000-yard autumns, hundreds of crunching downfield blocks and a million dy-nomite smiles, we've finally seen something in this game Ward can't do very well. Hold out. Just flat has too much heart for it.

"I was just missing football," Ward said. "It sucks being at home, watching all your teammates. They've got the NFL Network now; you can watch practice."
Ouch. Now it's starting to make sense.

(Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283.)

Joe Rutter: Bay Makes Run as Complete Player

By Joe Rutter
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

As the Pirates' best hitter, Jason Bay is used to getting the green light at the plate. Until recently, he'd never had that privilege on the base paths.

Now that he's gotten it, he's taking full advantage.

About three weeks ago, Bay was given permission to start running on his own. And run he has. Bay has swiped five bases since Aug. 6, and nine bases in the past 22 games to increase his team-leading total to 14 steals.

More impressively, that's 14 steals in 14 attempts.

"I've been picking and choosing my spots and running when I think it's the right situation," Bay said. "I don't consider myself a big stolen base guy, but it's nice to be able to run more often."

By adding another component to his game -- speed -- Bay has taken another step toward becoming one of the most well-rounded players in the National League. This month, Bay is batting .380 with 15 RBI. For the season, his numbers include a .305 batting average, 23 home runs, 69 RBI, 35 doubles and 85 runs scored.

Asked to grade Bay's performance, manager Lloyd McClendon smiled and said, "To this point, A-plus."

It's the way Bay has taken to the running game that has elevated his grade. He had 23 stolen bases in 2003, his last minor-league season, but did little last year to show he was worthy of being considered a threat on the bases. Bay had just four steals in 10 attempts.

"The only way to get the green light is to give them reason to give it to you," Bay said. "It's not necessarily that I'm that fast. I just try to be smart about it."

McClendon thinks Bay is one of the smartest baserunners on the team.

With the Pirates struggling to generate offense after the All-Star break, McClendon took the restrictions off Bay.

"I'm not a Juan Pierre or anything, but I can steal a few bases here and there," Bay said. "If they're holding me on, I know I'm not fast enough to beat a quick move and a quick throw. If I feel like I can run when a pitcher is a little slow or I can get a good jump, I can probably steal 20-30 bases a year."

With 44 games remaining, Bay would need seven homers and 16 steals to reach the exclusive 30-30 club. He's on pace to get the necessary homers, but likely doesn't have enough time to reach 30 steals.

There's always next year.

"That's what I originally predicted," McClendon said. "I thought he could get 20 this year and eventually be a 30-30 guy."

It's pretty heady stuff that Bay even merits 30-30 consideration. A 30-30 season has been accomplished nine times in the major leagues since 2000, and only two players (Carlos Beltran and Bobby Abreu) accomplished the feat last season.

In Pirates annals, Barry Bonds is the franchise's only 30-30 player, and he did it twice.
"If you can snag five steals a month, it's definitely possible," Bay said. "Obviously, the more steals you get, the more people are watching you, and it's going to be tougher."

A more attainable goal for Bay this season is the 20-20 club. It's a less-heralded group, one that has just five members. Dave Parker, Andy Van Slyke and Bonds had 20 homers and 20 steals on three occasions, and Al Martin and Kevin Young joined the club in 1999.

Whether his base stealing takes him to those benchmarks remains to be seen. What can be answered definitively is that Bay is taking the necessary steps toward improving every facet of his game.

"I thought he would improve this year, and I think he'll get even better next year," McClendon said. "His overall game will get better. If we can get more pieces in the lineup around him, put a better supporting cast out there, think how good he can be."

Joe Rutter can be reached at

Gerry Dulac: Steelers Welcome Back Ward

Teammates excited to see receiver return; Cowher's 'talk' plays big role
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On a night when they didn't need Hines Ward -- or any other offensive player, for that matter -- the Steelers threw open their arms and ecstatically welcomed their four-time Pro Bowl receiver back to the team.

And probably nobody was happier than Jerome Bettis, who just the other day cautioned Steelers management about mishandling the contract situation and sending the wrong message to players.

"It was great to see him back," Bettis said. "Now we can move forward."

"It's like we found one of our lost kids," inside linebacker James Farrior said. "It's a very joyful day."

"He lit up the room when he walked in," running back Verron Haynes said.

Ward was on the sideline for a 38-31 preseason victory last night against the Philadelphia Eagles at Heinz Field, a game in which the Steelers scored on a interception return by Willie Williams, a punt return by Ricardo Colclough and a kickoff return by Ike Taylor.

Ward ended his contract holdout as a sign of what he called "good faith" and will report to training camp in Latrobe tomorrow for the final two-a-day session at St. Vincent College.
"It gives us a lot of optimism because our guys know he's here," Bettis said. "All that other stuff is behind us. It's a shot of adrenaline for him to be on the sideline."

"If we want to go where we set our goals, we need him, we need Duce [Staley] and we need Joey [Porter]," said Haynes, who, like Ward, played at Georgia.

Ward said one of the reasons he returned was because he had a long phone conversation Sunday night with coach Bill Cowher, a call Ward initiated.

"Hines Ward has done a lot for this football team and I want to surround myself with players like that," Cowher said. "We have a relationship that's been built and time-tested, and you'd like to think you'd be able to be there for a guy and talk to him about certain things."

Cowher, though, didn't have just one conversation with Ward. He said they talked periodically during his holdout.

"Like I said, he means a lot to this team and I hope we can get this thing rectified in the very, very near future and we can move on," Cowher said.

During the holdout, the Steelers continued to have discussion with representatives for the four-time Pro Bowl receiver, despite their stance of not negotiating with players who are not in training camp.

Toward the end of last week, Ward's representatives were leading the Steelers to believe Ward was leaning toward reporting late in the regular season merely to play out the final year of his contract and become a free agent. That caused the Steelers to believe their contract proposals were not accurately being portrayed to Ward by his representatives.

"The team policy is they don't negotiate with players that aren't at camp," Ward said in a news conference before the game. "I'm here -- that's me showing good faith. I'm here showing that I want to get something resolved and I hope something can come about that both sides can agree on something that is fair."

Ward said he is not interested in being paid the same as Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens or Randy Moss, referring to their salary numbers as "ridiculous ... I wouldn't try to ask for that." His only interest, he said, is seeking a contract that will allow him to retire as a Steelers player.
"He's very important to us," Farrior said. "He's one of the main guys on the team, he's a leader on the team. Everyone knows what he brings to the team."

Ward's return will shift the focus back to where it was in the offseason -- specifically, which receiver will replace Plaxico Burress in the starting lineup, Antwaan Randle El or newcomer Cedrick Wilson.

"My son told me right before I left for the game; I didn't know it," Randle El said. "My reaction was great, he's back, he's back, let's do it. We knew it was going to work out. It was just a matter of when. I'm sure he'll get back to his old ways."

(Gerry Dulac can be reached at or 412-263-1466.)

Chuck Finder: Pens Sign LeClair

Penguins continue to make big plays
Five-time All-Star LeClair joins team
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Penguins general manager Craig Patrick continues to play disc jockey to the tune of the NHL's new Collective Bargaining Agreement, spinning the hits. Yesterday's selection was something of a golden oldie, five-time All-Star left winger John LeClair, 36, the same age as depth defenseman Steve Poapst, who signed a couple of hours later. Another addition to the Penguins' playlist may come today, or someday soon: Slovak center Jozef Stumpel, 33.

And just like that, in 13 days, X-Generation kids have given way to Me-Generation alums.
If nothing else, all these thirty-something free-agent newcomers -- namely LeClair, right winger Ziggy Palffy, 33, and potentially Stumpel, Palffy's pal -- may mean that a couple of previous Penguins regulars get X-ed out: winger Aleksey Morozov and center Milan Kraft.

Both imported forwards, along with homegrown defenseman Brooks Orpik, remain the most prominent names among the unsigned Penguins properties. Each was given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2004, a maneuver that under the new CBA makes each a free agent whom any other team could sign, with compensation. So far, Orpik's camp seems to hold the most optimism about returning to the Penguins.

"I want to [sign], but I don't have anything from Pittsburgh. I've heard absolutely nothing," Morozov, 28, signed to play a second Russian season with Ak Bars Kazan, said yesterday of talks the past week or so between his agent, Jay Grossman, and Patrick. When the two sides previously chatted, added Morozov, who was the second-leading scorer (50 points) for the 2003-04 Penguins, "everything was OK. They want me back. Blah, blah, blah. I haven't heard anything else.
"What's going on with this year, I don't know. I have to talk to my agent, what's going to be better for me, what we can do in this situation."

Kraft, 25, who was second in goals (19) in 2003-04, wouldn't appear to fit into their plans if Stumpel signs. Kraft and Morozov are players who were tendered qualifying offers of $1 million-plus in 2004 but declined them, making those contracts worth significantly less with the 24-percent CBA rollback and depreciation amid Patrick's free-agent flurry. Also, both are former first-round picks who developed slowly for a team that suddenly finds itself with a glut of top-line speed and scorers, young and old: first-overall selection Sidney Crosby, Ryan Malone, Konstantin Koltsov, 2004 free-agent signee Mark Recchi, owner-player Mario Lemieux, and August acquisitions Palffy and LeClair, who signed a two-year contract believed to pay him $1.5 million this year. Of Kraft and Morozov, Patrick remained noncommittal yesterday: "We'll see what they're talking about, go through that process with them."

Center Evgeni Malkin still remains something of a Penguins possibility, though the Russian federation's refusal to sign the International Ice Hockey Federation transfer agreement may preclude the Penguins from reeling in their 2004 second overall pick across the Atlantic Ocean, let alone the Baltic Sea, this season.

Not that Patrick is taking this time to snooze away: "We're still trying to work the system here and make it work for us." Certainly, he had a hectic Monday, signing:

Josef Melichar, 26, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound defenseman who is the only returning Penguins player to have endured all 82 games of 2003-04, his minus-17 rating the lowest among the club's regular blue-liners. Melichar was scheduled for arbitration, but agreed to skip it by signing a two-year contract paying him $700,000 this year and $750,000 the next.

Forwards Matt Hussey, 26, Guillaume Lefebvre, 24, and Matt Murley, 25, signed two-way contracts worth $450,000 at the NHL level, but paying a fraction of that in the minors. Several other players were expected to sign and get in under last night's deadline for accepting qualifying offers -- after which time the Penguins could conceivably sign them at a lesser rate.

Poapst, 6 feet, 199 pounds, a former Capitals player, AHL Portland Hall of Fame and most recently Chicago defenseman who played on the Blackhawks along with Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk, was signed at a low-cost contract, likely around $500,000.

LeClair, 6-3, 226 pounds, the 10th thirty-something player on the Penguins' roster, is believed to have similarly signed a bargain-basement deal for this season after receiving a $4.56 million buyout from the Flyers a month ago. If indeed Poapst and LeClair came at a combined $2 million cost, that would bring the Penguins' payroll this season near $21 million for 18 front-line players, with Lemieux, Crosby plus a few others yet to sign and a $31 million-or-so cap well within reach.
Patrick, who in the past fortnight also delivered defenseman Sergei Gonchar, tough guy Andre Roy and goalie Jocelyn Thibault, considers an aging LeClair still a power-play threat and a first- or second-line presence. Once the league's consummate power forward, LeClair had three 50-goal and two 40-goal seasons in a row, though none recently. He rang up 25 goals in a full 2001-02 season, 18 goals in just 35 games the next year and 23 goals in 75 games when the NHL previously competed, when Recchi was a linemate.

LeClair had back surgery in May, his third such procedure since 2000. He also had shoulder surgery in 2002-03. Yet Patrick said all reports came back with a healthy verdict.

NOTES -- Orpik's agent, Lewis Gross, said he expects to negotiate face to face with Patrick later this week: "We're supposed to sit down and hash it out. I don't envision it being a problem." ... Lemieux declined an invitation to Team Canada's pre-Olympic orientation camp in British Columbia, citing Penguins commitments. ... Scratch defenseman Martin Strbak off any Penguins list: He signed with Moscow Dynamo and decided to remain in Russia. ... Melichar's signing leaves defenseman Dick Tarnstrom as the only Penguins player headed to arbitration, though his agent, Mark Stowe, said he was "reasonably optimistic" a deal could be struck before the scheduled Aug. 26 hearing.

(Chuck Finder can be reached at or 412-263-1724.)