Tuesday, September 27, 2005

NFL Admits to 52-Second Mistake in Sunday's Game

Tuesday, September 27, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Related coverageSteelers Notebook: Belichick slapped helping hand

The New England Patriots defeated the Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field with one second left in the game after officials inadvertently let 52 seconds back on the clock in the fourth quarter.
Steelers officials, publicly and privately, say it did not affect the eventual outcome. Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal with one second left won it for the Patriots, 23-20.
Mike Pereira, director of NFL officiating, said in a statement that referee Bill Carollo's crew, "which oversees the official game clock operated in the press box, failed to recognize that the clock was improperly reset."

The 52 seconds was mistakenly added to the game clock by a press box clock operator who was filling in for Lou Rossi, who was sick Sunday. The Steelers and the NFL refused to identify the clock operator, who is hired by the league. ESPN identified him as Leo Pularski.
What happened and why referee Bill Carollo's crew did not spot the mistake is unexplained. Referees have been known to stop the game for 10 minutes to check instant replay to put five seconds back on the clock. The line judge is in charge of clock management for the officials, in Sunday's case Byron Boston.

The whole issue came as a surprise to the Steelers, who were unaware of it yesterday until alerted by reporters, who received e-mails from fans watching the game on KDKA-TV.
Television tape of the game showed the following, which Pereira corroborated yesterday:
At 14:51 of the fourth quarter, the Steelers ran a reverse from Willie Parker to Cedrick Wilson, who was tackled at the Steelers' 30 for no gain. The clock continued to run as the Steelers huddled and called the next play. As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stood under center, there was 14:09 left. When he took the snap it was 14:01.
An official threw a penalty flag and the clock stopped with 13:59 left. But as Carollo announced a false start on guard Kendall Simmons, the clock inexplicably jumped back to 14:51.

"Following the enforcement of the penalty and before the ball was snapped for the next play, the game clock was improperly reset to 14:51 again, instead of remaining at 13:59," Pereira said.
No one in an official capacity at Heinz Field seemed to notice. Carollo called for the clock to resume and Roethlisberger took his next snap at 14:37.
Someone in the league office in New York did notice, however, because a call was placed to John Grier, an officials supervisor in the press box.

"They asked him to check with the statistician, which he did," said Chuck "Ace" Heberling, in the press box Sunday as the NFL's observer. "According to the stat sheet, everything was fine."
But the official play by play of the game, distributed in the press box later, showed the reverse to Wilson started at 14:51 and then the snap on the Simmons penalty also occurred at 14:51, an impossibility.
"When we checked with the statistician, everything seemed all right," Heberling said. "We don't get a printout until after the game."

Heberling said he joined the officiating crew at their hotel Sunday night and when they reviewed a TV tape of the game they spotted the error.
While the clock operator made the blunder, the buck -- and, sometimes, the clock -- stops with Carollo as the referee in charge of the game.

The Steelers had little official comment about the mistake other than to quote coach Bill Cowher as saying it would not have changed the outcome. The Steelers tied the score on Ben Roethlisberger's 4-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward with 1:21 left. After the kickoff, the Patriots mounted their winning drive with 1:14 left.

Could they have moved into position to win it had they been given 22 seconds instead of 74? They practically did. Tom Brady completed two passes to put the Patriots on the Steelers' 31 with 57 seconds left. Even removing the extra 52 seconds, that still would have left Vinatieri five seconds to kick a 49-yard field goal to win it.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Ron Cook: Brady Shows Us Again Why He's a Winner

Monday, September 26, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

First, they lost safety Rodney Harrison, the heartbeat of their defense. You knew his leg injury was bad when the New England Patriots huddled around him on the Heinz Field turf midway through the first quarter and said a prayer. Even Steelers coach Bill Cowher walked onto the field to wish Harrison well. Cowher coached him in the Pro Bowl and respects him, maybe as much as he does any opposing player.

Then left tackle Matt Light went down a few moments later with a serious leg injury. He's a big part of what the Patriots do offensively, literally and figuratively. The emergency medical cart -- the most frightening sight in football -- barely had enough time to get Harrison to the locker room and now it was back on the field to haul away Light.

Surely, this wasn't going to be the Patriots' day.

"Those guys are great players," linebacker Mike Vrabel would say later. "But nobody is too good to be replaced around here ...
"Well, maybe besides Tom."

That would be Mr. Brady, the leader of the Brady Bunch, which, until proven otherwise, remains the class team of the NFL.

It's unfortunate for the Steelers that Brady was so good yesterday in the Patriots' 23-20 win, because this was a day when the Patriots could have been had and probably should have lost a second consecutive game for the first time in going on three years now, an almost unbelievable span of 36 games. They had three turnovers after losing three in their 27-17 loss at Carolina last week. They committed 10 penalties for 118 yards after taking 12 for 86 yards at Carolina. Old friend Chad Scott -- now a Patriots cornerback -- was called for three infractions, including a 23-yard pass interference penalty on a fourth-and-11 play in the final two minutes that enabled the Steelers to score a touchdown and pull even, 20-20.

But Brady wouldn't let the Patriots lose.

"Nothing new there," Vrabel said, shrugging.

Vrabel has been with Brady for the Patriots' run to three Super Bowl championships in the past four years. He knows all about Brady's magic. Is there any more telling statistic in all of sports than Brady's 9-0 record as a starting quarterback in the postseason?

But it's all still new to linebacker Chad Brown, a former Steeler, who signed with the Patriots before this season. That's why he stood in awe in the fourth quarter and watched Brady complete 12 of 12 passes for 167 and lead scoring drives on the Patriots' final three possessions.

"I'm amazed by what he can do," Brown said.

"After the Steelers scored, I'm thinking we're going to overtime. Then, I remembered, 'We've got Tom Brady.' "

There was 1:21 remaining when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found Hines Ward for that tying touchdown.
"Now, it's our turn," Brady thought.
"A tie game in a tough environment. The crowd is going crazy. You're playing a great defense. There's 1:21 left. What more could you want?"

If you blinked, you missed some kind of finish. It hurt you and the Steelers badly, but you have to admit -- no matter how grudgingly -- that it was terrific theater. And, while you're at it, if you're really honest, don't you have to admit you would rather have Brady than any quarterback in the league, including Big Ben?

There was a pass for 17 yards to running back Kevin Faulk, a pass for 14 yards to fullback Patrick Pass and a pass for 6 yards to wide receiver David Givens. After that, was there any doubt Adam Vinatieri -- "the most clutch kicker in the history of football," Brady called him -- was going to make the 43-yard field goal to win the darn game and break this city's heart?
"I love that guy!" Patriots tight end Christian Fauria said of Brady. "I wish he didn't have a girlfriend."

Fauria's wife, Rhonda, might give him an earful for that playful comment, but she has to understand where he was coming from. She knows it was Brady who put those Super Bowl rings on her husband's fingers, not to mention a whole lot of money in his pocket. Brady has made all of the Patriots rich and famous and their team one of the great dynasties in NFL history.
If yesterday is any indication, Brady and the Patriots aren't done yet.

(Post-Gazette sports columnist Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Gene Collier: Safeties Hope, Polamalu Still Feel a Little Irritation

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu sacked Texans quarterback David Carr three times and knocked him down once last Sunday in Houston.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You pretty much took it on faith that the Steelers' gifted safeties were somehow equal to the monstrous challenge of Tom Brady that day. As they came to January's AFC championship game, Troy Polamalu was a Pro Bowler and Chris Hope was everything short of that, and yet faith, Hope and Polamalu were not enough.

Deion Branch, injured and absent from the Steelers' 34-20 flogging of the Patriots three months earlier, caught two Brady passes deep down the middle in the first half, one for 60 yards and a touchdown, one for 45 yards that set up another for a 14-point lead equaling tickets to the Super Bowl.

"If you look back at it, it gets under your skin," Hope said as the Steelers prepared to face the Brady Bunch Dynasty again this afternoon. "It's irritating."

Though the AFC title game is the only Steelers loss in their past 18 games, its irritant essentially magnifies the dilemma of NFL safeties everywhere, specifically that too high a percentage of their inevitable mistakes become decisive. It's a bear carrying that around.

"Especially when you're the free safety," said Hope, a free safety. "Troy might make a mistake on a blitz or something, or someone up front might make a mistake, but when somebody pops free in the secondary, everybody looks to the free safety. There are so many great offensive players in the league. It's not too many times you're going to deal with a LaDainian Tomlinson breaking into the secondary when there are nine in the box, but when he does, who has to get him? The free safety. It's especially hard sometimes because our defense is so good that I might not even see Corey Dillon until the second quarter. But when he gets there, I've got to be ready."

What Hope and Polamalu weren't ready for the most recent time was in part the lethal 4.4-40 speed of Branch, but to a greater extent continuing genius of Brady. Branch blew past cornerback Deshea Townsend on that 60-yarder, but he was open deep as much because Brady looked Hope toward David Givens on the opposite side.

"It wasn't that they went after our safeties," Steelers coach Bill Cowher insisted this week. "The quarterback is very, very good at testing the discipline of your coverage. He can look you off with his eyes. If you void a zone he will find it. This guy does a lot of little things that he doesn't get enough credit for. He's as good as there is in the game without a doubt in my mind."

The secondary today is further buttressed by Mike Logan, a safety whose hamstring injury ended his season prematurely last year. The lessons of January are not lost on Logan.

"We made some mistakes and they took advantage," Logan said. "They have a smart coach and Tom Brady, you can just see how he reads the coverages like Peyton Manning. You can try to disguise the coverage, but he's got plenty of ways to avert that problem. You'll be moving around trying to confuse him, and he'll quick-count you. Now you're confused."

In the ramp-up to this rematch, the Steelers' defense has looked anything but confused. In eight ferocious quarters, Dick LeBeau's greatly respected unit already has generated five turnovers and 11 sacks. Polamalu has three of the sacks and one of the picks; Hope has 12 tackles and a fumble recovery. The safeties remain tremendous players, even if they've had to spend most of this week explaining the difference between now and Jan. 23, 2005.

"We didn't do enough right things in that game," said LeBeau, the defensive coordinator. "They made plays, and the quarterback is probably the most intelligent I've ever seen at throwing to the right spot. Now we have an opportunity to show that we're better than that."

They'll be a lot better by default if the offense merely fails to duplicate its January disappearing act -- the first half went interception, fumble, punt, field goal, punt, interception, punt. Brady is amazingly clever, but he can't fool anybody while he's standing on the sideline. Hope and Polamalu should not have had to carry this around with them all these months.

"Me and Troy didn't play our best," Hope said, "but we only gave up two plays. They're the plays, unfortunately, that everybody remembers. And that's what comes with playing in the secondary."

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.)

Paul Maholm: Steeliness in the Eye of Storms

Sunday, September 25, 2005
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

LOS ANGELES -- Paul Maholm always has been about the poise.

When he was 10 and pitching in his native Holly Springs, Miss., he was known to display the same flat-line reaction whether striking out the side or giving up a grand slam.

When he was 14, he was steady enough to beat out an adult field to win the annual golf tournament at the Holly Springs Country Club.

"It's funny but, when Paul was playing baseball, they would say he had mound presence. When he golfed, they would say he had course management," his father, Gary Maholm, said with a chuckle. "Whatever anyone calls it, Paul's always had it. Never too high or too low."

That trait would become Paul Maholm's bedrock in the years to come. And it never served him better than in the past 18 months, when he coped with three crises, three strikes that could have knocked him out in more ways than one.

All while completing a stunning, sizzling leap through the Pirates' system and into their rotation.
Stunning to most observers, anyway.

"Not to me. I've watched him a long time now," fellow rookie pitcher Zach Duke said. "As a pitcher, he's got the stuff to be successful at any level. And he's been through so much off the field ... I don't think anything's ever going to affect him on the field."

Strike one

Maholm, 23, is 2-1 with a 2.08 earned run average in his first five starts since being promoted to Pittsburgh Aug. 28. Given that he has less than two full seasons of professional experience -- he was the Pirates' first-round draft pick in 2004 -- those numbers are exceptional.
They go beyond that when considering where he was a year ago.

It was May 15, 2004, and Maholm was pitching at the Class A level in Lynchburg, Va., facing Winston-Salem's Casey Rogowski, a bear of a first baseman with a power stroke.
Maholm hung a curveball, and Rogowski crushed it.

Right back into the left side of Maholm's face.

He lay motionless for 15 minutes, bleeding on the mound, and was taken away by ambulance. Once the swelling subsided, he learned that the orbital bone around his left eye had been broken, as were his sinus and nose. These were not tidy breaks, either. The bones were pulverized.

Doctors told Maholm he had been lucky on two fronts. One was that the ball did not strike a part of his head that could have killed him. Another was that the eye was unscathed.
"Believe me, I was counting my blessings," Maholm recalled.

He had extensive surgery in Pittsburgh to reconstruct his face, including the insertion of titanium plates to connect the many loose bones.

Just three months later, he was pitching competitively again in the low minors, but he averaged an earned run and a walk per inning, well out of character.

He admits now he did it out of stubbornness.

"I had double vision in the eye, and I knew it," Maholm said. "I just wanted to prove to the Pirates I could get back on the mound."

Another surgery was needed in November to address the double vision by resetting the bones. That cost him participation in any fall or winter league, and it sent him into this past spring training a branded man of sorts.

It is common, baseball insiders say, for pitchers never to recover from such a trauma. They will flinch at line drives, change styles, even quit. That is why, when Maholm pitched during this past spring training, Pirates officials monitored his reactions intensely, even when he was throwing batting practice from behind an L-shaped fence.

They liked what they saw, enough to start him out at Class AA Altoona.

Strike two

"Once my vision got back to 100 percent, it was like the injury never happened," Maholm said. "I don't know how else to explain it. As soon as I got to Altoona, I stopped thinking about throwing a pitch and getting hit again. Sure, I had some close calls, but I just looked at those as part of the game."

Maholm pitched well enough for the Curve that he earned an invitation to Major League Baseball's Futures Game in mid-July, but fate would hit him hard again.
A week before the event, his mother, Linda Maholm, died following a 3 1/2-year battle with colon cancer.

This time, the emotions were not checked. Crestfallen, Maholm received a leave of absence and informed the Pirates he was not certain if he could pitch in the Futures Game.

"I was a huge mama's boy," he said. "When I was young, I would go to her when I wanted something. When I was playing, I would talk to her all the time. She always gave me everything. ... You know, it's good that she made it as long as she did. And it's better now because she's not having to suffer through the chemo and everything. I know she's watching every game I throw."
Maholm ended up in Detroit for the Futures Game and, no doubt still reeling, was erratic.
It would get better. He would go 6-2 with Altoona and earn a promotion to Class AAA Indianapolis in late July. He fared nearly as well there and was summoned to PNC Park a month later.

Strike three

On Aug. 29, the afternoon of what was to be his major-league debut, Maholm had spent the previous night and most of that morning flicking through the television for updates on Hurricane Katrina. He and his wife, Jessica, had bought a new house on property in Biloxi, Miss, shortly after their December wedding. It was squarely in Katrina's path.

Much of what should have been the greatest day of Maholm's life was spent on the cell phone communicating with in-laws in Biloxi about their safety and that of their property.

Adding to the distractions, roughly a dozen family and friends made the 21-hour drive to Pittsburgh to watch his debut, but most were forced to drive right back home when the game was rained out.

If any of it fazed him, it did not show when he hurled eight shutout innings the next night in Milwaukee against the Brewers.

The house absorbed little damage, just a small hole in the roof. Maholm said he and Jessica plan to move back at season's end.

"We got lucky," he said.

Maholm hardly is the boasting type, sounding folksy with his rich southern accent but invariably soft-spoken.

Still, he does express a measure of pride in his perseverance of the past year.

"With all that happened ... I'm sure there were a lot of people who felt I would go through the year and struggle, just trying to get back into form from getting hit and everything else. I've just kind of taken it all in stride, just done what I've always done."

He laughed.

"You know, this is a huge shock for me, the success I've had so early. I expected some rough innings. Luckily, I've made the pitches when I needed to. And it's been fun. I don't think I could ask for more. I'm in the big leagues. I'm living a dream."

(Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Polamalu a Hit From All Angles

By Rob Rossi
Monday, September 19, 2005

HOUSTON -- Eventually, Troy Polamalu will perform in such a way that he satisfies his harsh critic.

That would be himself.

Yesterday wasn't that day.

Forget the three quarterback sacks he recorded against Houston Texans quarterback David Carr -- a feat Polamalu guessed he hadn't pulled off since a Turkey Bowl when he was 4 years old.

Pay no attention to the wasted timeouts or delay-of-game penalties he forced upon Houston's offense with his pre-snap maneuvering.

And, certainly, don't believe Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who's coached some of the game's best defenders, but who yesterday called Polamalu "as instinctive a football player as (he's) been around."
Never mind any of the above. That's Polamalu's plan.

The Steelers' third-year safety said he has a long way to go before his level of play matches his expectations.

"There's still a lot of stuff I need to work on," he said. "I know that we were gashed a couple of times out there because I wasn't able to get to my run-fit. So, I'm disappointed about that."

Otherwise, Polamalu's effort against the Texans provided a clear view of the type of damage he can cause on the field. At different points, sometimes on different plays, he was acting as a fourth down linemen or a fifth linebacker or a third cornerback -- and, sometimes, even as a strong safety, which is his natural position.

"I played a little bit of everything today; I've been doing that all year, actually," Polamalu said.
"He's one of those rare guys who can play real deep, intermediate and at the line of scrimmage," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who has allowed Polamalu the freedom to roam.
"He's been making me look really good."

LeBeau admitted that coaching Polamalu has brought back memories of Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake -- star defensive backs who played under LeBeau during his first stint as the club's defensive coordinator in the mid-1990s.

"He's similar to those guys in that he has good size and speed and can really run, yet he can blitz, too," LeBeau said. "I think he enjoys playing in our system, just like they did."
Polamalu acknowledged yesterday he felt blessed to have landed in the Steelers' 3-4 defensive scheme.

Of course, part of what makes Polamalu effective is his mental prowess.

"Honestly, I pick quarterbacks' brains," he said. "I pick receivers brains on what's going to be hard on them.
"It's actually (Steelers' fullback) Dan Kreider who told me, 'Hey man, if you do this and do that ...' I said, 'OK, I'm going to try that someday.' "

Someday became yesterday's game, after which teammate Joey Porter promised of Polamalu, "I tell people he is one of those players that people will talk about long after he is gone."

Through two games this season, Polamalu has nine tackles, three sacks, two pass defenses and an interception.

Polamalu isn't impressed.

"I'm not there yet," he insisted. "Believe me, I'm far from there."

Rob Rossi can be reached at rrossi@tribweb.com or (412) 380-5635.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Crosby Continues to Impress

Friday, September 16, 2005

The man leaned forward in his seat in the C section of Mellon Arena on Thursday morning with a Penguins training camp roster rolled in his hands, his gaze fixed intently on the ice below.

His 18-year-old son was down there.

It was his first scrimmage of his first NHL training camp, and he was centering a line with veterans John LeClair on the left and Mark Recchi on the right.

Even Sidney Crosby's father would be a little bit nervous about that.

"It's pretty exciting, especially (Thursday), the first real game kind of situation," said Troy Crosby, who traveled from the family's home in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia and has been at camp the last two days. "It's been a little bit nervous, too, for me, but it's exciting. It's fun."

He had nothing to worry about.
Sidney Crosby set up two goals by Recchi -- one with a backhand pass from the corner and another in the slot for a tap-in -- and a third -- a saucer pass over a defenseman's stick -- by first-year pro Jonathan Filewich, the Penguins' third-round draft choice (70th overall) in 2003, in a 4-1 win over Team Badger.

After the first period, Troy Crosby's assessment of his son's play was that it was "all right," despite setting up Recchi for the first goal of the game.

"It'll still take some time to get used to the speed," said Troy Crosby, 39. "I think there's about one second quicker you have to do things. But he'll learn."

It seemed that Crosby learned in the dressing room in between periods.

With every shift in the second and final period another phrase from Central Scouting's report on Crosby popped to mind: "exceptional skater with a smooth stride, tremendous balance and agility ... his vision is unparalleled," and so on.

Crosby, LeClair and Recchi connected in both periods to give a glimpse of another possible line combination for the Penguins this year.

"They're making me a better player because I have to raise my game every time I play with guys like that," Crosby said of yesterday's linemates. "It's only going to make me better. Hopefully, we can keep making things work."

Afterward, Recchi said that it was he and LeClair who needed to adjust to Crosby instead of vice versa.

"For Johnny and I, it had been 16 months since we played a game, so I think it took us a little while to get a feel for the game and the pace," he said. "Once we caught up, it was good. We were able to get in spots for Sidney, and he was able to get in spots for us. And we were able to create a lot of problems for the defense."

Crosby was pleased enough with his performance, but not totally.

He, LeClair and Recchi capitalized on two of their chances, but not all.

"Points don't always tell the story," Crosby said.

He also wasn't pleased that he won only 50 percent of his one-on-one battles for puck control. He knows he won't win them all, but he'd like to win more than he loses.

It's a determination his father knows well.

"I'm really proud of him," Troy Crosby said of his son. "Things are going really well right now, and I'm just kind of enjoying it and just going along for the ride. It's been a good ride so far."

Karen Price can be reached at kprice@tribweb.com.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Gene Collier: It's Lemieux and Crosby together at Mellon Arena

Everybody is eagerly watching to see how it plays out

Thursday, September 15, 2005
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Production of ESPN's real-life high school football show -- what is it? Make Room For Butkus? -- continues at Montour High School, but the far better reality show is very likely unfolding across the river at Chez Lemieux.

There, a bona fide star-is-born teenage NHL prospect (Sidney Crosby as himself) moves in with an aging hockey legend (Mario Lemieux) and his large suburban family to see if together they all can scare up the kind of atmosphere necessary to launch a career, burnish an icon, rescue a franchise (again), hunt down the Stanley Cup, command by raw popularity that funding fall into place for a new arena, resurrect the public confidence of a city and a region and maybe have some ice cream before bedtime.

Working titles: "El Sid & Le Magnifique Do Sewickley" and "One And A Half Men."

In the premier episode yesterday, an unusually frisky press corps, swollen to about five times its usual training-camp size, asked Lemieux directly about life at the mansion. Usually, Mario is about as expansive as frozen brick on such inquiries, but this time he was startlingly candid. For him.

"It's a normal life," said 66. "I get up the same time as him. We have breakfast. Don't say too much in the morning. We got to practice. Go home. It was tougher for me when I was first here. I didn't speak the language. I was a little bit shy. He's very mature. He's very chatty. He likes the kids. He's very good at French. He makes a few phone calls in French on the way home. He lives on the second floor, which he has pretty much to himself."

Lemieux described his relationship with the gifted Canadian protege as "buddy-buddy" when media probers tried to get him to confirm some presumed Uncle Mario role. You might have seen Sidney described as a kid brother, which is choice three, I guess. No one proposed a hypothetical crazed cousin-thin skinned lactose intolerant stable boy relationship, but it's early.

I haven't been out to the house, but I'm guessing it's a little more like father-son. When I was 18, my father was 40. Sidney is 18, and when the Penguins open the season on Lemieux's birthday, Oct. 5, he'll be, let's see, 40. Furthermore, when someone asked Lemieux yesterday if Sidney could have girlfriends over, he said exactly what my father said when I was 18.

"No sleepovers."

Asked not 15 minutes later how he viewed Lemieux's no-sleepovers policy, Sidney yipped, "no comment."

See, now here's a kid bound for glory. Is that title taken?

One day into practice for the most intriguing Penguins season in more than a decade, all that is perfectly evident about the club's brightest star since Lemieux was that he is absolutely unruffled by the very compelling reality show into which he has been thrust. Well spoken and bilingual, with both bemused and sincere smiles at the ready, Crosby handled the surreal milieu yesterday like a perfect pass.

"I know he's had some training with the media," said Penguins vice president Tom McMillan, "but I don't care what kind of training you've had, you either have his kind of poise or you don't."

Sidney admitted to some jitters.

"I was a little nervous, maybe the first five minutes," he said, "my first NHL camp, the first time skating with these guys, but once I got on the ice for a few minutes, you know, it's the same game out there."

The same prodigious skills with which he plays it are what Pittsburgh figures will re-ignite the franchise, but Crosbyfaces a learning curve steeper than Polish Hill.

"He's going to be a real good player, a superstar in this league," said John LeClair, the veteran forward and precisely the kind of decorated free agent who might have signed elsewhere had that pingpong ball not fallen Pittsburgh's way July 22. "It's a great opportunity for him to learn what's going on, on and off the ice. He's played a lot of hockey, so I think he knows when and where he's got to be careful. It's everybody's job to help him out."

Helped by the city's warm reception, Crosby has been excited by Pittsburgh's doubly excited reaction to him. He has been recognized at a Steelers game and said he'd like to see PNC Park, meet fellow Canadian Jason Bay, and, as a former baseball player, wouldn't mind taking batting practice with the Pirates.

I don't know if dad should allow that. They might want to start him at third the same night.

(Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.)

Roethlisberger Playing For Biggest Fan

Sept. 15, 2005, 1:06AM

Steelers QB dedicates season to his grandfather
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hopes his grandfather is watching. He wants him to see every game, every practice.
Ken Carl Roethlisberger was one of his grandson's biggest fans long before "Big Ben" became a household name. He attended all of Roethlisberger's high school games in Findlay, Ohio, and college games at Miami of Ohio.
When Roethlisberger arrived in the NFL last year, he put together an exceptional rookie season by going undefeated in all 13 of his regular-season starts. There was one void in the season, however. Ken Roethlisberger was too ill to attend even one of the games.
He died on June 25 at age 83.

"I was the only grandson, and we were very close, so this season will be special," said Roethlisberger, who will look to extend his record as a regular-season starter to 15-0 at Reliant Stadium on Sunday. "He never got to see a game because he was very sick and couldn't travel. Now, he gets to watch every game from the front row."
Roethlisberger is dedicating his second season to a man he always admired.
In last week's season opener, Roethlisberger put on a show that would have made his grandpa proud. The 23-year-old lifted the Steelers to a 34-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans to stretch his record as a starter in the regular season to 14-0, the longest such streak in NFL history by a quarterback to begin his career.
Roethlisberger, who completed nine of 11 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns, recorded a perfect passer rating (158.3). He is the first to accomplish that feat since Kansas City's Trent Green in 2003.

Roethlisberger doesn't get tied up in the numbers, though. It's the victories that are the most important, especially in a football- crazed city such as Pittsburgh.
"They live, breathe, die everything Pittsburgh Steelers," Roethlisberger said. "There are two seasons in Pittsburgh: football season and almost-football season. It's so important. You see the mania around the football season. It's almost like an added pressure the fans put on you as a quarterback to win football games for them."

Wins upon wins

Maybe it's that mentality that has scared Roethlisberger into winning. He emerged onto the scene as a rookie when starter Tommy Maddox was hurt in the second game of the season. Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 13 consecutive victories, sat out in Week 17 and saw his only loss come in the AFC Championship Game against New England.

"Basically, what he did all last year was unprecedented when you look at the history of quarterbacks thrown into the mix right away," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "I think the biggest thing Ben was able to do was manage this team and be a part of this team. He had to take things on his shoulders at times when we needed to make plays, and he did.
"Coming into this year, it's the same thing. We're not looking for him to do anything more than he did a year ago."

Texans outside linebacker Antwan Peek hasn't exactly been shocked with Roethlisberger's success. The 14-0 start was nothing Peek envisioned, but he did expect his former college rival to succeed.
"Ben has been a good quarterback since college," said Peek, a third-year player out of Cincinnati. "I'm looking forward to playing against him again. We had a lot of fun against each other.
"He has the players around him to help him. It's not just Ben doing the work all by himself. He has Pro Bowl linemen, and he has a great running back in the backfield. So he has a lot of guys around him to help him form them into the team that they are now."

No. 7's crew

Roethlisberger credits his supporting cast with much of his success.
"You have to know as a starting quarterback that there are going to be games that people love you and games where they're ready to kill you," Roethlisberger said. "That's just part of being a quarterback. In Pittsburgh, everything's magnified.
"When you're winning, you're glorified even more, and when you're losing, they'll rip you apart. So, its just part of the territory and hopefully you'll win more than you lose."
That's Roethlisberger's goal, especially with his grandfather watching from the front row.


Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Crosby Adjusting Well to Life At Lemieux's Home

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sidney Crosby is adjusting well to his new surrogate family with a very famous father, and Mario Lemieux is pretty happy as well.

"He's playing with the kids a lot, which is good," Lemieux said of Crosby, who is now living with the Lemieux family in their Sewickley home. "He's easy to get along with, he's chatty, talks all the time and gets along with the kids. The kids love him and have a good time with him, so it's been an easy adjustment thus far."

The two will practice together in an official Penguins capacity for the first time today beginning at 9:45 a.m. Training camp runs from 8 a.m.-2:45 p.m. at Mellon Arena and is free and open to the public.

Crosby, 18, admitted to being a little in awe when he first moved in, but said it's fine now. And he's looking forward to soaking up every bit of knowledge he can during his much-anticipated rookie year from a man who knows exactly what he's going though.

"I think just being around him is going to help me," Crosby said. "I can ask him little questions, even about things in town, where things are, and he's just going to make me feel comfortable right away and familiarize me with what's here. That's the main thing, is being around him and seeing how he goes about things every day."

Lemieux said that he and Crosby have spent a lot of time together the past few days.
"We drive everywhere and have dinner together every night," he said. "It's just a normal day for both of us -- get up early, skate and train and do our thing during the day until the kids come home and start bothering him. It's been great for all of us. It's a nice change, and it's great for all the family as well."

In fact, on Crosby's first night in the Lemieux household, he was out in the driveway playing hockey with two of Lemieux's four children, son Austin and daughter Stephanie. Lemieux and wife Nathalie's oldest is 12 years old, just six years younger than Crosby.

It's not a typical living arrangement for an 18-year-old hockey player at his first training camp, and the media attention isn't typical either.

Roughly 12 television cameras and at least two dozen reporters from the United States and Canada were at Mellon Arena yesterday, and many plan to stay through the week.
But Crosby wouldn't want to be a typical 18-year-old hockey player, either.

"I want to be the best so whatever comes with that I have to accept that," Crosby said. "I don't think there's ever a time where I step back and say I wish I was something different. I'm doing what I love to do, and I want to continue to try to get better. And if this is what comes with it, then I'm ready to accept that."

Karen Price can be reached at kprice@tribweb.com.

Lemieux Says Pens Certain To Lose Money

Lemieux says even selling out all season won't keep Penguins from losing money

Wednesday, September 14, 2005
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Penguins News:
Penguins Notebook: Orpik agrees to $650,000 deal

At this point, with the Penguins still weeks away from their first meaningful defeat, Mario Lemieux sees no limit to what his team could accomplish this season.

A playoff berth? Absolutely. Win a couple of rounds? Hardly out of the question. A Stanley Cup?
Hey, anything is possible.

Well, anything except turning a profit, apparently.

Lemieux, the Penguins' primary owner, said yesterday the franchise is guaranteed to lose money in 2005-06, even if it sells out all 41 regular-season home games. And that not even winning a Cup would push the operation into the black.

The only specific projection he offered is that team officials expect to lose about $7 million if the Penguins advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Lemieux's assessment of the club's fiscal outlook was corroborated by team president Ken Sawyer, who spent 14 seasons as the NHL's chief financial officer.

The Penguins rarely volunteer such information, but Lemieux apparently went public to combat what he described as a widespread misconception that the NHL's new labor agreement, coupled with a spike in season-ticket sales, will allow the Penguins to show a profit this season.

"I go around the city, and people are all excited that the team's going to make money," he said. "And that's not the case."

Lemieux's words are the Penguins' latest reminder to politicians and the public that the franchise's future here hinges on the city getting an up-to-date arena that includes revenue sources not available in buildings of Mellon Arena's vintage.

"Add it all up, and it's the difference that would allow us to put on a really good product and still, hopefully, make a modest profit," Sawyer said.

He went on to suggest that management envisions putting some of that money back into its team, saying that "when we're in a new arena, I'd like us to spend to the [NHL's salary] cap."

That limit is $39 million this season; the Penguins are comfortably below it, with a payroll in the $30 million-$31 million range. In 2003-04, when the Penguins lost about $3 million and attracted an average crowd of 11,877, they spent around $22 million on players.

Lemieux said ownership was willing to bump up the payroll -- and its financial losses -- to upgrade the on-ice product. Especially after securing the rights to super-prospect Sidney Crosby in the NHL draft lottery made Mellon Arena a destination of choice for some high-impact free agents.

"This franchise wants to win," Lemieux said. "We've been rebuilding for the last three years, and now it's time to put a great team on the ice for the fans here who've been supporting us. By doing that, we're willing to lose a little bit of money this year, and we're certainly going to lose more money next year."

Lemieux said his partners backed the decision to invest more in personnel, including big-ticket veterans such as Zigmund Palffy, Sergei Gonchar and John LeClair.

"They're big hockey fans, and they also understand the business side of it," he said. "They feel this is a great opportunity for us to put a great team on the ice, and that's the bottom line."

The Penguins have been collecting elite prospects for several years and can reasonably expect to have a competitive team for the foreseeable future. What they can't know is where they'll be operating in a couple of years.

Team officials have said for some time that the franchise's long-term viability is tied to having a modern venue and that if they are awarded the license to operate a Downtown slots parlor, they will use some of the profits to build one.

Lemieux said he believes that having an entertaining and successful team is "going to help" the Penguins' attempt, even though that license will be awarded by officials in Harrisburg, not here.
Any benefits, then, would be indirect, with Penguins supporters pressuring local politicians to back the Penguins' bid, and those officials speaking on the team's behalf with colleagues at the state level.

The Penguins' lease at Mellon Arena expires after the 2006-07 season. If plans for a new arena are not in place by then, ownership figures to offer the franchise to the highest bidder.

"In 2007, we're free to go," Lemieux said. "We're just going to have to do what's best for business."

Which is precisely what management believes it is doing by operating at a loss this season.

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Leyland: Pirates' Job is Attractive

Tuesday, September 13, 2005
By Paul Meyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Pirates, in the very early stages of compiling a list of managerial candidates to interview, would seem to be an attractive lure for a successor to Lloyd McClendon, fired as their manager a week ago.

"Whoever ends up getting the Pirate job will be walking into a pretty good situation," said Jim Leyland, who managed the Pirates from 1986-96 and is a candidate for the job.

"They have a combination of the best young pitchers and players they've had in years. And the farm system probably has a few more. They have something to work with."

That's the consensus of more than a few other baseball people, too.

"They're not that far away," a National League executive said. "They have some makings."
In the past several days, Leyland has emerged as a top pick for the job -- at least according to people in the industry.

"I feel that the best-case scenario would be for Leyland to manage the club," said another high-ranking official with a major-league club. "He lives there. He's very popular there."
Leyland, however, is trying to keep a low profile.

"I've made it clear that I'd like to manage again -- in the right situation," he said yesterday. "Other than that, I have nothing to say. There's nothing else to say at this juncture."
The Pirates indicated last week they want their new manager to have had prior major-league managerial experience, which limits the candidate crowd.

Among those thought to be on general manager Dave Littlefield's current short list in addition to Leyland are Art Howe, who said yesterday he hasn't been contacted by the Pirates, Ken Macha and current Pirates interim manager Pete Mackanin, who's getting his first chance to manage in the major leagues in McClendon's stead.

"I'd like to think that I'm going to be in the organization next year -- in whatever capacity," Mackanin said. "I know a lot of these guys, and I think Dave values my opinion. I think it's important to have guys who will give you their honest opinion.

"I'm loyal to Dave because he gave me this opportunity -- to coach in the big leagues and to manage the rest of the way. I have a lot of respect for Dave, and if he feels I can help him in whatever capacity, I'm going to do it."

Howe, from Shaler, has managed the Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics and New York Mets. Macha, who lives in Murrysville, currently manages the Athletics.

It's likely the Pirates will need to give the new manager at least a three-year contract worth as much as $3 million, depending on who they hire.

By comparison, first-year big league managers with no previous major-league managerial experience generally command about $400,000 per year, according to an industry source.
Even though he has no major-league managerial experience, Class AAA Indianapolis manager Trent Jewett could get some attention -- if not from the Pirates, then from another organization.
Jewett has managed 12 years in the Pirates' minor-league system, including eight at the Class AAA level. This season he has guided the Indians to a berth in the International League's championship series.

Jewett also was the Pirates' third base coach for 21/2 seasons, beginning in June, 2000.
"I'd love an opportunity to manage in the big leagues," Jewett said yesterday. "I would be interested in managing any big-league ball club. I would be especially interested in managing [the Pirates]. I have a great deal of fondness for a lot of the guys and great relationships with a lot of the guys."

That's because many of Jewett's players at Indianapolis this season currently are with the Pirates -- pitchers Zach Duke, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm, outfielders Chris Duffy and Nate McLouth, catcher Ryan Doumit, first baseman Brad Eldred and third baseman Ty Wigginton.

Ed Bouchette: Bettis Has Plenty of Praise For Parker

Bettis has plenty of high praise for Steelers' newest sensation
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Steelers News:
Steelers Notebook: Players had no worries about Big Ben

The highlight reel of Willie Parker's first NFL start will include his tackle-busting, stiff-arming 45-yard run in the third quarter, his 48-yard dash with a screen pass on the first drive, his 11-yard run for a touchdown and his 25-yard off-tackle gallop from the I-formation.

None of those will land in Parker's scrapbook, and none of those was the favorite of Jerome Bettis as he watched from the sideline as his young pupil exploded into Steelers lore and the National Football League radar Sunday.

Of all the marvelous plays Parker ran on the helpless Tennessee Titans on the way to his 161-yard day, it was typical Steelers mind-set that he and Bettis would choose two runs that totaled 6 yards.

Two plays, both in the second quarter.

"My favorite run by him," Bettis said, "was a '38 stretch.' It was off tackle on the weak side on first down, off the right side."

A defender tried to cut-block fullback Dan Kreider, and Parker side-stepped inside and picked up 4 yards.

"The play probably should have been a 1-yard gain or second-and-10, and he was able to get 4 yards," Bettis said. "It was inside, pounding. That puts the offense in second-and-6, and those are the plays that keep the team functioning.

"The long runs are great, but you get in a situation where a play breaks down and you're still able to get 4, now it's second-and-6 and we can run everything in the playbook. As a running back, that's so important to be able to do that on first down when they were geared up to stop the run on that particular play. That's what was impressive to me."

Parker chose a third-and-1 play at the Tennessee 31 early in the quarter. He broke defensive end Antwan Odom's grip on him behind the line of scrimmage and squeezed out a 2-yard gain up the middle for a first down.

"I liked that run over all of them," Parker said.

Said Bettis, "The assumption is there because he's so fast he can't get the tough yards, and so for him to go out and, on third-and-1, third-and-2, situations like that and get those tough yards, it means so much to an offense."

One day after the most productive game by a Steelers running back in an opener, Parker said he was physically sore but unmoved by all the buzz swirling about him. He claimed to not watch the highlight shows, nor read anything about the game. He reacted more like Humble Willie than Fast Willie.

"Y'all guys are making it sink in a little bit," he told a gathering media storm yesterday.

Parker said he received nearly 60 text and voice messages on his cell phone since his big game and "I don't know who half the people were, but I listened to them."

He also described himself as a role player ready to step aside when Bettis and/or Duce Staley return to health.

"I don't have the starting job. I'm a role player. I know those guys are hurt right now. I know what I came in to do. I'm just helping the team out right now. I want to be a starter but I'm not going to say I deserve anything. Jerome deserves it. He's a Hall of Famer. Duce deserves it. He's situated."

But Parker will start Sunday in Houston against the Texans and it may be his job to lose. Bettis, for one, said he's fine with that.

"I'm happy he's playing well," said Bettis, who has a pulled calf muscle that's likely to keep him on the sideline one more game. "At the end of the day, the goal is for the football team to win. That's the bottom line. If it's at the expense of carries I might have received, then that's fine, too -- know what I mean?"

At Parker's request, Bettis and Staley pointed things out to him on the sideline Sunday and cheered on their understudy-turned-star.

"I saw a very determined, hungry running back who wanted to take advantage of his opportunity," Bettis said.

Bettis, the NFL's fifth-leading career rusher, said Parker was giving him too much credit for helping him.

"He's talented. I just showed him a little bit of this, a little bit of that to show him some stuff on the field. But he went out there and played incredible. I just told him, 'Man, you're doing a great job, just keep running to what you see, believe in what you see, that's the key.' "

What Bettis saw was a runner with the kind of quickness and speed never before seen in a Steelers backfield, combined with power.

"He has his own style," Bettis said. "I think it's still developing. It's a work in progress, but it's a heck of a start."

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

Monday, September 12, 2005

Bob Smizik: Parker Gets Running Start in Being No. 1

Monday, September 12, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sometime late in the second quarter, maybe early in the third, Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley learned that one of football's oldest unwritten rules has, quite correctly, been relegated to the junk pile.

Used to be you couldn't lose your job because of injury.

Not any more.

As Tommy Maddox found out last season when Ben Roethlisberger went from untested rookie to budding superstar while Maddox rehabbed, you can so lose your job because of injury on the Steelers.

For the moment, possibly for the remainder of their careers, Bettis, one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, and Staley, who the Steelers signed to a five-year, $14 million contract in 2004, are backups -- regardless of how well the injuries that currently have them out progress.

To do otherwise, in view of the dazzling performance by Willie Parker in a 34-7 whacking of the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field yesterday, would be the height of foolishness.

On a team that has long lived by the might of bruising running backs -- from Fran Rogel to Franco Harris to Barry Foster to Bettis -- there never has been anything like Parker, who juked, bounced off, bowled over and darted past Titans defenders en route to 161-yard, 22-carry performance. And that after gaining only 4 yards on his first four carries.

He added 48 yards on a screen pass, which meant he accounted for more than 200 yards on the strength of his -- is there any other word? -- spectacular running ability.
Will he start next week?

"I see no reason to make a change at this point," said Bill Cowher.

Just as he did with Roethlisberger last season, Cowher will stay with the player who can produce victories. There's something to be said about loyalty to veterans, but it pales next to winning games.

Parker is the running back who can most help the Steelers win.
He might not have the inside power of Bettis and Staley, but his speed more than makes up for any brute force he lacks. Not that he can't run inside.
"The thing that was exciting to see," said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, "was how tough a runner he was inside."

The Steelers did not significantly change their game plan for Parker. There wasn't a lot of wide stuff and no trick stuff for Parker. He pounded the line of scrimmage like Bettis and Staley. What sets him apart is what he does after crossing the line.
"When he hits the hole like he does," said center Jeff Hartings, "sometimes you don't even need to get to the linebackers."

Parker gives the Steelers a dimension they've never had. It's possible they've had faster running backs, but never one who has ever translated that speed into on-the-field production.

Sure, this was Parker's first start, but he has a body of work that indicates this performance was no fluke.

Foremost is the 2004 season finale against Buffalo. In that game, which the Bills needed to make the playoffs, Parker ran for 102 yards on 19 carries, helping to end Buffalo's season.

Before that, he was the sensation of the 2004 exhibition season, running for 202 yards on 46 carries, before being consigned to the bench in favor of Staley and Bettis. It looked like another year of the same for Parker. But, when Staley and then Bettis went down, Cowher quickly anointed Parker as their successor. Cowher was so high on Parker he didn't play him in the final exhibition game for fear of injury.

It was a move that seemed overly cautious at the time, but not so yesterday. Parker is just the kind of precious commodity you don't take chances with. That probably was the reason he carried for the final time with about three minutes remaining in the third quarter.

That final run was good for 45 yards, which means there's no telling what kind of statistics Parker might have compiled had he played all four quarters.

"You've got to find ways to get the ball in his hands," said Cowher. "As you can see, he's very quick with his feet and yet he's got some elusiveness to him. He's a very fast young man, a very powerful guy. He's got a chance to turn a 20-yard gain into a 40-yard gain."

He did that on the Steelers' first possession, after the Titans had taken a 7-0 lead. He took a screen pass from Roethlisberger, darted to the outside and flew down the field for a 48-yard gain to the Tennessee 4, which set up the first Steelers touchdown.

Asked to recount his 45-yard run in the third quarter, Parker said, "I don't even remember that play. I was in another world."

Sure was.

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

Ron Cook: Big Ben Backs it Up in Big Way

Big Ben backs up his words in big way, and passer rating proves the point
Monday, September 12, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's unclear who initiated the little chat that Bill Cowher and Ben Roethlisberger had early last week. Cowher seemed to indicate he sought out Big Ben to tell him not to worry about living up to the heavy expectations he created with his otherworldly performance as a rookie in the Steelers' march to 15-1 last season. Roethlisberger hinted he felt the need to go to Cowher after his offense failed to score a touchdown in the four exhibition games. "I just wanted to tell coach not to lose confidence in me."

At least, Cowher and Roethlisberger agreed how their conversation ended.
"Just relax, coach. We'll be OK," Roethlisberger said.
"OK, show me," Cowher responded.
And so Big Ben did.

All is well in Steelers Nation because Roethlisberger, after flailing in the preseason, played the perfect game in the 34-7 win against the Tennessee Titans yesterday. That's not an opinion. It's a fact, based on the NFL's passer rating system. Big Ben's big number -- 158.3 -- is as big as it gets.
"You only throw a couple of balls. It's not hard to do," Roethlisberger said, gee-whizzing.

It's true, Roethlisberger attempted just 11 passes, the fewest by a Steelers quarterback in nearly 28 years. But, if you can remember a quarterback getting so much out of so little, you have a better memory than me. Roethlisberger was right on, from his first pass -- a sweet lob just over cornerback Andre Woolfolk's hands for a 14-yard gain to Hines Ward -- to his final pass -- a bullet from the shotgun and a four-wide receiver set to Cedric Wilson for 14 yards on a third-and-1 play. In between, Roethlisberger threw a short touchdown pass to tight end Heath Miller -- no kidding! -- and a long one to Antwaan Randle El. His nine completions went to six different receivers for 218 yards, only one fewer yard than Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair produced with his 18 completions.
"You get the ball close to our receivers, they're going to make plays," Roethlisberger said, gee-whizzing again.

The team party line after the game was that no one inside the locker room was concerned about the woeful look of the pass offense in the exhibition games. That, of course, was a big lie. Cowher counts, doesn't he? He was plenty concerned and said so publicly. Even after the passing game was so productive yesterday, he muttered something about it being the first time all year the Steelers looked like a professional team throwing the football.
Translation: It's about time.
"I think coach was just frustrated," Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. "He had a right to be. We weren't as efficient as we should have been."

But, like Roethlisberger, Whisenhunt whispered sweet nothings into Cowher's ear about the offense being on the verge of a breakout game. Whisenhunt knew he had a game plan designed to attack the Titans' weaknesses and capitalize on what the Steelers do best. That meant calling only two consecutive dropback passes for Roethlisberger, instead getting him outside the pocket, where he is most effective. "That's not something we wanted to show in the preseason," Whisenhunt said. "I learned that from [Hall of Fame coach] Joe Gibbs a long time ago. 'Don't tip your hand in the preseason games.' "

Whisenhunt also had been hoarding a play-action pass for tight end Jerame Tuman down the middle. Wouldn't you know Tuman was wide open and the gain was 27 yards?
"How many balls did you say we threw? 11? And two went to the tight ends? I'd say that's a pretty big number, wouldn't you?" Whisenhunt asked, grinning.
Hey, you'd be in a good mood, too, if your quarterback had the day Roethlisberger did.
It helped the offense that Ward has settled back in after his contract holdout. That's enabled Randle El and Wilson to get work at their normal spots instead of bouncing around.

Then, there was the Willie Parker factor. It's no wonder some in the Steelers' hierarchy insisted last week that they weren't worried about how Fast Willie would play, but rather about how they were going to get him out of the lineup to get Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley back in. After Parker ran for 161 yards and caught a screen pass for 48 yards, it won't happen next Sunday in Houston even if Bettis or Staley is ready. "I see no reason to make a change," Cowher said.
We'll pause here for the requisite mention of Wally Pipp.

But Parker won't always gain that kind of yardage. He's going to face tougher defenses than the weak-tackling Titans. The Steelers still figure to go as far as Roethlisberger takes them. That's why this performance was so encouraging. He again reinforced the belief he's a franchise quarterback.
Sooner or later, Roethlisberger will lose his first regular-season game. He's 15-0 as a starter, speaking of perfection.
But as long as Big Ben plays like this, the Steelers won't lose many.

(Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.)

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Training Camp 2005: Pens Birds of a Different Feather

Training Camp 2005: Penguins definitely birds of much different feather
Sunday, September 11, 2005
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Penguins Camp News:
Five Story lines (and they're not all about Sidney Crosby)
2005 Penguin Camp Data & Camp Roster

NHL training camps tend to look a lot alike, to become a blur of drills and chalk talks and forgettable exhibition games.

Especially when you've been through as many as Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk, who broke into the league in 1984.

But he isn't likely to confuse the camp the Penguins will kick off with a physicals-and-photos session Tuesday at Mellon Arena with the one they conducted in 2003. Neither is anyone else.
And not only because Ryan Malone isn't wearing No. 47 anymore.

This time, the new veteran forwards aren't Kelly Buchberger and Mike Eastwood, but John LeClair and Mark Recchi. The major addition to the defense corps is Sergei Gonchar, not Drake Berehowsky. And there is a goalie, Jocelyn Thibault, whose experience with NHL playoff games isn't limited to watching them on TV.

The extreme makeover the Penguins have received since the NHL lockout ended in July will allow them to enter camp with a few things that were in precious short supply two years ago.
Like talent. And depth. And hope.

It isn't necessarily realistic to believe that the team that finished with the league's worst record in 2003-04 is suddenly a short-list contender for the Stanley Cup, but the Penguins' pedigree is a whole lot more impressive than it was a few months ago.
"We really feel good about the way we're heading into training camp," Olczyk said.

They should, but the idea is for Olczyk to feel better about his team as it heads out of training camp early next month. The chances of that will be greatly enhanced if he and his staff can hit upon line combinations and defense pairings that allow his players to bring out the best in one another.

Monitoring the kind of chemistry that develops between various players will be one of Olczyk's priorities during camp because it will help to determine what roles some players fill. Or even if they make it onto the regular-season roster.
And while trying to cultivate chemistry on a club with so many new players has to be difficult, Olczyk should find it less demanding than duplicating the coaching alchemy he had to come up with to keep his 2003-04 squad competitive most games.
The Penguins' most prominent newcomer is super-prospect Sidney Crosby, regarded by many in the industry as the finest player to come out of junior hockey since Mario Lemieux in 1984. And even though most of the other big-name additions -- such as Gonchar , Recchi, LeClair and Zigmund Palffy -- arrived via free agency and are on the far side of 30, Olczyk said his team isn't doomed to be top-heavy with older players.
"It would not surprise me at all to see us have anywhere from six to nine guys under the age of 26 on our team," he said.

A lot of variables will influence that -- not the least of them being whether the Penguins opt to keep the maximum of 23 players on their major-league roster -- but the franchise has been collecting some nice young talent the past few years.

Goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Andy Chiodo, defensemen Ryan Whitney, Brooks Orpik and Noah Welch and forwards Colby Armstrong, Ben Eaves, Shane Endicott and Konstantin Koltsov, among others, are on that list. And they're not the only ones.
"There are a lot of guys who we've signed but haven't had a chance to see up in Pittsburgh yet," Olczyk said. "They're going to get their opportunities."

That might be, but some players might find themselves compelled to accept revised -- or reduced -- roles if they want to stick in the NHL.
"There are spots available, there are roles available," Olczyk said. "It's whether or not guys want to accept and execute those responsibilities and the opportunities that they're going to get in camp."

Regardless of precisely who is on the roster when the Penguins open the regular season Oct. 5 at New Jersey, it's clear that the style of play will be more different than their lineup was two years ago.
Because of the talent and experience that has been grafted onto his depth chart, Olczyk will install a system that puts much greater emphasis on offense than there was two years ago. He won't allow team defense to become an afterthought, but his strategy won't be one-dimensional anymore.

"As far as the type of team we think we're going to have, the type of skill level and hockey sense and ability to make plays and force teams to do things, I think that will probably be a complete 180 [-degree difference in the approach]," Olczyk said.
"We've brought in difference-makers and feel we can play any way. I don't want to say we're going to be a high-risk, gambling-type of team, but, certainly, we want to use our speed, use the assets we have."

Do that, and the Penguins should be able to set the flow and pace instead of adapting to the way their opponents play.

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

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Macha Hopes Bucs Target Him

Shaler native hoping Pirates target him as manager
Thursday, September 08, 2005
By Paul Meyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Two of the people thought to be at or near the top of the Pirates' wish list to succeed Lloyd McClendon, fired Tuesday as their manager, had much different initial reactions to their names being mentioned for the position.

Ken Macha, manager of the Oakland Athletics, headed off any discussion when approached by Bay Area reporters. "I'm not answering any questions about Pittsburgh," the Monroeville resident said. "I have job here in Oakland right now."

"Right now" are the key words. Macha doesn't have a contract with Oakland for next season.
Art Howe, a Shaler native, was a bit more expansive when contacted yesterday. "I've heard they're close to becoming a winning ball club," he said from his home near Houston. "With the right ingredients, good things should happen there. Hopefully, I'm part of the ingredients."

The Pirates have indicated they want McClendon's successor to have had major-league managerial experience, and Howe certainly fills that bill. He's spent 14 seasons managing Houston, Oakland and the New York Mets, compiling a 1,129-1,137 record.
His stint with the Mets was the only one that didn't go well.

"Interesting," Howe said of his two seasons at Shea. "I learned they don't rebuild in New York."
The Mets, who spent a lot of money on players who underperformed, were 66-95 and 71-91 in Howe's two seasons. He was let go after last season with two years -- and $4.7 million -- left on his contract.

That could work in his favor. If Howe is hired for 2006, that team probably wouldn't have to pay his entire salary for the first year. The Mets could pay part of it just to be free of their entire obligation.
"It could be a good situation for everybody," Howe said.

Howe, who played for the Pirates in 1974-75, began his big-league managerial career in 1989 with the Astros and developed a young team into a contender.
Except he was gone by the time Houston began winning.

When Drayton McLane bought the team, he brought in Terry Collins as manager in 1994. When the players' strike ended the season in early August, the Astros were 66-49.
"I knew they were ready to take the next step," Howe said. "I told Drayton that."
In '97, the Astros began a run of four division championships in five seasons. By then, Howe was with Oakland.

"We really started from scratch in Oakland," he said. But by '99, the Athletics were in position where they would finish first or second in the American League West the next four seasons.

Thus, it wouldn't bother Howe to inherit a team counting on young players for success.
"I've been there with young teams," he said. "I know the Pirates are on the rise. With a little time and hard work, good things can happen. I know they have some real fine arms, which is the most important ingredient."

Howe stressed that he hasn't heard from the Pirates about their managerial job. "I would hope they have interest in me -- as I do in them. It's nice to hear [his name being mentioned] and that people haven't forgotten me."

The Pirates have indicated they won't really begin their managerial search until after the season ends Oct. 2.

However, they're already getting free advice.

"That club needs somebody with the experience level to take the organization to another level," a high-ranking official with a big-league team said. "They're not that far away. And there aren't too many guys out there who fit [the job description]."

Howe is one. Jim Leyland, who managed the Pirates from 1986-96, is another. Leyland, though, will be like Howe. He'll sit by his telephone waiting for a call.
Former managers with the status of Howe and Leyland don't look for jobs. The jobs look for them.

(Paul Meyer can be reached at 412-263-1144.)

Pens, Crosby Expect Few Problems in Contract Negotiations

Thursday, September 08, 2005
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The NHL's new labor agreement caps Sidney Crosby's entry-level salary at $850,000.
But if his contract is structured just right -- and if Crosby puts together a season even more spectacular than almost anyone anticipates -- he could have a chance to earn nearly $4 million as a rookie.

That total wouldn't include so much as a penny from his endorsement deals, but might require Crosby to produce one of the most remarkable seasons in NHL history.

Penguins general manager Craig Patrick and one of Crosby's agents, Pat Brisson, have discussed the parameters of Crosby's first pro contract and will begin negotiations tomorrow. Both sides have expressed confidence a deal will be worked out well before the start of training camp Tuesday.

Team officials have long acknowledged that he will receive the maximum salary allowed by the new collective bargaining agreement, and it's virtually certain he will have a chance to earn the limit of $850,000 in "Column A" bonuses.

For forwards such as Crosby, those bonuses involve aggregate and per-game ice time (the player must appear in at least 42 games and place among the top six forwards on his team to qualify), scoring 20 goals, recording 35 assists or getting 60 points, averaging 0.73 points per game, finishing among the top three rookie forwards in plus-minus ratings, being named to the league's All-Rookie team, appearing in the NHL All-Star Game and being named MVP of the game.

The maximum that can be earned for any one of those is $212,500. How the $850,000 Column A ceiling is spread over the above categories is subject to negotiation.

Even if Crosby draws an $850,000 salary and gets the maximum in Column A bonuses, he might be able to more than double his earnings by winning league awards. The catch is that it might require sweeping all for which he is eligible.

Clubs can pay up to $2 million in bonuses to players who win league-wide awards and trophies.
In Crosby's case, those would be the Calder (top rookie), Hart (MVP), Art Ross (scoring champion), Lady Byng (sportsmanship), Rocket Richard (leading goal-scorer), Selke (best defensive forward) and Conn Smythe (playoff MVP).

No one has come close to running the table on those honors in a single year. Again, how the $2 million total is divided among the trophies will be part of Crosby's negotiations.

In addition to the bonus money paid by the team, Crosby could earn up to $150,000 from the NHL for leading the league in goals, assists and/or points, and as much as $100,000 more from the league for having the highest points-per-game average.

Bottom line: Depending on the details of the contract Brisson and Patrick work out, Crosby could earn a maximum of $3.95 million in his rookie season.

Defenseman Brooks Orpik, the only restricted free agent with whom the Penguins still are negotiating, realizes he won't get a deal anywhere near as lucrative as Crosby's. Or even the one Orpik had two seasons ago, for that matter.

Because Orpik is restricted, the Penguins could match any offer he receives from another team. That gives Patrick a decided edge in the negotiations, because restricted free agents who aren't inclined to play in Europe have no real options outside the NHL.

"That's what happens when you're a restricted free agent," Orpik said. "You don't have much leverage."

Orpik's agent, Lewis Gross, did not speak with Patrick yesterday, but disputed a suggestion that the situation is stacked in the team's favor and that Orpik must resign himself to accepting what the club offers.

"Everyone wants to get it done, but I don't think that's accurate," Gross said.

Patrick "slots" his defensemen and bases their salaries on those rankings. No one is saying precisely where Orpik fits into that structure, but it appears he's at least a notch below Josef Melichar, who accepted a two-year deal worth $700,000 annually.

"I'm asking for a lot less than I made last year," said Orpik, who was paid $1,075,000 in 2003-04. "I don't think I'm trying to break the bank, by any means."

He said the Penguins broached the idea of a long-term deal during the summer of 2004, but whether a multiyear contract remains under discussion isn't clear. What is apparent, though, is that Orpik hopes something is in place before training camp starts.

"I just want to get it over with," he said. "I didn't think it would carry on this long, but it has, so it is what it is.

"It sounds stupid to say it's out of my control, because it is somewhat in my control, but I don't want it to hang over me going into camp. It's not something I want associated with me."

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

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Joe Starkey: McClendon's Firing Fails to Address Buc's Core Issues

By Joe Starkey
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

They gave Mac the knife Tuesday. They want you to believe he was the problem.

We're talking about the Pirates' executive branch, of course, and if firing manager Lloyd McClendon was a sign that real change lay ahead, great.

Let's see the payroll pumped to $50 million-plus.

Let's see Jason Bay signed to a long-term contract.

Let's see an expensive power hitter or two signed in free agency.

Let's see a drastically improved team next season and a financial commitment to keep it together beyond 2006 -- after the All-Star Game leaves town and takes all those ticket-buying incentives with it.

McClendon didn't do himself any favors lately, what with his ridiculous insinuation that St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan is a racist. It was getting harder and harder to defend the man.

Pirates CEO and managing general partner Kevin McClatchy insisted the incident had nothing to with McClendon's dismissal. McClatchy and GM Dave Littlefield also claimed that Littlefield initiated the firing, not McClatchy or the heavily influential Nutting family.

McClatchy, meanwhile, reiterated his promise that the payroll will rise appreciably next season (from a paltry $33 million or so) and that the franchise will make a significant financial commitment for an experienced manager.

OK. But who can we really believe around here anymore? The news conference yesterday, as one might imagine, was like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Hard to tell what was real and what wasn't.

You had to roll your eyes, for example, when McClatchy said, "I really, actually, for the first time feel pretty good about some of our young talent."

That's funny. I thought he'd been praising the team's "young talent" for the past nine years. Just to make sure, I checked Sports Illustrated's 1998 MLB preview. In it, McClatchy said, "By developing young talent, we have given our fans one thing back -- hope."

Following the Great Payroll Purge of 2003, McClatchy said, "We actually played better with the younger players. Not many people in this marketplace know that."

To be fair, though, the Pirates do have more promising, 20-something players than at any time since the late 1980's.

Now, let's see if they screw it up.

By making a dramatic shift toward youth in the middle of the season, incidentally, the Pirates had to know their record might suffer. That's why Littlefield made little sense when he referenced the team's recent poor record and said, "We have higher expectations with the players that we have."

Back on May 22, Littlefield issued a strong backing of McClendon, saying, "When I look at the issues we need to address and where we're deficient, I don't see the manager as being a problem."

He got that right. The fundamental problems are MLB's economic system, the Pirates' low payroll and ownership's failure to make a tangible commitment to winning.

The first issue won't be rectified anytime soon, and that in itself could kill the Pirates' future.
Consider that before yesterday's games, there wasn't a single team in playoff position -- save for the San Diego Padres of the pathetic NL West -- with a payroll under $75 million.

Only two of the eight teams with a payroll under $50 million had a winning record.

All of which brings us back to this: Even if the Pirates bring in the next Sparky Anderson, they're not going anywhere without plenty of spending money.

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

Ron Cook: Ownership Team is Obstacle to Success

[I was saddened by Mr. McClendon's firing...John McGraw couldn't win with the teams the Pirates have fielded over the last few years. McClendon was a competitve manager who never made excuses for his players and consistently demanded their best effort. It's not his fault that the players were less than capable of matching those qualities. I'm grateful for Mr. McClendon's service and I wish him all the best.]

Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One day, the Steelers sign Hines Ward for the long haul.

The next day, the Pirates fire Lloyd McClendon.

Talk about a marvelous week for Pittsburgh sports fans!

There's only one way it could possibly get any better.

Mario announces he's going to play until he's 50.

I'm kidding, but you probably aren't.

It's sad but true that a lot of people around here are reveling in McClendon's misfortune as much as they are in Ward's newfound wealth. A significant number of misguided fools are convinced McClendon is to blame for that minor-league joke of a team the Pirates have been running out not just this season, but for 13 seasons. They refuse to acknowledge the team was losing long before he got here. Gene Lamont, another good baseball man, couldn't win under this management group. And, before Lamont, Jim Leyland got out after he realized he had no chance. He's merely the best manager of my lifetime.

That isn't to say McClendon didn't have to go. The Pirates had lost nine of 10 games and 14 of the past 18. There's a decent chance they'll lose 100.

McClendon insisted he didn't lose the clubhouse.

"Who did I have to lose? I had all kids, basically," he said yesterday after his firing was announced. "If Jason Bay wasn't still climbing the walls to make catches or if Jack Wilson wasn't still diving into the stands to catch a ball, I might say that. But this team busted its fanny for me.
We were just short."

It doesn't matter.

All that matters in pro sports is the win-loss record.

McClendon's carelessness last week when asked about being called "an idiot" by St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan didn't help. He left the impression he was playing the race card, a perception he quickly tried to fend off by saying his remarks were misinterpreted.

But that, too, doesn't matter.

McClendon was going anyway.

The team's 55-81 record assured that.

"I think it's time for a change, time to try something new," general manager Dave Littlefield said.
That point is indisputable, but so is this one: A change isn't going to make the Pirates winners all of sudden. Not with this ownership team.

"My response to that is that's not true," Littlefield said. "We're gonna win here."

Asked what he would say to those who are convinced the Pirates will never win as long as he's in charge, Kevin McClatchy looked at the ground and said: "If we didn't have any young talent, I would agree with that. But I believe we're going in the right direction. I think we'll just keep plugging along and see what happens."

Give McClatchy credit for showing up to face the tough questions. His partner, G. Ogden Nutting, the man many believe is calling the shots for the Pirates, was a no-show. We can only assume he's too embarrassed to associate himself with his team.

But, really, what was the point of McClatchy being there? Isn't his "next-year-will-be-better" mantra getting old? He talks of the Pirates' young talent? This is an owner who once said publicly the team wouldn't trade its good young players -- "Jason Kendall, Jermaine Allensworth, Mark Johnson." Another year, he predicted the Pirates would win 90 games. They finished 78-83.
McClatchy has a track record of nothing but failure.

How do you believe anything he says?

Here's another question: Would you want to work for him and Nutting?

A bunch of young, unproven go-getters will apply. Like McClendon and Lamont, they'll believe they can be the miracle-worker. And like McClendon and Lamont, they'll walk away realizing Pittsburgh is a graveyard for managers and always will be under the current management.

The Pirates might be able to attract a proven manager such as the Oakland Athletics' Ken Macha. Word is he would love to come back to his hometown, and it can't be easy working for A's general manager Billy Beane, a hands-on egomaniac. But can't Macha do better than the Pirates?
Working for Beane would seem like heaven after working a month or two with Littlefield, who, because of his bosses, has to go into all his baseball fights wearing handcuffs and a blindfold.
Not that Littlefield probably is long for his job.

He's now next in line to go. Maybe next season or the season after, but certainly on some beautiful summer day when the Pirates are 20 games under .500 and McClatchy is telling anyone who will listen that they really are close to being winners.
It's always the same story with this doomed franchise.

The managers and general managers go, but the owners stay.

That thought is enough to ruin even the best of news weeks.

(Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.)

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Lemieux at Center; Why Not?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Penguins might fill their need for a top-line center with one of the finest players ever to man the position.

And it wouldn't add a dollar to their payroll.

Mario Lemieux, who has worked extensively on left wing in recent years and was widely expected to play there in 2005-06, said he is "absolutely" willing to move back to the middle.

"Depending on how we start the season, I can play center or wing," Lemieux said. "It doesn't matter to me."

Coach Eddie Olczyk acknowledged that he has discussed the situation with Lemieux -- and that such a switch is possible -- but said it is just one of the options available.

"We can go in a lot of different directions," Olczyk said. "A lot of stuff can work itself out."

At least for the moment, Olczyk said, he plans to have Lemieux on the left side when training camp opens Sept. 13. Ryan Malone, prominently mentioned as a candidate to play center on one of the top two lines, also is penciled in on the wing for the start of camp, Olczyk said.

Those plans could be altered at any time, of course; one of the primary purposes of the preseason is to allow coaches to experiment with personnel.

That will be particularly true this year because of the rampant roster turnover around the league in the wake of the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.

Even if Lemieux shifts to center, it seems likely that his job description will be altered to spare him some of the rigors that go along with the position.

"Just because he's in the middle doesn't mean he'll be doing all the work [that goes with being] a center in the league," Olczyk said.

While the Penguins' forward-line configurations have yet to be set, rookie Sidney Crosby is expected to center one of the top two lines.

The Penguins had hoped to fill the other spot with an elite veteran like Peter Forsberg or Mike Modano, but failed to lure one here during the early days of free agency last month.

So while Lemieux insists he is "not at all" concerned about the Penguins' situation at center, the other spot in the middle on the first or second line remains vacant, with no guarantee it will be filled satisfactorily in the near future.

There is no shortage of candidates to play there because just about everyone on the Penguins' depth chart who has spent any time at center -- from Kris Beech to Rico Fata, Shane Endicott to Matt Hussey -- has been floated as a possibility.

The early favorite among management, however, appears to be Lasse Pirjeta, a late-season addition in 2004.

Pirjeta was acquired from Columbus for Brian Holzinger in what appeared to be an exchange of low-impact forwards, but Pirjeta thrived during his short time with the Penguins.

After putting up just two goals and eight assists in 57 games with the Blue Jackets, Pirjeta had six goals and six assists in 13 games with the Penguins. Not only were his numbers good, but he was reliable defensively and proved capable of playing on the wing or at center.

"He was, and is, a very highly skilled guy," Olczyk said. "He sees the ice well, competes hard, has good skills and is deceptive in his skating ability. [Using Pirjeta at center on one of the top two lines] is one of our options, and it could be our best option."

Pirjeta, 31, reinforced his credentials with a productive showing (16 goals and 20 assists in 45 games) for HIFK Helsinki in Finland during the lockout. His size -- 6 foot 4, 225 pounds -- make him an attractive prospect for a checking line, but the Penguins feel he has more offensive potential than some realize.

"I think Lasse's going to surprise a lot of people," Lemieux said.

"He didn't come [to North America] until a couple of years ago and showed last year that he has some offensive skill.

"He's got size and likes to go to the net, so that's a big asset. Especially on our team, with the wingers we have. I think he might surprise a lot of people."

And if Pirjeta doesn't -- not in a good way, at least -- the Penguins have other possibilities. Including a guy who's been in the Hall of Fame for nearly a decade.

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

Ward Signs Richest Contract in Steelers' History

Removes threat of a distraction this season
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Hines Ward has come a long way since his single mother, Korean and unable to speak English, worked up to three jobs in Georgia so her young son could experience the American dream.
Ward phoned home to tell his mother that he was about to sign the richest contract in Steelers history.

"She just broke down crying," Ward said. "She told me, 'Who would have thought a kid out of Forest Park would get an opportunity to make money and be able to stay with [one] organization through a career.' I look good in black and gold."

He looks even better in black and gold, dressed in gold.

Yesterday morning, Ward signed a new five-year contract worth $27.5 million, according to sources familiar with the deal. It includes the largest signing bonus in club history, $9 million, plus a $1 million roster bonus that, combined with his salaries in the first three years of the deal, delivers to him the so-called "guaranteed" money he was seeking at $17 million, also the largest in club history.

That $17 million puts him among the top five receivers in guaranteed money in the NFL, according to those same sources.

If he plays the way he has over the past four years, Ward will receive incentives that push the total take to $30 million through 2009.

He receives a $5 million bonus now and another $4 million in early March when he receives another $1 million roster bonus. His annual salaries, starting this year, are $665,000, $2.75 million, $3.585 million, $4.7 million and $5.8 million.

"It was far more than I expected," Ward said.

Agent Eugene Parker and Steelers negotiator Omar Khan stepped up talks by telephone over the weekend as the team's self-imposed deadline approached -- the start of the regular season Sunday.

"We knew the season was approaching," Parker said, "and we wanted to get things resolved prior to that because he didn't want that distraction, nor did the Steelers. I think both sides created a sense of urgency, and we had substantial talks over the last couple of days to get where we are."

Steelers president Art Rooney II poked some fun at himself to open news conference yesterday. Rooney declared, more than a year ago, that getting Ward a new contract would be a "priority" in 2005. As talks dragged on, many accused Rooney of not following through on his promise.
"I guess sometimes priorities take a little longer than others to be fulfilled," he said.

A potential problem in the negotiations developed when Ward held out the first 15 days of training camp to protest the slow pace of negotiations. Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, announced on the first day of camp that the team would no longer negotiate until Ward returned.

Halfback Jerome Bettis helped to convince his friend Ward to report to camp. Talks resumed once he did.

"This is good for the team," Bettis said. "It keeps team morale up. Whenever you get a player of his caliber signed, it shows the commitment the organization has to its players. I think it reinforces a positive message that if you go out there and perform on the field, we'll take care of you. I think that makes a very, very conducive environment for us to go out there and work."

Bettis said the hullabaloo surrounding the negotiations never affected the team.

"You knew it was going to be handled, so you didn't worry about it. Sometimes, some organizations, you're not sure that's the case, but we knew that this was going to get done, it was just a matter of when."

Others will not get done.

Receiver Antwaan Randle El, safety Chris Hope, tight end Jerame Tuman and cornerback Deshea Townsend -- all starters -- will play in the last year of their contracts. They will become unrestricted free agents unless they sign with the team before next March.

"I don't know anything about mine," Randle El said. "It's not going to be addressed."

Ward is the second big contract the Steelers have issued in the past two weeks. Nose tackle Casey Hampton signed a five-year deal Aug. 22 that pays him $22.775 million with a $6.975 million signing bonus, which is now the fourth highest in club history.

Rooney praised Ward and Parker for not allowing the negotiating stalemate to "get ugly and become major distractions to a team."

Ward said he was relieved to have the process done.

"I don't wish this upon anybody," he said.

"It was very hard to go out there with a peace of mind on the field, knowing that you're so close. I can go into the season focused now that the deal got done."

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