Sunday, December 31, 2006

Crosby, Malkin give Penguins spark

By Karen Price
Sunday, December 31, 2006

Penguins coach Michel Therrien generally likes having the 1-2 punch of playing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on opposite lines.

Chief among the advantages are the decisions the setup forces opposing coaches to make with regard to where they play their top defensemen and checking lines.

But he's also not been opposed to putting the pair together in a pinch, and going into Friday night's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on a five-game skid, the pinch started at the beginning. For the first time in almost two months, Therrien started Malkin, 20, on the right wing with Crosby, 19, in the middle and veteran Mark Recchi, 38, on the left.

"I like the way that every time we have a chance to use them in critical situations it gives us some life as a team," Therrien said. "We decided to go that way and it worked well (Friday)."

Although they didn't score at even strength, the pair did create plenty of scoring chances in the 4-1 win. One such chance was in the second period, when goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin made a big save on a 2-on-1 with Recchi and Malkin before play turned back the other direction and Mats Sundin scored on Marc-Andre Fleury.

That left the line minus-1 on the night, although Malkin had a goal and an assist on the power play and Crosby, who leads the NHL in scoring with 58 points in 34 games, had three power-play assists. Malkin leads all rookies in points with 36 in 33 games.

"I think any time we're together we want to create things and I think we did a pretty good job of that," Crosby said. "Playing with (Malkin), you know if you get one chance it's in the net and it's always nice to have someone like that on your line."

Therrien started Crosby and Malkin together in late October, several games after Malkin made his NHL debut. He had used the pair together for periods in earlier games, usually when the team was behind and needed a spark. But when they believed Malkin could benefit from time on the wing as he made the transition to the NHL, he played on the left side with Colby Armstrong on the right.
But by early November, Therrien went back to using Crosby and Malkin on opposite lines, and that's how they've played the majority of their games ever since.

Therrien said the most recent decision to put the two together -- besides the desperate need to win a game after five straight losses -- actually was the play of Erik Christensen, who centered the second line on Friday with Ryan Malone and Michel Ouellet on the wings after playing most of the last month on the wing.

Christensen, 23, has scored in each of the past two games and now has seven goals in 16 games, compared to six in 33 games last season.

"(Christensen) is playing really solid," Therrien said. "He's a really effective player and he's putting some numbers up there. That's one of the reasons why. He's a centerman and since he's been with us, because we have a lot of centermen, he's been on the wing. But the way that that young kid is capable to perform, that gave us another asset. He can do the job."

Malkin, speaking through interpreter George Birman, said that despite playing outside his natural position in the middle, he wouldn't have any objections to playing with Crosby all the time.

"Of course, it's great to play with Crosby and Mark Recchi," he said. "They're two great players. We spend lots of time in the offensive zone so I'd love to continue to play with them. ... It's more comfortable in the center, but at the same time we do lots of changes, with Sidney playing on the wing or I change with Mark Recchi. It's a little bit different, but to play with them it's worth it."

Karen Price can be reached at

Steelers expect Cowher to quit

Team management puts together a list of head-coaching candidates for when the 15-year veteran retires, as they think he'll do after today

Sunday, December 31, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Ed Bouchette's Daily Question

Steelers management has compiled a list of head coaching candidates when, as they expect, Bill Cowher steps down after he concludes his 15th season on the job in Cincinnati today.

Although Mr. Cowher, 49, said last Tuesday that it would not be long before he makes an announcement clearing up his plans, no press conference is scheduled and none may occur this week in Pittsburgh, at least not with Mr. Cowher present.

Mr. Cowher plans to meet with his players at the team's UPMC complex on the South Side Tuesday and then leave for his new home in Raleigh, N.C., where his wife, Kaye, and youngest daughter, Lindsay, a high school sophomore, have lived most of the past year.

He has not informed his players or his coaching staff of his plans. Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and his son, team president Art Rooney II, have not commented on the situation.

The Rooneys would join Kevin Colbert, the director of football operations, in heading a coaching search, the team's first since 1992. At that time, the Steelers interviewed about a dozen candidates for the job, including current Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt, one of two finalists for the position that Mr. Cowher landed after longtime coach Chuck Noll retired.

Two members of Mr. Cowher's offensive staff are considered the prime candidates to take his place: Russ Grimm, the assistant head coach and line coach, and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. The Steelers also want to interview outside candidates, including University of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, an Upper St. Clair native. The NFL requires each team to interview a minority coach -- called the Rooney Rule because Dan Rooney proposed it -- and the Steelers will do that.

If and when Mr. Cowher quits, the team expects to move quickly to replace him.

Mr. Cowher has one year left on a contract that pays him an estimated $4 million to $5 million a year. Talks to extend his deal broke off in August. If he steps down, he could not coach elsewhere until 2008.

Sources on both sides have told the Post-Gazette that more than one issue has led Mr. Cowher to this crossroads in his career. Part of it is money. The Steelers offered Mr. Cowher between $6 million and $6.5 million annually near the end of a contract extension. That's an amount Mr. Cowher may consider below market for a coach with his record, especially since that salary would not kick in for another three or four years.

The coach he beat in the Super Bowl last February, Seattle's Mike Holmgren, earns an estimated $8 million to $10 million a year, and Washington's Joe Gibbs earns anywhere from a reported $5 million to $7 million annually.

There are personal issues, too. Mr. Cowher said at a recent press conference that he was not tired of coaching and he was not "burned out." However, he told at least one associate more than a year ago that he was tired of the coaching grind and might retire soon. It was then, in the fall of 2005, that he and his wife purchased their 7,400-square foot, $2.5 million home in Raleigh.

Both Mr. Cowher, a Crafton native, and his wife graduated from North Carolina State University and were star athletes there. Kaye Cowher is from North Carolina and the couple have many friends and family in the area.

Mr. Cowher admitted recently that he thought of retiring after the Steelers won the Super Bowl in February.

When Kaye and Lindsay Cowher moved to Raleigh, and Lindsay enrolled in a private school there speculation increased that this would be Mr. Cowher's final season here. The Cowhers' other two daughters, both now at Princeton University and stars on the school's basketball team, graduated from Fox Chapel Area High School.

Asked last summer why Mr. Cowher would send his wife and daughter to Raleigh while he coached the Steelers in Pittsburgh, a close associate of his said the question included a misused word: "send," the implication being it was not Mr. Cowher's decision to have his wife and daughter move to North Carolina.

Steelers believe time is short

Whatever the reason for the move, it seemed an untenable situation. Further evidence came when contract extension talks broke off in August. Mr. Cowher has never entered the final two years of a contract -- he's always been given an extension before it came to that point. That they were negotiating meant Mr. Cowher entertained thoughts last summer of extending his stay as Steelers coach, lending credence to the idea that the money just wasn't enough to convince him to do so.

Art Rooney II said in August that he hoped talks would resume when the 2006 season ended. But as the season approached its final weeks, Mr. Cowher mentioned he had a decision to make on his future and he would take time after the season to consider his options, saying it would not be a "knee-jerk" decision.

"It will be something I will need to get away from and give some serious thought to and I will do that -- at the right time," Mr. Cowher said.

The Steelers do not believe they have that kind of time to wait. Both Mr. Whisenhunt and Mr. Grimm could be prime candidates for head coaching jobs elsewhere this week, and with the Steelers not in the playoffs, they are permitted to talk to other teams. Coaches of teams in the playoffs can be interviewed once but not hired until after they are eliminated.

Octagon Financial Services president Phil de Picciotto, Mr. Cowher's agent, began calling the Steelers several weeks ago, and while the sides eventually talked, nothing was accomplished. Mr. De Picciotto was out of town, a secretary in his McLean, Va., office said, and unavailable this past week.

Besides money, the sides could not agree on the coach's obligations to be in Pittsburgh in the off-season. Mr. Cowher wanted to spend more time in Raleigh and that was not something Steelers management felt would work. Some were surprised, for example, when Mr. Cowher took time off this past year during preparations for the draft. He has spent time in Raleigh at least three times during the season -- once after the Thursday night season opener in early September, once during a bye week in late September and again after their second Thursday night game in early December.

Bob Smizik: Is it possible we've taken Cowher for granted?

Sunday, December 31, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Some time around 4 o'clock this afternoon, Bill Cowher will walk off the field for perhaps the last time as coach of the Steelers. Too bad a man who has been involved in so many critical games that grabbed at the hearts and minds of the worldwide Steelers Nation might be ending his 15-year tenure in what is a mostly meaningless contest against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Cowher has indicated he will make a decision about his future speedily after the season, which he owes to the Steelers. Although no one has a handle on his thinking, there is reason to believe he will resign and take a brief sabbatical before returning with another team.

Maybe he wants to be with his family for his youngest daughter's final two years of high school. Maybe he feels a need to get away from the game for a year or two. Maybe he doesn't believe the Steelers will pay him enough in a new contract and wants to be available to the highest bidder for the 2008 season or beyond.

Love him or hate him -- and there are plenty on both sides -- there's no denying that Cowher's run with the Steelers has been a major success. He might not have won enough Super Bowls to satisfy the spoiled Steelers fan base, but he has posted a remarkably consistent winning record, which is difficult in this era of parity brought on by the salary cap.

For the record: Cowher is 148-90-1 in the regular season and 12-9 in the playoffs. He's won eight division titles, two American Football Conference championships and one Super Bowl. He has lost four times in the AFC title game and once in the Super Bowl.

The postseason record wasn't good enough for a lot of his detractors, particularly those AFC title game losses at home. But who do you want as your coach: One who is 2-4 in AFC title games or one who is 0-0?

Among his contemporaries, only Bill Belichick of New England stands clearly ahead of Cowher. Cowher's record, if not his reputation, is at least that of Bill Parcells, who has won two Super Bowls. Parcells has 24 more wins and 39 more losses than Cowher in the regular season. He is 11-7 in the postseason. Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos is 138-87 with two Super Bowl victories.

It is surprising, if not amazing, how little respect Cowher gets from a significant portion of the Steelers' fan base. E-mails that have crossed this desk as Cowher considered his future treat him as just another coach. The writers often act as though they're annoyed with Cowher and that if he's thinking about leaving he should definitely move on. It's almost as if in the minds of many, he's just another coach.

He's not. He has been an outstanding coach and he's at least borderline Hall of Fame. Some people seem to believer whoever replaces Cowher will carry on the tradition -- just as Cowher carried on Chuck Noll's tradition.

That's where Cowher's accomplishments are so overlooked. As great a coach as Noll was -- and his greatness, which included four Super Bowl victories, is indisputable -- the Steelers were floundering when he retired after the 1991 season. In Noll's final seven seasons, the Steelers were mediocre. They advanced to the playoffs only once in those seven years and never won more than nine games.

No one had a right to expect what Cowher did with that struggling team. He turned a 7-9 team into an 11-5 team. He turned a franchise that had been in the playoffs once in seven years to one that was in the playoffs for six consecutive years.

Maybe that was his mistake -- too good, too fast. He set the bar too high.

For those who believe Cowher can easily be replaced, here's a list of NFL coaches, by category, who came into the league after Cowher and who appeared to be just the answer, but who definitely were not.

Defensive coordinators: Gregg Williams (17-31 at Buffalo); Buddy Ryan (12-20 at Arizona); Ray Rhodes (38-46-1 at Philadelphia and Green Bay); Jim Haslett (45-51 at New Orleans); Dom Capers (48-80 at Carolina and Houston).

Offensive coordinators: Chris Palmer (5-27 at Cleveland); Lindy Infante (12-21 at Indianapolis); Kevin Gilbride (6-16 at San Diego); June Jones (22-37 at Atlanta and San Diego); Mike White (15-17 at Oakland). Mike Mularkey (14-18 at Buffalo); Bruce Coslet (21-39 at Cincinnati).

College coaches: Florida's Steve Spurrier (12-20 at Washington); Miami's Butch Davis (24-36 at Cleveland); Syracuse's Dick MacPherson (8-24 at New England); Oregon's Rich Brooks (13-19 with the Rams); Miami's Dennis Erickson (40-56 with Seattle and San Francisco). Oregon State's Mike Riley (14-34 with San Diego).

Older NFL assistants in their first head coaching job: Dick LeBeau (12-33 at Cincinnati); Gunther Cunningham (16-16 at Kansas City); Rod Rust (1-15 at New England); Joe Bugel (20-44 at Arizona); Ray Handley (14-18 with the Giants); Richie Petitbon (4-12 at Washington); Dave McGinnis (17-40 with Arizona); Dave Campo (15-33 with Dallas).

Super Bowl winners: Mike Ditka (15-33 at New Orleans); George Seifert (16-32 at Carolina); Tom Flores (14-34 at Seattle); Joe Gibbs (21-26 at Washington).

If you're watching this afternoon, keep an eye on Cowher. If he leaves, it might be a long time before we see someone that good again.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at )

Friday, December 29, 2006

Lemieux agrees to meet with Rendell

Lemieux agrees to meeting with Rendell on financing to keep team in Pittsburgh

Arena talks next week

Friday, December 29, 2006
By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG -- Gov. Ed Rendell is coming to Pittsburgh next week to talk to Penguins' owner Mario Lemieux about financing for a new arena to anchor the team in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Rendell announced a goal of March 31 for completing a deal to finance a new $290 million arena with tax-exempt bonds. That target date is about a month later than the February deadline mentioned last week by Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

Mr. Rendell, joined by Mr. Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, sent a letter Wednesday to Mr. Lemieux, saying they are "solidly committed to keeping the Penguins at home in Pittsburgh." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obtained a copy of the letter yesterday.

"We believe the time has come for those [arena financing] discussions to begin and to proceed in an expeditious manner, as we would like to complete negotiations on a financial plan by no later than March 31, 2007," the three officials said.

Mr. Rendell proposed starting the arena talks in Pittsburgh on Thursday and, in a letter to the governor last night, Mr. Lemieux agreed. Also at the meeting will be team officials Ronald Burkle, Ken Sawyer, David Morehouse and Chuck Greenberg.

Mr. Lemieux said he wants to have a financing plan ready "well in advance" of March 31.

Mr. Lemieux, in his letter, said that when he and his partners bought the team seven years ago, "We made it clear that we needed a new arena to become economically viable and competitive in Pittsburgh."

State and local officials became nervous after Mr. Lemieux said last week he would begin talking to other cities about moving the team.

Kansas City, Mo., has a new but empty arena and would like to land a hockey team.

The Penguins' lease at Mellon Arena expires in June. The arena, which opened in 1961, is the oldest in the National Hockey League.

Mr. Onorato has called reaching a deal to build a new arena for the Penguins his No. 1 priority.
In his letter to Mr. Lemieux, Mr. Rendell said he'll be in Pittsburgh Thursday and would like to arrange "a mutually agreeable time" to begin talks on financing for a new arena. Mr. Lemieux said Thursday afternoon works for him.

The governor said he recognizes that Mr. Lemieux has had a contractual obligation with Isle of Capri casinos, a St. Louis-based gaming company that had offered to build a new $290 million arena for the Penguins if it received a state slots license.

But Isle of Capri didn't get the license. Instead, the state Gaming Control Board, on Dec. 20, awarded the sole slots license for Pittsburgh to Detroit casino entrepreneur Don Barden. He plans to build a Majestic Star casino in the Chateau neighborhood near the Carnegie Science Center.

Mr. Lemieux said that now that Isle of Capri's offer to build the arena "has been turned down" by the state, "We are in the process of exploring all of our options" for building an arena.

In the letter, the governor again outlined the details of his so-called Plan B, the backup plan for funding a new arena, under which a $290 million bond would be floated and paid off over 30 years with money from four sources.

Under the Rendell plan, the team would provide $8.5 million upfront and $2.9 million per year to pay off the bonds; Mr. Barden has agreed to provide $7.5 million a year; a new state economic development fund, fueled by casino revenue, would provide $7 million a year; and another $1.1 million annual contribution would come from selling the naming and advertising rights at the new multipurpose arena, whose major tenant would be the Penguins.

Mr. Lemieux told the governor he appreciated "the positive tone of your recent public comments." But he said he's hoping that a financing plan could be developed that "is significantly better than the original Plan B."

The governor, county executive and the mayor reminded Mr. Lemieux how they have "moved forward with planning for the new arena."

They said they have "acquired the necessary land within the footprint designated by the Penguins and have continued to work on the design and financing plans."

(Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at or 717-787-4254. )

Parker's roll continues; Steelers vote him MVP

Gerry Dulac
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Friday, December 29, 2006

First, he broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second year in a row, then he made the Pro Bowl. Yesterday, the Steelers trumped that, electing running back Willie Parker as the team's MVP.

After he rushed for 106 yards in the 2004 preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, an undrafted rookie named Willie Parker boldly proclaimed he would one day make the Pro Bowl. Never mind he rarely played in three seasons at the University of North Carolina. Or, at the time, he hadn't made the Steelers' 53-man roster.

"Coach Whisenhunt came up to me and told me to slow down, that I have to make the team first," Parker said, referring to offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.

Fast Willie Parker never does anything slow.

Two years after his brash statement, he has made good on his prediction. But his first selection to the Pro Bowl could not top the honor Parker was bestowed yesterday -- being named the Steelers' most valuable player in a vote by his teammates, the first running back to win the award since Jerome Bettis in 2000.

"I think it's better than the Pro Bowl," Parker said.

"For them to say I'm their most valuable player, that's phenomenal. They look at me the way I look at them. And I look at them as the greatest players in the league."

Even Parker acknowledged that this is another chapter in his amazing story. After a three-year college career in which he rushed for 817 yards and just one 100-yard game, Parker has put together a season to remember for the Steelers, rushing for 1,360 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns (11 rushing, three receiving). The franchise record for touchdowns in a season is 15, set by Louis Lipps in 1985.

Only San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson (31), Kansas City's Larry Johnson (16) and Jacksonville rookie Maurice Jones-Drew (15) have scored more touchdowns in the AFC.

In addition, he is the first back in team history to have two 200-yard games in a season and the first since Bettis in 2000-01 to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

"I'm only surprised people continue to question Willie Parker," said coach Bill Cowher. "What he has done two consecutive years speaks volumes about him."

Parker, a rookie free agent in 2004, was scouted and recommended by regional scout Dan Rooney Jr., who lives near Parker's hometown of Clinton, N.C. Cowher still remembers seeing Parker run for the first time in training camp, flashing the speed that has allowed him to post 11 runs of 20 yards or longer this season.

"I turned to one of the coaches and said, 'What's his problem? Why didn't this guy play [in college]?' " Cowher said. "Three years later, I'm asking the same question."

Three years later, Parker is only the fourth running back in franchise history to be named team MVP, joining Bettis (1996, '97, 2000), Barry Foster ('92) and Franco Harris ('72). With 72 yards against the Bengals, he will move into third on the team's all-time single-season rushing list.

On a team where most of the players have not performed to the standard of last season, Parker has stood out with six 100-yard games. The highlight was rushing for a team-record 223 yards against Cleveland, breaking a mark set by John "Frenchy" Fuqua in 1970.

This from a guy who had just one 100-yard game in college -- gaining 131 yards against Auburn in the 2001 Peach Bowl.

"I try not to reflect [on] all that stuff," Parker said, referring to his college career in which he carried 43 times for 181 yards as a senior. "But when they told me I was the MVP, I thought the Willie Parker story just keeps getting better. And I think the best point of my life is getting the MVP of the Pittsburgh Steelers."

Then Parker added: "That's why I'm speechless right now. I'm just speechless and I want to thank the Man up above for just giving me this opportunity."

Cowher said the vote, which was "clearly unanimous," indicates the regard the players have for Parker. He broke open Super Bowl XL for his teammates with a 75-yard touchdown run, and he hasn't stopped there.

When Parker returned to North Carolina earlier this month and rushed for 132 yards in a victory against the Carolina Panthers, left tackle Marvel Smith said it was "redemption" for what Parker had to endure in college.

"I think he's a guy who's got an unbelievable future," Cowher said. "He'll continue to get better and will get better. He's a very grounded young man. I can't say enough about him. He's a special back and a special person."

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

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Cowher hints at faster decision on status

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bill Cowher's status as the Steelers' coach might be determined as soon as next week.
Taking a different stance than he did the previous week, Cowher said yesterday that "it won't go long" before he reveals his plans.

"That's for next week," Cowher said yesterday when he was asked if he will return for a 16th season as the Steelers' coach. "We'll talk about that next week."

Cowher has one season left on his contract, but has said he has a decision to make about his future after the season. Talks to extend his contract broke off in August, and Cowher's wife and youngest daughter, a sophomore in high school, moved to a new home they bought last year in Raleigh, N.C.

"I'm not sure what the time frame is," Cowher said of his impending announcement. "But I think the most important thing is to focus on this game."

If Cowher steps down, he could not coach elsewhere in 2007 unless the Steelers granted permission, which is unlikely. He would be free to coach elsewhere in 2008.

His statement yesterday could mean he already has decided what he plans to do and wants to wait until after the season ends Sunday in Cincinnati to reveal his decision. Last week, he said he wanted to take his time before deciding his future.

"There's been no decision made," he said then. "It will be something I will need to get away from and give some serious thought to and I will do that -- at the right time. Now is not the right time."

On Dec. 13, he told reporters in a conference call in Charlotte, N.C., that "I'll sit back and put a lot of thought into it and make a decision accordingly."

The Steelers, though, would prefer Cowher decide quickly so they also can make plans. If he wanted to remain their coach, they would like to sign him to a contract extension. If he is stepping down, they want to search immediately for his successor.

Their next coach could be on their staff. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who also is assistant head coach, are considered the leading candidates.
But the Steelers also may want to interview coaches who are not on the staff, such as Kirk Ferentz, the University of Iowa coach and Upper St. Clair native. Another possibility is Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. The Steelers interviewed 12 or 13 coaches before they hired Cowher in 1992 to replace Chuck Noll when he retired three days after the 1992 season.

There is urgency because any or all of those candidates -- and possibly others -- could be candidates for other openings in the NFL. It does not look as if there will be as many head coaches fired in the league as there were in recent years, but Arizona and Atlanta appear headed for coaching changes and at least Whisenhunt would be a strong candidate for either. There also could be changes in Miami and with the New York Giants.

The Steelers' assistants add to their attractiveness as candidates because their season will end Sunday and they can be interviewed and hired immediately by another team. Coaches of teams in the playoffs can be interviewed once, but cannot be hired until their season ends.

Whisenhunt turned down an opportunity to coach the Oakland Raiders last season and Grimm has been a candidate for jobs the past few years.

If Cowher leaves, the faster the Steelers pick their next coach and the more time he will have to choose the more attractive assistant coaches to join him before they sign on elsewhere. It is assumed that much of the Steelers' staff would remain here if either Whisenhunt or Grimm is chosen, but there would be some turnover.

When asked if he felt his team needed better players for next season, Cowher said he was not yet ready to talk about next year.

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at )

Bob Smizik: Parker is not the Steelers' No. 1 problem

Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

An abundance of criticism has been directed at the Steelers this season, and understandably so considering their 7-8 record after winning the Super Bowl.

Somewhat strangely, though, that criticism has come to include the running back position. It's strange because running back would appear to be one of the team's strengths. Willie Parker is in his second year as a starter. He has run for 1,360 yards, the fourth-best season in Steelers history. If he runs for 72 yards Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, he'll own the third-best season in franchise history. What's more, he is sixth in the NFL in rushing and third in the AFC.
What's not to like about that?

It's the feast-or-famine approach that Parker brings to the Steelers' offense that spurs criticism. One week, he's running for 213 yards, the next week for 46. He has had two 200-yard games, one in which he set the team's all-time record. But he also has had games of 20, 26 and 49 yards.
He doesn't consistently move the sticks like his predecessor, Jerome Bettis, did.

It is this lack of consistency, that his critics -- and this column has been one of them -- insist is Parker's drawback and, because he plays for a team that keys its success on controlling the ball, his downfall.

Here are some other numbers that might prove interesting in this discussion: 134, 8, 133, 39, 128, 42. Those figures represent the best and worst games for Bettis in 2000, his last great season with the Steelers.

Inconsistency does not belong solely to Parker.

That's not to say he is a Bettis is terms of consistency. He is not. It is to show few backs continually churn out one good game after another.

Bill Cowher, who may or may not be determining who will be the Steelers' lead running back in 2007, has no problem with Parker. Asked at his news conference yesterday about whether Parker's style fit the ball-control offense he has long adhered to, Cowher said, "I think he's a good back. I don't know if there's a prototype back you need for this offense. I don't look at that as being the issue. If you're going to look at this year and reflect, it still comes back to turning the ball over."

The main argument in favor of Parker continuing as the Steelers' lead runner is -- duh! -- they won the Super Bowl with him in that role.

Sure, Bettis was there to help. But Bettis' role in the Steelers' 2006 season is somewhat overrated. Yes, he was a big contributor, but nowhere near what Parker was. Parker ran for 1,202 yards, Bettis for 368. Much of Bettis' yardage came in the second half when he was on the field as the power back who could consistently move the sticks. It was Parker who was on the field most of the time in the first half when the Steelers were assuming those leads they could protect with conservative play in the second half.

One of the positives that Bettis brought to the team was the ability to spell Parker at various points in the game. Parker carried 255 times last season. He already has run 300 times this season. Najeh Davenport has performed adequately as Parker's backup, but he is not Bettis and not the answer in 2007.

"You do need to monitor him [Parker]," Cowher said, "and I think we were able to do that somewhat this season.''

But not enough. Parker is 5 feet 10, 209 pounds, and it's asking a lot of him to carry 300 times in a season. The only backs in Steelers history to do that are Bettis (four times), Franco Harris (twice), and Barry Foster (once). All were considerably bigger than Parker.

Parker's carries need to be reduced, which makes finding a suitable backup an offseason priority. The Steelers thought they had such a player in Duce Staley, but Cowher and his staff misjudged his ability. He showed in training camp he could not handle the job, and Davenport was brought in after the first game. Generally speaking, players available at that point in the season are not ideal replacements.

"I do believe you need more than one back in this business if you're going to run the football and do it through a 16-game schedule," Cowher said.

Bettis was the model guy in support of Parker. He was a future Hall of Famer, but one who was willing to accept a subordinate role at the end of his career. Finding someone so ideally suited to back up Parker will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

If such a player can't be found, the Steelers will have to struggle along with a fourth-year running back who already is one of the best in franchise history and a key performer in their Super Bowl season. Clearly, this team has larger problems than at running back.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Scott Brown: Just hoping to break even

Additional Stories
Steelers notebook
Ben knows next season can't be much worse
Ravens unwrap season sweep
Starkey: Ravens feast on Ben again
Steelers pull disappearing act at grass-barren Heinz

By Scott Brown

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Some Steelers players weren't ready to talk about the season in the past tense, weren't ready to participate in their own postmortem.

"I'm not reflecting right now," outside linebacker Clark Haggans said. "We've still got football to play."

One game, to be exact.

What has emerged as the cliche of choice in the Steelers' locker room - "It is what it is" - seemed particularly appropriate after the Baltimore Ravens again dominated the Steelers on their way to a 31-7 victory Sunday at Heinz Field.

The Steelers entered the season as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They'll go into their regular-season finale Sunday at Cincinnati with nothing to play for other than finishing with a nonlosing record.

"It definitely wasn't our expectation at the beginning of the season," inside linebacker Larry Foote said of finishing with an 8-8 record, "but that's our goal right now."

There will be plenty of time for the Steelers to deconstruct how a quest for greatness turned into a quest for average.

The loss to the Ravens officially eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention. But the reality, which a few players acknowledged in a quiet locker room, is that the Steelers did themselves in with a 2-6 start.

"Losing (to the Ravens) shouldn't be a reason why we're out of the playoffs," veteran center Jeff Hartings said. "It has a lot to do with the first eight games and not taking care of the business that we're there to take care of. I've never had a season like this season, where so many games we had opportunities to win."

Losses to Cincinnati, Atlanta and especially Oakland were largely a result of turnovers.

Fitting enough, a turnover killed any chance the Steelers had of rallying Sunday and keeping their season alive.

With just under 14 minutes left in the game and the Steelers trailing, 21-7, running back Willie Parker lost a fumble at the Ravens' 3-yard line.

"It's been like that all year," wide receiver Hines Ward. "We fight our tails off, we get down there, and then that happens. "

The Ravens broke open the game later in the quarter after intercepting a pair of Ben Roethlisberger passes.

The game was every bit as one-sided as the score indicated, as the Steelers couldn't run the ball, couldn't protect Roethlisberger and couldn't stop Ravens quarterback Steve McNair from having another big game against them.

The statistic that stood out after the Ravens completed a season sweep of the Steelers for the first time: the two times the Steelers converted on third down in 14 attempts.

"It's disappointing that it ended here at this field, our opportunity," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said after his team was exposed a second time this season by the Ravens. "What we have to do right now is go to Cincinnati, and we have to do everything we can to finish on a winning note."

The Steelers will have an entire offseason to ponder when, where and why the season went awry.

"We just dug too deep of a hole," defensive end Brett Keisel said.

Scott Brown can be reached at or 412-481-5432.

Mike Prisuta: Season sails on Ben

By Mike Prisuta

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The two interceptions Ben Roethlisberger threw against the Ravens were his 21st and 22nd in 2006, tying Terry Bradshaw (1971, 1980) for the fourth-highest single-season total in Steelers history.

Still, it was the passes that weren't caught that were much more defining against Baltimore.

Start with the one to Santonio Holmes that sailed on Roethlisberger on third-and-four on the Steelers' second possession. Roethlisberger had just completed his first pass of the day, good for 12 yards and the Steelers' initial first down, to Hines Ward. Willie Parker had quickly picked up 6 more. Third-and-four constitutes third-and-manageable from the Steelers' perspective.
Roethlisberger had all day to manage this one. And Holmes was wide open underneath.

It could have been a big play.

Instead, it was a portent of things to come.

Roethlisberger was high, low, wide, anything but accurate against the Ravens.

While Steve McNair was making perfect throws that allowed even covered receivers to make plays for him, Roethlisberger was making his would-be pass-catchers work too hard just to have a chance.

The Steelers can start there when they assess the wreckage of a 31-7 loss that eliminated them from playoff contention on a Christmas Eve when the Bills, Jaguars and Bengals seemed determined to provide every opportunity to somehow qualify.

Maybe next year.

First and foremost, Big Ben is going to have to sort through his Baltimore problem.

The nine-sack avalanche Roethlisberger survived on Nov. 26 while the Steelers were being beaten, 27-0, clearly had a carry-over effect on Sunday.

Although he wound up being sacked five times, he had enough time.

Just not the touch.

Rediscovering that will be offseason job No. 1.

If Roethlisberger can survive next offseason without a life-threatening motorcycle accident, if he can get through next preseason without any emergency surgeries, and if the Steelers can keep him upright better than they did this season, he'll be well on his way.

But beyond all that, Roethlisberger must first deal with a season that turned into an individual and collective failure.

He went 13-0 as a regular-season starter during his first NFL season and won the Super Bowl at the conclusion of his second.

Is it any wonder Roethlisberger was talking of reassessing goals that somehow no longer seemed lofty enough and expanding horizons for himself and his offense last spring?

Now, he's tasted defeat for the first time as a professional.

It wasn't a total collapse.

Roethlisberger surpassed 3,000 yards passing for the first time in three seasons (at 3,248, he's fourth on the Steelers' single-season list in that category), and his 17 touchdown passes matched the totals from his first two campaigns.

But more than statistics, winning in the NFL comes down to making plays at the critical times.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers came up short far too many times to take advantage of an open back door to the postseason.

They'll recognize that eventually, if they haven't already.

The lineup around Roethlisberger will be tweaked, as it always is from one season to the next.

Adding another big-play receiver, preferably a big one through the draft or free agency, wouldn't hurt.

But the biggest change must come from Roethlisberger responding to having been figuratively and literally knocked down.

He had something to prove when the Steelers drafted him 11th overall out of Miami (Ohio) as the third quarterback selected.

He has something to prove again.

There are worse things to have than a former Super Bowl champion in such a position at 24 years of age.

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

Mike Prisuta: What about Cowher?

By Mike Prisuta

Monday, December 25, 2006

In the end, they failed to hold up their end, but Dan Rooney wasn't holding it against his Steelers after the Ravens spoiled Christmas Eve and stole the Steelers' playoff dreams.

Admittedly "very disappointed and down" upon being eliminated from postseason contention, Rooney was asked if the Steelers were still comprised of championship stock despite the 7-8 record they will drag to Cincinnati for the meaningless regular-season finale on New Year's Eve.

"The players? Yeah," Rooney said. "We need some players, obviously, but I think we're going to be able to get some."

The coaching staff, apparently, is another matter entirely.

"I have nothing to say about that at this time," Rooney said.

Soon enough, presumably, Rooney will reveal his opinion of the job done by coach Bill Cowher this season, one that played out amid the bizarre circumstance of Cowher refusing to commit to completing the remaining year on his contract.

Once upon a time, such a scenario was unimaginable.

Cowher had always been a big fan of commitment and had always demanded as much from his players, no matter their stature.

The lack of commitment had in one instance compelled Cowher to deliver a short soliloquy on the subject a few years back when an unknown named Brian Goolsby had packed it in and vacated training camp in Latrobe before the Steelers could cut him.

"If you don't want to get into it, don't start," Cowher said then. "But if you're going to start something, don't quit; finish it."

As for what transpired Sunday, quitting wasn't the problem.

"We got beat by a better football team," Cowher said yesterday.

The Ravens' clubbing of the Steelers, 27-0, on Nov. 26 in Baltimore, and 31-7 in the Heinz Field rematch unquestionably establishes that.

For the Steelers, the unofficial ending was as appropriate as it was frustrating.

Trailing 21-7, the Steelers faced a first-and-goal at the Baltimore 11 two snaps into the fourth quarter. They turned to Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker, who charged initially up the gut, then slid around guard Kendall Simmons and behind offensive tackle Willie Colon, who was in the process of sealing off the great Ray Lewis.

Parker darted across the 5-yard line, where he was met by cornerback Corey Ivey on one side and safety Dawan Landry on the other. The ball popped free, as Parker hit the deck at the 3.

The ball appeared to pop free after Parker hit the deck, to the extent that a great many players failed to react as the ball bounced into the end zone.

Ravens safety Ed Reed wasn't one of them.

He scooped it up and returned it to the Ravens' 35, effectively ending the Steelers' season.

There was the formality of a challenge to be dealt with, of course, but by now even the scoreboard at Heinz Field had given up, offering highlights of other games rather than a replay of the Steelers' last gasp.

Not that it mattered.

Once it was announced that the play stood as correctly called, it was no longer relevant what sort of help the Steelers were getting from New England and Tennessee.

Most of the players will be back next season and attempt to make amends.

Cowher's fate is anyone's guess.

If this is to be his final season with the Steelers, it should go down as one compromised much more by turnovers than by Cowher's status altering the outcome.

Still, Rooney may never know that for certain, which might tend to make him feel a little bitter as well as "disappointed and down" whenever the championship-defense-that-wasn't is recalled.
Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

John Harris: False hopes finally crushed

By John Harris
Monday, December 25, 2006

They fooled us, these Steelers did.

Really, really, fooled us.

Turns out the "new-and-improved" Steelers showed their true colors when they weren't playing Tampa Bay, Cleveland or a watered-down Carolina football team.

The Steelers took it on the chin in Sunday's 31-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the home finale at Heinz Field.

They also took it in the gut, and right between the eyes.

Chalk it up to a good, old-fashioned butt-whipping for the Steelers, who showed everyone what they were made of against the last team to beat them during their late-season turnaround.

The Steelers had won three in a row and five of six games entering yesterday's contest and had been targeting the Baltimore rematch since a 27-0 loss to the Ravens on Nov. 26.

Instead, The Big Payback turned out to be The Big Letdown.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still needed to have eyes in the back of his head to thwart Baltimore's lethal pass rush, and the defense still hasn't gotten close enough to Ravens quarterback Steve McNair to find out what he had for his pregame meal, much less sack him.

Baltimore was a better team than the Steelers four weeks ago, and nothing happened yesterday to change anyone's mind.

Oh, most of the Steelers did a good job of tap-dancing around the obvious, that the Ravens are a better team six days out of seven, and twice on Sunday.

They talked about squandering scoring opportunities, and about the defense failing to get off the field on third down.

The Steelers -- from coach Bill Cowher all the way down to the equipment manager -- talked a good game; so good they almost had even the most ardent skeptic believing that with a bounce here or there, the defending Super Bowl champions would still be in the thick of the playoff race.

That's what the Steelers want you to believe. But here are some cold, hard facts:

• Baltimore swept the season series for the first time against the Steelers, winning by a combined 58-7 score.

• The Ravens had 14 sacks in the two games; the Steelers had none.

• Roethlisberger threw one touchdown pass and four interceptions in the two games.

• Running back Willie Parker carried the ball 23 times for 51 yards in the two losses.

Both teams suffered injuries to their starting offensive tackles entering yesterday's game. Steelers rookie tackle Willie Colon replaced Max Starks, and the pass protection on the right side of the line careened into a ditch. Second-year Ravens left tackle Adam Terry did such a great job impersonating Pro Bowler Jonathan Ogden, you didn't even know Ogden was missing.

As good as the Steelers looked in clocking Tampa Bay (20-3), Carolina (37-3) and Cleveland twice by a combined 51-27 score, the Steelers were equally bad against the Ravens.

"The two times we played them, I don't think we played a good game," Steelers defensive tackle Aaron Smith said. "They're a good team. I give them a lot of credit. You don't come out and play a good game, a team like that is going to run away with the score."

The Steelers weren't ready to anoint Baltimore as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but the teams are mirror images of each other.

This year's Ravens are last year's Steelers.

The Steelers' late-season flirtation with the playoffs was fun while it lasted. It rekindled all the good memories from last year's Super Bowl run and how the Steelers played their best football when it mattered most.

This season's 7-8 record brings everything into perfect focus. At one game under .500, the Steelers lost some games they should have won, but yesterday's game wasn't one of them.

John Harris is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at

Ron Cook: It's no time for the Steelers to be proud of anything

Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Much more disappointing than the 31-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens Sunday and clearly more insulting than the two big touchdown passes the Steelers' defense gave up, the five sacks their offensive line allowed, the two interceptions Ben Roethlisberger threw and the killer fumble Willie Parker lost was this after the game:

"When we were 2-6, and everybody wondered what was going to happen, we told everybody that we weren't going to quit," Roethlisberger said. "That's why I'm so proud of these guys. Offensively, defensively, special teams -- no one quit."



Did the man really say he was proud?

Of a Super Bowl-winning team that failed to make the playoffs the next season?

Big Ben should have said he was embarrassed.

All the Steelers should be.

Sorry, it's impossible to put any kind of a happy face on this Steelers' season, a lost season filled with lost fumbles, lost interceptions and -- most painfully -- a lost opportunity to make a piece of NFL history as a repeat champion. Certainly, starting 2-6 and fighting back to 7-7 before that trouncing by the significantly superior Ravens is nothing to be proud of. Not for this Steelers team. Not when it started the season with such high expectations.

Give center Jeff Hartings credit.

In his anguish after a game that officially extinguished the Steelers' flickering playoff flame and fully realizing that he might just have played for the final time at Heinz Field, Hartings stood taller than any of his teammates.

"I don't know if I ever felt like I was playing really good football. I could have played better this year and given the team a better chance to win."

Hartings is far from alone.

Most of the Steelers haven't played nearly as well as they did in 2005.

Start with Roethlisberger. It's bad enough that he has thrown 22 interceptions -- more than twice as many as last season -- with the game at Cincinnati Sunday still to play. He has thrown them in bunches. Three in the home loss to Cincinnati. Four in the ridiculous loss in Oakland.
Three in the loss to Denver. A total of 18 in the eight losses.

The offensive line hasn't done much to help Roethlisberger, allowing him to be sacked 45 times, almost twice as many times as last season. It isn't just Hartings, who could retire. Tackle Marvel Smith might have regressed more than anyone if only because he played at such a high level in 2005. Guard Kendall Simmons was benched for Chris Kemoeatu for a couple of games midway through the season.

Though Roethlisberger is the season's biggest disappointment, cornerback Ike Taylor is a close second. On Sept. 3, he agreed to a five-year, $22.5 million contract, including a $6.4 million signing bonus. At Thanksgiving, he lost his starting job. On second thought, Taylor -- not Roethlisberger -- is the team's biggest disappointment. At least Big Ben has played well in a few games.

So have outside linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, just not nearly enough. Porter's most important statistics -- seven sacks and nine quarterback hurries -- are down from a year ago when he had 101/2 sacks and 15 hurries. The same is true of Haggans (six and six after nine and 10 last season).

Even safety Troy Polamalu is having something of a down year despite being named a Pro Bowl starter again. He wasn't the same impact player, his spectacular performance in the win at Cleveland aside. Sunday, he was just flat-out bad, getting beat twice for 35- and 25-yard touchdown passes.

The Steelers who are having a big season make for a much shorter list.

Running back Willie Parker should be named the team's Most Valuable Player this week, even if his season has been maddeningly inconsistent. He has had four 100-yard rushing games and two 200-yard games. He also has had three games with fewer than 30 yards and four more with fewer than 65. And don't forget that fumble he lost at the Ravens' 3 Sunday.

Hines Ward is having another solid year. Does any wide receiver do a better job turning up the field for extra yards? Is there a tougher player in the NFL? How much better would his numbers be if Roethlisberger was more accurate? If he had another receiving threat opposite him earlier in the season, before rookie Santonio Holmes emerged?

The defensive line has been the Steelers' best unit. Nose tackle Casey Hampton deserves his Pro Bowl recognition. Defensive ends Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith have been superb from day one and done a better job getting after quarterbacks than Porter and Haggans. They have combined for 10 sacks and 38 pressures.

That's about it.

A much shorter list, for sure.

It's not hard to explain why the Steelers are 7-8.

What's incomprehensible is that some of 'em are actually proud.

Bob Smizik: Steelers weren't good enough this year

Monday, December 25, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers are where they are today -- eliminated from the NFL playoffs a season removed from their Super Bowl championship -- on merit.

They are not there because Bill Cowher had a brain cramp and used Ricardo Colclough to catch a punt, which he fumbled, thus precipitating a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in September.
They're not there because Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, in a loss to the hapless Oakland Raiders in October.

They are there, with their hugely disappointing 7-8 record, for the age-old reason athletic teams fail: They're not good enough. At one time that might have been a fact hard for Steelers partisans to accept. But not if they were watching the game yesterday against the Baltimore Ravens.

For the second time this season, the Steelers were bashed by the Ravens. For the second time they were outplayed in every phase of the game. This 31-7 loss at Heinz Field wasn't as bad as the 27-0 defeat last month in Baltimore. But it came close.

There were almost no positives to take away from the game and not even a victory next week in the season finale at Cincinnati can put a pretty face on this ugly season.

Roethlisberger threw two interceptions and completed only 15 of 31 passes in what was another down day in his up-and-down season. Willie Parker, he of the multi-200 yard games, ran 13 times for 29 yards and continued to leave the impression that even if he is the third-leading rusher in the AFC he might not be the back the Steelers' ball-control offense needs.

The defense did not allow itself to be bullied by Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis, as was the case in the first game, but it nevertheless did not measure up. Lewis gained 77 yards on 24 carries. But what Lewis wasn't giving the Ravens, the superb Steve McNair was. He completed 21 of 31 passes for three touchdowns. Two of those touchdowns, 35 yards to Mark Clayton in the first quarter and 25 yards to Demetrius Williams in the third, were on magnificently thrown balls.

When the Steelers seized momentum late in the first half by converting a McNair interception into a touchdown to make the score 14-7, they seemed poised for a comeback. And that's what they would have done last season. But not this season. Instead, the Ravens took the second-half kickoff 69 yards in eight plays for a touchdown to seize control of the game and never let go.

There was a time when such a shift in momentum would have motivated the Steelers' defense to excel. But that level of play continues to elude this team.

"There's not a lot to say," Cowher noted in his postgame news conference. "We got beat by a better football team."

We might never know what went wrong. How did a team that finished so superbly last season -- eight wins in a row -- crumple so badly with minimal change in personnel?

There is no answer that makes complete sense. But the one that works the best goes back to the words of Parker, who, when the Steelers were 2-6, said:

"Last year, we were getting the job done, we just seemed hungrier. This year, it seems like we already got what we want, what's the use? What's the use of going out there and selling out?"
Not as hungry, not as mentally sharp, not as focused.

We saw all of that when Bryant McFadden intercepted a McNair pass on the Steelers' 2 late in the third quarter. He had done nothing more than prevent the Ravens from taking a 28-7 lead.
But the way he reacted, you would have thought his play had clinched another Super Bowl victory. He raised his arms to the crowd, stared down the Ravens' bench and chest thumped with a teammate. He seemed oblivious to the fact his team was losing by two touchdowns and had the ball on the 2 late in a game to one of the best defenses in football.

Cowher, who several times this season has promised better on-field behavior from his players, said he didn't see McFadden's showboating.

He did say, though, "In my mind, everything is relative to where you are in the game."

In other words, McFadden should have handed the ball to an official and walked off the field.

That's not how the game is played these days in most places. That didn't used to be the case with the Steelers, but it is today. It starts with talent and execution. But talent doesn't execute without proper attitude. And the Steelers are lacking in that area.

They've got one game remaining, which can salvage nothing, and a long offseason to think about what might have been.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at )

Gene Collier: Ravens own Steelers on 3rd down

Monday, December 25, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There have to be even more ridiculous mismatches somewhere in this National Football League, but you'd have a hard time persuading anyone who has watched eight quarters of Steelers-Ravens in the past month to search for one.

No, we think we've found it.

The Steelers' third-down offense against Baltimore's third-down defense.

Few are the angles from which football looks easy, but the Ravens' big sack of smackdown schemes certainly makes it look that way when they bring it down on the now officially dethroned Super Bowl champions.

Unless you think the 3 for 26 on third down the Steelers managed in two games was just some random occurrence.

"No, it's not easy," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs insisted in the minutes after Baltimore kicked the Steelers into next season with a 31-7 pasting. "Ben knows us. Hines knows us. Ben was just a little off. He missed Santonio in the flat one time that would have been a big play. I think the football gods just blessed us. The ball just bounced our way."

In two meetings, Baltimore outscored the Steelers, 58-7. That's a lot of fortuitous bouncing.
If the distance between the Steelers and the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals last year was X, what do you suppose is the difference between the Steelers and the 2006 division champion Ravens, 5X? 10X? Here's a tool for that guestimate: On a day when the Ravens committed 12 penalties for 89 yards and had three turnovers, they still beat the Steelers by 24 points.

"We made a few more plays than they did," said Ravens safety Ed Reed.

Yeah, about 50.

Rex Ryan's brilliant defense came up with five more sacks yesterday -- that's 14 in eight quarters against the Steelers -- and that was the primary factor in the first season sweep of the Steelers in Ravens' history. Baltimore hadn't won at Heinz Field since 2001, but this club is going to win consistently in most venues if it maintains the kind of pressure that has Ben Roethlisberger completely spooked.

"I think he probably just had in the back of his head from last game," said Reed, who accounted for two of Baltimore's takeaways with a pick and a fumble recovery near the Ravens' goal line. "He probably remembers those hits from last time."

There was nothing yesterday on the order of the tattoo-you Bart Scott put on Big Ben in Baltimore, but the threat was palpable enough that the Steelers went three-and-out four times on their first six possessions. The Steelers didn't convert a third-down situation until Roethlisberger got flushed from the alleged pocket and fled 20 yards to the 11 with 14:06 left in the game.

"They're well-schemed, well-coached, and they're great players," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, attempting to explain Baltimore's third-down dominance in no more than two sentences. "They've got good confidence in their package."

That's what you get for rushing it, Brian.

I didn't time it, but Billick's formal postgame news conference might not have lasted a full minute. The Baltimore media probably doesn't complain about this because, even at that, it's about a minute too long.

The other schematic aspect of this particular third-down dominance is that the Steelers apparently have no interest in even trying to run. Willie Parker, named All-Pro Tuesday, was an afterthought by Sunday.

"I thought they'd run the ball more," Reed said.

Well, that's tens of millions of us.

Baltimore wasn't the least bit conflicted as to its own intentions. It wanted to torture the Steelers' secondary, particularly on first down. Steve McNair completed passes of 14, 14 and 20 yards on the Ravens' first four first-down calls, convincing him that he had identified the necessary weakness. Shockingly enough, it was All-Pro Troy Polamalu. McNair scalded him twice with pristine touchdown throws of 35 yards to Mark Clayton and 25 to Demetrius Williams.

McNair went 21 for 31 for 256 yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 98.3, more than doubling Roethlisberger's. Clayton caught seven balls for 108 yards by the time the Ravens completed the first possession of the second half.

Yesterday's upset of the Indianapolis Colts by Houston means that the Ravens can still acquire home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win Sunday against the Bills. Winners eight times in their past nine games, there might not be a team out there hot enough or good enough to keep the Ravens out of the Super Bowl. Too bad their third-down defense isn't going to work against anyone as overmatched as these Steelers.

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

Sunday, December 24, 2006

John Harris: Steelers seek revenge for last loss to Baltimore

Additional Stories
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NFL playoff scenarios

By John Harris
Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Steelers want to put last month's 27-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens behind them.

Today's rematch between the AFC North rivals at Heinz Field could be just what the Steelers ordered.

This will be the Steelers' fourth game since their most-humbling performance in years. The Steelers have crafted a season-high three-game winning streak and look nothing like the team that was held scoreless for the second time this season.

Unlike a month ago, the Steelers are running the football successfully on a consistent basis and not facing third-and-long situations that contributed to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being sacked nine times in the first Baltimore game.

Running back Willie Parker, who this week was named to his first Pro Bowl, has rushed for 355 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games, removing some of the pressure from Roethlisberger, who is throwing less during the winning streak.

The Steelers amassed 172 total yards against the Ravens on Nov. 26 at M&T Bank Stadium.
During their first five possessions, the Steelers faced 3rd-and-10, 3rd-and-10, 3rd-and-19, 3rd-and-19 and 3rd-and-16 and failed to convert each time.

Baltimore put the game out of reach early and led, 17-0, at halftime.

"We put ourselves behind the eight-ball all day long and just enhanced everything that we were doing wrong," Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca said. "They were able to tee off and try all kinds of new things on us."

In consecutive wins against Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Carolina, the Steelers did a much better job of avoiding those dangerous third-and-longs. They were a combined 25 of 47 on third down, after going 1 of 12 against Baltimore.

Moreover, Roethlisberger, who was battered and bruised by the Ravens and knocked out of the game briefly following a vicious second-quarter sack, has been sacked only four times during the winning streak.

"We've been doing a better job on first and second down. We've been doing a good job making 3rd-and-makeables," Faneca said. "Third-and-4, 3rd-and-5 is definitely a good situation compared to 3rd-and-8 or more.

"We're staying on the field. There were times we weren't able to stay on the field long enough to get a rhythm going, to try new plays and get a chance for (offensive coordinator) Ken (Whisenhunt) to see what works. Now we're doing that."

The Steelers need their current offensive trend to continue against Baltimore's sophisticated stunts and blitzes taught by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who's teaching elements of the 46 defense developed by his father, former NFL coach Buddy Ryan.

Baltimore has an intimidating, physical defense led by veteran linebacker Ray Lewis that can also be extremely complex and confusing.

"It has a lot to do with Rex putting us in positions to make plays," said Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce, who had two sacks in the first meeting. "Teams have to worry about all of our talent, where we're going to attack you. That stuff wears on an offense."

The first time the teams played, the Steelers didn't cross midfield until the third quarter.
The Steelers rushed for only 21 yards, and Roethlisberger was forced to throw 41 times and he had a fumble returned for a Baltimore touchdown.

"They move around a lot. They do a good job. They give you some really different looks," coach Bill Cowher said. "We kind of pride ourselves on it; they have done a nice job of taking it to another level. They really do a good job of disguising and bringing different people from outside, from inside and they move around. Certainly, we are going to have a better plan than we had last time."

The Steelers have worked on Baltimore's various blitzes and stunts. Faneca expects a few more gimmicks to be added for today's game, but he believes the Steelers have made strides lately.

"It wasn't the looks, but the situations we kept putting ourselves in," Faneca said. "It's not like we were getting those looks and we were having trouble with the noise, dealing with what they were giving us. That's what they do. We've just always done a good job of not having to face it like that the entire game."

John Harris can be reached at or 412-481-5432.

Steelers wish list

Sunday, December 24, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Allowing that the Steelers win, these are some of the best-case scenarios for them where fellow wild-card hopefuls are concerned.

Bengals (8-6), Today at BroncosThe skinny: Broncos win gives Steelers chance to KO Bengals next week.

Broncos (8-6) Today vs. BengalsThe skinny: Can clinch one wild card with win, Chiefs loss and Jaguars loss.

Jaguars (8-6) Today vs. PatriotsThe skinny: Just need them to lose, period. Unfortunately, Jags 5-1 at home.

Jets (8-6) Tomorrow at DolphinsThe skinny: Better if no team wins 10 games. Jets are one of those teams.

Chiefs (7-7) Last night at RaidersThe skinny: About only team against whom Steelers own a tiebreaker.

Bills (7-7) Today vs. TitansThe skinny: If the Jaguars or Jets win this weekend, loser here is eliminated.

Titans (7-7) Today at BillsThe skinny: Root for Titans, who own worse AFC W-L -- 4-6 like Steelers -- than Bills (5-5).

Note: All seven teams above were ahead of the Steelers entering Week 16 and are arranged based on tiebreakers.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Mike Prisuta: Aaron Smith no ordinary talent

Mike Prisuta
Saturday, December 23, 2006

It's been another quiet season for Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith.

It's also been one like no other.

"I think this is probably one of the better years I've had, if not the best," Smith said. "I personally feel like I'm playing better than I ever have before."

Smith came to the Steelers in 1999 and became a starter at defensive end the following season. He hasn't said much since and rarely if ever has done anything to draw attention to himself.
But all the same, Smith has become an integral part of the Steelers' defense, and a classic leader-by-example for fellow defensive end Brett Keisel, a first-year starter this season.

"I just try to keep up with him," Keisel said. "He is the best example for all of us. To be able to play as hard as he plays every week, he never misses a game. He's always doing his job."

Smith has done that well enough to produce 53 tackles, four-and-a-half sacks and 18 quarterback hurries while playing a position in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme that's about much more than numbers.

Defensive ends in a 3-4 are supposed to do the dirty work and free up the linebackers to get the glory.

Smith has rolled up his sleeves and performed at a level that's allowed him to glean a personal satisfaction from his efforts that transcends the Steelers' 7-7 record.

A series of defeats that piled up in the season's first half and the team's current predicament as far as making the playoffs is concerned -- the Steelers' chances of doing so rank somewhere between a long shot and forget about it -- haven't damped Smith's enthusiasm in the least.

"It's easy for me to stay motivated," he said. "I love this game. It's easy to get up in the morning.

"Obviously, it's tough sometimes late in the season, but it's easy to get up and go to work. The older I get, the more fun this game gets to me. I think I've learned to appreciate it more."

Smith, a fourth-round pick out of Northern Colorado in 1999, has been around long enough to rank fourth among Steelers in seniority, behind guard Alan Faneca, wide receiver Hines Ward and cornerback Deshea Townsend (who all arrived in 1998).

Smith made it to the Pro Bowl following the 2004 season but was overlooked in this year's voting.

At this stage of his career he considers himself a better judge of how he's been performing than a Pro Bowl selection process Smith considers "a funny thing.

"The older you get you learn to start competing with yourself," Smith said.

Smith has also learned enough about Keisel this season to suggest that big things are in store for him down the road.

"Keisel is going to be a great player in this league," Smith said. "He's a good player now, but the more he gets experience, the more he sees stuff, he's going to be a great player."

Smith should know.

Mike Prisuta can be reached at

Crosby pleased to be productive

Additional Stories
Onorato: Penguins giving cold shoulder
Balsillie still wants deal
Pens start looking out of town
Pens salvage point in shootout loss
Pens players show support

By Karen Price
Saturday, December 23, 2006

Sidney Crosby isn't expecting to equal Wayne Gretzky's record of 51 consecutive games with at least one point, nor does he expect to even come close.

But his 10-game scoring streak going into the Penguins' four-day holiday break, tying his career high and the current longest streak in the NHL, means that Crosby is contributing on a nightly basis.

And that is what he is expects from himself.

"You just want to be productive and if (the scoring streak is) part of it, that's fine, but it's not something that you pay a whole lot of attention to," said Crosby, who had a goal and an assist in a shootout loss to the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday night to bring his current streak to seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points in 10 games.

The longest scoring streak in the NHL this season thus far is 11 games, and three players have done that -- the Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis, the Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier and the New York Rangers' Martin Straka. Even in 11 games, none totaled more points than Crosby has thus far.

St. Louis had 10 goals and 10 assists for 20 points, Straka had seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points, and Lecavalier had eight goals and 10 assist for 18 points.

But if Crosby's impressed by his own numbers in the last 10 games, he isn't showing it.

"With a six-point game (one goal, five assists against the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 13) and a four-point game (one goal, three assists against the New York Islanders in the next game), you can't read into the numbers too much," said Crosby, 19. "You have two big games like that, it's a little bit different, but you want to be consistent."

But if Crosby isn't willing to toot his own horn, his teammates have no problem doing it for him.

"I think a point a game, for a lot of players, is difficult," linemate Ryan Malone said. "There are a lot of other games where he plays great games and doesn't get a point. He sets up a lot of guys and for whatever reason we're not putting the puck in the back of the net. But he's still creating chances. That's the type of player he is. He makes everyone around him better, and hopefully he stays hot right now."

With Crosby's six-point game against the Flyers, he took control of the overall scoring lead in the NHL. He continues to lead the league in scoring heading into Friday's games, with 17 goals and 38 assists for 55 points in 31 games and leading the New York Rangers' Jaromir Jagr by four points.

The last five times an NHL player totaled at least 15 goals and 30 assists by their team's 30th game of the season were all with the Penguins (Mario Lemieux, Jagr and Ron Francis in 1995-96 and Lemieux again in 2002-03), and Crosby is the first teenager to lead the league in scoring in the modern era since Gretzky in 1980-81.

"It's unbelievable," defenseman Ryan Whitney said of Crosby's streak. "He's kind of turned into a superstar I think from the beginning of the year until now. Every game I think we defensemen catch ourselves on the bench saying, 'Did you see that? Wow.' It's pretty exciting to get to play with someone like that."

Karen Price can be reached at

John Harris: Despite sour season, Steelers sticking together

John Harris
Saturday, December 23, 2006

Larry Johnson, Kansas City's Pro Bowl running back, went ballistic this week, publicly questioning his team's game plan and undermining Chiefs coach Herman Edwards.

The Chiefs and Steelers both have 7-7 records, but that's about the only thing they share.

While the Chiefs are threatening to fall apart down the stretch, their team chemistry in shambles, the Steelers have never been more together. This despite the Steelers not being a lock for the playoffs the season after winning the Super Bowl.

At times, the Steelers have been mistake-prone and undisciplined. They've had to overcome injuries and substandard play. But the Steelers have always tried to keep their problems in-house.

If the defensive players were upset because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continued throwing to players in different colored jerseys, they never went public.

If Roethlisberger was upset at the offensive line because of the physical beatings he received, he never went public.

If the offensive and defensive players had a bone to pick with the special teams' annoying penchant for turning the ball over, those feelings never left the locker room.

And if the players wondered how coach Bill Cowher would be able to rally the troops, they never let on.

The Steelers have been many things this season, but a house divided isn't among them.
"That's just the respect you have for your team and coaches,'' outside linebacker Joey Porter said.

"Lots of teams, they get in that situation, they fold their tents. That's not our mentality. We just couldn't believe we were playing that bad.''

The Steelers did plenty of talking about their season not being over, despite a 2-6 start. Porter realizes it may have sounded like so much hot air at the time, but he insisted the talk was always positive and the players' confidence never waned.

As for pointing fingers during the bad times, Porter said the Steelers under Cowher never have and they never will.

"Those same plays and calls when you won you didn't say nothing about them. Now, when you lose they don't work? I never really understood that,'' Porter said. "At the same time, what is to be gained after you show up somebody? Now you've got to apologize.

"You're family. You don't air dirty laundry. When you and your wife get in an argument, you don't go on the news and tell everybody what you were arguing about.''

Porter said the Steelers' basic principles are founded upon hard work and respect. A little talent never hurt, but what good is talent if the players aren't on the same page?

Football is the ultimate team sport. Without discipline and order and a belief in a common goal, the Steelers wouldn't have won Super Bowl XL, and they wouldn't have been able to survive the ups and downs they've endured this season.

"It's the same respect you show for your father. Coach Cowher and the other coaches, they're father figures to me,'' Porter said. "No matter the situation, you're not going to let anybody know what's going on.

"If Dad wants to tell everybody, he can do it. But if he's not doing it, we're not doing it.''

So there you have it. The Steelers must win their final two games against Baltimore and Cincinnati to be considered for a playoff berth, and even then they're going to need plenty of help.

Finishing strong is the Steelers' only alternative.

"When we went through our drought, when we weren't playing good football, you can't say it was one person. It was the whole team,'' Porter said. "We're trying to finish this out the best way we know how. We're just glad it happened late rather than it never happening.''

Stay tuned.

John Harris is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at

Friday, December 22, 2006

Holmes catches on to become top rookie

Friday, December 22, 2006
By Colin Dunlap, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If the newspaper Letters to the Editor section and phone calls to radio talk shows provide an accurate barometer of public sentiment, some inhabitants of this town wanted Santonio Holmes run out of it before he even got here.

Back in late June, the Steelers' first-round draft pick from Ohio State was in the news for all the wrong reasons.

There was that 3:30 a.m. incident on May 27 in South Beach in Miami that ended with Holmes being cited for disorderly conduct when he and a police officer disagreed about the flow of traffic outside a hotel on ultra-trendy Collins Avenue.

There also was that June 18 Columbus, Ohio, incident in which Holmes was charged with domestic violence, assault and a minor traffic offense.

Charges stemming from the incidents were subsequently dropped. That said, at the time of the first and second arrests, Steeler Nation raised its collective brow wondering why Holmes was the common denominator and if such incidents would continue.

"Those things happened, I put them in the past and I never look back at them," Holmes said yesterday.

"Even when I had to attend court, I never looked back at it and said, 'Man, this is going to stop me from becoming successful.' ... I just said, 'Forget it. It is something I have to go through.' I got it over with and I got back to work."

That he did. And, in doing so, he has become one of the most prolific rookie receivers in franchise history and a bona fide weapon as a return man.

Heading into Sunday's showdown at Heinz Field against Baltimore, Holmes has made two starts and is first in the AFC among rookie receivers with 40 catches. He's also second in the NFL in punt return average as his 10.3 yards per attempt trails only Chicago's Devin Hester (13.8).

Yesterday, Holmes was selected by members of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America as the Joe Greene Great Performance Award winner, given annually to the team's outstanding rookie. Holmes is the third receiver to garner the award since its inception in 1984, joining Louis Lipps, who won the first award, and Troy Edwards, the 1999 winner.
Edwards caught 61 passes in his rookie season while Lipps pulled in 45.

His contemporaries and the Steelers' coaching staff knew Holmes had the raw physical skills and the competitive makeup to be a difference-maker in the NFL when he reported to preseason camp just moments before the deadline.

"This guy can be pretty good. That's the first thing we thought when he got here," Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch said. "We knew what we had."

What the Steelers also had was a player with a pedigree at one of the nation's elite college programs.

In his three years at Ohio State, Holmes caught 140 passes and 25 touchdowns. Most impressive was his 18.4 yards per catch average.

But that was college and, as with any receiver, a transformation needed to occur.

"He had to adjust to this game," Batch said. "When you are in college and you are faster than everybody, you can get away with that, you know, just being faster than people. But, when you come to this level you have to be precise and Hines [Ward] sort of took him under his wing and said, 'This is how it needs to be done.' "

Holmes acknowledges that Ward and some of the other Steelers veteran receivers have made his acclamation to NFL life, both on and off the field, much easier.

"I probably owe it all to those guys," Holmes said.

"Because they have been picking me up every day. When the time came around where I was down from all these accusations off the field, those guys told me, 'Hey, we've all been through it or we know somebody else who has been through it. The best thing to do is focus on your job.' "

A focus with one key component -- soaking everything in.

"One thing about Santonio is that he is always listening," Batch said. "And that is what has made him grow as the year has gone on."

Even if, back before camp opened, many in this town had already started to count Holmes out.

(Colin Dunlap can be reached at or 412-263-1459. )

After casino setback, Lemieux open to moving Penguins

Owner says he'll retain team, discuss Plan B, but consider other cities; Balsillie makes new purchase overture

Friday, December 22, 2006
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More coverage
Text of Jim Balsillie's letter to Mario Lemieux
Hockey fans break out in cold sweat at prospect of losing Penguins
Bob Smizik: Efforts should go into a fair Plan B
Sports and Exhibition board making way for new arena

Mario Lemieux says the Penguins aren't for sale anymore, but he isn't done shopping them around.

Mr. Lemieux said yesterday that he and his partners plan to retain control of the franchise, but will entertain offers from any city interested in serving as its home.

He added that the team is willing to discuss any "Plan B" proposal state and local elected officials formulate to finance an arena, with the intent of keeping the franchise here.

Meanwhile, after withdrawing his bid to buy the Penguins last Friday, Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie yesterday reached out to the team in an attempt to get the sale back on track.

In a letter sent to Mr. Lemieux and CEO Ken Sawyer, with copies to Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Mr. Balsillie apologized for any offense he might have caused and said he has "a team ready to immediately start negotiating Plan B" to get funding for a new arena.

Mr. Balsillie praised Mr. Lemieux as "a hero to the people of Pittsburgh" and said selling the team to an out-of-town interest would be "a tragedy."

Mr. Lemieux's announcement came a day after the state Gaming Control Board rejected a slots-license bid from Isle of Capri, which had pledged $290 million for a new arena if it was awarded that license.

"Recent developments, including yesterday's decision by the PGCB, and the recent termination of the purchase agreement by Jim Balsillie, have convinced us that it is time to take control of our own destiny," Mr. Lemieux said in a statement.

"Accordingly, starting today, the team is off the market, and we will begin to explore relocation options in cities outside Pennsylvania. After seven years of trying to work out a new arena deal exclusively in Pittsburgh, we need to take into consideration the long-term viability of the team and begin discussions with other cities that may be interested in NHL teams.

"As soon as we are no longer restricted by our agreement with Isle of Capri from negotiating an arena deal here, in the next few weeks, we will also begin discussions with local leaders about a viable Pittsburgh arena plan."

The Penguins' relationship with Isle of Capri extends through the 30-day period during which the Gaming Control Board's slots-license decisions can be appealed.

There is no indication Isle of Capri is considering an appeal of the decision that awarded the license to PTIG Gaming.

Mr. Onorato said he found no "new news" in Lemieux's statement, noting that relocation always has been a threat because the team's lease at Mellon Arena will expire at the end of June.
Mr. Ravenstahl echoed that sentiment, saying that Lemieux's statement "restates the obvious: That the Penguins do have the option to leave after this year."

Mr. Onorato suggested he actually was heartened by the Penguins' statement, because Mr. Lemieux said the team plans to begin discussions with local officials in the next few weeks. He added that he is confident the city, county and team can cut a deal once they begin talking.

"I believe we can get to a deal that is as competitive as any other city and keep the Penguins here. It's just a matter of getting everyone in the room and working out the details."

Mr. Onorato believes there is "wiggle room" in Plan B, which calls for the Penguins to contribute $8.5 million upfront and $4 million a year for 30 years toward construction of an arena.

He, Mr. Ravenstahl and slots-license winner Don Barden are expected to talk by phone today to discuss Plan B.

"I know and believe that we as a city government, state government and county government can put a viable plan together for a new arena," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

After winning the casino license Wednesday, Mr. Barden reaffirmed his Plan B commitment of $7.5 million a year for 30 years. His spokesman, Bob Oltmanns, said Mr. Barden is "fully prepared to do everything reasonably possible to get Plan B finalized as soon as possible."

Mr. Onorato and Mr. Ravenstahl also talked by phone yesterday with National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman, who said after Isle of Capri lost the license competition that the team's future in Pittsburgh was "uncertain" and that the Penguins would have to explore all other options.

Mr. Bettman did not back off those statements yesterday, Mr. Onorato said. He added that Mr. Bettman said his preference was to keep the team here, "but that depends on having a new arena and a viable financial" arrangement for the team in that facility.

Penguins officials declined to elaborate on Mr. Lemieux's statement, although it left several questions unanswered. It is not clear, for example, when he plans to begin entertaining offers from other cities, or whether he plans to aggressively seek those proposals or wait for interested parties to approach him.

NHL officials would not discuss Mr. Lemieux's announcement, which reflected the frustration that has been building since he got the franchise out of bankruptcy and was assured by elected officials that they would investigate methods of financing a new arena.

"I just hope that Mario doesn't hold his frustration of the past seven years against myself, Dan Onorato and the Penguins fans," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

Several cities have expressed varying degrees of interest in securing an NHL franchise.
Kansas City, where the Sprint Center is scheduled to open in October, heads the group, but Las Vegas, Nev.; Oklahoma City; Portland, Ore.; Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; and Houston also are on the list.

Whether Mr. Lemieux actually will have time to engage in serious discussions with all, or even most, of those places is conjecture, because settling on a base of operations for the team is not an open-ended process. Although no formal deadline is in place, several factors dictate that a decision be reached by late winter or early spring.

The NHL, for example, must know where the team will be based so it can put together its schedule for the 2007-08 season, and the front office needs time to develop and implement things like marketing plans, as well as to sell season tickets and arrange corporate sponsorships.

Even after Mr. Lemieux announced that the team was off the market, Mr. Balsillie, who called off an agreement to buy the team last week after Mr. Bettman imposed some 11th-hour conditions -- including one that would have compelled him to keep the team in Pittsburgh, regardless of the circumstances -- reiterated his interest in buying it.

"We've fully studied the situation and are prepared to complete the purchase and immediately commence good faith 'Plan B' negotiations with the government officials to keep the team in Pittsburgh," he said in an e-mail yesterday. "This is an urgent situation, and we support an urgent plan of action."

In his letter, Mr. Balsillie referred to NHL consent agreement and asked Mr. Lemieux to "go arm and arm with me to the commissioner [Mr. Bettman of the NHL] and make one last effort to get our deal done."

Mr. Balsillie, of Waterloo, Ontario, is chairman and co-CEO of Research in Motion, which makes the popular wireless BlackBerry devices. He signed a purchase agreement in October to buy the Penguins for about $175 million.

In a statement released Monday in conjunction with a news conference held by Mr. Lemieux, the team owner said the Penguins were "shocked and offended" by Mr. Balsillie's late withdrawal.

(Mark Belko, Rich Lord and Shelly Anderson contributed to this story. Dave Molinari can be reached at )