Saturday, December 31, 2011

Roberto Clemente Walker - August 18, 1934 – December 31, 1972

Cleveland Browns' Scott Paxson's hit on Ben Roethlisberger still being felt

By Tony Grossi, The Plain Dealer
December 31, 2011

Browns defensive linemen Scott Paxson, bottom, and Brian Schaefering bring down Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger during their game Dec. 8. Roethlisberger suffered a high ankle sprain on the play and sat out last Saturday's game. (Christopher Horner, AP/Pittsburgh Tribune Review)

Browns highlights against the Pittsburgh Steelers have been scarce in the Ben Roethlisberger era. One of them was produced Dec. 8 by Scott Paxson.

Scott Paxson?

Yes, he was the guy who toppled the towering Pittsburgh quarterback with a low hit while Brian Schaefering hit him high. As Roethlisberger crumpled to the ground, the two backup defensive tackles fell on him.

"They hit him from opposite sides," Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said. "One of them was going down, and he just got twisted underneath them. It was really remarkable that [Roethlisberger] came back."

Roethlisberger was taken inside for X-rays. After halftime, he limped back to the Steelers' bench, hobbled by what later was diagnosed as a Grade I high ankle sprain. He heroically completed that 14-3 victory against the Browns with a bunch of short passes, one of which Antonio Brown turned into a long touchdown.

Roethlisberger hasn't shaken off the injury. After a painful performance in a loss in San Francisco and then a week off, he expects to play Sunday in the season finale at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

"I hope there's much more to come [from me]," Paxson said of his impact on the Steelers' season. "I hope that's just the start."

Paxson doesn't hate the Steelers like the typical Browns fan, though he has good reason to.

As a high school star in Philadelphia, Paxson was recruited by most of the college football powers in the East. Western Pennsylvania wasn't on his radar.

"Pittsburgh didn't exist [in my mind]," he said. "Pittsburgh feels like 'We're real football' and Philly kids are just 'city kids.' "

Paxson signed with Penn State, thinking he'd be the next Kyle Brady, its legendary tight end. He wound up playing defensive end.

"One of our coaches sat me down once and showed me video of Courtney Brown," Paxson said of the 2000 Browns' No. 1 draft pick. "I was like, 'Coach, I'm sorry. I can't do those things.' I mean, Courtney Brown was a freak."

After Penn State, Paxson was signed as an undrafted free agent by, of all teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers. This was in 2006. In four years, the Steelers waived Paxson six times. Six times.

"At that time, they were the No. 1 defense," Paxson said. "One year, they were No. 3. Another year, they were No. 2 or No. 1. I was basically third string, second string, on the No. 1 or No. 2 defense. I played both [end and tackle].

"I filled in for [Casey] Hampton, [Brett] Keisel, played on special teams. Anything to keep my butt there, I was doing. It was a lot of learning.

"Those guys were a little better, and I couldn't find a situation where I could get on the field."

After the sixth release from Pittsburgh, Paxson spent all the 2010 NFL season "on the streets . . . doing odds-and-ends jobs and working out for teams."

The Browns worked him out and sent him home. In January, they called to offer what amounted to a training camp tryout.

He made the final roster but received little playing time until midway through the season. Lately, he's been averaging about 20 snaps a game in relief of No. 1 pick Phil Taylor and mainstay tackle Ahtyba Rubin.

"Pax is great," Jauron said. "He's a great teammate, a very solid player. He plays the one and three technique for us. Plays them well. He's always trying to do it exactly as he's told. He's got a feel for it. A very tough guy. He takes his reps, takes other people's reps, never complains."

Paxson, 28, is hopeful he has finally found a home in the NFL.

"A real good thing about me is just being a good character guy, a smart guy, knowing the defense, a reliable backup," he said.

In parts of four seasons with the Steelers, Paxson appeared in only one game and was never active for a game against the Browns.

"I would say this rivalry means a little more to me now because this is the team I'm with and I'm playing," he said.

Paxson's sack of Roethlisberger could ultimately affect the Steelers' season more than James Harrison's cheap-shot helmet hit on Colt McCoy affected the Browns' season. If Roethlisberger is subpar in the playoffs, the Steelers aren't going anywhere.

Still, Paxson wasn't deluged with Cleveland fan mail after the sack.

"I just got a couple of texts from my buddies in Pittsburgh telling me not to come back anytime soon," Paxson said.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Wideouts Wallace, Brown all grown up for Steelers

By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
December 30, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Wide reciever Mike Wallace #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches a pass during the game against the St. Louis Rams at Heinz Field on December 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH (AP)—Mike Wallace might have to come up with a new nickname forAntonio Brown.
At the rate the fellow Pittsburgh wide receiver is going, “Little Brother”isn’t going to cut it much longer.

In two seasons, Brown has evolved from sixth-round pick to fringe player to return specialist to the franchise’s most valuable player, at least, according to his teammates.

Two days after being selected—along with Wallace—to his first Pro Bowl, Brown was voted the team MVP by his peers. The honor capped a remarkable rise for the humble 25-year-old, who broke the franchise’s record for all-purpose yards in a season last week in a 27-0 romp over St. Louis.

No Steeler, not Franco Harris or John Stallworth or Jerome Bettis, has put up more than the 2,048 yards Brown has this season.

Not bad for an undersized kid from Central Michigan who wondered if he’d ever make it in the NFL. At 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds, Brown doesn’t exactly cast an imposing shadow across the line of scrimmage.

He has made up for it with a work ethic that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates. Consistently the last to leave the practice field, Brown’s dedication won over a locker room loaded guys well into their 30s.

“That’s a great testimony for hard work,” offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “I don’t know if anyone worked harder. He came back in fabulous shape, had a great camp and it just led into a really good season for him.”

One that Brown believes is the first of many alongside Wallace, who marvels at how quickly his good friend has climbed to the edge of stardom.

“I took the long road, but that guy really took the long road,” Wallace said.

Brown has gone from a curiosity into a necessity. Though he was selected to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, his work at receiver has turned heads.

Brown heads into the regular-season finale Sunday at Cleveland second on the team with 63 receptions. He went over 1,000 yards last week against St. Louis and, with a big—OK, really big—day could chase down Wallace for the lead in both categories.

Just as importantly, Brown has earned quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’strust.

Roethlisberger jokingly called Brown a “gnat” for the way he’s always in the quarterback’s ear, yet Brown has become Roethlisberger’s favorite target in crunch time. Brown is second in the AFC with 23 third-down catches and his hands have become the best on the team not belonging to veteran Hines Ward.

“You have to stay the course, do the process, not get too high or too low,” Brown said. “You have to remain at peace within, and when opportunities come you take advantage of them.”

Brown began the season fourth on the depth chart behind Wallace, Ward andEmmanuel Sanders. Yet, Brown’s steady play combined with Sanders’ injury issues and Ward’s diminished role have made Brown a fixture in the huddle.

Don’t expect him to go anywhere anytime soon. He’s happy in Pittsburgh and has no problem playing the role of sidekick to Wallace. Brown readily admits his late-season surge has come courtesy of teams paying so much attention to Wallace.

The player jokingly dubbed a “one-trick pony” by coach Mike Tomlin for his tendency to go deep but do little else has evolved into a dedicated route runner. Brown is getting more comfortable working underneath rather than turning each snap into a track meet.

“I guess I’m not a one-trick guy anymore,” Wallace said. “I’ve got two.”

Though Wallace didn’t come close to the 2,000-yard season he lightheartedly predicted in the preseason, he has become a true No. 1 receiver. He has eight touchdown receptions to easily top the team—no one else has more than two—and he’s using his speed to turn short plays into long ones rather than just seeing how far Roethlisberger can chuck the ball.

“I kind of take offense to that when people tell me you just go deep all the time,” Wallace said. “If you want to do that, that’s great. (My speed) is my best asset and I’m happy about that, but that’s not all I do. I do whatever I need to do to go out and win.”

It’s a mindset that permeates the locker room, one Wallace and Brown have gleaned from spending long days with Ward, who needs five receptions Sunday to reach 1,000 for his career.

Ward has put up the kind of numbers Brown and Wallace, who have a combined 249 career catches, can hardly fathom. The number they’re more concerned with, however, is two: the total of Super Bowl rings Ward has won.

“That’s why you’re here, to win Super Bowls,” Wallace said. “The Pro Bowls, the big stats, they’re great. But we know the only way we’re judged is by what happens in January. And that’s what we’re focused on.”

Follow Yahoo! Sports' NFL coverage on Twitter.

WR Brown surprise pick as team MVP

Wasn't even a starter until the 10th game

By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Friday, December 30, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Wide receiver Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rushes for yards after a catch during the game against the St. Louis Rams at Heinz Field on December 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Brown broke the Pittsburgh Steelers single season all purpose yardage during the game. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

Amid all the talk early this season about the aging of the Steelers, a new generation emerged on offense, no sign of that more evident than the team's most valuable player for 2011.

The players passed the torch to that new generation when they voted Antonio Brown as their MVP, a surprise only because there were a handful of strong older candidates and Brown, 23, did not even win a starting job until the 10th game of the season.

Once he did, the young receiver and return man had a mercurial rise. Over the past nine games, he has led them with 45 catches for 756 yards to register his first 1,000-yard season. On Saturday, he set the franchise record for all-purpose yards, and Tuesday he made his first Pro Bowl as a return man and was voted the AFC's fifth-best receiver.

Not bad for a 2010 sixth-round draft pick from Central Michigan University.

"I think it's awesome for him considering how many guys on this team could be that guy," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who would have to be one of them. "I think it speaks volumes for him and the respect we have for him in both those phases."

Brown came to training camp this summer as their top return man but no better than No. 4 on the wide receiver depth chart. In front of him: Starters Mike Wallace and Hines Ward and No. 3 Emmanuel Sanders. Then they signed veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery, possibly dropping Brown to No. 5.

But Sanders' foot surgery and Cotchery's newness allowed Brown to start as No. 3, and eventually he was promoted Nov. 13 as a starter over Ward, after he had topped 100 yards receiving in two of the three previous games.

Last season, he was part of the "Young Money" receiving trio that included Wallace and Sanders, and he blossomed this season.

Many cited an aging defense for the Steelers' slow start, but the young have taken over on offense. They include the trio of young receivers, Pro Bowler and second-year player center Maurkice Pouncey, team rookie of the year Marcus Gilbert at right tackle and a bevy of young backs with Rashard Mendenhall, 24, leading the pack.

Even Roethlisberger is only 29.

"Eventually, people have to play," said Wallace, a Pro Bowl starter in his third season. "Nobody on this team is getting a free check. You have to earn 'em and play for them."

His teammates and coaches said Brown has earned what he has achieved.

"It's a great testimony for hard work," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. "I don't know anybody who worked harder. He came back in fabulous shape, had a great camp and it led him to a really good season for him. That's an awesome record he got, all-purpose yardage."

Still, Brown's selection ranked among the biggest surprises in the MVP voting since kicker Gary Anderson won the award in 1983. Wallace has more yards, more catches and more touchdowns than Brown. As a Pro Bowl quarterback, Roethlisberger has thrown for the second-most yards in team history and has them in the Super Bowl hunt again at 11-4 despite playing through a sprained foot, broken right thumb and now a high ankle sprain. Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel have had perhaps their best seasons, and Roethlisberger thought Pouncey was a strong candidate as well.

"To say MVP is saying a guy you can't win without," Roethlisberger said. "There are a couple guys on this team I feel are in that category and Antonio is as much there as anybody."

Brown said if you think this season was something, just wait.

"It's definitely only the beginning," Brown said. "I haven't started for a full season yet, I haven't done a lot of things. I just want the team to build on this and go on."

Rookie honor

Pouncey wanted the Steelers to draft his twin brother in the first round in April, but when Miami grabbed Mike Pouncey early, the Steelers looked elsewhere in the offensive line at Florida. With Maurkice Pouncey's recommendation, they drafted another of his former teammates, tackle Marcus Gilbert, in the second round.

Gilbert earned their rookie of the year award, named in honor of Joe Greene, after starting every game but two at right tackle. Pouncey won the award last season.

Gilbert started out behind the eight-ball along with all rookies because of the lockout. Then, he could not practice in training camp for a few weeks because of a hamstring injury. But starting right tackle Willie Colon was knocked out for the season in the opener and Gilbert was pressed into action.

He missed only one game after that, benched Saturday against the St. Louis Rams because coach Mike Tomlin did not like how he prepared during the week. He's back as their starting right tackle Sunday against the Cleveland Brown.

"When my number was called early, I just felt I had to step up to the plate and perform at a high level," Gilbert said.

He did just that, and when another former Florida lineman, Max Starks, rejoined that at left tackle, the three Seminoles helped settle down an offensive line that had been in flux.

Like Marvel Smith before him as a second-round pick who started as a rookie at right tackle, Gilbert's future could land him at left tackle.

"I had conversations with them, flirted around with it," Gilbert said about the left tackle position. "But as of right now, we are just focused on this year and focusing on our road and journey throughout the playoffs.'

Farrior the Chief

James Farrior turns 37 Thursday but would like to keep playing for "as long as they let me."

Farrior, in his 14th NFL season and ninth with the Steelers, earned his second Chief Award in the past three seasons. It is awarded by the local Pro Football Writers in honor of Steelers founder Art Rooney to the player who best exemplifies Rooney's spirit of cooperation with the media.

Farrior acknowledged that answering questions from the media is hard right after a tough loss.

"That is usually when it is most difficult, when you lose a game, and your emotions are running high, and you don't really know what to say to the media, and everybody is in your face asking you questions. But it is part of being a professional, part of being a Steeler, and that is something we have to deal with on occasion."

One of these days, Farrior will have to deal with retirement, but he recalled something defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told him a while ago.

"He said when you retire you retire for a long time, so it is definitely something you want to think about. Something that you definitely feel like if you are going to make that decision and if it is weighing on your mind, you have to make sure it is the right thing to do.

"Basically, what I took from that is, play as long as you can."

Practice notes

Roethlisberger went through another full practice and looks ready to go Sunday in Cleveland, but linebacker LaMarr Woodley again was limited and looks as if he will sit out his sixth game of the past eight. Troy Polamalu also did not practice because of a previously unmentioned knee injury, but he routinely has missed two practices in the past only to join his teammates on the field Friday and play Sunday.

Arians said that Roethlisberger looked "really well," in practice.

"He made it around good [Thursday], a little better than [Wednesday]. Being on grass helped, I think. It's good to be outside in the cold and get a little blood flowing. It was good, real good."

Arians said the plan Sunday for Roethlisberger will be to "go win the game."

More alternates(From 12/29/11)

The Steelers revealed only their first and second alternates for the Pro Bowl, but turns out there are many more including guard Chris Kemoeatu. Although having lost his starting job in November and behind even Trai Essex at left guard, Kemoeatu is a third alternate guard. That means, if for some reason three guards back out, are hurt or their team makes the Super Bowl, Kemoeatu will make the Pro Bowl.

Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor are third alternates, Lawrence Timmons a fourth alternate and Antonio Brown is the No. 5 wide receiver. Brown likely will see action in the Pro Bowl at wide receiver besides his duties as a punt/kick returner.


• Game: Steleers vs. Browns.

• When: 4:15 p.m. Sunday.

• Where: Cleveland Browns Stadium, Cleveland.

• TV, Radio: KDKA, WDVE-FM (102.5).

Ed Bouchette's blog on the Steelers and Gerry Dulac's Steelers chats are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

In the end, Jagr really hasn't changed

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Philadelphia Flyers' Jaromir Jagr (68) clears the puck before Pittsburgh Penguins' James Neal (18) can reach it in front of a wide open net, with Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, top, knocked out of the goal crease in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011. (AP)

Jaromir Jagr is 2-0 against the Penguins this season. He scored the biggest goal in the Philadelphia Flyers' 4-2 win Thursday night at Consol Energy Center. He has been great all season with 12 goals and 19 assists in 32 games. He has been huge on the power play with five goals. By all accounts, he has been just as great off the ice. Coach Peter Laviolette mentioned him as being big as a leader in the Flyers room in the absence of captain Chris Pronger, who's out for the season with concussion-like symptoms.

The Penguins still are better off without Jagr.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it, ridiculous as it must seem on the day after Jagr and the Flyers were the better team for the second time in three weeks, this time, thanks in large part to Jagr's goal, which put the Flyers ahead to stay, 2-1, in the second period, and an empty-netter at the end by old pal Max Talbot.

"Why worry about a 40-year-old guy? The biggest mistake [Penguins] management made [during the summer] was they should have signed Max," Jagr said after the game in a fairly typical, disingenuous moment.

The Penguins couldn't match the Flyers' five-year, $9 million offer to Talbot, and Jagr knows it.

But his quote made for a good sound bite and made a lot in the media giggle.


We saw the always moody Jagr at his best and worst during his two-day visit. Wednesday, he was short and surly when he met with the media. Perhaps his corn flakes were stale that morning. Something as simple as that used to ruin his day frequently when he played with the Penguins more than a decade ago and begged repeatedly to be traded. Thursday, after the morning skate, he was congenial and expansive even if what he said made little sense and, in some cases, were out and out lies.

The Penguins flirted with Jagr before he signed with the Flyers. He said no one in the organization would guarantee him a job as a top-six forward. Lie No. 1. Owner Mario Lemieux, general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma all told him he figured prominently in the team's plans. Jagr also said no one told him he would be used on the power play. Lie No. 2. The Penguins were coming off a 1-for-35 performance on the power play in their first-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The team's brass made it clear to Jagr he would be a key part of the power play.

But that's Jagr.

He often has had problems with reality.

Things are going well for Jagr and the Flyers now. You wonder how he'll be when things aren't going his or the team's way. How will he be if the puck stops going in for him or if his ice time gets cut? Maybe he really has changed, if you believe Laviolette. But I'm not buying it.

There's no doubt Jagr still can play in the NHL. He still has the vision, the hands, the wheels -- all of it -- that will put him in the Hockey Hall of Fame the instant he becomes eligible. He clearly showed it when he beat Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with a terrific backhanded shot, the second of three consecutive goals by the Flyers, who beat the Penguins, 3-2, Dec. 18.

But Jagr turns 40 on Feb. 15. He still must prove he can hold up over 82 games plus a long playoff grind. That worried Penguins management even more than his many moods. We'll see.

Jagr's return after the events of the summer made this the season's most-anticipated game. Certainly, it brought out the beautiful people. Governor Tom Corbett was among the crowd of 18,602, a guest in Lemieux's box. Lemieux interrupted a family vacation in Florida to come back for the game.

The sight of Jagr also brought the predictable hostility. He was booed even before the teams took the ice for warm-ups when he was shown on the arena's big scoreboard. He was booed each time he touched the puck in the game, although it wasn't any worse than the treatment Marian Hossa received when he came back to town in February 2009 after jilting the Penguins for the Detroit Red Wings the previous summer.

Talbot, who received a nice tribute on the scoreboard early in the game as a thanks for his years of service here, called the atmosphere "electrifying ... The fans showed up tonight and they were ready. It was like a playoff game."

Jagr wasn't nearly so moved. Then again, he didn't get any such tribute.

"The most important thing is we won in Pittsburgh," Jagr said. "This is a tough place to play. They are a very good team."

The crowd didn't like seeing Jagr's goal and really didn't enjoy him taking off his right glove and saluting after he scored it. It's funny, Penguins fans used to love the gesture when he was scoring goals for their team and helping it to Stanley Cup wins in 1991 and '92.

"I don't know how many goals I'm going to score," Jagr said. "Every goal might be my last one. I'm going to enjoy each one."

Jagr said he said should have scored many more goals Thursday night.

"From the first shift, I had good chances. I probably had the most chances of any game this year. I could have scored five goals easily if I were good. Fifteen years ago, I would have scored five goals. Not now."

Jagr grinned.

He knew what he said sounded good and made people smile.

Too bad it didn't make him any less of a phony.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

Jagr shows best, worst sides

Friday, December 30, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 29: Jaromir Jagr #68 of the Philadelphia Flyers scores on his back hand against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on December 29, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

If Jaromir Jagr was going to be cast as the villain, he apparently was determined to play the role to the hilt.

For his opening act, he showed up in town two days ago and droned through a painstaking media session at the Philadelphia Flyers' practice in Castle Shannon. Hidden under an orange hoody, he pouted like a child and sounded like a bitter, old man.

When a reporter asked how he might handle being booed by Pittsburghers, he fired back a snarly, "Then, I can't play."

For the second act, he had a far brighter disposition Thursday morning at Consol Energy Center. This, too, was familiar for those who know his mega-moody personality.

In ending the media session following the Flyers' skate, he toyed with reporters: "Bottom line: I'm here, and you guys are over there. I've got to come to the game. Everybody is going to hate me, and I still have to play."

And for his finale, but he went grand. Seriously grand.

Jagr was nothing less than the best player on the ice in the Flyers' 4-2 victory over the Penguins last night — never mind his ridiculous omission from the three stars — with a sizzling goal, a chip along the boards that led to another, a goal-saving stick-lift of James Neal's blade and a wealth of other displays of his still-estimable talent at age 39.

Afterward, in the most predictable event of the evening, Jagr could barely contain himself ...

On his bold rush and breathtaking backhander for the goal: "You know, I had so many chances. It just shows what kind of a player I am now. The Jagr of 15 years ago would have scored five goals."

Broad grin.

On celebrating that goal by performing that old "Mile High Salute" right to the face of a male fan in the front row wearing a Penguins sweater: "Oh, I've got to enjoy every moment I've got left. Every game could be my last game."

Playful grin.

On the reaction of a female fan nearby: "She didn't exactly salute me back."

Devilish grin.

On his stick-lift of Neal: "That was the best play of my hockey career. I've never been so close to my own net."

Silly grin.

Despise him, boo and taunt him all you want, but the sum of this script was that Jagr was brilliant.

Everyone remembers that about him, too, right?

This, for those in Pittsburgh whose introduction to hockey was the Sidney Crosby lottery, was the real Jagr, all wrapped up in a tidy 48-hour drama. And this also is why so many hung on every sliver of news this summer when it looked like he might return to the Penguins. For all the headaches, the man scores like few in NHL history, especially when duly motivated.

But I couldn't help but think through it all: How differently this all could have played out.

Jagr spent most of his morning session sharing some trademark tortured logic to explain why he chose the Flyers over the Penguins, and it only renewed my belief that the only way he would have come back would have been if Mario Lemieux and Ray Shero had offered the largest paycheck.

This time, he was fretting over possibly playing on the Penguins' third or fourth lines and other nonsense about the team promising a spot on its top two lines to Tyler Kennedy.

"I didn't know how I was going to play," Jagr said. "In Philly, it was totally different — a lot of young guys, nobody had anything guaranteed."

It only added to a long list of similarly ludicrous explanations.

I'll repeat what I wrote back then: This was about the money.

The Penguins and Detroit Red Wings both offered $2 million, and both probably offered a better chance at the Stanley Cup, for that matter. But the Flyers checked in at $3.3 million, and a guy who already had collected $102 million over his career and still chased the extra pennies on his dollar. It's always been money first with him -- three years in Siberia, anyone? -- and it was this time, too.

I asked Jagr point-blank yesterday if he'd thought before signing with the Flyers about how the Penguins — and no other team — might have retired his No. 68 or even built a statue if he'd returned.

"Yes, I understand what you think. I agree with it," he answered. "Anybody guarantee me that I was going to play on the top two lines? Or I was going to play at all on this team? Did anybody guarantee me that? I feel like the best chance I was going to play and feel more comfortable was Philly."

It sure looked that way last night. And that's fine. Jagr has a right to set his own priorities, as well as his own pleasures.

As reporters broke up the pack last night, Jagr shouted to the local types, "I still love you guys!"

Broad Street Bully grin.

Highlights: Flyers 4, Penguins 2

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jagr Braces For Return To Pittsburgh

Philadelphia Sports Daily
December 29, 2011

Jaromir Jagr #68 of the Philadelphia Flyers skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Wells Fargo Center on September 29, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Devils 2-1. (September 28, 2011 - Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)

VOORHEES, N.J. — The rivalry between the Flyers and Penguins was intense enough. Pittsburgh fans certainly didn’t need Jaromir Jagr to fuel the fire. This year, they expected the Czech to be skating with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, or at least for the No. 68 to hang in the rafters at Consol Energy Center.

Instead Jagr chose to join the hated Flyers over the Penguins on July 1 when free agency opened. Fans felt betrayed since the organization extended an offer to Jagr and were long-rumored to be the top contender for the 39-year-old winger’s services. But Jagr feels betrayed himself. He says the Penguins were playing games of their own and now he looks like an enemy where his NHL career started.

Jagr didn’t take Pittsburgh’s offer and instead, shockingly joined the Flyers. He says that the offer from Pittsburgh was just made to appease the fans, that he never felt wanted.

“Exactly. They’re not gonna say it, but that’s the way it is,” said Jagr. “Whoever is smart, they’re gonna figure it out, but I don’t want to talk about it. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m just protecting myself. That’s all.

“They saw me play at the World Championships. There was not many GMs there, but the GM from Pittsburgh was there. He saw me play. If he was interested or whatever in the way I play, they would ask me. They would talk to me.”

When the free agency window opened this summer, Penguins general manager Ray Shero claimed that he had indeed been keeping a close eye on Jagr at the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.

“We feel from the information we have and after seeing at World Championships, that he’s a guy who might be able to help us this coming season,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 28. “We feel he’s a guy who could help us this year, and retire as a Penguin.”

Jagr says that’s not so. At no point in the offseason did he think that he would actually be donning black and gold again in Pittsburgh.

“To be honest with you, not really. I didn’t think they wanted me,” said Jagr. “Truly, I don’t think the management, the coaches wanted me to be there. When you look back to the articles over there, what happened one month before I was a free agent — and I didn’t even talk to anybody.”

OK, let’s take a look.

“I don’t understand where all this came from,” GM Ray Shero told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in May. “Jagr is not a guy we’ve spoken about in a couple of years. We talked about him for a little bit after his time with the Rangers, but that’s about it.”

“They were not interested,” said Jagr. “All they were interested in was to bring me back for the [20th anniversary of the 1991 Penguins championship team] golf tournament.”

“We were able to get that invitation to him, and we’d like to acknowledge his involvement with the organization,” Shero told the Tribune-Review. “That’s really all there was to it.”

This season, Jagr is in orange and black. He’s scored 11 goals with 19 assists in 31 games with the Flyers and has seen great benefit from playing with Claude Giroux. A few months ago, some in Pittsburgh had visions of him playing with different young stars — Crosby and Malkin — and adding to his remarkable Pittsburgh totals. He had 439 goals and 640 assists in 806 games with the Penguins.

“I don’t think I’d be playing with them,” said Jagr. “I had a conversation with them. I talked to the GM. They said Crosby had players to play with and they didn’t think I’d be playing with him.

“When the GM tells you we have to sign [Tyler] Kennedy first and Kennedy is playing the third or fourth line … Just go and look for [the] GM a month before I was a free agent, and it’s going to tell you a lot. It’ll tell you if they wanted me or not.”

Many believe that Jagr was just out for money. His one-year deal with the Flyers is worth $3.3 million. It is believed to be more than what the Penguins offered in their one-year proposal that Shero eventually retracted.

“We made what we thought was a very fair contract offer to Jaromir on [June 28], based on his stated interest of returning to the Penguins,” Shero said in a statement. “We made our best offer from the start, given our salary cap structure, in an attempt to facilitate a deal. But now, after several days, with an extended time frame for making a decision, and additional teams getting involved, we have decided to move in a different direction. It was never our intention to get involved in a free agent bidding war, and we have to focus on our team.”

Jagr says that his return to the NHL was never about the coin.

“If this was about money, I would have stayed in Russia and got twice more than here … tax free,” said Jagr.

In fact, the Flyers weren’t even the highest offer in the NHL.

“You would be very surprised,” said Jagr. “There was a team that didn’t make the playoffs last year in a different conference and they just wanted to sign players because they had to get to the minimum [salary floor].”

Clearly, Jagr is still a little shaken by the whole experience and feels as though he was set up by the Pittsburgh front office. His intention, he says, is to bring this to light for the fans that feel wronged.

“People have to understand that this is the whole business,” said Jagr. “People are gonna say whatever they have to say to make the fans happy. When I got traded, I came to [then general manager] Craig Patrick and told him, ‘This team is in trouble.’ Not bankruptcy, but we didn’t have much money. I was making $10 million that year. There was the second line: [Robert] Lang, [Martin] Straka, [Alex] Kovalev. They were all free agents. We couldn’t sign them. Pittsburgh couldn’t sign them.

“I came to Craig Patrick. I told him, ‘You know what? I know it’s gonna make it easy for you and the Penguins organization if you trade me for that money. Sign all three players and the team’s gonna be better. If I were to stay there and those guys leave, we have no team.’ He drafted me. I felt like I was his kid or something. I think it would be tough for him to trade me if I didn’t come to him and say it. I didn’t want to get traded, but I just made it easy for the team to do it because I don’t think we would be good. I think we would be bad if I wouldn’t have been traded.”

If the potential of a Lang-less, Straka-less, Kovalev-less Penguins team was bad, his situation with the Penguins now just might be worse. Jagr has already been to New York and Washington this season and he’s heard a healthy contingent of boos in both Madison Square Garden and Verizon Center. He expects to hear many more boos Thursday night at Consol Energy Center.

“It’s gonna be a lot worse in Pittsburgh, no question about it,” he said when asked about his reception in New York last Friday. “If you want to hear boos, go to Pittsburgh.”

Jagr: From hero to villain in Pittsburgh as he returns as Flyer

The Daily Times (Delaware County)
December 29, 2011

Jaromir Jagr #68 of the Philadelphia Flyers controls the puck against Bryce Salvador #24 of the New Jersey Devils during the third period at the Prudential Center on October 8, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey.
( October 7, 2011 - Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images North America)

PITTSBURGH – They used to whistle at him in Philadelphia, his long, flowing locks blowing in the wind behind him as he skated. The sounds of Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady” blaring through the arena speakers.

Here, on the other side of the state, he was a beloved figure. His image was more akin to a rock star. He was, after all, the second-best hockey player to ever don a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform and helped them win two Stanley Cups.

Now, two decades later, the state of Pennsylvania has flipped 180 degrees when it comes to Jaromir Jagr.

Despite summer rumors to the contrary, Jagr returned to the NHL after a three-year hiatus this summer, not to the Penguins, owned by his boyhood idol and former teammate Mario Lemieux, but to the hated Philadelphia Flyers, the team that has less appeal than a glass of pond scum to fans who wear black and gold.

And now, it wouldn’t surprise if those same fans descended upon the Consol Energy Center Thursday night with pitchforks and torches hell bent on escorting Jagr to some makeshift gallows hastily constructed on the banks of the three rivers.

Yes, he’s that despised. From cab drivers who complain about him nonstop during a ride from the airport to the arena, to those younger generation fans who were in diapers when Jagr was hoisting the Cup at the pre-scalped Civic Arena – he’s unquestionably public enemy No. 1.

And he doesn’t understand why.

“First of all, I personally didn’t talk to anybody (in Pittsburgh),” he said, hinting that it was his agent, former Flyer Petr Svoboda, who was chatting with the Penguins. “I just don’t understand one thing when I read it. How, in a situation like that, can there be so much bad attitude and anger from those people? I don’t get it. What kind of world are we in right now? That’s (bleeping) scary. We should be in a world with a lot of love. Instead there’s one guy, who is 40 years old, who is almost done, and he’s causing all that (animosity) over hockey? My brain just doesn’t understand that.”

It didn’t matter that he was mercurial at the end of his time in Pittsburgh. It didn’t matter that he called Sidney Crosby a diver in the 2008 playoffs as a member of the Rangers. It didn’t matter at all what Pittsburgh folks felt was bad blood between themselves and their blemished one-time hero – it still didn’t compute.

“When I left Pittsburgh I was traded,” Jagr said. “The first time I came back with Washington everybody booed me so bad. But I was traded. I didn’t leave. But they are going to hate me anyway. They’ve hated me for seven years. Then, when there is a chance that I am going to go back there, all of the sudden they switch for one or two months? Then I don’t go, and they go back to hating me, but even more than before. I don’t get it. I don’t know what kind of world we’re living in. I don’t get it.”

And it was part of the reason Jagr passed up on a return engagement in Pittsburgh, despite an offer being extended his way.

“We wouldn't have offered him $2 million if we didn't like him,” said Penguins general manager Ray Shero, son of late Flyers coach Fred Shero. “I wouldn't say his play has exceeded my expectations because we knew he could still play. He's been a very good fit for Philadelphia. He has made (Claude) Giroux better, and vice versa.

"Maybe he isn't the player he was 10 years ago, but he's still, very, very good. He's still great from the blue line in, still has those great hands and is so strong. It's nice to know that we made an offer to a guy who can still play."

Jagr was also being courted by Detroit, which offered him more money to play there than even Philadelphia did (he is making $3.3 million for one year with the Flyers). But, there were a couple selling points for Philadelphia that weren’t there in Detroit.

“At the World Championships I played against top guys and I didn’t do bad,” Jagr said. “The whole question was, could I play at that level for a full season? I believed in myself that I could do it. That’s why I came back. There were probably a lot of doubters, but they didn’t see me play… I knew I could play third or fourth line but I believed inside that I could play first or second line still. I didn’t want to tell anybody that (publicly) but I believed I could do it.”

And so did the Flyers.

After dispatching director of player personnel Dave Brown and chief European scout Ilkka Sinisalo to watch Jagr at the 2011 World Championships, they confirmed what Russian scouts Vaclav Slansky and Ken Hoodikoff had already reported back to the executive offices – Jagr can still play at a high level.

“Free agency opened July 1,” Svoboda said. “I got a message from (Flyers general manager) Paul Holmgren on June 30. Jaromir was excited to hear from the Flyers because they were one of six teams he had listed that he wanted to play for, and although he was debating between Pittsburgh and Detroit, he really wanted to hear what Philly had to say.”

The Flyers put the hard sell on.

“I got a hold of him later that day and we talked for quite a while about the team and where he would fit,” Holmgren said. “We talked about how we were going to be a much younger team. We talked about Claude a lot and Danny Briere and some of the other young guys we are high on and it went from there.”

Svoboda said Jagr was immediately impressed by how much it seemed the Flyers wanted him.

“I have to give a lot of credit to Holmgren,” Svoboda said. “Ray Shero was interested right from the get-go, but the negotiations were really brief. It was the same thing everywhere else. Other teams were offering two years, but not really pushing hard. Holmgren had a lot of his players call Jaromir. Chris Pronger really made it sound like a great situation.

“Jaromir asked me and I told him from my time there that it was a great organization and (Flyers chairman Ed) Snider was a class act.”

Holmgren got the sense from those conversations that Philadelphia was quickly becoming a real possibility for Jagr.

“Based on what we did, I think he knew he was going to be a top line guy,” Holmgren said. “Although, he asked me, ‘Why did you trade those two guys (Jeff Carter and Mike Richards)? I thought they were two good players.’ Through that conversation he realized he was going to be one of the better forwards on the team.”

That he has. Jagr has posted 30 points in 31 games played. He has turned Scott Hartnell into an All-Star caliber player. He has helped elevate Giroux to be one of the elite players in the sport.

And he has done this while mentoring a lot of the Flyers rookies and younger players and exhibited an unrivaled, off-ice work ethic.

“(Flyers assistant coach) Joey Mullen told me that Jaromir was a rink rat when he was younger,” Holmgren said. “He transferred that at this point of his career to the gym. He does a lot of workouts by himself. He wears weight belts, walks around with weights on his ankles and goes on the ice with a weight on his stick – he continually practices his shooting. We didn’t know about all that, but it’s set a really good example for all of our young guys about preparation for games and practices.”

Holmgren pointed out that following the Flyers second win of the season – a 3-0 shutout in New Jersey – Jagr took all the rookies into a room across the hall from the locker room after the game to do push ups and sit ups.

“He’s been great, terrific,” Holmgren said. “Are those adjectives? I don’t know how many I can use. Not only his play but the other things he’s brought to the table – leadership, dedication, his experience – the success we’ve had so far this season, a lot of it can be attributed to him.”

Which is why the Flyers would like to see if Jagr would come back for another season. According to an organizational source, the Flyers are going to reach out to Svoboda very soon and see if an extension is possible.

Jagr has said all along that he’d like to wait and see what happens after a full season, including playoffs, to see what he wants to do, but if you ask Svoboda, it sounds like re-signing with the Flyers is high on the priority list.

“I haven’t spoken to Paul yet, but I will be in Philadelphia for the Winter Classic and I’m sure we’ll talk because I also represent Jake Voracek (who is on a one-year deal as well),” Svoboda said. “Jagr may have been leaning one way before July 1 but I’m glad he made the decision he did because he’s having a great time with Giroux and he loves that organization as much as I did during my five years there.”

It’s certainly an unexpected outcome for a lot of people, but one that Jagr attributes to a religious faith which was strengthened by his time in Russia.

“In my life it’s about belief,” Jagr said. “I shouldn’t ask myself questions after I do something. You should always believe that the choice you made was the right choice. You should never look back. Never. Nobody really knows what would happen if you chose a different path. If you ask me if I made a good decision, then I have to have something to compare it to. What am I going to compare (choosing Philadelphia) to? Am I supposed to use my imagination? I’m always happy with whatever decision I make. You have to believe in God and that he will put you in the situation where you need to be. Everything happens for a reason. In my life, I am always thankful.

“You learn from experience. If something happens that you think is a bad thing happening to you, five years later you look at it and you go over all the steps you realize this is the best thing that could happen. If this didn’t happen, it could have been a lot worse. After that happens to you two or three times you just say to yourself, ‘I should just trust God.’”

And God pointed him to Philadelphia, for better or worse. Not that the people of Pittsburgh understand.

“It is hard for me,” said Zbynek Michalek, the lone Czech-born player on the Penguins. “I know people here are proud of the Penguins and proud of their sports teams. They feel like he betrayed them. But I feel sorry for the guy.

“He’s a legend back home. He’s done a lot of great things for sports back home. I feel bad for him. But I do understand both sides. I know where people are coming from.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review contributed to this story.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

3 Steelers chosen Pro Bowl starters

By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger were both voted to their second Pro Bowl. (AP Photo by Gene Puskar)

Three Steelers will start for the AFC in the Pro Bowl and two players made the team for the first time although it's an all-star game they hope none of them will get to play.

Five Steelers made it. Safety Troy Polamalu, center Maurkice Pouncey and wide receiver Mike Wallace are starters for the Pro Bowl that was announced Tuesday by the NFL. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made it as a backup as did Antonio Brown as a kick returner.

The game will be played Jan. 29 in Honolulu, which again will eliminate the opportunity for those on the two Super Bowl teams to participate.

Wallace and Brown made their first Pro Bowl.

Polamalu, the 2010 NFL defensive player of the year, made his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, providing more evidence to what looks to be a Hall of Fame career.

Pouncey made his second consecutive Pro Bowl and first as a starter. He was a backup as a rookie. This is Roethlisberger's second selection. He made the team after the 2007 season. After the '09 season, other quarterbacks backed out of the game, and, as an alternate, Roethlisberger was extended a berth but declined, saying he had a shoulder injury.

Wallace ranks second among wide receivers in the AFC with 1,182 yards. Brown ranks seventh among wide receivers with 1,108 yards. He set a Steelers record with 2,048 all-purpose yards (receiving, rushing, returns) this season, ranks fourth in the AFC with a 10.8-yard average on punt returns and second with an average of 27.7 yards on kickoff returns.

For the first time, the Steelers publicly revealed their players who made it as first or second alternates, those who would be extended invitations to the game if others cannot or will not participate.

Linebacker James Harrison is a first alternate and free safety Ryan Clark and linebacker LaMarr Woodley are second alternates.

Harrison, the 2008 NFL defensive player of the year, made the past four Pro Bowls but missed four games this season with an eye injury and another to an NFL suspension. Woodley missed five of the past seven games with a hamstring injury.

They are tied for the team lead with nine sacks apiece.

Clark has never made a Pro Bowl. He can become the first safety to lead the team in tackles since such records could be found starting in 1980.

He has 96 tackles, eight more than Polamalu and 10 more than linebacker Lawrence Timmons, as calculated by the coaching staff.

Polamalu leads them in solo tackles with 73, four more than Timmons.

The one surprise among those who did not make it is defensive end Brett Keisel, although he is having possibly his best season

Ed Bouchette's blog on the Steelers and Gerry Dulac's Steelers chats are featured exclusively on PG+, a members-only web site from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Our introduction to PG+ gives you all the details.

Highlights: Penguins 4, Hurricanes 2

Monday, December 26, 2011

Steelers' Keisel is a gift that keeps on giving

Brett Keisel is not 'just a bearded guy from Wyoming,' he is a local treasure whose abundant and tireless charity work is his way of saying thanks for what he and other Steelers receive from the community.

Monday, December 26, 2011

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 27: Defensive end Brett Keisel(notes) #99 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tackles running back Dexter McCluster(notes) #22 of the Kansas City Chiefs from behind during the second half on November 27, 2011 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. Pittsburgh defeated Kansas City 13-9. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

The Pro Bowl rosters will be announced Tuesday night during -- I know this will be hard to believe -- a made-for-television gala on the NFL Network. Don't be surprised if Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel makes the AFC squad. He has been that good all season. He has been the best, most consistent player on a stout defense that has led the team to an 11-4 record and the AFC playoffs.

But, if Keisel is named to the Pro Bowl -- quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and safety Troy Polamalu appear to be the Steelers' only locks -- it won't be his greatest honor. Earlier this month, he was the team's nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, which goes to the player who combines on-field excellence with outstanding community service. It's the league's highest honor -- better than any of the player of the year awards -- if you think about what's really important. The winner will be announced during Super Bowl XLVI week in Indianapolis.

Johnny Unitas won the first NFL Man of the Year award in 1970. Payton won it in '77, and the award was named in his honor after his death in '99. Former Pitt quarterback Dan Marino won it in '98. Past Steelers winners were Franco Harris, Joe Greene, Lynn Swann and Jerome Bettis.

"Man, those guys are living legends," Keisel said. "I'm just a bearded guy from Wyoming."

Let's start with that beard.

With Keisel, that's the only place to start.

The beard is famous, to the point it has taken on its own personality. Keisel swears it has great power. I think he really believes it helped the Steelers get to the Super Bowl last season. He's convinced it will get the team there again this year and finish the job with a win in the big game.

You saw the beard squished under Keisel's chinstrap Saturday when the Steelers beat the St. Louis Rams, 27-0, at Heinz Field. You see it on a variety of T-shirts all over town. You see it in one of Polamalu's hilarious national television commercials for a hair-care company. After the Steelers season ends -- after Super Bowl XLVI, Keisel insists -- you'll see it shaved off in public for charity for the second consecutive year.

"As heartbreaking as it was for us to lose the Super Bowl last season, it was heartwarming to come home and do something good with the beard," Keisel said. "We were able to throw an event together in about a week where I shaved it off and we raised $40,000 for Children's Hospital. It wasn't me that raised that money. It was the city of Pittsburgh. I was just glad to be a part of it. Children's Hospital is very dear to me because of [teammate] Aaron Smith's situation and the help they've given [his son] Elijah."

Elijah Smith was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008 when he was 4 and is cancer-free today. "Had his last treatment Friday," Aaron Smith gushed after the game against the Rams. "After three years, two months and two days!"

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation also is close to Keisel's heart. He got involved with the charity six years ago and has devoted countless hours to it.

"The first function I went to, this little girl, Emma, who must have been about 4 at the time, came running up to me and gave me the biggest hug," Keisel said. "She had her backpack with her oxygen and the tubes in her nose and she tells me, 'Thank you so much for coming to my party!' She just stole my heart."

Keisel has worked hard to spread the word about Cystic Fibrosis. You see him on television doing a public-service announcement with a little boy named Anthony, who has the disease, which frequently attacks the lungs. "A lot of great research is being done," Keisel said. "Kids are living longer and they aren't on oxygen all day anymore. They're really making strides toward finding a cure."

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation had one of its big fund-raisers -- the 65 Roses Sports Auction -- Dec. 1 at a Downtown restaurant. Keisel was honorary chairman and brought many of his teammates with him, including Roethlisberger, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Heath Miller, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward.

"The guys never hesitate," Keisel said. "It's something easy for us to do and it means so much to the kids ...

"I look at it this way. The city we're in and the position we're in, we have to give something back. The Pittsburgh Steelers mean so much to this city and people give us so much. How do we not give something back? That's what I try to tell the young guys. 'Plenty of people need our help. Find something close to you and get involved with it.' "

Keisel also has devoted efforts to the American Heart Association, the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society, Animal Friends of Pittsburgh, the Salvation Army's Project Bundle Up and the Read Across America program.

The man rested Sunday.

He spent a quiet Christmas at his North Hills home with his wife, Sarah, and children, Jacob and Grace.

Clearly, Keisel has found plenty of time for his day job. This has been his best season. "I would say so," he agreed, grinning behind that beard.

Keisel long has been a big part of the Steelers defense, which ranks No. 1 in the NFL. It's hard to put up big stats as a 3-4 defensive end, but he leads the team with 33 quarterback pressures. He has broken up eight passes with his long arms. He has three sacks.

"I think I've been productive," Keisel said. "I've tried to be a leader for the young guys."

It should be enough to get Keisel on the Pro Bowl roster. He was named as a first alternate last season and made the team when Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney gave up his spot because of an injury. Keisel didn't get to go to Hawaii for the game because the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. He would love to have to miss the Pro Bowl again this season for the same reason.

"I just want us to finish the season strong the way I know we can," Keisel said. "It's about playing good ball at the right time."

Keisel plans on coming back next year for his 11th NFL season. He will turn 34 Sept. 19. He is signed through the 2012 season.

"I still feel like I can compete and do my job at a high level. As long as I can do that, it's a blessing for me to go out and play. I just love the competition. After football, I'll never do anything that comes close to giving you that feeling you have when you come out of the tunnel at Heinz Field."

Or maybe not.

"I guess I can hunt grizzly bears with a knife," Keisel said.

Does that sound like a bearded guy from Wyoming or what?

It's nice to think Keisel will be able to put off that next challenge for another year or two.

The Steelers still need him.

The community needs him.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

Mixed emotions about Jagr, Talbot

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
December 26, 2011

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 17: Jaromir Jagr #68 of the Philadelphia Flyers in action against the Boston Bruins during their game on December17, 2011 at The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Max Talbot and Jaromir Jagr visit Pittsburgh for the first time as members of the (shock, horror) Philadelphia Flyers.

Give them a pass. Cheer them, even.

That's not going to happen. Odds are that Consol Energy Center will salute Talbot, but boo Jagr every time he touches the puck. Ironic, since both went to Philadelphia for the same mercenary reason.

I also realize my advice is markedly different from my initial reaction.

I called Jagr "Judas" when he signed with Philadelphia, complaining that he committed the cardinal sin of using his past with Mario Lemieux to up the ante elsewhere.

I wasn't real happy with Talbot, either. No Penguin besides Sidney Crosby has ever personified the disdain of the franchise and city for the Flyers better than Talbot. Remember Talbot shushing Philadelphia's fans during the 2009 playoffs? Priceless.

Jagr and Talbot deserved better from me. They deserve better from you, too.

I still hate the Flyers, and hate even more that Jagr and Talbot play for the Flyers. You shouldn't play here, then ever play for Philadelphia. There are 28 other teams to pick from.

But sometimes financial reality dictates. Philadelphia gave Talbot $9 million over five years. I was taken aback when I heard that, especially given Talbot's recent injury history. Talbot simply wasn't going to get that sort of money or length elsewhere. He took it. I hate it. But I don't blame him.

Talbot, as he is wont to do, made a grand entrance: Nine goals already.

As for Jagr, who knows why he does what he does? I can't believe he needed the meager extra dough he got from the Flyers. But I can't believe he hits 13 against a 5 showing, either.

Jagr loves drama. We all know that. What could be more dramatic than coming back to the NHL with hockey's version of organized crime?

It's sometimes hard for players to understand the hatred fans have, even more so when that hatred is as deep-seated as hatred for the Flyers is here in Pittsburgh.

The Flyers are the kings of the push from behind, the odd-numbered brawl, the cheap shot followed by a smirk. They have a winner's arrogance even though they haven't won anything since 1975. The Flyers beat the Penguins senseless for decades and, more often than not, rubbed it in. That logo might as well be a swastika. If that's an exaggeration, it's an emotionally justified one.

Besides winning three Stanley Cups - one more than Philadelphia - my three top moments in club history are Feb. 2, 1989, when the Penguins won 5-3 at Philadelphia to end their 42-game winless streak there, and the two occasions (2008, ‘09) when the black and gold dismissed the orange and black from the playoffs. "That's the handshake line I've waited my whole life for," I told Crosby in '08.

But Jagr is, for now, the second-best player in Penguins history. Two Stanley Cups. Five scoring titles. One MVP. Olympic gold. 657 career goals. 1,628 career points.

Jagr made our lives very exciting for many years. He's a good guy. Quirky. Moody. Forever a stranger in a strange land. But funny. Quotable. I had a great working relationship with Jagr, one I enjoyed.

Talbot scored two goals in Detroit that won a Stanley Cup. If that doesn't earn total forgiveness, it comes close. I co-hosted a radio show with Talbot. Great guy. Never big-times. Visible in the community. Still a Steelers fan. Talbot loved playing and living in Pittsburgh.

There's nobody better than Talbot - except for that damned winged "P" on his chest.

As always, you'll do what you want. My emotions are mixed, too.

But if Jagr and/or Talbot are introduced as part of the Flyers' starting lineup, or if a tribute video plays on the Jumbotron, applaud. They deserve that.

When the game starts, boo the hell out of them. They deserve that, too. They're Flyers now.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Steelers win shows it's anyone's game

By Reid Forgrave
December 25, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball against the St. Louis Rams during the game on December 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH - On display at Heinz Field on Saturday was something more than a very good football team (the Pittsburgh Steelers) beating a very bad football team (the St. Louis Rams). It was more than a reminder of the wisdom of resting the beat-up soul of your team (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) when the playoffs are just around the bend — a reminder that might have served Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin well if it had occurred to him a week before.

No, more than that was on display Saturday. The deeper meaning of the Steelers’ grinding 27-0 victory Saturday was that the Steelers showed why they’re the manifestation of all that makes the NFL great: That leading into the final weekend of play, we really have no idea what the Super Bowl will look like come Feb. 5, and this resilient team proved it has as good an opportunity as any.

Even if the Steelers are surrounded by so many questions. Even if the last time we saw their star quarterback, Roethlisberger was hobbling around like an old man Monday during a 20-3 stomping in San Francisco. Even if we don’t know who’ll be under center next week as the Steelers finish the regular season in Cleveland.

“For (backup quarterback Charlie Batch) to go out there and play well, it does two things,” Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. “It gives the offense confidence we can win with Charlie, but it also gives Ben confidence that he doesn’t have to be out there on one leg for the team. Because that’s what he did in San Francisco. He felt like he needed to be out there for us to win. So hopefully this gives him the confidence that he can heal up for one more week and get ready for the playoff run, because we need him.”

And if Big Ben’s healed up, add these Steelers to the long list of NFL teams that could make a Super Bowl run.

OK, if we’re picking Super Bowl favorites, we’d have to take the defending champion Green Bay Packers. But the Packers’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last week reminded us that, in the NFL, even the most guaranteed guarantees aren’t really guaranteed at all.

As my colleague Jason Whitlock detailed earlier this week, going into Week 16 no fewer than 16 teams believed they had a realistic shot at the Super Bowl. That’s half the league, folks. You could never say that about big-market dominated Major League Baseball or the super team-dominated NBA. Only in the parity-dominated NFL can the end of the regular season see so many playoff-contending teams jostling for position.

Leading into Saturday’s games, you wouldn’t have been crazy to have your Super Bowl picks include the playoff-experienced New York Jets or Baltimore Ravens. The suddenly surging Philadelphia Eagles or San Diego Chargers. The comeback-capable Denver Broncos or New York Giants. The always-formidable New Orleans Saints or Atlanta Falcons. Arguing for others? The San Francisco 49ers? The Houston Texans? Heck, the come-from-nowhere Seattle Seahawks? No guffaws here.

And on display Saturday was something remarkable and possible only in the NFL: An injury-addled Steelers team, from a small-market city that hasn’t fielded a winning big-league baseball team since 1992, positioning itself for a fourth Super Bowl run in seven years.

They Steelers are a team of injured superstars (Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley), aging superstars (Heinz Ward, Troy Polamalu) and an utterly unpredictable, overemotional superstar (James Harrison). Yet, right now, especially after the New England Patriots’ squeaker of a win over the Miami Dolphins should make you question their supposed dominance, these Steelers might be a favorite to represent the AFC in Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLVI.

At Saturday’s Battle of the Backups — for the Rams, quarterback Kellen Clemens started in place of injured Sam Bradford — if it wasn’t one Steeler making a play, it was another. It was Batch, performing ably in his fill-in role for Roethlisberger, going 15-for-22 passing for 208 yards, including a 46-yard fourth-quarter bomb to Mike Wallace that put away the game. It was the offensive line, shifting around assignments to make up for injured center Maurkice Pouncey yet still not giving up a sack. It was the Steelers defense shutting out the hapless Rams. It was featured running back Rashard Mendenhall breaking off his second-longest run of the season, a 52-yard dash. And then it was, on the next play, rookie running back John Clay — an undrafted free agent who was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster the day before — scoring on his first NFL carry.

In a nutshell, that’s the NFL: You never know who is next up.

None of those men were the most important person at Saturday’s game, however. That would be the man standing on the sideline in a knit cap. Because if these Steelers are to make another Super Bowl run, Big Ben’s the only man who’ll lead them there, and playing Saturday could have put that in jeopardy. Roethlisberger needs to be mobile and as close to 100 percent as possible for the playoffs.

“This is Ben’s team,” Batch said. “This team moves with him. To see him go in there and do everything in his power to get back on the field is really special to watch.”

Next week against the Cleveland Browns, however, that’s the exact opposite of what Big Ben should do. And, so, next up for the Steelers is a decision: Will Tomlin bring Roethlisberger back for the final game of the regular season?

“A week ago when we played Ben, we were coming off a Thursday night performance to a Monday night performance,” Tomlin said. “We had 11 days. Had we had six or seven days, we probably wouldn’t have played him in San Francisco. Of course the collateral damage coming out of a game like Monday night, with a short week, we made the decision pretty early that we weren’t even going to attempt to work him in.”

Had he decided yet whether to give Big Ben’s ankle another week off? Tomlin was coy.

“We’ll discuss that the first of next week,” he said.

The Steelers are still battling the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title. Both teams are 11-4 after the Ravens' victory over the Browns on Saturday. The Steelers will want to head into the playoffs with momentum. Yet the Steelers don’t control their own destiny since the Ravens hold the tiebreaker. The correct decision, independent of the Ravens, is for Big Ben to rest up that ankle and head to the playoffs fresh.

But the Ravens are visiting the playoff-hungry Cincinnati Bengals. That’s no guaranteed win. The Steelers could still roll into the playoffs as division champs.

After all, in this league, there is no such thing as a guarantee.

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at

Sum total of 27-0 win: Much ado about nothing

Sunday, December 25, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Ziggy Hood #96 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tackles Kellen Clemens #10 of the St. Louis Rams during the game on December 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers won 27-0. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Through all of its myriad innovations, and despite every last inspired wrinkle introduced through the years by the incomparable Dick LeBeau, the Steelers defense never has changed its primary strategical purpose: to make the opponent one dimensional.

So, what do you do when you're presented an opposing offense that has already done that for you?

You pitch a shutout is what you do.

"A shutout is always what we want to do," said linebacker Lawrence Timmons, whose Christmas Eve included 7 unassisted tackles, 10 total tackles, 1 sack, 2 quarterback hurries, and, sure, probably 6 geese a-laying. "We're always capable of doing it."

True enough, but it's rare in an offense-flooded NFL that anyone runs up against a team like the St. Louis Rams, a team that a top defense likely should shut out.

The Rams come pre-packaged for a skunking. You can go ahead and try to make them one dimensional, but really, with a third-string quarterback and no legitimate receiving threats, this team should be marked NO DISASSEMBLY REQUIRED.

And that, almost by itself, explains the Steelers' 27-0 victory Saturday, the one they needed to preserve a puncher's chance to earn the AFC North title on the last day of the season in Cleveland.

"We can't worry about what Baltimore is going to do," said linebacker James Farrior. "We just have to control what we do."

Control never was an issue for this final home game, mostly because the Rams' self-control was so admirable.

Here's a team that had eight passing touchdowns all season at kickoff and still does. Here's a team averaging 11 points per game that fell 11 short of that. Here's a team that hadn't scored more than 21 in any game and didn't come within 20 of that.

Thus, on a day when the Rams visited the red zone exactly once across all 60 minutes, the Steelers picked up their second shutout this season (24-0 against Seattle here Sept. 18) without needing so much as a turnover. They managed three sacks and even those didn't seem terribly necessary, as third-stringer Kellen Clemens was misfiring on 15 of his 24 throws.

Had it not been for Steven Jackson, who carved out 103 rushing yards on 24 thunderous carries, the Steelers might have won this 27 to minus 30. Probably some rule against that.

"I definitely felt we could have played the run better," said Farrior, who thought he had a better feel for where this defense is than a lot of people. "We've got a good group, but it's always a work in progress. Nobody ever plays a perfect game. We've just got to continue to work and let the process play out."

As the defense continues its development just two weeks short of the playoffs, defensive back Keenan Lewis continues to be a valuable sub-package contributor. He made a great coverage play against 6-foot-5 wideout Danario Alexander early in the second quarter on a third-and-10 situation, which forced the only bit of gadgetry offered by St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo. He sent the punter rolling right on fourth-and-10 from the Steelers 44. He got 9.

"It was an aggressive call," said Spagnuolo, whose record fell to 10-37 as an NFL head coach. "We got the right look and thought we could get it, but they did a nice job taking it away."

Still, the Steelers didn't take away a lot aside from what the Rams traditionally take away from themselves (the take Saturday included a missed 33-yard field goal) and now Mike Tomlin's team is again running a little two-game streak with nary a turnover.

You'd imagine now that James Harrison has returned and that LaMarr Woodley is presumably closer, now that Timmons appears to be playing with more urgency and the secondary continues to be a force, the Steelers should be well positioned for a typical playoff run.

You'd imagine.

"On a scale of 10, I'd give us an 8 right now," said cornerback Ike Taylor, who again was virtually perfect despite the absence of any huge challenge. "We felt like we had a good chance for a shutout today, and it's always one of our goals, but there's a lot we can improve on."

It's a defense that has surrendered three total touchdowns in the past five games, only two total touchdown passes in the past six, a defense that hasn't yielded an opponent passer rating of even 87 since Tom Brady visited here Oct. 30.

But, if any of that indicates they're capable of playing football the first weekend in February, it's still somehow not terribly obvious.

If anything is, it is that the Rams brought zero focus to that question.

Gene Collier: More articles by this author

Essex's football life changed because of a different kind of reception

By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
December 25, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Charlie Batch #16 of the Pittsburgh Steelers lines up under center behind backup center Trai Essex #79 against the St. Louis Rams during the Christmas Eve game on December 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — The way Trai Essex sees it, July 23 was a life-changing day for he and Ben Roethlisberger.

On that day, Essex was among the many Steelers who helped Roethlisberger celebrate his wedding.

It was also a day when Essex realized that if he wanted to remain in pro football, he needed to get his life in order.

When Essex showed up for Roethlisberger’s wedding, his teammates almost couldn’t believe their eyes. They were shocked to see that Essex allowed himself to get fat and out of shape during the off-season. He weighed around 375 pounds, close to 50 pounds over his playing weight.

The Steelers coaches weren’t shocked and weren’t amused. They were disappointed. When camp started a week later, the Steelers were in no hurry to re-sign Essex, an unrestricted free agent.

Even though Essex had a terrific time at Roethlisberger’s wedding, he sensed that he was in deep trouble. He got the cold shoulder from his coaches. From that day forward, he dedicated himself to getting back in shape in hopes of getting one more chance.

On Aug. 22, he got that chance. He was the last of the Steelers’ free agents to sign.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve when the Steelers routed the Rams, and there was Essex turning out to be one of the surprise heroes.

“I particularly like the effort of Trai Essex,” coach Mike Tomlin said after the 27-0 romp.

When the Steelers got the ball for the first time in the first quarter, Essex was playing left guard for the second straight week. He had replaced Chris Kemoeatu, who’s struggled all year with injuries, inconsistent play and careless penalties.

But on the Steelers’ second offensive snap, the O-line was forced to re-shuffle for the umpteenth time this season. Doug Legursky, who was filling in for injured center Maurkice Pouncey, hurt his shoulder and was done for the day.

So Essex moved over, giving the Steelers their third different center in three weeks.

“When I saw Doug go down, my heart was beating,” Essex said. “I was nervous as hell. But after a few snaps I settled down and actually had fun.”

Overall, it was a fun day for all the Steelers, who improved to 11-4 and kept alive their chances of winning the AFC North.

Considering he’s 37 and making his first start since Week 4 of last season, Charlie Batch played well. He even showed nifty agility by twice eluding on-rushing defenders.The Heinz Field fans obviously enjoying seeing Batch play while Ben Roethlisberger rested his injured ankle. On several occasions, chants of “Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!” echoed throughout the North Shore.

Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 116 yards. Rookie John Clay scored his first career touchdown on his first pro carry. Antonio Brown set the Steelers’ single-season record for all-purpose yards. After serving a one-game suspension, James Harrison recorded a sack. Lawrence Timmons got his first sack of the season. The Steelers’ defense pitched their second shutout of the year.

“It was a good, necessary win,” Tomlin said.

But for Essex, it was a day in which he came full circle.

Since Roethlisberger’s wedding, he’s managed to salvage his career. He’s lost 50 pounds. And in a season in which the Steelers have had so many injuries, especially on the offensive line, Essex has been so valuable.

When he took over for Legursky at center, Essex was playing his fifth different position on the O-line this season. He’s played both tackle spots and both guard spots.

“Hey, I got a few snaps at tight end and fullback this year, too,” he said with a laugh.

Really, it’s Essex who’s been the poster child for Tomlin’s “next man up” and “the standard is the standard” mantras.

Early in his career, Essex was strictly a tackle. But in recent years as Tomlin continues to preach position flexibility, Essex has learned to play guard and center as well.

“The more things you can do, the better chance you have of staying in this league,” he said. “I’m just thankful I’m still here. I guess Ben’s wedding was the best thing to happen to him and the best thing to happen to me.”

Rams' offense looks anemic against Steelers

By Jim Thomas
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
December 25, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Linebackers Lawrence Timmons #94 and James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sack quarterback Kellen Clemens #10 of the St. Louis Rams in the fourth quarter of their game at Heinz Field on December 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH • So here the Rams are again — another Christmas, another season near the bottom of the heap in the NFL. When they won seven games in 2010, and came within a victory of the NFC West title, there was an expectation that the worst was behind this forlorn franchise.

Steven Jackson admits he thought that was the case.

"I was hopeful," he said. "I must admit that I did."

But after a 27-0 loss to Pittsburgh, the Rams flew home Christmas Eve with a 2-13 record. For the fourth time in five years the Rams will finish a season with three victories or fewer.

There wasn't much suspense Saturday at Heinz Field. In a black-and-gold sea of Terrible Towels, the Rams lost their sixth game in row in almost stereotypical fashion.

The defense was willing. But the offense? Well, it would have trouble scoring in a singles bar. Victims of a shutout for the second time in four games, the Rams had their best scoring chances end in missed field goals of 52 and 33 yards by Josh Brown.

Defensively, the Rams allowed three big plays: a 35-yard reception by Rashard Mendenhall, a 52-yard run by Mendenhall and a 46-yard reception by Mike Wallace. None were scoring plays, but they led to two touchdowns and a field goal by the Steelers, who improved to 11-4.

Starting in place of Sam Bradford at quarterback, Kellen Clemens came down to earth after his surprisingly good Rams debut last weekend against Cincinnati. He completed a mere nine of 24 passes for 91 yards and a 49.1 passer rating against Pittsburgh's No. 1-ranked defense.

"In the spirit of Christmas, they weren't very giving," Clemens said. "Very stingy on defense, the Pittsburgh Steelers today. They're an elite defense."

The Rams' longest pass play of the day went for only 17 yards, with a 22-yarder to Brandon Lloyd on the opening drive successfully challenged by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, changing the call to an incomplete pass.

"There's a few throws I just should've hit," Clemens said. "A couple other throws where we had an opportunity and didn't convert. You can't leave opportunities on the table against a defense like that. And we did today."

About the only bright spots for the Rams were Josh Gordy's third interception of the season — and second in as many games — and Jackson's 103 yards rushing. In the process, Jackson became just the seventh player in NFL history with seven or more consecutive seasons with 1,000 yards rushing.

"That's awesome," left guard Jason Brown said. —"'Jack' works his butt off, runs his butt off. He deserves it."

But the Rams reached the red zone only once and the result of that was Brown's missed 33-yarder. If Brown makes both field goals, it's 13-6 Steelers early in the fourth quarter. It's a one-score game and who knows.

"We're saying the same thing over there (on the sideline)," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "But unfortunately that didn't happen. Let's face it. That's an elite defense, and the points are going to be few and far between. So when you get it in there and you can get at least three, that's what you need. If it's 13-6 and it's a one-possession game ... you're just one play away."

Instead it remained 13-0, and when Pittsburgh punched in two touchdowns in the final 9 minutes of the fourth quarter, it became a 27-0 rout. The Steelers did this without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who rested his high ankle sprain with the playoffs in mind.

"Obviously, he's less than 100 percent, and it's our desire at this juncture to get him as close to 100 percent as we can for January football," Tomlin told before the game. "I felt like this week provided an opportunity to do that."

That was a polite way of saying: "Even with Charlie Batch at quarterback, we should be able to take care of the Rams."

That's pretty much what happened. Batch threw only 22 passes, with the Steelers relying more on Mendenhall (18 carries, 116 yards) and the running game than usual.

"I thought they would try to run the ball more," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I thought they would do a lot of counters, which they did. They're very similar to Arizona offensively, as far as what their run schemes are. Same coaching schemes."

That's because Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt came to the Cardinals from the Steelers.

Laurinaitis added: "That second game against Arizona, what hurt us was counters and stuff, and that's what (Pittsburgh) started doing. We stopped some of 'em; some of 'em we didn't."

So either the Rams just aren't good enough to play consistent run defense or they just don't learn from mistakes. As a team, the Steelers rushed for 169 yards. If the Rams give up 159 yards rushing in the Jan. 1 season finale against San Francisco, they will be the worst rushing defense in franchise history in terms of yards allowed.

The 2008 Rams of Scott Linehan and interim head coach Jim Haslett yielded a franchise worst 2,475 yards rushing; the 2011 Rams are at 2,317 yards after Saturday. But all things considered, the defense wasn't the problem. Once again, it kept the Rams in the game until the fourth quarter.

It's the offense, which is staggering through a season-closing stretch of facing six top 10 defenses over the final seven games of the season. With only the 49ers, and their fifth-ranked defense left to play, the Rams have been outscored 150-53 during the six-game losing streak.

"They schedule 'em; we gotta play 'em," Spagnuolo said. "It makes it tough for us, and yet our guys are still in there battling. And in the offensive line — we know all those issues there — it's been going on all year long. But I thought today they did a pretty nice job in helping Steven get those yards."

With zero points.