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Jul. 29 2010 — 5:18 pm | 74 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Elvis Has Just Left the Building

All good things must come to an end, or so I’m told. And like the back up fullback who gets a visit from the Turk on the last day of NFL training camp, so it is with my ride with True/Slant. It’s been fun, difficult, frustrating, enlightening, annoying, gratifying and sometimes hilarious (in a Pinter-esque sort of way, I realize), but still. Sometimes, it was all of those things all at the same time.

What that means for now is that I’ll be blogging independently and selling my wares for other stories to the highest bidders. (Do people even pay reporters any more? And if they do, and if you know any of those people and, um, have them on speed-dial or are like ‘friends’ with them on the facebooky machine, drop a dime for me.)

Also, finally, for the love of all that is holy and right, I will be working on finishing my book on the Pittsburgh Passion, “Rough & Tumble, Pioneer Women in the World of Female, Full-Contact Football.” Look for it, um, sometime.

But before I hand in my playbook and skate-sharpener and turn off the jumbotron, I have to say, many thanks to Coates Bateman, Michael Roston and Lewis Dvorkin, for keeping True/Slant up and running, which gave me a comfy place to write, but also a place where I got to read and interact with so many great writers. To Coates and Michael personally, thanks for all of the encouragement.

You can find me here, at my regular, old-fashioned blog, Balls & Whistles.

In the words of the all-world, all-time great Pittsburgh Penguins announcer Mike Lange, Elvis has just left the building.

Jul. 27 2010 — 1:14 pm | 80 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Training Camp Opens Soon. Five Questions Facing the Pittsburgh Steelers

PITTSBURGH - APRIL 19:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 ...

Image by Getty Images North America via @daylife

It’s that time of year again when Pittsburgh faithful are allowed to avert their eyes from the mess that is the Pittsburgh Pirates (looks like what I wrote just a few days ago was overly optimistic — again) and gaze just beyond PNC Park to Heinz field, toward the six-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. With the Steelers reporting to training camp in Latrobe on Friday, I have five questions. They’re not burning questions, more like room temperature questions, but they are questions nonetheless:

1. What a friend we have in Jesus, a/k/a Troy Polamalu. In 2008, the Steelers had the No. 1 ranked defense in the entire league, allowing just 13.9 points per game and 237.2 total yards from scrimmage per game. They had the second most sacks in the league with 51. In 2009, most of the players returned from that amazing run. But it wasn’t so super. They dropped from first to 12th in points allowed, and gave up 300 yards per game. It was, well, it was depressing. How did it happen? One name. Polamalu. He missed 11 games due to injury and the team lost six of those, which is to say, they are one defense with him, and without him, they are the guys who lost to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland. If he’s healthy, the Steelers have a decent shot at returning within orbiting distance at least of past glories. If he’s out nursing injuries, they can start thinking about the 2011 draft.

2. Clusterbomb at Quarterback. Coach Tomlin is dealing with a lot of crap here, just at one position. First, he has to get ready for the start of the season, which means getting either Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon ready. Both, I believe are capable, competent quarterbacks. Leftwich did a great job subbing for Ben Roethlisberger in 2008; last year, all Dennis Dixon had to do was make his first NFL start in a prime time game in Baltimore, of all places, and the kid played great. The Steelers lost the game in OT, but it was in no way due to Dixon. The challenge for Tomlin is how to split practice time at camp? He cannot cede the first four games through underpreparation of Leftwich/Dixon, but still, like it or not, the starter of the Steelers is Ben Roethlisberger and he, likewise, has to be ready in week five. It’ll be interesting to see how Tomlin balances it all.

3. Offensive Line. I probably could have started with this because whoever lines up under center – Leftwich, Dixon or Roethlisberger, may get killed before the midway part of the season. The line was not great last year. Hell, it wasn’t even great during the Super Bowl run of 2008. (I would posit that it was perhaps the worst O Line on a Super Bowl winning team.) But this year, that already suspect line lost its starting right tackle for the season and they still have a sub-par center, unless first round pick Maurkice Pouncey, can step in. But rookie centers almost never happen. So the line that allowed 50 sacks last year is already worse before the first day of training camp. Of course, both Leftwich and Dixon get rid of the ball faster than Roethlisberger, so his suspension may be a strange gift to this unit. But quick release or not and quick timing patterns or no, this unit is the most suspect on the team.

4. Mendenhall, Mendenhall, Mendenhall. The 2008 first round draft pick enters his third year and this is the make or break season for him. Rashard doesn’t have Willie Parker to share the load with him and will be backed up by third down specialist Mewelde Moore and a bunch of jabeeps. No offense fellas, but it all falls to Mendenhall. His first year was pretty disappointing. He played in only three games before Ray Lewis broke his shoulder. Seriously. His shoulder. Which prompted one of my friends to ask, who the hell breaks a shoulder? What is this guy, made of styrofoam? Last year, he was much better and didn’t break his shoulder, or any other broken bones, so that was an accomplishment in and of itself. Plus, despite occasional outbreaks of mad fumblitis, he showed real power and explosive speed, but it was like OC Bruce Arians didn’t trust the guy or something. He had 20 or more carries only six times. It seems to me, if you draft a running back with your first pick, the assumption is that he’s the feature back and a feature back does not get 11 or 12 carries per game; he gets 22, 24 and 25 carries per game. So the question regarding Mendenhall is twofold:  Can he carry the load being the feature back? And will Bruce Arians patiently feed him the ball enough so that he can be the man?

5. Enthusiasm. This is a question for the fans, not the players. The 2009 campaign was not just disappointing, but repulsive. Despite losses to the Bengals and the Bears early in the season, the team rebounded and ripped off five nice wins, three against good teams (Chargers, Vikings and Broncos.) Things were looking good around here. What went wrong, went wrong fast. They dropped a game to the Bengals, ceding control in the division to Cincy. Then they inexplicably dropped games to the Chiefs, the Ravens, the Raiders and the Browns. An entire region threw up on itself in disgust. That’s pretty hard to watch, losing to teams of the caliber of the 2009 Chiefs, Raiders and Browns, all of which is to say that the team has to go a ways to earn back the trust and respect of any sane fans around here (not that there are many of those.)

Then, there is the 241 pound cleat-shod elephant in the room. Fans are in an untenable position. Can they root for the team and not root for Roethlisberger? How do you straddle that? Some people don’t care about Roethlisberger’s off-season transgressions, the allegations of rape, sexual assault and just general entitled, drunken assholery, but most people hold him personally in contempt. At least most people I’ve talked to. But, time has gone on since the story broke in Milledgeville, Georgia and as time as passed, people’s outrage has dampened, if just a wee bit. The fact that the elephant in question has kept a low profile all summer certainly helps. But I wonder how he’ll be greeted when he takes the field on October 17th versus the Browns? Is it possible to boo the quarterback while cheering the rest of the defense? Can you root for the franchise, but not the man leading it?

Jul. 22 2010 — 8:20 am | 99 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

Okay Pittsburgh Pirates, You Got My Attention

PITTSBURGH - APRIL 05:  Andrew McCutchen #22 o...

Image by Getty Images North America via @daylife

Okay, Pirates, I am engaged. I am rapt. Plugged in. Enthralled. Well, maybe not enthralled, but you do have my attention so: now what?

Since the All Star Break, the heretofore pitiful Pittsburgh Pirates have played six games, winning four of them. It’s a nice number of wins versus losses, but it’s no great shakes. It’s how they’ve won that grabbed me by the throat, slapped me around and said, “Hey, dummy, wake up!”

In those games, the Pittsburgh line up, the same one which posted a winning percentage of .341 at the break and which had scored just 284 runs in those 88 games, have scored 50 runs in the past six games. They scored 86 runs in the entire month of May and just 80 in all of June. They were drubbed by the score of 20-0 in April. Ouch.

And yet, in less than one week, 50 Pirates crossed home plate, a pace which they cannot keep up over a long stretch, of course, but considering how moribund they’ve been at the plate, this is like watching the Bizarro Buccos.

Of course, management kept promising things would get better. Just wait, they said. The young guys are good, they claimed. Seriously. We know you’ve been hosed in the past, but we mean it this time. Really. They’re coming. And they’re gonna be good. Don’t tune out yet. Please.

I had heard that song and dance before. Andrew McCutchen is the real deal, but one guy does not a major league franchise make.

But the cavalry is here. Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez. And they are really good.

Which leads me to believe that either:

(one) these guys are as promised.


(two) this is a blip. Or a bloop. Or a bleep. No. Scratch that. The last 17 years have been a bleep. So a blip or a bloop. Basically, this could be a fluke is what I’m getting at, because it’s hard to believe that this isn’t just a case of a blind pig finding an acorn, which I am told, happens from time to time.

It’s not like the management team are the most credible guys around. After all, they brought on Aki “Knee Brace” Iwamura to play 2nd base, paid him $4,850,000.00, and in return got a guy who had 30 hits in 54 games. (If you watched closely enough, you could almost see the bat move off his shoulder, so infrequent and glacial was it’s movement.)

This is the franchise that has strung together more consecutive losing seasons than any team in the history of professional baseball. And that’s saying something cousin.

You’ll pardon me if I haven’t drunk the Bucco Kool-Aid just yet.

But at the risk of being a Gulla Bull, it feels different this time. Which has to mean something, even if all the runs and these few wins don’t mean anything practical for this year. 2010 is a wash and will be another (record setting) losing season.

The way this team is playing now, this could be a portent of actual good things to come. Can they finish strong in August and September? And if they do, can they translate that into success in 2011? If they keep these guys together, and if they can get a few key elements (wily, veteran catcher anyone?), they could be a team with playoff hopes still alive in August of 2011.

What looms larger than Pedro Alvarez’ OBP is the trade deadline (July 31st). Is the Pirates front office dealing in good faith this year or will they be up to their usual tricks of sending young talent away, only to receive a bag of batting practice balls and some summer sausages in return.

So I’ve poured myself a Dixie Cup of that Bucco Kool-Aid, but I’ll wait to drink it until the returns are in from any trade deadline moves.

Jul. 20 2010 — 9:38 pm | 114 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

The Steelers Need to Sign Lamarr Woodley

MIAMI - JANUARY 03:  Linebacker LaMarr Woodley...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

So much is up in the air heading into training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. Of course, they have to deal with the whole giant f*ckmess created by Ben Roethlisberger who, justifiably, is suspended for the first four games of the season

Coach Mike Tomlin will have to deploy either Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon in his place (or some combination of the two), to get through the first four games, which means he has to have one of those guys ready to play quarterback, plus he has to find a balance to get Ben ready, too, for when it’s his time to step back in. That’s a tough task. Who gets the reps? How many? How much? Because Tomlin has to do two things – try to win at least two of the first four games without Roethlisberger and then pray that Roethlisberger can play like he did in 2008 and through much of 2009.  It’s a helluva task.

So Tomlin has to deal with all that is unholy coming from the #7 jersey and those offensive players left to clean up after him, plus he has to find a way to hold together a defense that was the best in the league in 2008 and looked aged and decrepit through much of 2009. There is no escaping this:  that Steelers defense is old and one of the most productive young guys is pissed off.

ProFootballTalk.com is reporting that linebacker Lamarr Woodley is unhappy with his contract. Woodley is scheduled to make $550,000.00 next year, a situation he characterizes as “all jacked up.” I kind of agree. But re-negotiating in the current CBA limbo is kind of jacked up, too. Which is to say there is a 30 percent rule, meaning that the Steelers could renegotiate and give another 30% over the $550,000 they are to pay Woodley, which would bring his salary to $715,000.

Of course, there are ways around that. Naturally, the Steelers could give Woodley a big fattie of a signing bonus (as the Eagles did with Kevin Kolb), but with the 2011 season up in the air, they might pay a lot for one year if they did that.

Still, the Steelers need to deal in good faith. Woodley is, in my estimation, the most productive player drafted in the Mike Tomlin era, which means he’s not only good, he’s young and good. This combination is invaluable.

The presumed starting defensive 11 players (as indicated by the Steelers own depth chart) are:

On the line, they’ve got Aaron Smith who is 34 and coming off a devastating shoulder injury. This guy is great and if anybody can come back from injury, it’s him; nevertheless, at 34 and playing such a physically grueling position, he does not have too many seasons in front of him. Casey Hampton is 32.  Brett Keisel is the youngest starter on the line at 31.

At linebacker, the aforementioned Woodley (25) and James Harrison (32) on the outside. Inside, there is the venerable, wily James Farrior who is 35 and who, despite his greatness, looked every bit of 35 during the Steelers dreadful five-game losing streak last year. And Lawrence Timmons, who is 24 and was selected one pick ahead of Woodley in the 2007 draft, but who hasn’t produced as consistently as Woodley. Yeah, I know he was playing on a sprained ankle (or two) last year, but the guy looked lost half the time. Still, he’s young, so we’ll give him that.

In the defensive backfield, there is the wondrous, magnificent, Troy “Better than Jesus” Polamalu, who battled injuries much of last year. He is 29 years old. Seriously, the guy is better than Jesus, if Jesus had played football, that is. When he’s healthy, he’s the best there is in the league and Dick LeBeau has constructed his defense around this sure knowledge. But without him? They are ordinary. It showed last year when they didn’t have him. The other safety is Ryan Clark who is 30 and who, like Jesus, leads with his head, which leads to a few concussions. That does not bode well for a long career.

Then there’s Ike “Swaggin” Taylor who is 30, but plays like he’s 22 and I don’t mean that in a good way. And William Gay who is only 25. He’s young, but you know, he’s just not really very good. Seriously. Not really very good.

If you’re counting at home, that’s four guys on the whole defense under the age of 30. One of those guys is God. One of them has underperformed but still has tremendous potential. One of them kinda sucks. And the last one is Woodley. Combine past performance with the fact that great players like Farrior, Smith and Harrison cannot play forever, and Woodley is, right this second, their best young defensive bet.

Jul. 12 2010 — 2:29 pm | 67 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Jesse Jackson, Making America Safe for Lebron James

Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. discusses funding h...

Image via Wikipedia

First there was the stupidity of Team LeBron deciding that he needed to express his inner special-little snowflake-ness to its fullest by announcing his intentions on an hour-long ESPN special.

Then, there was the callow stupidity of ESPN brass who agreed to air a full hour of such egomaniacal tomfoolery. To say nothing of the idiocy of Jim Gray’s fawning “interview” with LeBron.

And LeBron himself, who sounded like the love child of Narcissus and whoever was the Greek God of Dopes.

Just when it seemed impossible that anybody could out-stupid the ESPN-James-Gray cabal, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert released his petulant, idiotic response.

It was a nationally televised festival of absurdity. Where is Samuel Beckett when you need him?

I didn’t think it could get any stupider, really, because what could possibly be more inane than Lebron, ESPN and Gilbert? And that’s saying something, considering that we live in an era of NFL football players who are dumb enough to tweet about their marijuana use (hey, it happened, okay) but last week’s Lebron’s Ego Fair was a new low in brainlessness. What could surpass it?

Enter, one Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr. According to ESPN:

Jesse Jackson criticized Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert on Sunday, saying Gilbert sees LeBron James as a “runaway slave” and that the owner’s comments after the free-agent forward decided to join the Miami Heat put the player in danger.

Gilbert’s comments were thoughtless and unprofessional. The guy is an entitled jerk, or at least that’s how he behaved. Frankly, he should be embarrassed for behaving with less maturity and grace than a 12 year old girl who’s parents won’t take her to the Jonas Brothers concert. But a runway slave? Putting Lebron in danger? Thanks, Jesse, for taking an already epically moronic situation and making it exponentially even more idiotic. What do you expect from the guy who said he wanted to cut a certain body part of a (then) presidential hopeful?

I already feel dumber for having written this.

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    Ink-stained, underpaid sportswriter, voluntary trekker, omelette master, rabid fan

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