Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Coach Natalie Randolph, a Modest Introduction

After the first football game of the 2010 season, a loss by the score of 28-0, head coach Natalie Randolph told the crush of reporters, "We lost a football game, that's all. We lost a football game."

She was right, of course, but somehow, with the ESPN guys, the Washington Post guys, several TV crews, anywhere from six to ten photographers on the ground and god knows how many print journalists ringing the track around the field, plus an HBO camera crew with prominent boom mike following Randolph's every move from pre-game warm-ups through the handshake line, it was easy to forget it was a high school football game.

It is a principle of physics that the act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed. And so it was with the inaugural game of the Natalie Randolph Era for the Coolidge Colts.

I'm lucky enough to be working on a feature about Randolph and the Coolidge program. I spent all of last Friday at the D.C. high school, wandering the halls with the coach, with vice-principal Vernard Howard, meeting with the staff and principal Thelma Jarrett. That day? It felt special. It was undeniable.

The first week of school always feels different, but a big part of the reason this first Friday felt special was the anticipation of the Colts football game that evening. Typically, the first game for Coolidge would go unnoticed by all except the students, faculty, staff and alumni, but nationally the Natalie Randolph story has been treated as anything but typical.

The attention has been swift, overwhelming and unexpected, particularly by Randolph herself. In fact, when I asked her if she saw this attention coming, she said, "No, No!" and then had to laugh about it all.

Mostly because the school, the administration and the football players are known to Randolph, an environmental sciences teacher at Coolidge, she didn't really have to introduce herself to her team -- most of them already knew her.

I 'knew' her only as a football player. I first saw Randolph play in the 2006 NWFA championship, a game that her team, the D.C. Divas, won handily over the Oklahoma City Lightning. The Divas and the Pittsburgh Passion were respected rivals and Randolph's name has come up often in conversation with many of the Passion players I've interviewed over the years.

Walking the halls with her last week in search of a color printer she could use, one of her players came up to her with an effusive "Coach!" and gave her a big hug. Her response? "Where's your tie?" It was a good natured, warm admonition, as her players were all to wear shirts and ties last Friday and I sub-conciously spent the remainder of our walk picking out tie-clad young men.

Still in search of a printer, we passed some students on the stairwell, one of whom cussed in conversation with the other. I didn't even hear it but Randolph, like all teachers, has a singular ability to pick up on those kinds of transgressions and quickly correct them, which she did with a sharp, "Watch your mouth." The coach Randolph story may be all the rage and she, a young African-American woman coaching boys playing the manliest of sports, may be the media's darling, but she is still a science teacher trying to impart some knowledge and maybe plant the seed of interest in science in a few Coolidge students.

That is a fact not lost on Principal Jarrett, who chose Randolph not for her Divas resume or her years as a track star at the University of Virginia, but for her vision of athletics working hand in hand with academics. Her players attend a mandatory study hall every day for an hour when school lets out. Football is the carrot to get them there and the hope is, once there, with appropriate support, the boys can be successful student-athletes, with the emphasis on student.

When we picture a football coach, we have a certain image in mind. Grizzled. Square jawed. Male. But Randolph is none of those things. She is petite and pretty and young. Well, she is square-jawed and her jaw was set through much of Friday night's loss, prompting one of the photogs next to me to say, "She's so non-emotive. This is frustrating."

The game itself started almost too perfectly, as junior Calvin Brown took in the opening kickoff from the Carroll Lions and raced up the field into daylight. He had a pretty clear lane the whole way into the endzone, but slipped around the 46 yard line. The Colts put together a nice drive from there, but they made it hard for themselves, as they were penalized early and often. At some point in the game, I lost track, but there were three or four pre-snap penalties on Coolidge in their very first drive which I believe were directly attributable to nerves, the packed house and the throng of media rabble. After all, these are high school kids accustomed to several hundred people in the stands, not several thousand.

That first drive fizzled at the Lions' 3 yard line and the game remained scoreless into the second quarter before Carroll scored to make it 7-0 at the half. The Coolidge squad is young and undersized, they lost their best offensive player, Calvin Strong, to injury early in the first half and eventually they gave way to Carroll, which dominated the second half. With the score 21-0 late in the game, I made a note to myself that coach Randolph's biggest challenge at this point was to keep frustration and resignation at bay for her players.

The challenges are great for the coach. Her team is fast, but raw and small. It always takes time for a coaching staff to coalesce, and for the team as a whole, staff and players, to come together. It'll be interesting to see how Randolph handles it all, now that the initial rush of enthusiasm and commotion has passed.

I can hardly wait to get down to Coolidge again.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Preseason Postmortem Week 3: Goodbye Justin

After a crappy, penalty filled night in Denver, I'd surmise that collectively, the Steelers are happy to get out of Mile High. Whose stock rose? Whose fell?

Stock Up: Jonathan Dwyer, RB. First, he showed a really nice burst and vision taking in this 5 yard touchdown scamper. Then, he moved a mass of humanity about 17 yards when it looked like he would get nothing. Actually, you couldn't even see his jersey number, just a huge pile of huge people moving inexorably downfield. Immediately after that, he bounced off/over a would-be tackler and took off on this 40 yard run. It may not be enough for Dwyer to make the final cuts. He's battled some injuries during camp which have put him at a serious disadvantage and he has a long way to go to be a complete back - his blitz pick-up has been pitiful - but what we saw in Denver was awfully promising. I expect to see a huge serving of Dwyer in Thursday night's game.

Stock Down: Justin Hartwig, C. The handwriting was on the wall the moment the Steelers drafted Maurkice Pouncey, but there was no way to know it was speed-writing on the wall. Center is a tough position to play mentally and generally it takes a college guy a season or two or three to get comfortable in there in the pros. But Pouncey is a prodigy. Still, the thought heading into camp was that even if Pouncey was ready ahead of expectations, they'd still need Hartwig around as an insurance policy. If they keep Hartwig on the roster, the only person who might need a beefed up insurance policy is Byron Leftwich. Justin the Putrid's blocking could not have been worse had he snapped the ball, then immediately sat down on the field and dealt himself a hand of solitaire on his iPhone. He's always been one of the lesser centers in the league, but last night, he proved to be completely expendable. According to the always reliable Ed Bouchette at the PG, Hartwig is scheduled to make $2,080,000 this year, money that could be better spent elsewhere.

Stock Down: Dennis Dixon, QB. I scream, you scream, we all scream for Double D. But then, really, um, not so much, no. I still think that Tomlin & Co. were right to take a longer look at Dixon, but now that we've seen him with the first unit, he looked like a third string quarterback, or, depending on how well situated your team is, a second string quarterback, or even a first-string guy who still needs a lot of work. The kid is talented, but the offense clunked along with him in leading the way. Worse, his first interception was inexcusable. I know he was trying to make something happen, I know he was trying to make an impression on the coaches, but it turns out it was the wrong impression. That pass was a bad idea the second it left Double D's hand. He should have known better than to throw that. The second one, the DB jumped the route and the pass was imminently interceptable. I'm not sure how the Steelers are going to fare without Pig Ben for four games, but I do know this - what they cannot afford are pick sixes by whichever QB starts for them. And thus endeth the Great Dennis Dixon versus Byron Leftwich debate.

Stock Up: Charlie Batch, QB. Yeah, I know Charlie threw a pick-six, too, but on his interception, it looked like either Tyler Grisham or Emmanuel Sanders was supposed to break off or run a different route. For that play to work, the QB has to make the throw on faith that the wide out will be there. Other than that, Charlie looked good. Very good. There clearly isn't room for him on Pittsburgh's roster when Pig Ben comes back, but Charlie looks better than both Derek Anderson and Matt Leinart in Arizona. When the axe falls here, and it will, Chaz should get himself on the first plane to Phoenix. I'm sure Whizzer will be glad to see him.

Stock Up: William Gay, DB.
Oh, it almost pains me to admit it, but as a nickel back, the guy's not bad. Just as a starting corner, well, not so much. His interception of Tim Tebow was a thing of beauty last night -- he made a great read on the play, baited Tebow into the throw and then, most importantly, actually held on to the ball for the interception. Well done, Mr. Gay. Well done.

While we're in the defensive backfield,

Stock Down: Keenan Lewis, DB. Lewis, starting in place of Bryant McFadden (who has a pectoral injury) gave up an eight-yard catch to Brandon Lloyd. Then he proceeded to knee Lloyd and appropriately enough, got a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct flag. This AFTER he was flagged earlier in the game for a late hit. Two unsportsmanlike in one game? C'mon. Lewis was starting due to McFadden's injury, but B-Mac has been less than awesome and the rumbling around camp was that Lewis actually had a shot to win the starting job. Epic fail. Although I have to admit, I enjoyed coach Tomlin's turn as coach Cowher. He grabbed Lewis by the collar and got all up in his face when he came off the field. Vintage Bill Cowher move. And I loved it. Then this, from the Trib - apparently Lewis, The Stupider, punched some glass thing and it shattered all over the joint. He has just taken himself from second or third on the corner depth chart and put himself in a battle for the sixth and last spot. The Stupider, indeed.

Stock Down: Dan Sepulveda, in this instance, K or more precisely, kick off specialist. Riddle me this: Why is it that the Steelers kickers are unable to put the ball in the endzone on kick offs? Even in Denver! Sepulveda's first kick went out of bounds. (Shaking head.) His second kick went to the 12 yard line. Third? Well, the Steelers didn't get so many chances at kick offs, what with all the stalled drives and interceptions and such, and Reed handled the two kick offs in the second half. It should be noted that Skippy's kicks were nothing to write home about, but were a bit better, coming down at the 8 and the 3 yard lines, respectively.

Need I even say it, Stock Up: Maurkice Pouncey, C. The kid went up against Jamal Williams, one of the best nose tackles in the league without question, and held his own. Williams gives wily veterans complete fits, but Pouncey looked good in his best test of the preseason. He will certainly have some mis-steps and missed assignments along the way, but there is no question Pouncey should be the starter on opening day and has the capacity to become an elite center at some point. And while we're here again ...

Stock Down: Bruce Arians playcall on 4th and 1. Love him or hate him, you have to admit, BA gets his brains all in a twist in short yardage situations. He must think he's the cleverest guy in the room. Nobody would expect Double D rolling out on a 4th and 1. Except that they would. And do you know why? First, they don't have to stay at home, because you really don't need five big bodies clogging the middle to stop the diminutive Mewelde Moore. And second, the Steelers almost never run between the tackles anymore in short yardage situations. I have a novel idea. How about run the ball with Issac Redman. Behind your burgeoning superstar at center. You know what? If it doesn't work, you don't have to try it again. The thing is, the play that he called would work if the defense was thinking a run between the tackles was coming. If the defense is thinking that way, it creates an opportunity for Dixon on the edge. But Denver wasn't fooled. Not by a long shot. And in fact, nobody's been fooled by BA's, er, creative play-calls in short yardage situations in a long time. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Except that they do. All the time.

Stock Down: Everybody who contributed a stupid penalty. Sepulveda for kicking out of bounds; Keenan Lewis, unnecessary roughness TWICE; Lawrence Timmons for roughing Kyle Orton; James Harrison for unnecessary roughness; Flozell Adams for consecutive false start penalties; and Stefan Logan for unsportsmanlike conduct. Man.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Prime Time Preseason Menu

As tonight's a prime time game, I'm not making game food, so much as dinner. Tonight is Moroccan Chicken Stew with Couscous. I originally stole, then slightly adapted the recipe from this blog. This quickly became a house favorite. It's been a while since I made it, so I'm reviving it for tonight's dress rehearsal versus the Denver Broncos.

My slightly modified version is below:

Moroccan Inspired Chicken Stew

-- 8-10 chicken thighs (boneless, skinless version -- although today, I got bone in thighs and just skinned them myself. It was fairly gruesome and I would not recommend this for the faint of heart. In short, if you cannot watch "Bizarre Foods," then this probably is not a task you want to undertake.)
-- several tbsp cup extra-virgin olive oil
-- 2 onions, diced
-- 4 carrots, peeled and coarsely diced
-- 4 cloves garlic, finely diced
-- 1/2 tbsp ground turmeric
-- 2 tsp ground cumin
-- 1 tsp ground coriander
-- heavy pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
-- 1 cinnamon stick
-- 2 bay leaves
-- 2 c. chicken broth
-- Finely grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
-- 1 can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
-- 2 c. big, pitted green olives

Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown the chicken all over and season with salt and pepper. Transfer the browned chicken to a plate. It might be easiest to work in batches, depending on the size of your cookware.

Reduce medium heat, add the onions and garlic and carrots & pinch of salt. Cook until the veggies are softened and brown, 5 to 6 minutes.

Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, red pepper, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves and cook until fragrant, just about 1 or 2 minutes.

Add the chicken broth, lemon zest, and the lemon juice. Return the chicken to the pot, add the chickpeas and olives. Increase the heat to medium high and simmer covered for about 30 minutes. It's nice and moist, so you can't really overcook the chicken. I let it cook for about an hour and it was moist and delicious as can be.

I serve it over whole wheat couscous. I am generally not a fan of things whole wheat, nor am I a big couscous head, but in this instance, I think the whole wheat couscous works exceptionally well.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Steelers Preseason. The Turk Cometh

Right after the Steelers get home from Denver, they will cut the roster down to 75 men and less than a week later, make the final cuts down to 53 players. When I was a kid, I remember two things that seemed different. It seemed like they were at camp at St. V’s longer and I distinctly remember three cut dates. But memory is a funny thing. It was probably exactly the same, but my conception of time was way, way different.

As to the here and now, here’s a handy guide to watching the last two games, who is on the bubble, who is a lock and who may be destined for the waiver wire:


They’re gonna keep Pig Ben, Double D and Leftwich. What they do with Double D and Leftwich in Pig Ben’s absence is another matter altogether, but I for one will be sad to see the Charlie Batch era end for the Steelers. For the team, it’s the right thing to do. And Chaz should find work - there are at least a dozen teams who could use a good, smart back-up. When his playing days are over, I hope he comes back to his hometown for good. We’ll miss you Chaz. Hurry back.


Last year, the Steelers kept nine linemen and assuming they do the same but there are a dozen lineman on the roster at the moment. At the moment, there are five absolute locks (Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Maurkice Pouncey, Trai Essex and Hotel Flozell [more for his run blocking than his glacial pass blocking]) which leaves Justin Hartwig, Doug Legursky, Adrian Jones, Kraig Urbik, Ramon Foster, Tony Hills and Jonathan Scott battling it out for the remaining four spots. I get the sense (based on nothing at all) that Tony Hills and Ramon Foster have a really good chance of locking up some of those spots, so I’m going to try to keep one eye on the line the whole night. Beyond which, I believe it’s time to let Hartwig go and just start Pouncey. If you see a lot of Doug Legursky on Sunday, it may mean the coaches are leaning that way, too.


Again, last year, they kept five spots for running back. Suspect Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore are givens, which means there are six guys trying to make a push for the last three spots. They list Stefan Logan as a running back, even though he’s really just a return guy. If they go with Antonio Brown as the return specialist, I don’t think Logan’s a factor at all in the running back race. Issac Redman is sure to make the team this year (isn’t he?), which means there are spots left for only two guys. Frank the Tank has been on the field as a lead blocker a ton, plus he’s a beast on kick and punt return coverage, so that’s four. So that means that Dwayne Wright (listed officially as a fullback), sixth round draft pick Jonathan Dwyer and Justin Vincent are duking it out for that last spot.

I don’t expect a change from last year’s three of Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and David Johnson. Has anybody even see Sean McHugh on the field in the first two games? Eugene Bright? He’s probably been out there, but not so as anybody noticed.


Five is the magic number here. By my count it looks like this: Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Antwan Randal El and the coaches love Emmanual Sanders. The question is, if they keep only five, what do they do about Arnaz Battle v. Antonio Brown? Of course, if they keep Brown as the kick return specialist, they’ll have six wide outs and perhaps only carry four running backs, since Stef Logan was a running back in name only last year.

It gets really interesting on the defensive side off the ball, particularly when you get beyond the line of scrimmage.


Coach John Mitchell has spoken about how much he loves using the six man rotation of Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, Ziggy Hood, Nick Eason and Chris Hoke. Last year, they kept seven, so keep an eye on these guys on Sunday night to battle for the final spot: Ra’Shon Harris, Steve McLendon, Doug Worthington and Scott Paxson.


The Steelers seem to always have a surplus of linebackers and some of the fiercest battles for spots are going on here. The mortal locks are (1) James Harrison, (2) LaMarr Woodley, (3) Lawrence Timmons, (4) James Farrior, (5) Jason Worilds and, it seems to me (6) Keyaron Fox. They probably didn’t bring back Larry Foote just to cut him, although that’s possible. But the battle for the last spot seems to be shaping up between Thaddeus Gibson and Stevenson Sylvester, both of whom have looked very, very good in the action they’ve seen thusfar. Oh, Patrick Bailey’s still hanging around, plus there are a bunch of other guys who will probably be cut sooner rather than later.


Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are givens. Will Allen's going to start in place of Clark on Sunday (altitude issues), so I think he may be the third man on the roster at safety. So Ryan Mundy (who knows the system and has looked good), Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, and Justin Thorton are battling for that last spot. I’m thinking Mundy, but it bears watching on Sunday night.


Again, six is the number we’re looking at. Ike The Stupid is their #1 guy, and they brought Bryan McFadden back with the thought he would start on the other side. Joe Burnett made the squad last year and he looks pretty good so far this pre-season. That’s three. As to the remaining three:
They took Crezdon Butler in the 5th round this year, so short of a complete flame out, he’s got a good shot at the #4 spot.
Is it just me, or does Keenan Lewis look better than William Gay? Anybody? That’s five.
So William Gay, by virtue of experience, has a serious edge on David Pitman. I guess so, as I can't even recall seeing #30 on the field at all.


Skippy, Dan Sepulveda and Greg Warren.

Monday, August 23, 2010

As Long Suspected, Pittsburgh Pirates Make Profit with Perpetual Cellar Dweller

For the last 10 years or so, I've been hollering, howling into the void of pain and ignominy that has become the lot of Pirates fans, clambering to see the Pirates' financials. Well, not for me personally to see them, but for somebody who can actually parse the ledgers of a Major League Baseball team to have a look-see. I believed that would never, ever happen and that, in fact, the Pirates were more likely to win a World Series than open their books.

'The Pirates made nearly $29.4 million in 2007 and 2008, according to team financial documents, years that were part of a streak of futility that has now reached 18 straight losing seasons. The team's ownership also paid its partners $20.4 million in 2008.

The documents offer a rare peek inside a team that made money by getting slightly less than half its income (about $70 million) from MLB sources -- including revenue sharing, network TV, major league merchandise sales and MLB's website. The team also held down costs, keeping player salaries near the bottom of the National League, shedding pricier talent and hoping that untested prospects would blossom.

"The numbers indicate why people are suspecting they're taking money from baseball and keeping it -- they don't spend it on the players," said David Berri, president of the North American Association of Sports Economists and the author of two books detailing the relationship between finances and winning. "Teams have a choice. They can seek to maximize winning, what the Yankees do, or you can be the Pirates and make as much money as you can in your market. The Pirates aren't trying to win."'

The full story at ESPN here.

The Pirates claim there is nothing nefarious in their financial practices. Nefarious? No. That's the wrong word. Indifferent is the word. Indifferent to the fans. And indifferent to even the mere notion of winning.

ESPN reports that the Pirates 2010 opening day payroll was just $2 million more than their opening day payroll in 1992. An increase of only two million dollars in 18 years would be bad enough, particularly given that baseball inflation is to regular inflation as dog years are to people years.

But according to the Baseball Archive database, the Pirates 1992 outlay was $36,228,647.00 and according to CBS Sports, the 2010 payroll was $34,943,000.00, actually about $1.3 million less than it was in 1992.

The 1992 Pirates were right in step with MLB. I've taken a look at the salaries of all the teams currently in first place (except Tampa Bay, which franchise didn't exist the last time the Pirates posted a winning record, so I substituted the second place New York Yankees for them in the AL East.) Read 'em and weep:

Yankees 1992 Payroll = $ 34,902,292.00
Yankees 2010 Payroll = $206,333,389.00

Minnesota Twins 1992 Payroll = $27,272,834.00
Minnesota Twins 2010 Payroll = $97,559,167.00

Texas Rangers 1992 Payroll = $26,228,500.00
Texas Rangers 2010 Payroll = $55,250,545.00

Atlanta Braves 1992 Payroll = $35,853,321.00
Atlanta Braves 2010 Payroll = $84,423,667.00

Cincinnati Reds 1992 Payroll = $35,429,559.00
Cincinnati Reds 2010 Payroll = $72,386,544.00

San Diego Padres 1992 Payroll = $27,689,604.00
San Diego Padres 2010 Payroll = $37,799,300.00

Except for the Padres, every one of those teams at least doubled their 1992 salary outlay. As to the Padres, every couple of seasons, some freak accident of a team with a tiny payroll and with a rabbit's foot up their collective butts comes along and contends. Meet the 2010 Padres. Sames as the 2003 Marlins. Or the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. And every time it happens, it sends the Pirates talking heads into a frenzy of denial. Denial that good players come at a price and, most of the time, the teams willing to pay that price end up playing meaningful games in September.

Beyond which, the Pirates never are the Marlins or Rays or Padres.

In baseball, as in life, most of the time you get what you pay for. And what fans get is what the Nuttings want to pay for. A team that, even if they were to win every game remaining on their schedule, would post their 18th consecutive losing record, an organization that is unmoved by years of losing and impervious to ridicule, so long as the money rolls in.

Update for all the late comers. Here's the NPR story on this.

Postmortem Preseason Week 2: Paging Mr. Mendenhall

I had hoped to post something about the Steelers defense, about the likely starters and the guys who would see a good bit of action, but once again, circumstances dictate that I look to the offense.

Suspect Mendenhall is clearly a talented player, a potential game-breaking player, but his game is far from complete and he continues to be a work in progress. In the NFL, in the 21st century, impatience rules to day: nobody wants to wait three years for a guy to grow into his job.

In this, his make or break season, he looks so close, but he still hasn't put it all together. He dances less than he did when he arrived, which is good, because when he doesn’t dance, he’s dangerous.

But there are still those lingering fumble problems. We already saw him being careless with the ball last week. Last year, he had three fumbles in just 242 attempts, approximately one fumble for every 81 carries. Compare that to Chris Johnson (three fumbles in 358 attempts -- once every 119 carries), or Steven Jackson (two fumbles in 324 attempts -- once every 162 carries) or Maurice Jones-Drew (two fumbles in 312 attempts -- once every 156 carries.) No matter how you do the long division, Mendenhall's numbers are unacceptable for a feature, starting back.

Again, he is an obvious and tremendous talent, so when he doesn't dance and he also holds onto the ball, he teases us with flashes of greatness. He’s got a scary burst of speed and equally awesome balance.

Still, he spins more often than Ginger Rogers or even these guys.

He was at that again on Saturday. With the ball on the Giants 9 yard line, Mendenhall went over right tackle, picked up three yards and then turned his back to the on-coming traffic. I just have to wonder what he's thinking there. A runner, any runner, has a better chance of making a play if he's looking upfield. Turning his back to a hit is something we saw way too much of from him last year. Like this:

The Steelers ended up settling for a field goal there. Disappointing. It was made more glaring when, just a couple of plays later, Ahmad Bradshaw lowered his shoulder to run over Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark and pick up an extra three to four yards.

A running back cannot shy from contact, particularly not when he’s between the tackles, so if Suspect continues to turn or spin in those situations rather than lower his shoulder and try to run people over, he has no business being on the field in short yardage or goal line situations.

Is there any question that Issac Redman is the guy for goal-lines situations? Suspect cannot be trusted inside the 10 -- either he goes down like a potato bug or he drops the ball. The other option, Mewelde Moore, is great at what he does but he's just too small for ramming the ball in at the goal line. Redman looks like the viagra to cure the Steelers impotence in the redzone.

Before anybody gets their panties in a twist, I'm not suggesting that Redman be the starter, merely that he comes in for short yardage or goal line plays.

Random other thoughts from the New Meadowlands:

-- Missed tackles, whiffed tackles and bad angles. There are periods of this preseason that are like watching the five game losing streak last year. At times, the defense looks like the Lebeau defense we've all grown to know and love while at other times, the first string linebackers and db's continue to take bad angles to the ball and tackle lackadaisically. (Even a bad sinker of a miss by Troy on the Giants' second series.) I know, I know, the defense is ultra-vanilla right now, but missed tackles have zip to do with scheme.

-- You know what doesn't look like last year's ugliness? Aaron Smith anchoring the line. It's good to have that guy back.

-- The Double D debate rages on. Should he start games 1 through 4 (or 1 through 6, depending on Goodell's mood)? He can run like an antelope whereas Leftwich runs like my grammie after her first hip surgery. But Leftwich can throw a ball a country mile and then a few more feet on top of that, a skill that comes in handy when you have Mike Wallace on the field. More to the point, Leftwich has played in about 50 regular season games. Double D, just one. That kind of inexperience makes coaches more jittery than a case of Red Bull and a jumbo pack of chocolate covered espresso beans. (Although you have to wonder what such a seasoned vet was doing at the goal line at the end of the first half?)

-- A couple of years ago, I dubbed Anthony Smith “the stupid.” Since he’s gone, let’s just give that title to Ike Taylor, shall we?

-- While we're here, Daniel Sepulveda made the best tackle of the night on a punt return, fighting off a blocker who was holding his jersey the whole way. Dear Jeff Reed, please take note of Sepulveda's efforts in coverage.

-- Meanwhile, Sepulveda's kickoffs weren't great, so the issue of short kick offs are going to stick around, at least for a while. Oh, and again, while we're still here, Skippy, please STFU.

-- When the Steelers let the Jets have Santonio Holmes for a used chin strap and deck of playing cards, a lot of fans were understandably unhappy, but after two preseason games, it looks like the Steelers are loaded at wide out. Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Antwan Randal El, rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and veteran pick up Arnaz Battle. Add Heath Miller, and that's a ton of weapons for whichever quarterback is on the field. The Steelers cannot be serious about Brown not making the final 53, can they? Particularly given:

-- Based on what we saw of Antonio Brown in the return game, I think it's safe to say the Stefan Logan era is officially over. Brown is positively fearless and runs endzone to endzone, not sideline to sideline.

-- I'm not the first one to say this, but Maurkice Pouncey needs to start in Denver at center. They're giving him plenty of snaps, but they need to see what he does against a first string defense. If he's even close to what I think he is, he's already an enormous improvement over Justin Hartwig. That makes Hartwig obsolete. He can't or won't play guard and he's a subpar center. Meanwhile, Doug Legursky can do a little bit of both guard and center. If Pouncey is the starter, Legursky would be a more handy, multi-tool back up than Hartwig.

-- Hotel Flozell has always been good for about three penalties per game, but at his age and given his move from the left to the right side of the line, he might hit double digits every game with the Steelers.

-- Good to see Jason Worilds on the field, although I didn't notice him much - either good or bad.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Regarding Bruce Arians

Despite his role in bringing home Lombardi Trophy #6, Steelers loyalists run hot and cold and mostly leery of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. I'm trying to figure out where perception meets reality, where Arians is legitimately questionable, and in what instances the fans have pierogies for brains.

Good Bruce Arians is now a Super Bowl winning coordinator. It's really hard to argue with that.

Bad Bruce Arians might could be the coordinator equivalent of Barry Switzer in that regard. Yup. Switzer won a Super Bowl. No denying it. But nobody in her right mind thinks Switzer was the better coach on the field that day. Is Arians another lucky interloper?

Good Bruce Arians a/k/a BA, works so well with Pig Ben that Roethlisberger finished the 2009 season with a quarterback rating of 100.8 and was second in the league in yards per pass attempt (8.55 yards). Yes, Pig Ben is one of the five best QB's in the league, but you have to credit Arians with at least some of that success.

There is not a scintilla of interest in Bad Bruce Arians for any NFL head coaching openings. When a team wins a Super Bowl, generally that team's coordinators are at the top of the head coaching wish lists. Yet BA wasn't on anybody's short list or long list or any kind of list, except maybe some fan sh*tlists.

Good Bruce Arians was in no way responsible for the defensive collapse or special teams entropy of 2009.

Bad Bruce Arians has been the Steelers OC for three years and only once in that time did the Steelers offense crack the top 10 in terms of points scored per game (2009 average of 23.0 points - 12th; 2008 average of 21.7 - 20th; and 2007 average of 24.6 - 9th). Hardly Don Coryell-type stats.

Good Bruce Arians Started his Steelers tenure as the wide outs coach under Bill Cowher. In that time, he took a very unfocused Plaxico Burress and got him to focus, so much so that Plax got a big free agent payday with the Giants, won a SuperBowl and promptly shot himself. But I don't think we can hold old BA responsible for Plax carrying a handgun around in his sweatpants. BA also had his hand in: making Hines Ward one of the premiere wide outs in the league; transforming Antwan Randal El from a middle of the pack guy to Super Bowl superstar and overpaid free agent; taking wide out Santonio Holmes from draft pick to burner to Super Bowl superstar (he does not, however, provide 'Tone with his doobage); and utilizing the freaky speed of Mike Wallace.

Bad Bruce Arians stinks in the red zone. His play calling is pedestrian and predictable. The Steelers scored just 27 touchdowns in 56 trips to the redzone -- only 48.2 percent. Bah.

Good Bruce Arians knows that this is a pass-first league. The Indy Colts made it to the Super Bowl throwing the ball 601 times and running it just 366 times. The Saints passed 544 times versus 468 rushes.

Bad Bruce Arians doesn't run the ball enough. The Saints and Colts may have made it to the Super Bowl by throwing more than they ran, but the Jets made it the whole way to the AFC Championship game by running the ball 607 times and throwing only 393 times. The once pass-whacky Cincy Bungles threw the ball just 477 times (running it 505) and they won the AFC North.

I'd say there are strong arguments to be made on either side of the Arians debate, but this one is the tipping point for me:

Good Bruce Arians knows that he has one of the five best quarterbacks in the league and a mad fumbler, Rashard Suspect Mendenhall, for a premiere running back. If you were Arians, would you hand the ball to Suspect? Or give it to Pig Ben?

Monday, August 16, 2010

In Praise of Dennis Dixon

I know Double D was playing against the second string, but second string guys are still NFL players, players who get significant minutes in games, not the guys signed to the practice squad or tossed to the recycle pile. Okay, so they were the Lions, but you can only play who you play. I also realize that Dixon is a quarterback prone to run and in Pittsburgh, where the ghost of Kordell Stewart is ever present, that's never a good thing. But the only things Dixon has in common with Stewart are: they both wear/wore number 10, they're both fast, and they're both black. That's it.

Dixon is cool and calm, freakishly so considering the paucity of playing time the guy has gotten, unlike Stewart who, no matter how many games he started, always looked like a startled deer in the headlights when he dropped back to pass. I was filled with dread when Stewart was called upon to make a key third down pass, but I don't get that same anxious nausea with Dixon out there. I like the way he runs the offense and he certainly can fly when he wants to. Maybe he even runs too much, but so did John Elway, Steve Young and Donovan McNabb early in their careers. Dixon will learn as he goes. Plus, he runs smart - right for the sticks and then out of bounds.

He runs play action so well he faked out the camera crew a couple of times on Saturday night and his passes were right on target for the most part. His pass to Antonio Brown was in the exact right spot so that Brown didn't have to slow down for it, but rather, had to get into full sprint mode to get it.

If the presumption is that the offense might be less explosive but run more smoothly with Leftwich, I'm not so sure that's the case. The offense is crisp with Dixon in there and when he doesn't see anything he likes downfield, he takes off, picks up a first down, and goes out of bounds. QB's who throw the ball away are often lauded for doing that and I think for Dixon, it's the same thing, thinking, "Ward's covered, there's coverage over the top on Wallace, Miller's covered. F*ck it. I'll pick up 6 yards with my legs." I have no problem with that.

I'm just saying, I want to see more of Dixon. The coaches have not run him with the first team offense in camp, according to John Harris at the Trib. I sure would like to see him go out there with the first team and battle against the Giants first team on Saturday night.

More scattered notes from a disjointed, rain soaked pre-season game.

-- Mendenhall still has a ragin' case of the mad fumblitis, and if he continues to carry the ball so far away from his body that one can only surmise it is tainted with ebola, it's gonna be a long-ass season for whoever is lined up at quarterback. Sometimes a player gets a helmet right on the ball or right on his elbow and loses the ball, but the problem with the Fumbling Fool 2.0 (Edition 1.0 was Richard Huntley) is that these aren't the kinds of fumbles he has. He loses the ball for almost no reason. Lions' safety C.C. Brown barely waved at the ball and Mendenhall coughed it up. I'm no super genius like Tom Coughlin, but tuck the ball up near your shoulder, you idiot. We know the kid can run. The question is whether or not he can learn how to run with the football. Mendenhall wasn't the only one with the ragin' fumbles on Saturday, but he was the only one who was drafted in the first round.

-- The first string offensive line looked slow, confused and weak. Was it me or was Flozell Adams' footwork positively glacial? Byron Leftwich got hit way, way too much.

-- The good news is that first round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey got a lot of work at center and looked great. Line guys, like quarterbacks, often look lost when they make the move from college to pro, but Pouncey looked like a seasoned vet. Tony Hills and Ramon Foster impressed, too. Again, I know it was against the 2nd and 3rd string, but they can only do what they can do.

-- The wideouts, a question heading into this season, looked like a real bright spot. Antonio Brown put on a show. Nobody can throw far enough to catch up with Mike Wallace. And Arnez Battle looked like a nice free agent pick up.

-- Defensively, Ryan Clark had a nice interception, so that's a good thing.

-- The other good news was that Laurence Timmons looked healthy and James Harrison was in mid-season form, putting Jeff Backus on his back a couple of times.

-- Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith who arrived in Latrobe a few days before the game hit DeDe Dorsey so hard, I think Dorsey's dog is in the hostital. So, I guess what we can surmise from this game is that the Steelers are just fine at linebacker.

Indian Spice Wings, the Perfect Accompaniment to the Preseason

Two things I love, sports and cooking. As much as I love watching sports, arguing about sports, reading about sports and writing about sports, I love to cook. I love finding a recipe and then tweaking it. I love planning a menu, growing herbs and even the prep work (that's mise-en-place to 'Top Chef' viewers.)

So, this season, I'm posting recipes for each week of NFL football, pre-season through the Super Bowl (yeah, I'll skip the Pro Bowl), for whatever tasty treat I've made to go along with football viewing.

Indian Inspired Wings, two ways.

(I purchased whole wings, so first, I had to butcher them - cut them along the joints, tossing away the wingtip, then wash and dry the sections. I'm not usually a meat washer, but somehow I just feel compelled to with chicken.)

Tandoori Style-Wings:

Mix low-fat, plain yogurt (about 16 ounces) with:
1 tbsp fresh ground ginger
2 tbsp garam masala
2 tbsp chili powder (I used ancho, but use whatever is at hand)
2 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground tumeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Marinate one dozen wings (24 pieces) in spiced yogurt overnight.

Dry Spiced Wings:

These wings use all the same ingredients as the tandoori wings, except the tumeric and yogurt (hence the dry-spice moniker.) Just toss the wings into a ziploc bag with all the dry spices make sure all the wings are coated and refrigerate overnight.

To cook, lay wings on cookie sheets that have been coated with a light brushing of olive oil. Salt wings liberally and cook at 450 degrees for about 12 minutes. Flip, and cook another 12 minutes. Finish them on a grill to get a crisp skin. Just grill about 1 minute on each side or the wings might char too much, as I stupidly did on Saturday. Lesson learned. Get 'em on, turn 'em and get 'em off. Other than a bit of char, they were delicious, really flavorful and surprisingly moist.

Raita style dipping sauce:

16 oz. greek yogurt (I used lowfat)
juice of 1/4 lemon
1/2 carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
1/4 cucumber, peeled, seeded and coarsely grated
1 healthy tbsp of honey
1 tbsp of red wine vinegar
1 clove of garlic (put this in and let it sit for about an hour, then remove altogether; you don't want a strong garlic flavor, just a hint)
1 or 2 tbsp of kosher salt, to taste.
2 tbsp coarsely chopped fresh mint. Add just before serving.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Five Drool Covered NFL Players

Ah, welcome back NFL. Welcome back to all the training camp inanity signifying that the folks at the NFL Network can show something other than Super Bowl XXXIX (that's 39 for normal people) over and over and over again and get back to that hard, investigative journalism we've come to expect from them. I enjoy the silliness of the requisite camp phenoms, camp busts, overweight veterans, and maybe notable holdouts.

As much fun as all that it, the nationally televised pre-season games take it to a whole new level. You betcha. It's not the action on the field that's so great, but the action in the booth, the party of overwrought hyperbole, this festival of drool, lavished by announcers on a select few annointed players. It'll only get worse from here, so watching the pre-season helps me to inure myself to the gushing that will ramp itself up into the stratosphere during the regular season, as rapt announcers, man-crushes audibly tumescent, say things like, "This guy right here, this guy is a football player."

[Um, yes, yes he is a football player. You can tell because he's in a uniform on a football field during an officially sanctioned NFL game.]

The following are the most fawned over players in the NFL:

1. Ray Lewis.
Never in the history of the NFL has there been a more inspirational player than Ray Lewis. Yea verily, for decades, NFL players apathetically muddled through games, looking like helmet and cleat clad zombies sleep-walking toward the endzone. Enter one Ray Anthony Lewis. More graceful than Michael Jackson, more inspirational than George Washington, braver than Sully Sullenberger, more eloquent than Martin Luther King, Jr., he saved the league from indifference and lassitude. The NFL, formerly a league with as much personality as instant mashed potatoes, has been transformed by Lewis' extraordinary love of the game. Thank you. Thank you, Ray Lewis.

2. Tom Brady. You want to see a quarterback who competes, take a look at this guy. Nobody has a hotter fire burning inside than Tom Terrific. Nobody has ever lead so many come from behind to tie drives in the history of the universe. He's like having a coach on the field. No, he's better than that, because he's like a coach, only he's dreamy. And he sleeps with super models. Why? Because he himself is a model -- a model of NFL Quarterback perfection.

3. Peyton Manning. Work ethic, thy name is Peyton Manning. Manning can breakdown NFL game film like Stephen Hawking parsing gravitational singularity theorems. He has thrown approximately 4,785,243,298,161,547 out-pattern passes. And that's just in practices, not in live action. He has an encyclopedic memory of every offensive schemes ever deployed from 1919 to three years in the present. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the moment he was conceived. And rightly so.

4. Brett Favre. Why, he's just a big kid. Just a big, overgrown, graybearded, can't-get-out-of-bed-without-a-walker-but-you-can't-keep-him-out-of-the-game, kid. Despite all the hits along the way, he plays with a simple joy. He's like that labrador retriever who keeps running into the lake after a stick (a stick!), no matter how many times you toss it in there. He lets it all hang out, does Brett Favre. He plays the game the right way. The only guy who wants Favre to come back more than Brad Childress does is Phil Simms.

5. Brian Urlacher. See, the thing about Urlacher is that he is a whole defense unto himself. Without him on the field, the Bears D is tough as tapioca pudding. With him on the field, why, they are eerily reminiscent of the spartans in "300." He can do so much. He causes fumbles and returns fumbles, creates havoc in the backfield and goes out in coverage. Why, he'd even punt if Lovie Smith would let him. Nobody wants to win more than this guy. Nobody.

Honorable Mention: Hines Ward. Tony Romo.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What Would John Wooden Do?

I just heard the most amazing story, courtesy of a friend whose son played in a youth-league baseball playoff game last night.

The opposing team's coach disputed a call and went all Paulie Walnuts on the official -- swearing, cussing, spitting, generally carrying on like a escaped mental patient. Understandably, the umpire threatened to eject the dude, which just further infuriated the neanderthal in question, who then amped up his tirade. Finally, the umpire said, "Look, I am going to count to 10. If you haven't settled down by then, I'm calling this game. It's over."

Needless to say, the jack ass never settled down, the ump called the game and awarded it to the other team (which was up on the scoreboard anyway). A freaking near riot occurred. Grown ups, I mean. Parents reacting as though somebody had beaten their children with tire irons. Over a game.

Remember when people started wearing those "WWJD" (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets? I have a saying, a simple rule for coaching. It applies to any sport, at any level.

What would John Wooden Do?

Wooden coached because he loved the sport and he loved competition, but also and probably to a larger extent, he did it because he loved working with people. He loved being a part of the process. There were always new lessons to learn about teamwork, about perseverance, about determination. There were even lessons to be learned from failure.

I've read snippets of things written by a psychologist named Harriet Lerner. (Yeah, I know, self-helpy stuff just isn't usually my thing.) But Lerner wrote a great book called, "Fear and Other Uninvited Guests." In it, she relays a story about a guy she helped to learn how to be rejected. Sounds weird, right, but he was afraid of doing something - for fear of being rejected, - so she set him the task of going out to actively seek rejection in a different way.

He learned that the idea of rejection, the notion of it, was way worse than the actual reality of rejection. Once he learns that on a visceral level, he's able to take risks -- risks that involve possible rejection -- in a way that he hadn't been before. Mission accomplished.

And I think playing sports serves that function, too. Losing can serve a purpose, in terms of personal growth and growth in relation to the team. Losing can teach those same life lessons that Lerner was after - to not be afraid to jump in the deep end, to takes risks, to keep fighting even when it's hopeless sometimes.

Wooden understood that. Ironically, his teams won because of it.

It's youth sports people. It's supposed to be fun. The kids are supposed to learn about team work, about winning with class, and losing with dignity. Just remember: WWJWD?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I, Too, Hate the Cardinals, Brandon Phillips

The summer was going along according to form. The Pirates were in the sub-basement of the NL Central and the St. Louis Cardinals were near the top. Lather, rinse, repeat. Wake me when something interesting happens.

Thank you, thank you Brandon Phillips. Phillips, the Cincinnati Reds 2nd baseman told the Dayton Daily News,

“I’d play against these guys with one leg. We have to beat these guys. I hate the Cardinals. All they do is bitch and moan about everything, all of them, they’re little bitches, all of ‘em.

“I really hate the Cardinals. Compared to the Cardinals, I love the Chicago Cubs. Let me make this clear: I hate the Cardinals.”

And if by "Cardinals" Phillips means, "Tony Larussa," I'll even buy him a ballpark wienie.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Special Teams Prayer Answered. Finally.

Some people worry about the deficit and some disingenuously worry about the deficit (and you know who you are); some people worry about H1N1, ebola or various other possible pandemics; some worry about helicopter parents and others are helicopter parents; some people fret about gas mileage and heating and cooling bills and, with training camp in full swing, a large percentage of Steelers Nation is concerned about the quarterback situation. Understandably so. I have even heard of a new breed of young mothers who fret about something called 'tummy time.' Whatever the hell that is.

Me? I don't worry about 'tummy time,' I worry about hang time, particularly speaking, the hangtime on kick offs. I worry about special teams. Only a special, pathetic sort of person spends the lion's share of football season wondering just when the special teams are going to screw the pooch, certain, deep in my heart of hearts, that they will. I torture myself with wild imaginings of all the various permutations and possibilities for special teams putridity. Fumbled punt returns, blown coverage, Jeff Reed standing statuesque as a returner blows by him, emboldened by the low angle and shortness of Reed's kick.

Yearly, I intoned, Why can't he kick off? Why can't they find somebody else to kick off for him!?

Then, this, courtesy of Steelers.com:

Sepulveda got a chance to kick off, and he showed himself to be quite accomplished at it. On four kickoffs, Sepulveda’s hang-times were 4.07, 3.93, 3.87 and 3.70. The 4.07 kick also carried 2 yards deep in the end zone, and earlier in the evening, one of his mis-hits went 8 yards deep in the end zone.

In recent years, Reed's kick offs have been both short in time and short in length, a problem that I hope for his sake doesn't apply to the bedroom as well as the kick off tee. Not to belittle what he does. It's hard. (Somebody stop me.) At any rate, it takes a certain physical ability and also, a certain mental equanimity, to kick field goals in pressure packed situation on the sandbox they call Heinz Field. If it were easy, everybody would do it.

And yet, at the end of the day, the guy has two jobs. Just two. Kick field goals (at which he is tremendously adept) and kick off (at which he sucks.)

Consider the multitude of responsibilities other players have.

James Farrior calls complicated defenses, reads offenses, adjusts on the fly, and then, after all that, he has to fight through blockers, clog lanes and make tackles. Sometimes, he has to cover tight ends in pass patterns.

The quarterback, be it Ben, Double D or Leftwich, has similar responsibilities, only even more complicated. He's responsible, too, for getting the snap off in time, getting hand offs to the backs cleanly, dropping back with precise footwork, throwing timing patterns with perfect timing, shedding defensive linemen or blitzing linebackers.

Reed has to do two things and as good as he is at one of those things, he's equally as bad at the other one.

It started, almost innocently enough, back in 2001 before the arrival of the little hayseed with thunder thighs from North Carolina. (It isn't entirely Reed's fault.)

It was January, 2002. The Steelers were hosting the upstart Patriots in the AFC Championship game. (I cringed just typing that.) Thanks to a Troy Edwards penalty, the punt coverage unit gave up a touchdown return in the 1st quarter and the field goal unit allowed a blocked kick to be returned for a touchdown in the 3rd quarter and Evil Hoodie and the Patriots went on their reign of insolent terror.

It was a fluke, right. Just one of those wacky days when the ball bounces the wrong way. Friends claimed that the Steelers were still the better team and deserved to win. I thought it was an object lesson in the importance of special teams. I also thought that the Steelers would, themselves, see this as an object lesson in the importance of special teams.


Instead, they tortured us with shoddy, spotty special teams play. And it's been more of the same ever since. The 96 yard touchdown return against the Raiders in 2002 and the roughing the kicker call in Tennessee that ended that season. Dante Hall's 100 yard kickoff return in 2003. Last year's 97 yard touchdown in Kansas City. (What is it about the Steelers and the Chiefs? Are the Steelers spellbound, somehow dazzled by the bright red helmets, rendered unable to tackle KC kick off returners? I don't get it.)

Over the years we've cheered some wonderful wins and endured some painful losses. But every time the Steelers have a disappointing season, you can point to at least one game that the special teams blew.

Last year, the defense collapsed and we have no idea how that aged unit is going to perform this year. There are large, fat, slow, completely unknown and obtrusive question marks along the O Line, at quarterback, at running back, even at wide receiver. With so much promise, but so much that is tenuous, the very last thing the Steelers can afford to do is give up a game losing kickoff return for a touchdown. Or a momentum changing huge return that sets up a touchdown. They need help, luck and a little bit of magic. They need to be bold where they can be. This is the area. This is the time. Sepulveda is the guy.

One last thought, Mike Tomlin is taking all the Steelers to Canton to be there for Coach LeBeau's long-overdue induction into the Hall of Fame. It warmed my wee little Grinchy heart.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

All Steelers, All the Time

That's Lay-Trobe to the locals.

The radio and TV guys are raving about what kind of shape Pig Ben is in at the start of training camp -- he's svelt, muscular and his arm looks deadly. They haven't gone so far as to call him dreamy, but they've been drooling. From a football perspective, this is great news, but honest, Ben, it took a police investigation, a serious reaming from the Commish and a four to six game suspension to get your ass into the gym? Seriously? Oh well.

Meanwhile the debate rages, in my head if nowhere else, over which quarterback should be the one to try to stake the team to a good start until Goodell gives Pig Ben the nod to play. Byron Leftwich? Or Dennis Dixon?

I've always liked Leftwich. He's has had success in the NFL and he seems to be a really good guy. I'll never forget that Steelers fans are very much indebted to him for pulling out a very nice win in D.C. in 2008 (absolutely crucial to getting the playoff bye that year), to say nothing of his amazing heroics at Marshall. I never get tired of watching that.

But ... Leftwich is what he is. He had some really good years in Jacksonville, was a great backup here, but was underperforming so much last year with Tampa that he was pulled after three games in favor of The Joshes, Johnson and Freeman.

With Dixon, what there is a lot of unknown, but the little we do know makes me salivate. He can fly and he can throw; before his injury at Oregon, he was a really special talent. He's like the prettiest Christmas present under the tree. You are dying to open it, but half the time, it turns out to be a pair of lousy socks from your great aunt and not the iPad you were hoping for. Dixon = Socks? Or iPad?

Dixon is a bigger risk, but with an exponentially bigger upside if it works. Leftwich is the guy who you can rely on to hold the fort, assuming the rest of the team performs well. I was wondering which way Tomlin would go. Mark Kaboly of the McKeesport Daily News reports that Leftwich is getting the lion's share of reps at QB.

Byron Leftwich took the most snaps during team drills in both the morning and afternoon sessions Monday and also exclusively played with the first-team offense during the afternoon practice.

In four practices so far, Leftwich leads the quarterbacks with 56 reps in 11-on-11 team periods. Roethlisberger is next with 51 followed by Dixon with 29.

Charlie Batch has taken only one snap during team drills in four practices and he handed off.

The numbers are a little skewed because both Roethlisberger and Leftwich ran the 2-minute drill Sunday in which each got at least seven snaps. Dixon will have a chance to run the drill later in the week.

I guess I have my answer. No socks and no iPad under the tree, this guy instead:

Things could be a lot worse, given all the givens.

The other question mark for me was whether or not Rashard Mendenhall had recovered from the Mad Fumblitis but it looks like he's still got a raging case:

Even with Rashard Mendenhall sitting out because of a toe injury, the fumbling didn't stop for the running backs. Mewelde Moore fumbled during 9-on-7 drills during the afternoon practice. Mendenhall fumbled in practices Saturday and Sunday.
Also courtesy of Mark Kaboly.

Meanwhile, on the defensive side of the ball, D-Line coach John Mitchell said he plans on using a six man rotation and is excited about it. The Starting Six are: the familiar faces [1) Big Snack (Casey Hampton), (2) Brett Keisel and (3) Aaron Smith], plus, the 2009 top draft choice [(4) Ziggy Hood], the journeyman [(5) Nick Eason] and old reliable [(6) Chris Hoke]. The Steelers list a bunch of other players on the D line, including 2nd round draft pick Jason Worilds, who it appears they will deploy as a linebacker, not a down lineman.

One last thought on the defensive side of the ball - it goes as Polamalu goes. I love this bit from James Walker's ESPN blog:

"He just kind of opens the playbook to anything you want to do," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "It's just a matter of how far off the diving board you want to go."

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pitt Women's 2010-2011 Hoops Schedule Released

Per the Post-Gazette, the Pitt women's basketball 2010 non-conference schedule is out. (Listed below).

And of course, after they slog their way through the likes of Minnesota, Duke, Texas Tech and Duquesne (no longer a gimme game with Suzie McConnell-Serio at the helm), they will have to play teams like UConn, Rutgers, Notre Dame and WVU twice weekly, week in and week out. Which is great for women's hoops fans.

Plus, this should be a particularly interesting year, given how much things changed since last March.

The 2009-2010 season was the most disappointing I've seen from an Agnus Berenato team. Of course, graduating players like Xenia Stewart and Shavonte Zellous will set you back -- you don't replace players of that caliber overnight -- but even so, it was a strange and frustrating season. It felt like that team never came together. Naturally, there were big doings when it was over.

A number of players left, pretty much the entire sophomore class -- Pepper Wilson, Sarah Ogoke and Katie Popovec. I don't know those girls, but I have the utmost confidence in Coach B. Since she arrived at Pitt, I have followed her closely. I've been lucky enough to interview her and I've been around her a bunch of other times. Coach B is the real deal. If a player cannot get motivated to play for her, it's pretty likely that player has a problem getting motivated for anything.

Then, after that, Coach B's longtime assistant coach and super guy, Jeff Williams left to take the head coaching job at LaSalle. (Williams was the second key member of that staff to move on. Following the 2007-2008 season, Pitt Assistant, Shea Ralph, returned to her alma mater of UConn to take an assistant coaching job. Both Williams and Ralph did great work for Coach B. And both made great career moves by leaving. At the time that Ralph left, Coach B. told me that Geno (Auriemma) almost never has an opening, so how great is it that one of her coaches was chosen for that spot. I'm paraphrasing, but the point is, it's a feather in Pitt's cap that they've had their coaching staff raided for these other openings.)

First, Coach B. hired former New York Liberty Head Coach Patty Coyle, then she hired Khadija J. Head, an assistant at Middle Tennessee State for the staff.

Just a moment for this interstitial -- I should point out that Middle Tennessee State played their first round NCAA tournament game at the Pete last year. My buddy UConn Fan was there and sent pictures of the Mid. Tenn. St. mascot which looks like a blue transgendered 'Love My Pony,' sporting a silver pompadour mane, sparkly silver tail, silver wings and bright blue muscles.

Here it is on the sideline.

And here it is dancing to 'YMCA.'

[I am not making any of this up, but none of this reflects on Khadija Head who I am sure will do a great job for Pitt. I just thought that it was time to give transgendered athletic mascots their due.]

Then, there is the final piece of the coaching puzzle, former Pitt standout and fan favorite, Mallorie Winn. Even when Winn was a player, you just knew she'd end up coaching some day. I think she's gonna prove to be a great hire.

So, there's an entirely new coaching staff, lots of new faces on the bench and a chance for seniors Shayla Scott and Taneisha Harrison to make this team theirs. It's not gonna be boring.

Nov. 12 - Youngstown State (School Day)
Nov. 17 - At Minnesota
Nov. 21 - Radford
Nov. 24 - Duke
Nov. 28 - Loyola (Md.)
Dec. 1 - at St. Francis (Pa.)
Dec. 4 - Mount St. Mary's
Dec. 11 - at Valparaiso
Dec. 19 - Texas Tech (at Las Vegas)
Dec. 20 - Texas Arlington (at Las Vegas)
Dec. 28 - Austin Peay
Dec. 31 - at Central Michigan
Jan. 5 - at Duquesne

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Parsing the Pittsburgh Pirates Trade Deadline Moves

Despite assurances that this year would be different, that there would be no salary dumps, no last second flurry of activity, the Pirates were particularly active yesterday, a veritable cacophony of roster moves, dumps, shifts and maybe even a couple of good trades. (Hey, they have made some good trades in the past. I remember how hot I was about them sending Nyjer Morgan to the Nats for Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan. Milledge has given the Pirates as much as Morgan did (at least), while Hanrahan (when coupled with the below move) is the Pirates best reliever. So they get some things right. Sometimes. Ignore the knee brace in the corner. Thanks.)

First, there was the depressing move and let's go there first. According to the great Dejan Kovacevic at the Post-Gazette, the Pirates sent Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers.

What'd they get for Dotel? Two minor leaguers, James McDonald and Andrew Lambo.

McDonald is a right-handed pitcher and, according to Baseball Reference, he was drafted in 2002 and is now 26 years old - downright decrepit for a "prospect." I know we're all too quick to judge players these days and some guys take time to develop, but really? A guy who has been in the system since 2002, with an ERA this year of 8.22? C'mon. I don't even want that guy to toss me a soda at a picnic, let alone come into an actual major league baseball game.

Lambo is a left-handed outfielder and though he's only hitting .271 in Chattanooga this year, he looks to be a legit prospect. At the very least, he's only 22 years old, so you know, the Pirates have that going for them.

Maybe one of those guys will work out, but I really liked Dotel. He will be missed around here. Along with Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, he was among the most reliable guys on the team. And as we all know, "Buccos" and "reliability" have feuding for nearly two decades now.

Second, they sent relief pitcher D.J. Carrasco, outfielder Ryan Church, and infielder Bobby Crosby to Arizona. What'd they get from Arizona?

Most importantly, the Pirates picked up catcher Chris Snyder which means that there will be very few opportunities for Dr. Strangeglove, Ryan Doumit. This, I believe is a good thing. First of all, Doumit is one more concussion away from playing shuffleboard for the rest of his life and second, there's something about him that just bugs. He puts me in mind of all those guys who played here who were just so listless, so nonchalant, so above it all. Doumit is not roaming around in Operation Shutdown territory, but seems to live the second coming of the Pat Meares Experience (tm) (#7 on the countdown). So, less time for Doumit is going to be a good thing for the Pirates. I've been screaming for a better, more seasoned catcher around here and this is a good first step in that direction. That said, Snyder is no Manny Sanguillen.

They also got minor-league short stop, Pedro Ciriaco. Meh.

And, most importantly, they got $3 mill in cash money.

Lastly, they sent relief pitcher Javier Lopez to the San Francisco Giants. What'd they get for that? Two more minor leaguers.

Joe Martinez, a right-handed starting pitcher who is (are they serious with this stuff?) 27 years old with an ERA of 4.91 this year. Oh well, he looks to be better than the guy they got from the Dodgers. Maybe.

And they got John Bowker, another old (by baseball standards for a prospect) outfielder. I'll be kinda surprised if they get anything from either of these guys, but even a blind pig gets an acorn sometimes. I have zero inkling what was going on for them with this deal. It's not like Lopez made a lot of Bucco bucs.

Perhaps the most interesting move of the day was a non-move. The Pirates didn't move left-handed pitcher Paul Maholm, which I think that was a good sign. Moving Maholm have been an obvious salary dump. Unless they were gonna get Jose Bautista back. (Don't remind me.)