Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Sad Buffalo Bills Fan Face, Revisited

The Buffalo Bills have built a tradition of stinkitude in the last decade or so, building on the already established tradition of torturing their fanbase, as one after another in a series of obtuse, abstruse decisions are made, regarding players, regarding coaches, regarding the depth chart. It seems that everybody in that organization, from the owner on down, is living in a world of delusion.

Their continued insistence on recycling old, mediocre coaches in search of the "next Marv Levy" leaps to mind one of their more obvious foibles.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Hellllloooooo Offense! Steelers Upend Bucs in Tampa

By now, just two games into the season, SteelersNation has come to expect great, punishing, dominant, flip you on your ear, knock you silly, make you pray that the scoreboard will show 00:00 to end the suffering kind of defense. And I expect that most of us thought we'd see another performance like that this week, too. We get used to things fast around here.

The Steelers defense did not disappoint, mind you, but the big news is that the offense came to the party. And they even brought party favors.

Old Man Charlie finished the day with a QB rating of 106.5. Not bad for a guy who was fourth on the depth chart going into training camp and one gimpy knee away from the waiver wire.

Oh, it was so easy to write off Charlie. Too old. Washed up. Too fragile. (I myself was guilty of cracking a lot of osteoporis/broken hip/bursitis and/or any other variety of injuries that beset the elderly jokes at Charlie's expense.) Then he threw a homely interception to start the game and, even worse, he looked upset on the sidelines. "Shake it off, Charlie," I said to nobody in particular.

Next drive, Mewelde Moore dropped a nice little pass that probably could have picked up a first down I know I was not alone in thinking the defense would have to do all the actual scoring on the day. [They did, but it was nice that they didn't have to.]

Hitting Mike (Santonio Who?) Wallace for a 46 yard touchdown strike seemed to get Steel Valley Chaz' mojo going. It looked easy for a while after that. See Charlie throw deep. See Charlie run. See Charlie slide around the pocket to create more time for his receivers. See Charlie hit a wide open Hines Ward in the back of the endzone. Speaking of old. Old or not, how do you let the Steelers all-time leading receiver (in catches, in yard, in touchdowns, in games played) get so freaking open in the back of the endzone? Just wondering. Raheem Morris is probably wondering the same thing right about now.

All that, plus a great day for Rashard Mendenhall.

And a great day for another guy, one who I had written off completely: William Gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Gay was gap sound and he made great tackles in space. He didn't try to do too much. Knowing that Josh Freeman is probably twice his weight, he took Freeman down by grabbing him around the ankles. The Steelers list Gay at 5' 10" and 190 pounds. I doubt he's that big, even. So it's a pretty smart play to not try to take on all 6' 5" of Josh Freeman, facemask to facemask. Perhaps young William has learned a thing or two since last year. He made a number of great tackles.

The rest of the Steelers defense looked like the Steelers defense.

James Harrison scared Bucs wideout Sammie Stroughter so much that he coughed the ball up into the waiting hands of Brett Keisel, who rumbled down the field, Andy Russell-like, for a touchdown. Nice beard, Brett. Nick Eason contributed a sack. Lawrence Timmons had a sack. Ryan Clark scooped up another fumble.

Freeman completed 20 of 31 passes, but averaged only about six yards per completion. My god. That's a Kent Graham-like stat. Cadillac Williams was held to just 15 yards. Cadillac? Sounds more like a Dodge Dart.

Now seems like an appropriate time to point out that the Steelers have allowed 58 yard rushing, 46 yards rushing, and 75 yards rushing to the Falcons, the Titans and the Buccaneers, respectively.

All you bastards in the AFC North who wrote the Steelers off and thought this was a two team race, not so fast. Yeah, I am looking at you Ray Ray and Thuggs, and you, too, Batman and Robin.

It's Hot in Tampa & in the Kitchen. Chili on Tap for Week 3

I love chili. It is a bizarre fact that I've never entered a chilifest or even been to one. Maybe because I don't have one, lone chili recipe, but rather about six or seven different twists on chili that I go to, depending on my mood. This week's chili incorporates italian hot sausage and also, makes enough for a house-full of football crazed friends. If you're not inclined to eat leftovers and you don't have a huge crew showing up, you may want to cut the proportions in half.

You will need:
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef (85%/15%)
1/2 lbs of loose italian hot sausage
2 large spanish onions - diced
2 cloves garlic - finely diced
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
1 large bell pepper (I prefer red) - diced
3 or 4 poblano peppers - diced
2 tomatoes - finely diced (or one large can of diced tomatoes in the wintertime, when fresh tomatoes are disgusting)
2 cans of black beans, thoroughly rinsed
2 cans of kidney beans, thoroughly rinsed (1 light red, 1 dark red)
1 large can of tomato puree
1 large can of crushed tomatoes
several tbsp. cumin
several tbsp. chipotle chili powder
several tbsp. ancho chili powder
2 tsp. paprika

-- Brown the sausage in a sautee pan and when it's thoroughly browned, move to soup pot.
-- Brown beef in same sautee pan; season with about 1 tbsp each of ancho chili and chipotle chili; when browned, add to soup pot.
-- Sautee onions, garlic, peppers and carrot in sautee pan (add healthy pinch of kosher salt; sautee until soft & add to soup pot.
-- Sautee fresh tomatoes with pinch of salt, and pinch of chili powders; add to soup pot.
-- Add crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, about 1/2 can of water (more if you like soupier chili), and beans to soup pot; toss in another pinch of salt, several tbsp. of cumin.
-- Let that simmer for about 20 minutes and check for flavor. Add chili powder or more cumin to taste. I have a huge soft spot for cumin, so I use about 4 tbsp of cumin for a pot of chili this size.
-- Serve with thinly sliced scallions, shredded colby jack cheese and dollop of sour cream. Also a cold beer. (I'm serving mine with a growler of Spaten Octoberfest. Thanks to the guys at Beer Nutz!)

And, it goes without saying, go Steelers.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Can Chaz Do for You

Back in 2006, I was traveling in New York over Thanksgiving weekend and I wasn't going to be back in Pittsburgh until Monday, which meant - horror - I would miss the Steelers v. Ravens game. Fortunately, a friend recommended NYC's finest Steelers bar - Scruffy Duffy's in Hell's Kitchen. (Sadly, it closed a couple of years ago, because it was an awesome joint.) I got there early. Early enough to grab a coffee and wander the neighborhood before heading in and settling right behind a fellow with a #35 Dan Kreider jersey on. Dan Kreider! I had to talk to this guy. His name was Harold and he had grown up, if memory serves, in Baldwin.

It turned out that meeting Harold was the highlight of my day: the Ravens defense swarmed, smelling blood in the water, and then Bart Scott almost killed Pig Ben, who wasn't Pig Ben then, just Ben, the idiot who drove his motorcycle around town sans helmet and had half is brains spilled out on 2nd Avenue.

He lay there lifeless on the Baltimore turf and for a moment, honestly, I thought Roethlisberger was dead. The entire bar paused but then Ben twitched or something and Harold, god bless his Dan Kreider loving heart, started a Charlie Batch chant -- like "Over! Rated!" during college basketball games, only "Charlie! Batch!" A great noise grew up in the bar and somehow, despite the score and despite the fact that the Ravens were unequivocally the better team that day, and that it was the season in which Bill Cowher mailed it in, and the Bus was gone, and there was a clear Super Bowl hangover, we felt soothed by the ritual of chanting Charlie's name.

None of which is to say that I want Chaz Batch leading my team for a full 16 game season.
But Charlie is strangely calming, steady. He's like the relative you trust to watch your kids in an emergency situation. No, the kids won't get their homework done. And yes, they'll probably end up eating foods that you wouldn't let them have. But when the emergency is passed, he'll hand the kids back to you, none the worse for wear, safe and sound, and maybe even a little happy from eating treats they don't get at home.

Maybe that's enough. Some Oreos, some television, make sure nobody swallows a tennis ball or puts a screwdriver in a socket. Charlie's job, as I see it, is simply not taking the killer sack a killer moment, throwing the ball into the ground rather than in an area where it can be picked off, just keeping the huddle warm and organized. He doesn't have to be McGyver, just my aunt Florence.

The question really is -- what can the rest of the team do around Charlie/Aunt Florence for the next two weeks?

Most years, I would be happy if the Steelers special teams were just indifferent, not a plus but NOT a minus. Funny how terrible play lowers expectations. But this year, even with Skippy's easy miss in the waning seconds of regulation versus the Falcons, the special teams have been a decided plus, evidenced by the gutsy call in Tennessee to run the reverse to Antonio Brown on the opening kickoff. Sepulveda has been booming the ball, so he can get them out of field position jams; Skippy was money against the Titans and has even kicked off into the endzone four times; and Stevenson Sylvester is a one man crushing machine on return coverage.

Meanwhile, I have to hand it to the offensive line. It wasn't pretty last week. Not by a long shot. This is the unit I consider to be the weakest on the team even at full strength, but with Max Starks out, Trai Essex going down, and players dropping in the heat, they managed to hang in there. Jonathan Scott jumped back and forth from left tackle (where he was starting in place of Starks) to right tackle, to spell Hotel in the 2nd half. Tony Hills came in at came in at left tackle when Scott moved. Essex went down and Doug Legursky came in for him. Guys got beat. There were pre-snap penalties. There wasn't much room for Rashard Mendenhall and not much more time for Chaz, but given that the only player on the line who played every offensive snap and who stayed in one position the whole time was Maurkice Pouncey, it's remarkable that the line was able to hang tough against a very good Tennessee defense. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't be happy with the line allowing four sacks, but given all the givens, I'd say four sacks was a win.

Things should be a wee bit easier this week. Tampa's defense is not the defense of the Tony Dungy glory days. Against offensive juggernauts like Cleveland and Carolina, the Bucs have given up a total of 618 yards of offense.

But really, with these guys playing defense, I think the Steelers offense doesn't have to do much at all anyway.

Lawrence Timmons is everywhere. He's second in the league in tackles with 24 and more than that, he's been in perfect position and shown great form and discipline. Late in the Titans game, it looked like Chris Johnson had a lane. Timmons not only came from nowhere to close that lane, he made a perfect Jack Ham tackle. If you're a linebacker, and you play in Pittsburgh, being favorably compared to Ham is the greatest compliment I can dole out.

James Harrison is on a mission to destroy all in his path. Silverback is always a good player, but we've seen him do this before, elevate his game and his intensity when the Steelers need it most.

Aaron Smith is playing run defense better than any other d-lineman in the league. That's right -- better than any other defensive lineman out there.

Troy Polamalu is simply transcendent.

The concern I have is if the Steelers defense can repeat what they've done in the first two weeks. It looked like a MASH unit in Tennessee. So I hope that Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau have given these guys what they need most - rest. They know what they're doing. They understand the LeBeau defensive schemes. They need some down time - physically and mentally - to get ready for Tampa. Maybe some Oreos and time in front of the television. At Charlie's house.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Steelers Beat Living Hell Out of the Titans -- Nobody Arrested.

There are statements.

"I once had a farm in Africa" is a statement.

"Excuse me, sir, I believe you are holding my pet warthog," is another kind of statement.

"Mission Accomplished," is an entirely different kind of statement.

But memorable as those may be, none compares to the kind of statement the Steelers defense issued on a hundred degree day in Nashville, Tennessee. I can't really put it into words because it's not that kind of statement. It's more of a visceral kind of statement, the kind you feel in your bones, in your bone marrow, really. If I may translate, I think it goes something along the lines of:
"Any man I see out there, I'm gonna kill him. Any sumbitch takes a shot at me, I'm not only gonna kill him, but I'm gonna kill his wife, all his friends, his dog, and burn his damn house down.
James Harrison and Troy Polamalu"

Or something like that.

Seven turnovers. Two forced by Harrison. One huge endzone interception by Troy.

The best running back in the NFL held to 34 yards on 16 carries.

Vince Young. Benched.

They did it with no help from the offense, with the quarterback listed FOURTH on the depth chart holding down the fort, and a decimated offensive line. They did it with players going down to injury, heat exhaustion and general attrition. And yet, they were completely and totally dominant every moment they were on the field (except when they went to that silly PREvent defense.)

Steelers Defense to NFL:

Reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. Consider this our one and only notice. You have officially been served. It is on, bitches.

More later.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Grilled Pizzas - the Perfect Food for the Steelers Trip to Nashville

With the Steelers heading down to Nashville today, not a good place for them, historically (I think they've won just one game in Tennessee since the Oilers moved there -- oy), I thought about making BBQ in honor of the host team. I had some of the best BBQ of my life in Nashville several years ago when I was there with the Pittsburgh Passion, but proper BBQ is an an all day project. I'd have to have the pork butt on the grill smoking around 4:00 a.m., so ...

I thought I'd create little grilled pizzas, using the Mark Bittman flatbread recipe I used last week (I have been critical of Bittman in the past, but those flatbreads rocked) and creating my own margarita style pizzas from there. Here's the plan:

The Crust.

2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon instant yeast
3 cups all-purpose flour
Extra virgin olive oil as needed

-- Whisk together the salt, sugar, yeast and 1 cup warm water in a large bowl. Let the mixture sit until it begins to froth, about 5 minutes, then add the flour and mix until well combined. (If the dough is very dry, add more warm water a tablespoon at a time to moisten it.) Cover and let rise somewhere warm for about an hour.

-- Although Bittman does not call for it, at this point, I knead it again, and let it rise again, what my great-grandmother called 'punching it down.' I always think that multiple rises (raises?) gives anything yeasty a better, lighter feel. It doesn't take a full hour to come up a second time, usually only 15 or 20 minutes or so, but your mileage may vary. When the dough has puffed up a second time, transfer it to a well-floured surface and knead until soft and silky, about five minutes.

-- Cut the dough into eight equally sized pieces and roll each one out; don’t worry about making these perfectly round - a kind of lopsided rectangle is just fine - but try to keep them relatively even in thickness.

-- Prepare a grill; the heat should be medium-high and the rack about 4 inches from the fire. If you're using a gas grill, as I am, once the grill is hot, at least 300 degrees, turn off two of the burners. You'll need a 'cooler' side to work on.

-- Brush one side of the rolled dough with olive oil. I'm using garlic oil - which is just olive oil into which I toss chopped garlic. I don't like big hunks of garlic, but I like the flavor, so this works best for me. You can strain out the garlic or just work around it.

-- Place the dough on the grill, oiled side down. Within a minute the dough will puff slightly, the underside will stiffen, and grill marks will appear. Using tongs, immediately flip the crust over, onto the coolest part of the grill. Quickly brush the grilled surface with olive oil. Scatter the cheese over the dough, spoon dollops of tomato over the cheese, and add the prosciutto over that. Do not cover the entire surface of the pizza with tomatoes.

-- Slide the pizza back toward the hot coals, but not directly over them. Using tongs, rotate the pizza frequently so that different sections receive high heat; check the underside often to see that it is not burning. The pizza is done when the top is bubbly and the cheese melted, about 6 minutes. Serve at once.

The Toppings are easy, but you can use what you like. I used:

fresh buffalo mozzerella
imported prosciutto
grilled tomatoes.
These, I just core and quarter, toss with oil and salt and toss on the grill. When one side gets charred, flip it and continue until each tomato is charred all over and soft. Once grilled, toss the tomatoes in a bowl with julienned basil. The sauce is really that simple.

Enjoy! And go Steelers!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ranking the QB's, One Week into the 2010 Season

I've been thinking about NFL quarterbacks and I was making a running list of the starting QB's in my head, one through 32, but hell, I bored even myself with a pedestrian ranking like that. Would you rather have Peyton Manning or Tom Brady? Um, yes, please. Silliness.

But still, I kept thinking about it and thought, rather than argue the greatness of Brees over Brady or some such nonsense, why not just group them - the guys you do want, the guys you don't want and the ones you can live with if you have to. So here it is, based on one week of work in 2010, past performances where applicable and what they are capable of now, given age, injury and so on. On with the first QB grouping.

The Joe Montanas. These are the guys who have, can and should win Super Bowls. If you have one of these guys, chances are good that you've already celebrated a Super Bowl win, or there is a very good chance you have one (or two or three) in your future. You should be happy as a clam. No surprises here. Just the five best in the NFL:

Peyton Manning
Tom Brady
Drew Brees
Aaron Rodgers and
(Ben Roethisberger.)
[Pig Ben gets a parenthetical, because Dennis Dixon is playing as PB was suspended for four weeks for being, at the very best, a huge, gaping a-hole. Let's not even discuss worst case scenario.]

Rodgers is the only unproven in this group, but I really believe he's got a date with Lombardi in his future. I could have bumped him down one notch, but hey, the Pack was my NFC Super Bowl pick.

The Doug Williamses. These are guys with loads of talent, guys who are capable of winning the big game, provided they find themselves on the right team. They're also incapable of maintaining that level of play consistently over a long term. Generally, they'll turn in a stinker or two, but these are the original 'huge upside guys' and if you get them on a roll, you're in for a good time:

Brett Favre
Phillip Rivers
Eli Manning
Carson Palmer
Joe Flacco

Yeah, I know. Two of these guys actually have Super Bowl rings, but both the Ancient One and Opie are streaky. And their inconsistency drops them from the Montana level greatness.

The Trent Dilfers, a/k/a THE MATTS.. This is my way of skirting the "game manager" designation, but these are the guys who benefit most from being on really good teams in systems that play to their strengths. Get one of these guys in the right system, with a good defense and good special teams, you have the 2000 Ravens or the 2002 Bucs. All hope is not lost if you have one of these signal callers, but you'd better have a great coach and a great defense if you do because they cannot win games on their own.

Matt Hasselbeck
Matt Cassel
Matt Ryan
Matt Schaub

Seriously, what are the chances all four guys would be named Matt? Parents, if you want your kid to be a pretty good athlete, not the greatest, but good enough to draw a paycheck for a lot of years in the NFL, name him Matthew. You're welcome.

For the record, I think 'the game manager guys' actually get short shrift. Doing enough to win usually means making a few good reads, some heads up check downs, plus a handful of really, really good throws when the chips are down. Something that the next group is usually incapable of.

The Kordell Stewarts. These are the guys who are tantalizing, just tantalizing, mouth watering talents. And yet, they will disappoint you in the end. Nay, they will crush you in the end, saving their worst for the post-season, doing just enough to keep the franchise from looking for another QB, but never quite making it through to the promised land. Since I actually lived through the Kordell Stewart era in Pittsburgh, I have waves of sympathy if you find your hometown QB on this list, guaranteed to break your heart:

Jake Delhomme
Donovan McNabb
Jay Cutler

The Matthew Staffords. We just don't know about these guys, hence the Matthew Stafford designation. I think Stafford's gonna be great. That's just my gut, but that's what it says. My gut says the same thing about Sam Bradford. But we don't know about any of them yet:

Matthew Stafford
Sam Bradford
Kevin Kolb

The Rick Mirers. This is reserved for guys drafted in the first round. Expectations are high when a QB goes in the first round. Everybody's hoping for the next Peyton Manning, but guys like that don't come along very often. What you usually get is David Klingler. Or worse, somebody who seriously flames out. The one and only member of this group is Mark Sanchez!

My brain says, put this guy in the Stafford Division, my gut instinct says this is where Sanchez belongs. I know it's early to make this designation. I know!

The Brian Sipes.These guys are sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always entertaining to watch. So there's no shame in landing here. They are capable of winning games, lots of them, in fact. And they have flashes, real flashes of greatness. But also huge brainfarts. I don't think I'd want either one leading my team, but I do love watching them.

Vince Young
Tony Romo

The Chris Chandlers. These guys, well, I have nothing truly bad to say about them, except to say, I sure wouldn't want them leading my team. Ladies and Gentlemen, the one, the only -- the fair to middling -- the Chris Chandler grouping!

Kyle Orton
David Garrard
Chad Henne
Alex Smith

The Cliff Stoudts. This is the home of, 'really, THAT guy is your starter? Be serious.'
Some of them have a large body of work, but sometimes you don't need a large body of work to know. You know? If you have one of these guys, look on the bright side, you may get a good QB out of next years draft.

Josh Freeman
Matt Moore
Trent Edwards
Derek Anderson

Monday, September 13, 2010

Steelers Over Falcons, a Week 1 Thriller

More than I love sports, I love the intersection of sports and real life. I love it even more than I love cooking, even more than I love cupcakes from Vanilla Pastry, which are dead serious deliciousness and the best in the city.

UConn Fan, while evidencing obviously good taste in desserts when she showed up with the aforementioned Vanilla goodies in hand, is also a doctor and was on call over the weekend, which is to say, smack dab through the Steelers game. She had already fielded two calls.

Now, I have no idea what kind of condition would cause you to page your family doc during a Steelers game, short having a rocket launcher explode in your face, being mauled by a bear, or temporarily paralyzing oneself in pain while attempting the moves from the Lady Gaga "Telephone" video, but I find it hard to believe that those were the cause of any of the the pages that came through to UConn Fan. But you never know. Stillers fans are a diverse bunch.

After the overtime coin flip, just as Sam Baker was flagged for an obvious, desperate hold on James Harrison, she got another page which she was in the middle of returning just before David Johnson and Heath Miller laid out crushing pancake blocks opening the way for Rashard Mendenhall's 50 yard dash to the endzone.

And as Mendenhall ripped behind Miller and Johnson, ripped past any would be tacklers, maintained his balance and cruised into the endzone, she calmly maintained her doctor mien, as the rest of us celebrated silently - high-fiving, fist pumping and I myself even did part of the Gaga "Telephone" dance, albeit badly and awkwardly, but without injury. The pain of holding in a barbaric yawp? Why, it was almost enough to make me call my primary care physician.

On with the game balls, the on-field variety:

Lawrence Timmons looked like he is all that the Steelers drafted him to be and more. He was everywhere at once.

Head & Shoulders may have insured Troy Polamalu's hair, but Dick LeBeau should insure the rest of him. His value to the Steelers defense is incalculable and I don't think it can be overstated. Even now, Matt Ryan is in Atlanta, having coffee, going over the gameplan for this week, but in the back of his mind, he's still thinking, "Where the hell did that guy come from?! How can he do that? I can't do that? Can you do that? Who is that guy?"

Dennis Dixon looked tight and nervous and I hope that he's worked out the jitters, because I think he has the ability to play better than what we saw on Sunday. As Crash Davis once eloquently said, "Don't think Meat, just throw." Or run, as the case may be.

Big ups to Dan Sepulveda, for launching a 54 yard punt near the end of the 4th quarter that set up Polamalu's pick which should have ended the game. But still, props to the punter.

The D Line, linebackers and B-Mac did a great job in stuffing Michael Turner all day long. There weren't many holes for him to hit and when there was one, McFadden closed it quickly. 42 yards on 19 attempts? That's a great day for the Steelers defense.

And a huge delicious cupcake to David Johnson for pancaking two Atlanta defenders on Mendenhall's game winning dash. If he keeps doing that, the coaches may use him more than Matt Spaeth.

The bad news is that both Big Snack and Max Starks went down with injuries. The Starks injury is much more troubling for a few reasons. He plays a position where there is negligible depth. Coach Tomlin reported in his presser yesterday that it seems to be a low ankle sprain, rather than the dread high ankle variety, but ankle injuries can really derail an entire season. I realize that it's not as though the left tackle is expected to spring down the field with regularity, but it is a position that requires a lot of lateral movement and pop. Anybody who has sprained an ankle knows that it's the lateral movement that kills you. Get well soon Max. Whoever is under center needs you.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday Recipe: A Feast of Grilled Flatbread, Hummus and Eggplant Dip

It's the regular season! There is much rejoicing in the land. For this week, I decided to do a spread of dips and snacks we could munch during the game and my buddy UConnFan is promising to bring dessert. (Lord, please let her go to Vanilla Pastry Studio for the world's most delicious cupcakes.)

Meantime, I'm working like a dog this morning, making hummus, lebanese flatbread and an eggplant and cheese spread, meant for crostini, but I think it will be fine on the flatbread. On to the recipes:

Don't ever buy hummus. Making it is world's cheaper and it's very easy. Here's how I do mine.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Five Things the Steelers Can Do to Survive Week 1 of the 2010 Season

Pig Ben, out for four games. Byron Leftwich, out with a knee sprain. Willie Colon, out for the year. Chris Kemoeatu sprained his ankle this week in practice (but will go on Sunday, according to reports from the Steelers.) And the Steelers open the season, at home, as 2.5 point 'dogs.

Here are five things they can do to hang in there to open the season:

1. Heath Miller. Short crossing routes might be the easiest things for Dennis Dixon to hit. Plus, Miller is one of the most reliable targets they have. The Steelers and Steelers fans recognize Miller's greatness, but I'm not sure the rest of the league does. Put the ball in his hands at least minimum five times on Sunday.

2. Double D using his legs. If I'm Bruce Arians, I'm telling Dixon to take off if he doesn't see anything he likes downfield. And take off right away. The way I figure it, if the Falcons are smart, they'll stack the box to try to take away the running game. If they do that, and if Dixon breaks contain, there's not much between him and a big gain except a couple of DB's who will likely have their backs turned away from Dixon in coverage. Dixon can fly like a gazelle, so I say use it. I know, I know, a QB can't run like that and survive the NFL, but I think he can survive four games.

3. Run behind Hotel Flozell. Hotel's footwork on passing plays is awkward, painful to watch really. And he makes up for his clumsiness with his slowness. But the guy can still knock people out run blocking. If the Steelers have any chance of establishing a running game (and that's questionable), I think it's by running right behind the Hotel (using both Issac Redman and Suspect Mendenhall) all day long.

4. Cover some kick offs, people. The Steelers have lost games to bad teams and I mean terrible, bad stinky, putrid, unfocused teams because of kick coverage failures. And I know that the kickoffs themselves are woefully short, but without Pig Ben, the Steelers offense cannot dig itself out of a hole created by the historically appalling special teams coverage units. I don't care how they do it, but they absolutely have to provide tight coverage and not give up a score or set the defense up to defend a short field. I probably should have made this bullet point 1.

5. Put the game on Matt Ryan. I know, he's good. I like the kid. I liked him when he was at BC. He doesn't throw many bad picks. He's smart and he's got a good arm. In short, the Falcons have the right quarterback in the right system.

But, but, still ... Michael Turner scares me more. He had a subpar year last year due to injuries, but the guy is nearly unstoppable when healthy. He has never averaged less than 4.5 yards per carry in his career and he's always good for a handful of really long touchdown runs per season. The first thing the Steelers defense has to do is take Turner away. Then they still have their hands full, but I like their chances if they can keep Turner under 90 yards on the day and keep him from breaking off anything big.

It's football season and it is good.

Why Al Michaels Is a Tool, a Brief Meditation

If anybody ever wonders why NBC play by play man Al Michaels drives me completely batsh*t crazy, I have a simple example from last night's season opening Saints - Vikings game.

At the start of the 4th quarter, with New Orleans leading 14-9, old what's his name threw a pass out in the flat to Jimmy Kleinsasser. It was ruled an incomplete pass on the field. This drove Al nuts because the official behind Kleinsasser first ruled it a catch, but the other official, who had a better angle on the ball, ruled that the ball hit the ground and it was incomplete. To me, it walked like an incompletion, quacked like an incompletion, so it was clearly an incomplete duck, to borrow a phrase from our friend T.O.

Monday, September 6, 2010

West Virginia, Putting the 'Wild' in Wilderness. A True Story

“And then they was et by baars,” said Thomas, drawing out the ‘aaa’ sound in 'bears,' so that he sounded like Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter. A little teasing thrown our way as he whizzed by on his way to bring appetizers to another table of diners.

Sure, an encounter with a black bear was very funny now that we were warm, clean and safe at the Elk River Inn. And also fortified with margaritas.

For years, I kayaked with an informal club. We’d meet up at a designated place and time and paddle together, usually all day. I was game for anything but I am sure that I had the unofficial and quite dubious title of 'the most ill-prepared paddler.' I never had a change of clothes (not even for the coldest of paddles) and needless to say, the thought of me carrying first aid materials was laughable. Many days, I didn’t even have lunch and when I did, it was often in the form of whatever I could buy at some convenience store passed along the way (i.e., the least offensive granola bar on the shelf and a Snickers.)

But I am older now. And wiser, too. Also, I am more infirm. So this hiking trip, I was prepared for nearly any of the myriad of injuries that befall the wilderness hiker. I was ready for aches, sprains, cuts and even a broken bone or unforeseen overnight stay in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. I had in my pack, I kid you not: a soft splint, an ace bandage, a huge bottle of ibuprophen, chapstick, bug spray, duct tape, neosporin, a swiss army knife, an extra fleece, a change of socks, sterile wipes, band-aids, sterile gauze, a small packet of blood clotting powder, a headlamp and one of those foil blanket things they give marathoners after a race (in case things got REALLY ugly.) Plus enough food to get both of us through the night if need be -- 64 oz of water and 32 oz of gatorade, a small bag of cashews, six Clif bars (three for me and three for Geargirl). I was so prepared I was almost smug.

Wolves don’t "officially" exist in the West Virginia forest, but they are there. This one was grey (coyotes, I later learned, are always brown). He was also a mere 30 yards up the hill from us.

I might not have seen this wolf, but for the howling of a pack of what must have been coyotes down the hill from us. First, I thought it was just some dogs at the campground by the trailhead, but the howls and growls got more and more ferocious, more feral and more wild. Nope. Those weren’t ordinary dogs.

We stood there, frozen, listening, facing the sound of the howls below us, and when I turned to look at Geargirl, I saw the wolf, who bolted up the hill away from us.

We considered the options. The wolf was gone, so that was one good thing, but still, what were likely coyotes remained. We would have to go in the direction of the sound of the howling coyotes to get back to the trail head, or we could go on and complete the loop.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Wolves, like, never attack humans. Well, not human adults. They really mostly go after infants or livestock and then, usually the lame or otherwise ill, small or meek.”

“Just how do you know so much about wolves?”

“Oh, I saw a thing once on TV about wolves,” which I realized as it left my mouth made me less than credible. Yeah, I saw some special about a decade ago, and that has given me perfectly accurate information upon which we should be basing life and death decisions vis-a-vis American gray wolves, which are not supposed to even been in these freaking woods; beyond which, there remained the baying coyotes down the hill and though they did seem to be more interested in their own intra-coyote squabble than they were in coming up the hill to attack us, who knows what’s in the mind of a hungry coyote?

“Really, they never attack anything as big as full grown human adults,” and I hoped I sounded more confident than I really was.

So we pressed on. We continued to talk. Somebody once told me something along the lines of the sound of the human voice kinda freaks out wildlife or something. Supposedly, it scares off most critters, even critters out looking for a meal. Or maybe I learned that from that same stupid documentary I had seen which, over time as we walked, I remembered focused on the Iberian wolf, which could be worlds different than the wolves in W.Va., not to mention coyotes. (Maybe we should have been talking in Spanish. Or Portuguese.)

I kept my misgivings to myself and put the swiss army knife in my front pocket (that would show those coyotes!) and we decided it was a good thing to keep talking and stay close, so we talked and talked. Sometimes we clapped and eventually, we were calm enough that we resumed a more normal conversational pace, which is to say, barely talking at all, but rather taking in the amazing scenery and getting sort of lost in all of it.

Emboldened from our success (not being attacked by either wolf or coyote has to be seen as a success), the next day we set out for a longer hike, the shape of which would make kind of a big dipper, starting and ending both on the Gauley Mountain trail.

The canopy overhead is quite lush, making it nice and cool and kind of dark, even at 11:00 a.m. on a sunny day. The trail is also very narrow, especially so at some points and it is necessary to place your feet almost like a tightropist would in spots. Even where it widens out into a more comfortable path, it’s rocky and slick and full of deep mud bogs. I can see why it makes for some superb mountain biking. Also, it makes it necessary to look down every second or you will kill yourself on a rock or end up face down in the mud.

After our encounter with the wolf and the coyotes the day before, neither one of us wanted to say anything, at first, when we started seeing the tracks. But we kept seeing them. Big tracks. Constant, big tracks.

“Maybe it’s a dog,” Geargirl said hopefully.

“Or a wolf. Or coyote. Or something else with great big teeth, for chrissakes.”


But we kept walking.

There was one completely perfect claw print in front of me. It was so perfect that a good crime scene unit would have been able to lift DNA evidence from it. But you didn’t need fancy equipment to know what kind of print it was. Sadly, I didn't have the presence of mind to form this obvious thought: Bear.


I can say with complete and total certitude that this was the most singularly terrifying sound I have ever heard. Part growl and part roar, it was utterly savage and menacing. Nothing, not even the sound of the two gun shots wounding a man in the alley right next to my old house, scared me like this did. Like a cartoon character, I jumped straight up in the air.

If you drew a line straight through my hips and kept going for ten yards into the shaded woods, came the sound of a giant, apparently angry, black bear. I was the first down marker and he had the ball.

“What the f*ck was THAT!?”

“Bear! Run!” yelled Geargirl.

And so we did, but we both also remembered the thing about making noise and 'being big' and stuff. So I ran, faster than I’ve run in 20 years, and I roared. I gave out a barbaric YAWP that would do even Saroyan proud, I think. We screamed and hollered. And ran. I kept looking back, but no sign of the great bear of the great growl.

In retrospect, it was pointless to run; not even Usain Bolt can outrun a bear. But fight or flight kicked in and, if I was choosing, I was choosing not to fight. All those first aid materials? They were hardly adequate to dress the wounds one would sustain when being mauled by a great bear. Maybe I could have blinded the bear momentarily by winding my ace bandage around his eyes?

We stopped running when we reached our turn. We could turn right here, loop deeper into the obviously bear infested woods and take a trail that would take us right next to another trail titled, “Bear Pen Loop.” Huh. Wonder what they named that for?

Or we could go another half-mile straight out and onto the highway and if we stuck to the roads from there, it was another 18 miles to the car. (It was only another seven on the trails.) So we started down the trail, but it was darker even than the one we left and more to the point, it was positively riddled with what I now knew for certain were bear tracks.

We were rattled. We turned back and opted for the highway. We made it about seven of those 17 miles along the road before fatigue set in and I started to question our decision. I had this internal dialogue going. Perhaps we should have just gone on the trail. Bears don’t usually attack humans, right? Not unless they are threatened or unless you happen upon a mother and her cubs. It could be that we startled the bear as much as he scared us. Probably thousands and thousands of people have had similar encounters and escaped unscathed. Oh, now safely on the highway, miles and miles from the bear, and miles and miles from our car, I silently castigated myself for our foolishness.

Thankfully, it was at this point that Geargirl found Farmer Ralphie, the world’s nicest farmer, who agreed to drive us the rest of the way to our car. I owe Farmer Ralphie a huge karmic debt. Not merely for driving us the last 11 miles, but for confirming that the bear, a bear who was growling viciously no less, was a clear and present danger and that not only did the bears often eat through acres of his corn, but have been known to kill and dine on calves on the farms around there.

And to think, I always thought it would be so cool to see a bear.