Hines Ward is not playing football and Kevin Colbert is talking tough.
As the great Vince Lombardi might ask in a raised voice: "What the hell is going on around here?"
I expected a strange camp, but not for this reason. I expected a team -- a team built with an underdog's chip on its shoulder -- to have difficulty assuming the mantel of 15-1 elitists, and I still expect that difficulty. Chris Hoke is a fighter, a scrapper, an underdog, and there are 40-some guys just like him on this team. The questions should involve how they will cope in their new environment, but those questions are now on the back burner. The front burner is represented by Ward and Colbert, who are doing the exact opposite of what's in their nature.
From the back of the media room, Dan Rooney listened to Colbert repeat that the team would not negotiate further. After Colbert was done with the press, Rooney quickly grabbed his arm and walked with him down the hallway. He had something important to say. Had Colbert not represented what was intended? Had he not answered the ugliest question properly?
"Does Ward now crawl back to camp or is his season over?"
Rooney would've corrected that question before answering, and perhaps would have chuckled at its seriousness. Colbert let the question pass before saying "no".
Was Rooney instead re-shaping team policy with Colbert on this one?
I don't know but I would've loved to have eavesdropped on that one.
Bill Cowher started the day by instructing his assistant coaches not to comment. Now that's the type of solution I expect from him: Don't let the assistants say "Sure we'll miss him but I'll just coach the guys who show up and we'll be fine." Or something along that line of blather, but shutting them up fits Cowher. Ward not playing football and Colbert talking tough does not fit either of those men. Steeler fans might want to hope this dream ends soon because it's turning strange.
The numbers? I'll need more time. We're dealing with experts in the field of keeping quiet when you're dealing with the Steelers and Ward's agent Eugene Parker. Here's what we do know:
According to last Friday's Post-Gazette, the Steelers have offered "more than $8 million in a signing bonus and it might be closer to $9 million."
Yes, a very strange way to put it. If the first part is right, and the Steelers offered Ward eight million and one dollars, than eight million and two dollars would allow the second part of the sentence to also be correct.
Alas, it's being accepted now by fans that the offer is $9 million. Until proven otherwise, let's keep it closer to $8 million, but up over the $8.1 million paid to Kordell Stewart, which the Steelers now claim is their team record.
The night that story was released, by the way, a TV station that's close to the Steelers announced that "a source" put Ward's asking price at $15 million. Now wasn't that timely?
No matter how hard they try to make Ward look like the bad guy, and no matter how many fans buy this $9 million offered/$15 million asked parameter, I'm going to keep believing this will be settled at $10 million, even $9.5 million. That's where my gut tells me these two sides are hoping to go. They're just taking the long cut, and it might have grown longer with Sunday's strange unfolding of events.
Radio analyst and former player Tunch Ilkin believes Ward will settle after the third preseason game. He believes a player in Ward's shape needs a week to get used to the game again and another week to get ready for the opener. Ilkin ought to know. He was one of the last veterans to hold out from training camp.
Ilkin, Louis Lipps, Carnell Lake and Thomas Everett all held out in 1992. Ilkin came in after a month with only one day of camp left; Lake a few days later. Those two succeeded. Everett, though, was traded to the Cowboys and Lipps was waived after the season started.
Before that, Mike Merriweather, a three-time Pro Bowler, held out the entire 1988 season and was then traded to the Vikings.
A story went around yesterday about how Larry Brown ended his holdout. After agreeing to a contract, Brown told Rooney, "You know, I signed this thing too early. I'm getting too old for two-a-days, and I really could've used a few more weeks with my family."Rooney said "If you don't tell anyone, I won't." And so the agreement was made, but not announced until Brown could enjoy another couple of weeks off.
I fear we're not in those friendly confines anymore.