Lee Mays missed Wednesday morning's practice with a hamstring problem, so as he walked to lunch I asked him if he would practice that afternoon. When he said he would, I nodded and told him he'd better because there are some hungry players behind him. "I'm hungry, too," he said as he walked away.
Well, at least Mays has the right attitude, but after two days of camp I don't know if he'll make the team. It was a ludicrous suggestion over the summer, I'd believed. Folks loves to trash Mays, but why, I believe I asked in print, would the Steelers nurse him along for three years and then cut him after he'd made strides and was peaking athletically? But he played poorly his first time out this week, and then had to miss with a minor injury. In his place, guys like Walter Young, Zamir Cobb and Nate Washington are performing well.
Young is a tall target who doesn't have the deep speed of say Fred Gibson, but he keeps catching deep passes. He's not just a possession receiver and looks like he, in fact, could've been the fourth-round draft pick and not Gibson. And please, don't take this is a knock against Gibson, who has his moments but is not as consistent at this early stage.
Cobb has picked up from where he left off last season. His one-handed catch, made after turning his body back, back, back, is so far the catch of camp. He's also returning punts.
Washington has a smooth gait and soft hands. The scout who recommended him out of Tiffin said last spring that Washington could be the camp sleeper, and on the first day he hauled in a bomb over Willie Williams.
Any of these three players could knock Mays from the roster. And if Chidi Iwuoma, who intercepted Brian St. Pierre for a touchdown Tuesday, continues to play well and vie for that last special-teams spot, Sean Morey could be in trouble as well.
Speaking of St. Pierre, word here – from another reporter who received the unsolicited tip last spring – is that he has a roster spot locked up. The loser of the battle for the No. 2 QB job, Tommy Maddox or Charlie Batch, will apparently be cut.
That doesn't make sense to me, but Bill Cowher supposedly loved the way St. Pierre played in the spring.
He looked like the same St. Pierre to me, and then in camp threw the aforementioned pick for a Chidi TD. That was preceded in the 7 on 7 drills by an interception to rookie linebacker Rian Wallace.
Both Maddox and Batch have played better. Unless that changes, those are the two players who should be backing up Ben Roethlisberger. St. Pierre has made too little progress since he was drafted in 2003.
When will this time warp expire? I was certain Jerome Bettis should've retired after last season. He struggles walking up a flight of stairs, but guess what? There are no stairways on the field. He still has those quick feet and he won't go away. Duce Staley, meanwhile, had to miss Wednesday afternoon's practice with an inflamed knee. That's not a 30-year-old who struggled with a hamstring injury last season.
Behind them, Verron Haynes looks like a bull; he could be in store for a strong season and should have the opportunity. Willie Parker and Noah Herron are also running well. In fact, I thought I saw Parker blow through a hole yesterday morning, but it was instead Herron, who isn't supposed to be anywhere near that quick. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's Herron. I never like to mistrust my instincts. And to Parker's credit, as he broke through a pair of arm tackles during team scrimmage Wednesday afternoon, I thought at first glance that he was the bigger Herron.
Now, Parker wears No. 39 and Herron wears No. 38, so that's part of the identity problem. The other part is that Herron just might be another camp sleeper, as Parker was last year.
One of my favorite Steelers is superscout Bill Nunn, the guy who played such a big role in building the team of the '70s. Nunn enjoys dispensing wisdom to us youngsters, and his style is low key; he preaches not to become too excited over one play, one practice, one week, even one season. So after the first full practice, the one that sent reporters like me over the edge in their dispatches, I asked him what he liked out there.
"You know me better than that," he said. "Haven't you listened to anything I've said to you?"
I told him I was joking. I also told him I was disappointed that he wasn't mentioned in the outstanding 2004 book "America's Game", which chronicles the rise of the NFL. He said that he wasn't disappointed because he really wasn't the first to scout the black colleges, that it had been the Los Angeles Rams.
"But they used my (black college) All-America teams," Nunn said with a laugh.
Nunn, of course, was a sportswriter before Chuck Noll talked him into scouting for the Steelers.
I told Nunn that I'd watched clips of Marion Motley, the huge Cleveland fullback from the 1950s, and said he'd still be a star in today's game.
"You should've seen him play linebacker," Nunn said. "In his first game in the NFL, against the Eagles, the Browns threw him out there at the goal line. The Eagles ran at him three times and he stopped them cold each time. He was a great one."
Back at you, Mr. Nunn.
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.