The Morning After

Read "The Morning After" three times a week for Jim Wexell's thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers as they train for the 2005 season at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.

Friday, August 5th

8.


Last year, I reported to camp enthusiastic and open-minded before devolving into insanity. The overkill, I believe, did me in. The media up here is flat-out cuckoo. So to counter that, I reported to camp this year already insane and am currently evolving into a normal functioning human being. In fact, I feel like the sanest guy up here. The frenzy over Ben Roethlisberger's alleged "injury" was over the top. I did not see a collision, even though I watched every play closely; I did not see Ben limping, even though he did not miss a snap; I did not report any of this to the Associated Press, which pays for such dispatches. So they sent an e-mail expressing their disappointment. "What are the viewers of KDKA going to think?" Apparently, that station interrupted its newscast with "an exclusive" on Ben's injury. And because of that, I'm supposed to cover their butts and clear up any misunderstanding.

Now, Ben's wrapped right hand may be cause for concern. He really hasn't looked sharp up here and a hand injury would certainly explain that. It will be a difficult nut to crack because everyone's so tight-lipped about minor-but-nagging injuries. I know you'd like to know more about it, but that's all I have, and if it's carried over from last year, it would explain his playoff slump.

But back to my media rant: It's not the volume of the coverage here that's out of control, as it has been in years past, it's the unabashed cheering, and I'm not even going into the one-sided reporting of the Hines Ward fiasco.

At lunch, I had the opportunity to make monkey-shines behind Andrew Stockey's "podcast". It was fun because it was a live interview with Mike Logan at lunch! Wow! Andrew signed off something like: This is your friendly neighborhood jackass saying, "Goooo Steelers!"

Objectivity doesn't matter anymore because people want to see open cheering from the press; it's what drives ratings. Sigh.

9.


I saw Max Starks in the morning. He was preparing to appear on the Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley radio show. I told him he looks like a completely different person in the one-on-one drills than he did a year ago, and he agreed. I told him I'd keep the contrast in mind when judging rookies in the future. He agreed that I should. Then he went on the air and Tunch raved about how well Max looked in the one-on-ones.

OK, fast-forward to Thursday afternoon's practice. Starks lines up, all confident, perhaps pleased with his bad self, and promptly gets run over by rookie free agent Elliott Harris. Now, understand, undrafted rookies have a tendency to take these drills a lot more seriously than starters do. It's why Eric Taylor beat Alan Faneca. So while it may have been an aberration, Max never seemed to recover. He was beat the next time up by seventh-round pick Shaun Nua. It was obvious Starks's confidence had waned.

The reason I'm not concerned by any of this is what happened between Starks's stellar performances early in camp compared to yesterday. I'd focused on Starks during the 9-on-7 run-game drill. Starks absolutely killed Haggans; looked like Jonathan Ogden doing so. The 6-foot-8 Starks showed up in the best shape of his life, muscled-up at 347 pounds. He's the son of Ross Browner, so he has the bloodlines. Watching Starks play at times in camp makes me believe he could not only become an effective player this year, but a Pro Bowler, if not eventually a Hall of Famer. There isn't anyone else up here with the potential for greatness that Starks has. What a great third-round draft pick last season! So, while his confidence sagged, it's only a one-on-one drill. And I know, the play that fired me up was done against an average linebacker, but the potential is blatant.

10.


OK, so let's update some pluggers. Obviously Harris is a better end than nose tackle. He also killed Marvel Smith in the one-on-ones before being stoned by Ben Claxton, the Mall Guard, at center. Before I believe Claxton is a sleeper, I'm going to believe the 280-pound Harris is a better end than nose tackle. I mean, even a half-insane podcaster can put two and two together sometimes. Taylor also looked good and not just against Faneca. Perhaps the second-year D-lineman is coming along. During the run-game drill, rookie third-rounder Trai Essex stoned Alonzo Jackson easily. By the way, Essex, at 6-feet-4, 324 pounds, looked like a midget coming in to replace Starks at right tackle. Essex shows signs of becoming a serviceable tackle. That's all I can say at this point.

More plugger news: I wonder if Grant Bowman, now in his second camp with the club, can develop into a Chris Hoke. He's stout at nose tackle, and he did play at Michigan, so he's not overwhelmed by any of this. Perhaps he can emerge into a serviceable back-up some day and then effectively replace a starter when needed, as Hoke has done. This much is certain: Bowman is a nose tackle; Harris is not.

Much ballyhooed rookie free agent Andre Frazier, the OLB insiders here say will replace Jackson, hasn't shown me much. Josh Burr handles him easily. Frazier is a rangy athlete, and OLBs converting from college defensive ends DO take time.

While watching line drills, I couldn't watch the 7-on-7 passing drill on the other side of the field. I was told Brian St. Pierre was impressive and was "the only quarterback who attacked down field." And so I watched the Saint in team scrimmage throw wildly to an open Fred Gibson. The ball couldn't even have been intercepted by the out-of-position cornerback. Maybe it's just me with St. Pierre. I hope I'm not causing the kid any bad luck.

Lee Mays dropped a couple more passes, but for some reason Walter Young was not thrown to all day. I just don't understand what the coaches are doing some times. Perhaps they don't want Young to become too confident after what he called his best practice day with the Steelers. Sheesh.

Thursday, August 4th

4.


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.

5.


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.

6.


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.

7.


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.

Monday, August 1st

1.


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.

2.


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.

3.


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.


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