The Dirt: Around the AFC North

The Cincinnati Bengals are kings of the division, the Pittsburgh Steelers are reigning NFL champions, the Cleveland Browns are rebuilding, and the Baltimore Ravens are busy imploding. The 2006 AFC North battle is already taking shape and now is the time to put the Super Bowl hangover to bed.

Concerning the hornet's nest that is the Baltimore Ravens' clubhouse, this team has more problems than any other team in the division. Team stars Ray Lewis and Chris McAlister are top-notch NFL talents, but they made more news as locker room malcontents. Lewis wants a new contract and McAlister is not living up to his. Baltimore is loathe to accede to Lewis' wishes and the rumor mill is alive with word that Lewis was looking for a way out of Baltimore . There is tension between the team and both players, who could be getting ready for their last season as a Raven.

Last off-season, the Ravens were pitching themselves as Super Bowl contenders, but like the promise of the 46 defense, that was hype. The team has figured out some of the issues at wide receiver, only to see weaknesses at running back, at quarterback, and on the offensive and defensive line continue to haunt them once again in 2006.

As a result, the ownership effectively emasculated head coach Brian Billick and stated that QB Kyle Boller would have to compete with a veteran for the starting job. But there wasn't a housecleaning. The organization is still caught between the team that won the Super Bowl a few years back and the one currently trying to forge its own identity.

The Ravens are poised for a tailspin. The team has too much talent to start from scratch, but too many holes to figure that a quick fix would dramatically turn things around. Just when you think Boller and the other players are putting it all together, the Ravens go and lose to the Cleveland Browns.

The Cleveland Browns were more willing to make a break with past than the Ravens and they could take a step out of last place in the division if they can rebuild the defensive line. The bleeding in Cleveland won't end until the Browns can stop the run, something the Ravens still have going for their team.

The Browns have plenty of cap room to make a number of high-profile signings in free agency, but the team isn't a player or two away from contending. GM Phil Savage will likely avoid overpaying aging stars, instead targeting promising players coming off of their rookie contract.

Of course, there is also the draft, which has been an unmitigated disaster since the NFL returned to Cleveland . However, there have been better years to pick a stud at defensive tackle or defensive end. The Browns might be better off raiding Baltimore 's kitchen, stealing away Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Anthony Weaver.

Regardless, Savage has to hit a few home runs in the draft. That's how he helped Baltimore stay competitive when he worked for the Ravens. Do the Browns go boldly after Haloti Ngata? They could do a lot worse.

If the front office can solve the problems with the run defense, don't overlook this team in 2006.

The Cincinnati Bengals are one or two players away from contending for the Super Bowl. They could throw more money at S Chris Hope than the Steelers are willing to spend and they could line the coffers of DT Grady Jackson. The Bengals have options.

They also have locker room issues.

WR Chad Johnson is an NFL star, but his halftime tirade in the playoff game against the Steelers is a bad omen. The Ravens have the worst team chemistry in the division, but the Bengals didn't show much down the stretch, resting on the laurels of the AFC North championship. Add to that WR Chris Henry's off-the-field problems and QB Carson Palmer's season-ending knee injury, 2006 got off to an ominous start.

Those issues aside, the Bengals have drafted well. They have the most talent in the division. Their offensive line offers some of the best pass protection in the league. Cincinnati should continue to score plenty of points as long as Palmer fully recovers.

Then again, the Bengals benefited from turnovers, which tends to vary from year-to-year. A big swing backwards could be in the offering. They play a tough first-place schedule and character-issues aren't going to go away.

Will Cincinnati change draft strategy? A volatile locker room might demand a review of this approach. The Bengals have yet to prove that they handle adversity very well.

As for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you should ask the Answer Man.

Staley best mind his jewelry
February 17, 2006

Will Duce Staley step in and replace Jerome Bettis as the short-yardage closer in the Steelers' offense? Don't be so certain. Staley's story is starting to read a lot like Kendrell Bell's.

LB Kendrell Bell's career as a Steeler is still shrouded in mystery. During the 2002 season, his injuries were much worse than the team let on, something painfully evident during a game in Pittsburgh against the Cincinnati Bengals. Bell could barely walk during that game, but not one single reporter commented on how he struggled to get off the field after the play was blown dead.

The playoffs revealed, without a doubt, that Bell was playing thanks to painkillers. He was all over the place in the thrilling victory over the Cleveland Browns, but then he was unable to play against the Tennessee Titans, when LB Larry Foote spent the game bouncing off of QB Steve McNair.

Bell swore off painkillers before the 2004 season, but the Steelers hardly played him after that. Foote was the starter and Bell was on his way out of town. The Steelers acted as if Bell wasn't healthy enough to play, but that didn't seem to stop them in 2002.

RB Duce Staley's current situation has some similarities to Bell's. Under the cloak of injury, Staley was inactive. Staley would return to the field, but that experiment didn't last long. Staley replaced Verron Haynes on the active roster against the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals.

Staley was ineffective in both of those games and there were rumors that he made a few critical mistakes, which landed him back in street clothes. Haynes regained his job and the Steelers wouldn't lose another game.

All the while, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has fallen madly in love with RB Willie Parker. Staley was brought in to replace Bettis, and now Parker has replaced them both. Suddenly, Parker looks like a one-man wrecking crew.

Bettis is now gone and Haynes is a free agent. The main question about Staley has been his health. But don't forget that he was benched for poor play. The Steelers tried to use Staley as a replacement for Haynes, but they clearly didn't like what they saw. However, the injury story would allow the team to release Staley without really saying he's lost it.

The problem isn't simply Staley's play and his health. His salary goes from $665,000 in 2005 to $2.5 million in 2006, which is too much money for a guy the Steelers don't think is better than Verron Haynes.

The Steelers could cut Staley, breaking even in terms of cap hit, but that would leave them without any running backs under contract. After June 1st would be more likely, when Staley's release would provide significant cap relief that could be used for an extension or to help sign the rookie class.

Meanwhile, Staley's situation keeps getting stranger. The first story described Staley losing $100,000 worth of jewelry in a nightclub during an altercation. Staley would later deny that he was involved in any altercation and that he only lost his bracelet, outside of a "gentleman's club" in Columbia, SC.

Is everything right in Staley's world?

Staley's position with the Steelers is tenuous enough. He doesn't need to give the organization another reason to release him. Already, the gaping hole at running back looks larger.

The Steelers will get Parker under contract, but Staley doesn't offer the team any peace of mind in terms of depth, short yardage, or third down. Pittsburgh doesn't have a lot of spare cap room to throw around at free agents and there are other positions that need attention.

Staley's recent negative publicity only serves to highlight that the Steelers are going fishing for a running back on day 1 of the NFL draft.

Vindicating Bill Cowher
February 15, 2006

Please pardon my blasphemy, but the Steelers fans over at are suffering from an identity crisis. Long home to the most scathing criticisms of the Pittsburgh Steelers and head coach Bill Cowher found in the entire world of fan sites, the membership is struggling to reconcile a Super Bowl victory with an exhaustive negative assessment of the organization.

This tension highlights the questions concerning where Cowher and the Steelers will go from here, the pinnacle of the National Football League.

1) What is the Cowher Way and are we fans now stuck with it?

With a fifth Super Bowl trophy now safely in the confines of Pittsburgh, fans are actually apologizing to Bill Cowher. Some believed (and likely still believe) that Cowher's qualities as a head coach were insufficient for bringing home a championship. However, you would have a hard time convincing anyone of this point after the victory parade.

Fairly or not, many fans perceive Cowher as a motivational coach who doesn't thrive on out-thinking his opponent. He employs a conservative approach, which favors veterans over rookies, sometimes at the expense of talent. And he'd rather eat up some clock and kick a field goal than roll the dice and go for a touchdown.

The result is an impressive number of regular season wins, but an epic choke job in the big game. Cowher is now 2-4 in AFC Championship games. The fact that he has been in 6 of them is impressive enough, but most fans see this as a bottom-line business. When it counts and the pressure is on, Cowher tends to flop.

Captured on NFL Films, Ben Roethlisberger implores his coach during the Super Bowl to stay aggressive offensively, which lends credence to the fan complaints about Cowher‘s propensity to "turtle" during the second half of a close football game. Cowher's philosophy seems to be one of not losing the game, instead of figuring out how to win.

Now Cowher is on top of the football world. If he did indeed win it all his way, we should expect more of the same in the future.

2) Is Bill Cowher or Ben Roethlisberger more important to the success of the Steelers?

In a recent premium content column in the Dallas Morning News, a Cowboys fan compared Ben Roethlisberger unfavorably to Troy Aikman based on Super Bowl performances, "To me, he's overrated." Sports journalist Rick Gosselin cited Roethlisberger's impressive list of accomplishments at such a young age. When Aikman was 23, he was 0-11 as a starter.

Gosselin contends that the quarterback is the difference maker. Great quarterbacks make great coaches, not the other way around. If Gosselin can't convince you of this, perhaps Tommy Maddox against the Jacksonville Jaguars would. If Cowher has learned anything, he's learned that you can't trust your quarterback.

Roethlisberger has changed everything. The buzz during the playoffs was Cowher's surprising reliance on Roethlisberger's arm during the first half of the game. Cowher has relied on his running game for most of his career and if that failed, the Steelers were usually cooked.

When Roethlisberger struggled in the big game, the Steelers had that familiar playoff look. They stumbled in the role of big game favorite and they appeared to buckle under the weight of expectations. Then there was Roethlisberger trying to keep Cowher from returning to his old ways.

3) What can we expect the Steelers to do during the off-season as they reload for 2006?

Cowher has a franchise quarterback and a Super Bowl ring. The team and its fans are in uncharted waters. What was recently a predictable off-season is now a struggle to stay on top. Forget finding players who fit in with Cowher and his ball control approach to winning the game. The Steelers will look to compliment Roethlisberger's game.

In this sense, retaining Antwaan Randle El would seem to be much more important than re-signing Chris Hope. Better yet, the Steelers could fulfill Roethlisberger's request to draft WR Martin Nance. Randle El wasn't picked with this franchise QB in mind.

Emerging are dinosaurs from Cowher's days mitigating the shortcomings of Kordell Stewart, Neil O'Donnell and Tommy Maddox. Pass blocking become more important than run blocking. Willie Parker becomes more useful than Jerome Bettis.

Don't go looking for the next Bus or the heir apparent to Alan Faneca. Instead, think about how the Seattle Seahawks befuddled Roethlisberger and how the Steelers might solve that riddle with new personnel.

Meanwhile, the anti-fans at should take heart. Roethlisberger will have a few more bad games in the future and the old Cowher will rear his ugly chin. Odds are that the Steelers will fall short next season and we will once again smugly point fingers.

Just as a losing season in New England will remind the press corps that Bill Belichick is a jerk, Cowher forgetting whose team this really is will inflame his worst critics. But Cowher won't likely be the problem over the next few seasons.

Beating to the punch, we should start a weekly "Big Head Ben" watch. Cowher may have killed his demon, but now Roethlisberger has the Yuk Monkey on his back. The big-game-choke haunted Cowher, and now fans are waiting to see which quarterback shows up to the Super Bowl.

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