Ruminations on the practice squad

It was easy for columnist Ryan Wilson to get caught up with Hines Ward's hamstring, Omar Jacobs' slow grasp of the playbook, Duce Staley's waistline, Sean Morey's worthiness, and, oh yeah, Big Ben's surgery fetish. But one story that got lost in the mix. . .

. . . was the "emergence" of undrafted tight end Jon Dekker.

Both rookies put up similar numbers during the preseason but Dekker dropped more passes that hit him right in the numbers than Ricardo Colclough muffed punts during an entire training camp. And that's saying something. Neither tight end was an especially good blocker and that's a big part of the job description when you're playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Davis can actually catch the ball, which is also kind of important when you could conceivably be called on to run a pass pattern.

In the scheme of things, this isn't a big deal – I mean, we're talking about the practice squad – plus, with Dekker on the team I will now have someone to blame every time anything goes wrong. He'll be the modern day Dewayne Washington except he won't play in the games.

After Dekker, Duce Staley making the final roster was the second biggest roster-related story of the weekend. The fact that Cowher basically admitted that depth and experience were the primary reasons Staley avoided the Turk isn't all that encouraging. And since it sounds like he won't even dress on game day, Staley's basically a glorified practice squad-er, which ironically, kinda puts him on par with John Kuhn, the guy a lot of people felt should've replaced him on the roster.

Don't count me among the Kuhn supporters. Sure, he looked good in the preseason, but that was mostly against third and fourth-teamers. If the Steelers were looking for mediocre talent to backup Willie Parker and Verron Haynes, I'd suggest they aim a little higher than Kuhn. Why not sign Marlion Jackson or DeDe Dorsey? Now those guys put up some gaudy preseason numbers … and still got released.

Actually, this is what the Steelers did, but instead of waiting until cutdown day and giving 30 other teams a chance to sign a player, Pittsburgh preemptively sent an undisclosed draft pick to the New England Patriots for rookie undrafted free agent Patrick Cobbs. Cobbs finished seventh in the league in preseason rushing yards against the same third and fourth-teamers (talent-wise, at least) as Kuhn.

And for the record, I thought Kuhn had a much better preseason than Staley, but that's kinda like saying Tom Cruise had a better year than Mel Gibson. Big whoop. Yeah, that's okay, "I'll take the zero." To be honest, neither of them should've made the team, and in effect they haven't. I am glad the Steelers signed Kuhn to the practice squad, and hopefully he'll develop into the next Dan Kreider, but with quicker feet.

Omar Jacobs, the team's fifth-round pick, suffered the same fate as Kuhn and was cut Saturday. Luckily, he made his way to the practice squad and he'll have a year to hopefully do nothing except learn the playbook. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a Jacobs fan and was a bit confused by the front office being so down on the kid so early in training camp, but that's all water under the bridge.

By now we all know the story: Despite the physical tools, Jacobs couldn't master the playbook and that, in part, cost him a roster spot. For most fans, we really have no conception of what it means to "learn the playbook" other than what we remember from Tecmo Bowl and maybe middle school football. For some perspective, check out this link and then download the Patriots 2003 playbook (it's a .pdf file). I've checked with people much smarter than me about such things, and they think it's legit, so take that for what it's worth. After you download it, take a glance through all 94 pages and think about how long it would take you to learn it. And then, how long it would take you to be able to know it well enough to not stutter and stammer your way out of a huddle in 30 seconds.

Sure, I realize that Jacobs has been playing organized football for most of his life, but this is a whole new system, new terminology, new responsibilities, new defenses, and everything moves at light speed at this level. I know, I know, Ben Roethlisberger didn't have nearly the trouble Jacobs did picking up the offense. Fair enough, but Roethlisberger has graduated to elite quarterback status in two seasons. The fact that the two play the same position is where the similarities end.

In other mildly surprising news, Quincy Morgan and Andre Frazier now have their Sunday's free. Morgan was a sentimental favorite, although I noted during my trip to Latrobe that he didn't look all that impressive as a pass catcher unless he was standing next to Jon Dekker. But the fact that he almost single-handedly beat the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tommy Maddox last season was reason enough to give him a Duce Pass. If that doesn't convince you, how about him scoring a touchdown against Cleveland in Week 16 and then pointing out the hypocycloids on his helmet to the Dawg Pound? That should count for something, shouldn't it? Or as one Steelers fan put it:

"I liked Quincy too. I definitely liked his attitude (for a supposed previous "problem" guy) after he'd broken his leg in the Bengals playoff game, yet remained with the team and openly supported them on the way to the championship. That shot of Q coming off the sideline, ditching his crutches and leaping onto a teammate (the hell with the busted leg) at the end of the Colts' game remains an indelible image of the playoff run."
It really is hard not to pull for a guy after all of that. But realistically, Morgan didn't play well enough to make the team. Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington were the primary beneficiaries of Hines's hammy injury and Morgan never really got going this preseason. There are plenty of NFL teams that need wideouts (paging Bill Belichick) so I don't expect Morgan to be out of a job for long. Wherever he ends up, I wish him well.

In the Guys Doing Better Than Quincy Morgan department, Pittsburgh extended Ike Taylor's contract Sunday to the tune of five years, $22.5 million, including a $6.4 million signing bonus. Give Taylor credit for keeping his word. Earlier this summer he said he'd be in Pittsburgh and here he is. How the Steelers convinced him to take $6.4 million is the second most miraculous thing to happen this preseason, a distant second to Jon Dekker making the practice squad. With guys like Brian Williams ($10 million), Anthony Henry ($10 million) and Ken Lucas ($13 million) all getting eight-figure bonuses, this is a pretty remarkable turn of events. But just like Willie Parker, Taylor leveraged his risk. Instead of a potentially more lucrative deal at the end of the season, Taylor opted for the security of re-upping now. Good for him and good for the Steelers.

Literally three minutes after reading the Taylor news I found out that Ben Roethlisberger had an emergency appendectomy Sunday morning. You know, this whole surgery thing is starting to become habit-forming. At some point, it's almost too much – I half believe that Ben staged the whole thing just because he likes being in the spotlight.

Alright, I don't really think that, but as it stands, Big Ben spends more time in the hospital than Noah Drake. The good news is that he'll be fine and that Charlie Batch should slide seamlessly into the starting role. The bad news is that after Batch – at least as I write this – Cedrick Wilson is it. Unless Omar Jacobs got a brain transplant, he probably hasn't mastered the playbook in the last 48 hours. It's a safe bet that the Steelers bring in some cagey veteran to hold the clipboard while the rest of us hold our collective breaths. For sheer comedy value, I'd like to see Jeff George on the sidelines, but if there was even a remote chance he'd see game action it might not be quite so funny. This is probably why I don't have a future as an NFL general manager. Well, unless the Detroit Lions are ever looking to replace Matt Millen.

The regular season is finally here, and Big Ben has already made things exciting. Here's to his quick recovery and everybody else staying healthy.


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