Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hines Ward Wins "Dancing with the Stars"

by Mike Batista

Now in the Heinz Field trophy case are six Lombardi trophies ... and a mirror ball.

Hines Ward and his partner Kym Johnson won "Dancing with the Stars" Tuesday night.

No truth to the rumor that Roger Goodell fined Ward for putting his hand on Johnson's ass during their routine.

It's a good thing DWTS winners don't have to come back the following year to defend their championship. Considering the way the Steelers have defended their last two Super Bowl titles, I could see pants falling down or Ward's balls getting whacked when he tries to sweep his partner under his legs.

It turns out that like the Steelers, Ward does best when he's not expected to. I didn't think Ward had a chance.

Having taken salsa lessons a couple of years ago in my futile pursuit of a Dominican woman*, I knew I was qualified to be a dance pundit.

I based my prediction on Ward's sad imitation of Chad Ochocinco (then Chad Johnson) in 2005. I figured if Ward wasn't as good as someone who was eliminated halfway through the season in 2010, there was no way he could win.

The three finalists heading into Tuesday's show were Ward and Johnson, Chelsea Kane and her partner Mark Ballas and Kirstie Alley and her partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy.

Chelsea and Mark seemed to be Team Ward's biggest rivals for the trophy. Last week the final four teams competed against each other, with the winners of the semifinal dances competing in a final with the prize being 25 extra points from the judges. Chelsea and Mark beat Hines and Kym and earned the extra edge going into the final.

As if it wasn't bad enough that there might not be football in September, we were reduced to fearing a Disney Channel star the same way we fear Ray Lewis.

It turned out the team of Chelsea and Mark became the Patriots of the dance floor. They were the best team during the season but couldn't get it done when it mattered most. Chelsea and Mark were the first team eliminated Tuesday night, making Kirstie Alley and her partner the final obstacle between Ward and the mirror ball.


Ward and Johnson were probably helped by votes from Steelers Nation. There were plenty of Terrible Towels in the "Dancing with the Stars" studio.

Somehow I don't see the Dawg Pound going over quite as well there.

*-That courtship met its excruciating demise during the Steelers' infamous five-game losing streak in 2009. Coincidence? I think not.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mendenhall starts blog to clarify comments

By Mike Batista

Rashard Mendenhall has broken his 48-hour silence. On Wednesday afternoon, the Steelers' running back started a blog in which he attempted to clarify his Twitter comments about the death of Osama bin Laden.

Without the constraints of Twitter's 140-character limit, Mendenhall expressed an appreciation for our troops and a sympathy for those who lost loved ones on 9/11.

However, there are a couple of things he said that I disagree with. He said "Earlier this week, parts of the world watched us in horror celebrating a man’s death."

First of all, he could have used a little editing. The structure of the sentence is a little unclear. It sounds like he's saying that the United States was the only country celebrating bin Laden's death.

I don't think that's true.

Bin Laden was responsible for the death of not only Americans, but people all over the world. I agree that bin Laden's death might have horrified some, but I think that horror is limited to Muslim extremists. I don't think that segment of the population really amounts to any legitimate "part of the world."

On Sept. 11, 2001, there was video of adults and children in the Middle East celebrating the attacks on America. I'm confident in saying that many more in the world were horrified at those celebrations than the celebrations outside the White House and in Times Square on Sunday night.

Mendenhall deemed our celebration over bin Laden's death "hypocrisy." I disagree. We're rejoicing in the death of one ruthless killer. Bin Laden rejoiced in the death of nearly 3,000 innocent people in a single day.

On his "@R_Mendenhall" Twitter profile, Mendenhall fashions himself a "Conversationalist and Professional Athlete."

At this point in his life "Professional Athlete" needs to come before "Conversationalist."

If it did, he wouldn't be in this mess.

In Mendenhall's last tweet before starting his blog, he said "There is not an ignorant bone in my body. I just encourage you to #think."

OK, fine. We shouldn't always take what we see on the news at face value. But if Mendenhall is going to tell us to "think," as a Pittsburgh Steeler he should think about the fact that he's working for Dan Rooney, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland. He also should think about western Pennsylvania's role as the first theater in the war on terror.

Almost a decade after the heroes of Flight 93 saved who knows how many lives before perishing in Shanksville, elite Navy SEALS came face-to-face with the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and killed him without any casualties to Americans.

Something tells me most of the guys on this highly dangerous mission would have held onto the football had they been hit by Clay Matthews in the Super Bowl.

Unlike Mendenhall, Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes displayed grace under pressure in the Super Bowl, yet Holmes was shipped out of Pittsburgh partly because of Twitter comments, and there was talk that the Steelers tried to get rid of Roethlisberger for his transgressions.

Roethlisberger and Holmes shouldn't have done some of the things they did. Mendenhall, however, does have a right to his opinion and free speech.

Nonetheless, instead of trying to be a historian, whether it comes to 9/11 or slavery, this should be an offseason in which Mendenhall concentrates on learning how to hang onto the football. After all, that is what he gets paid for.

Mendenhall is more articulate and well-rounded than the average football player. He writes poetry and plays the clarinet. Sometimes I wonder if he's too smart and civilized to be a long-term success in this brutal game.

Unless the NFL lockout delays the start of the season, Mendenhall will next play meaningful football on Sept. 11, the 10th anniversary of 9/11. If the Steelers were to start the season at Heinz Field, Mendenhall would at best get a lukewarm response from the fans. But the Steelers don't start the season at home. They start it in Baltimore, where Mendenhall is hated to begin with just because he's a Steeler. Imagine the response he's going to get if he doesn't make amends for his comments between now and then.

On the football field, Mendenhall's always been somewhat cloaked in a shroud of mystery. With a talented stable of receivers and an elite quarterback like Roethlisberger, Mendenhall is sometimes an afterthought. Despite his 1,273 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season, he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, I still don't feel like he's broken out as a top-tier running back.

Mendenhall was on the brink of A-List stardom after gaining 121 yards with a touchdown in the Steelers' AFC championship win over the Jets. His 4.5-yard-per-carry clip in that game was sustained in the first three quarters of the Super Bowl.

But his fumble restored the doubts.

My desire for more from Mendenhall is not limited to what I see on Sundays. The enigma transcends the game. Having heard about his interests outside of football, I guess I've wanted to know more about him as a person.

Just not in this way.

Monday, May 2, 2011

2011 NFL draft: Meet the new Steelers

By Mike Batista

As I write this, I'm watching Hines Ward on TV wearing a brown, Snickers-like outfit. I'm not sure whether to evaluate the Steelers' draft picks in terms of their football talent or their "Dancing with the Stars" potential.

The Steelers certainly went by the book in this draft, methodically addressing their top three needs at cornerback, defensive line and offensive line.

They didn't get an heir-apparent to Casey Hampton at nose tackle, which they'll need in a couple of years. They also could have used a safety since Ryan Clark's not getting any younger. But I'm hearing Crezdon Butler, drafted as a cornerback in the fifth round last year, might be able to play safety if he develops.

It also wouldn't have hurt the Steelers if they took a quarterback to back up Ben Roethlisberger. Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich are in their twilight, and it's hard to tell yet if Dennis Dixon is legitimate.

But with just the standard seven selections, one in each round, the Steelers didn't have a lot of room for luxury picks. So they stockpiled their top three need areas. It's hard to argue with that.

Before I take a look at the Steelers' picks, let me just provide a disclaimer.

I hardly ever watch college football. It's hard enough protecting 16 Sundays (or more) during the fall and early winter. If I was equally adamant about watching college football every Saturday, not only would I not have a life, I wouldn't have a job.

I used scouting reports from USA Today (and they used NFL Draft Scout) and Scott Wright's Draft Countdown in reviewing the Steelers picks.

And of course we know that without seeing any of these guys play a down in the NFL, it's sheer tomfoolery to evaluate a draft. So with that in mind, let's evaluate the Steelers' draft:

Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State (6-5, 294): The son of former Pitt running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward is a feel-good as well as a functional first-round pick for the Steelers. He can rush the passer and stop the run. Heyward gives the Steelers some new blood on the ends of the defensive line, where Aaron Smith is 35 and coming off an injury, and Brett Keisel is 32. Hopefully Hood and Heyward (how's that for alliteration?) can be the Steelers' defensive ends of the future.

Marcus Gilbert, OT, Florida (6-6, 330):
The Steelers get more Gator-aid in the second round. Gilbert will join former Florida teammate Maurkice Pouncey. Hopefully that gives the Steelers some built-in chemistry on the O-Line. Gilbert is highly regarded as a pass blocker, but might only be average as a run blocker. Offensive tackles are always looked at for their ability to play left tackle because they protect the quarterback's blind side, and Gilbert has left-tackle potential. Gilbert's father, Jeff Gilbert, knew a little about protecting blind sides. He was a Secret Service agent for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Curtis Brown, CB, Texas (6-0, 185):
First, let me ask how it is that the Patriots always seem to have 15 picks in every draft. Is that shyster Belichick doing some kind of card trick so that the Patriots get every other pick? We knew the Steelers would take a corner in Round 2 or 3 on the second day of the draft. My top choice would have been Ras-I Dowling of Virginia, a guy who probably would have been a first rounder had he not been injured. So what do you know, the Patriots take Dowling with the first pick of the second round. Reason No. 3,519 to hate the Patriots. Now that I have that off my chest, Brown was a thumbs-down guy in my draft preview, but I was really on the fence about it. I thought he was an intriguing pick as a potential special teams ace, but that he shouldn't be the prize cornerback of the draft for the Steelers. In taking another look at the scouting reports, the only real problem with this guy is he's a little small and maybe not the strongest guy on the field. But he's got everything else, including ball skills and enough speed to correct mistakes in coverage. The more I think about it, the more I like this pick in the third round.

Cortez Allen, CB, Citadel (6-1, 197):
As if Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert read my mind, the Steelers hedged their bets on Brown, but I thought this was a curious fourth-round pick. My second choice at cornerback for Day 2 of the draft was Davon House of New Mexico State, and he was still available here. But the Steelers took Allen instead, and the now-hated Packers snapped up House with the next pick in the fourth round. What I liked about House was that not only does he have good ball skills, he's also a very good interception returner. That brought Troy Polamalu to mind. Scott Wright's Draft Countdown labeled House with one of the keywords I looked for when reading about cornerbacks: "short memory." That site, as well as USA Today, had House ranked way ahead of Allen. OK, this capsule should be more about Allen than House, but Scott Wright had Allen ranked so low he didn't even have a scouting report on him. From what I saw on USA Today, Allen has good ball skills and teams didn't like throwing his way. I guess that counts for something. And don't forget, Ike Taylor was a fourth-round pick.

Chris Carter, OLB, Fresno State (6-1, 248):
Just like you can't have too much pitching in baseball, it seems the Steelers can never have too many linebackers. Carter, chosen in the fifth round, has a variety of pass rushing moves, but needs some work to develop into a regular 3-4 linebacker.

Keith Williams, OG, Nebraska (6-4, 318):
The sixth-rounder is the second offensive lineman picked by the Steelers, showing how serious they are about upgrading the unit. I like the words "nasty streak" in USA Today's capsule. It'll be interesting to see what happens if Sean Kugler can coach him up.

Baron Batch, RB, Texas Tech (5-10, 207):
The seventh-rounder is the Steelers' only luxury pick of the draft. Projects as a third-round back.

America rejoices; NFL squabbles

By Mike Batista

The historic events of the last 24 hours give me a chance to revisit a post from about a month ago.

Our brave military was able to find and kill Osama bin Laden, something that many of us thought would never happen in our lives.

So, players and owners, finding a way to divide $9 billion doesn't seem like such a big task now, does it?

What do you say we start the season on time and have football on the 10th anniversary of 9/11?

Major League Baseball wiped out the 1994 World Series because of a strike. But even they were able to clean up their labor mess in 2002 and stay in business on the first anniversary of 9/11.

If baseball can do it, NFL, so can you. Right now, we're celebrating bin Laden's death. We're going to want to do it again on Sept. 11. Help us do it by playing football.