2008 Offseason: Schadenfreude

Here we go

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com storekeeper
September 5, 2008

Before everyone boycotts Steelahs.com for my prediction that the Steelers will lose to the Patriots in the playoffs (hey, I hope I’m wrong), please read what critics are calling my feel-good story of the year.

We’ve been waiting eight months for the Steelers to kick off against the Texans Sunday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field. Eight months ago today, the Steelers came back from 18 points down and took the lead against the Jaguars in their AFC wild-card game, only to give the lead back and see their season end.

After the game, Ben Roethlisberger waited for Jaguars quarterback David Garrard to finish his post-game interview on the field, then congratulated him when he was done. That classy move is the sort of thing a captain does. The gesture provided us with a little nugget of Steelers pride as we embarked on a long offseason.

The schadenfreude of the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss helped make eight months without Steelers football a little shorter, but after that we had to take what we could get. There was Steelers fan Seth Meyers waving a Terrible Towel on “Saturday Night Live” in tribute to the late Myron Cope. Then there was the first day of the draft, when the Steelers got Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed. It might have been the best day to be a Steelers fan since Super Bowl XL. Then there was training camp, which is all well and good, but we’re talking about PRACTICE!

There’s no substitute for live Steelers games.  

As a Steelers fan from outside Western Pennsylvania, watching the Steelers means going to a sports bar with DirecTV. And there’s something special about that first Sunday of NFL football. It might still be hot as hell outside, but when I cross the threshold of the bar’s front door, I leave summer behind and step into a fall and winter of living and dying with every Steelers snap.

For me, the first peek of autumn colors is seeing the various caps and jerseys of fans supporting their NFL team. On opening day I usually can count fans of at least a dozen teams. On Sunday afternoons in the fall, a restaurant host doesn’t ask “Booth or table?” Usually the host doesn’t have to ask anything. I just say “Steelers,” and the host will direct me to the best available spot where I can see a television with the Steelers game on it. Sometimes there’s someone directing traffic with remote control in hand, asking fans what game they want to see and pointing them in the right direction. Often these sports bars with more TVs than you can count will have a sign on each one saying which game it will show.

Of course, when the Steelers are on national TV and can be seen at home, it’s always nice to stay in and save the money (by the way, keep an eye out for my Kornheiser Watch when the Steelers play on Monday nights.) But for the most part, Sundays in the fall mean beer, wings, burgers, pizza and meeting new Steelers fans.

My most memorable meal watching a Steelers game was a Pittsburgh Burger I had at the late Finn McCool’s in White Plains, NY. It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a Roethlis-burger. That was the last regular-season game in 2005, when the Steelers beat the Lions at home to earn a spot in the playoffs. The rest is history.

Kickoff is less than 48 hours away, and I still don’t know where I’m going to watch the game. I watched the games at Sports Page and Dunne’s last season. And while I won’t rule out those places this season, for personal reasons I’m not entirely comfortable going to White Plains. The closest place for me is Barney McNabb’s in Yonkers. That’s where I watched the Steelers’ last loss of their 2005 championship season, a defeat at home to the Bengals. It’s a small place with not enough TVs to show every game and a menu of just appetizers. But I found the locals to be very friendly.

I’m tempted to find a bar in New York City. SteelersNYC has a list of Steelers-friendly bars in the city. If anyone has any suggestions for where to watch the Steelers in Westchester or New York City on Sunday, shoot me an e-mail.

Until then: “Here we go Steelers! Here we go!”

How's this for rings?

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com organizer
August 24, 2008

The Olympics are over. Even when they were going on, I cared more about the black and gold than I did about gold medals. I mean, in 20 years, nobody’s going to be talking about Michael Phelps. But they will be talking about the Steelers’ dramatic 12-10 preseason win over the Vikings. I guarantee it.

Phelps’ eight gold medals are all well and good. But it pales in comparison to Jeff Reed’s game-winning, 47-yard field goal under the intense exhibition spotlight. I say Reed gets the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to watch the game Saturday night. So in the wee hours Sunday morning, I was on my computer reading the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s account of the game while not paying attention to the men’s basketball gold-medal game on TV.

I have a feeling that at least a few NFL scouts had an eye on the Olympics. This Usain Bolt guy might interest some teams. The 6-foot-5 Bolt is fast, but can he catch? The Steelers already got the tall receiver Ben Roethlisberger asked for when they drafted Limas Sweed. Wait a minute … can Sweed catch?

With the exception of Larry Foote’s knee injury, which appears to be minor, I feel good about what happened at the Metrodome Saturday night. I wasn’t expecting a five-star performance from the defense and a B-movie performance from the offense. I’d be more concerned if that were reversed.

The Steelers needed to show something on defense, and they certainly did. The offense did little. But it was on the road against one of the top defenses in the NFL. I’m not worried about the Steelers offense. It will take care of itself. They just have so many weapons, including Sweed. Hey, if Sweed ever does learn to catch, the Steelers will have Ben Roethlisberger, a Swiss, throwing to a Sweed. What better way than that to embody the Olympic spirit?

Roethlisberger enters this season healthier than both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, assuming he doesn’t get hurt in the one or two preseason series he has left. The door is open for him to move into their category. The next four years would be the perfect time for Roethlisberger to emerge as the best quarterback in the NFL. After all, Big Ben will be watching over the Olympics in 2012.

C’mon get happy

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com composer
August 21, 2008

Good week to be a Steelers fan so far. Troy Polamalu is back at practice, and defensive leader James Farrior has agreed to a contract extension.

Now let’s hold our breath and hope no one gets hurt in Saturday night’s preseason game at Minnesota.

Polamalu’s situation provides evidence that training camp is useless for veterans.  Michael Strahan sat out most of training camp last season, and he ended up with nine sacks and a Super Bowl ring. Why do you think Peyton Manning waited until 10 days before the start of training camp to have an infected bursa sac removed from his left knee?

Granted, it was probably smart to keep Polamalu out of training camp with a minor hamstring injury. No way is James Harrison MVP of the defense, never mind the team, when Polamalu is at his best. They don’t want to take any chances with him. That said, Polamalu, Strahan and Manning aren’t going to lose their jobs to anyone at training camp, so why bother going?

Up-Hills battle

It’s nice to see that despite the Steelers’ ownership issues, they were still able to extend Farrior’s contract. Next on the list is Marvel Smith. The Steelers need a proven left tackle to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side, and fourth-round draft pick Tony Hills isn’t going to be it. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette says Hills has been a disappointment. With all due respect to the dean of Steelers scribes, I can’t say Smith is a disappointment because I never expected much from him to begin with. He’s an injury-prone lineman with poor technique. That’s why it’s imperative that the Steelers retain Smith.

If the Steelers don’t keep Smith, then they might have to do what other teams do and actually spend money in free agency for a decent left tackle. We know the Rooneys won’t do that. But Stanley Druckenmiller might …

Getting defensive

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com border patrol
August 15, 2008

I'm trying not to worry about the performance of the Steelers' defense so far this preseason.

It isn't easy.

Something tells me that if Troy Polamalu were playing, the Steelers' first-team defense wouldn't have allowed a field goal to the Eagles and two touchdowns to the Bills Thursday night in Toronto. They probably still would have given up some points, just not as much. And the Steelers defense stayed pretty basic, not doing anything fancy, which is probably pretty smart. They don't want to expose everything they can do in the preseason.

Perhaps we should worry more about the status of Polamalu's hamstring injury. I understand the Steelers are being cautious with him, but I wondered from the start of training camp if perhaps his injury is more severe than the Steelers were letting on. Is it possible that we've seen the best of Polamalu? That he could still be a solid player but not the game changer he was in 2004 and 2005? Let's hope the Steelers get the old Polamalu back.

One area where I'm not worried is the offense, even though the Steelers couldn't score yesterday until their starters faced the Bills second-stringers. The offense is going to be fine. Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to be mentioned the same breath as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and he has more toys at his disposal this season.

The Steelers will score points this season, and while I'm not too worried about the defense, there's a good chance the Steelers will be stronger on offense this season than defense.

Welcome back, Casey

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com Poet Laureate
August 11, 2008 

Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton began practicing Sunday, back to stuffing the run instead of stuffing his face. Let's take a look back with a poetic tribute to his time on the physically unable to perform list:

Casey at the Plate

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Big Snack on that day
For his fridge offered just tofu and some spoiled Chick-Fil-A
So the veteran D-lineman got off his big fat butt
And decided to remedy the rumbling in his gut
He craved Primanti Brothers, for the place was open late
And ready to serve Casey, mighty Casey with a plate

But curfew had been in effect, and Casey had to stay
At his Saint Vincent's dormitory in old Latrobe PA
So the portly Steeler wedged his arm underneath his cot
And allowed his mouth to water because of what he got
Takeout menus featuring food from every type of place
So Casey could make a phone call and finally feed his face

Casey considered his options and pizza was his choice
The phone rang at the restaurant and on came Casey's voice
Send me two large cheese pies and a box of pepperoni
Tomlin thinks I'm overweight, that's nothing but baloney
Add an order of wings and a great big Coca-Cola
That'll be all, he said, and clicked off his Motorola

About 30 minutes they said, and Casey couldn't wait
Shortly it would be Casey, mighty Casey at the plate
A plate heaping with food, calorie upon calorie
At last the buzzer sounded and a happy man was he
He took cash from his wallet and went out to meet the dude
Who was waiting at the front to deliver him his food

Casey didn't take the stairs, this player fresh off the PUP
He didn't want to have to take them all the way back up
So he hopped on the elevator, down to the first floor
When the ride was through he got off and headed toward the door
The bill of a Steelers' cap obscured the pizza man's face
How are you this evening, sir? Casey asked with social grace

The man looked him in the eye, could it just be a bad dream?
It was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, and oh boy was he steamed
"You're missing precious practice time, but you don't give a crap
In the morning under the sun, you're going to do some laps
With the team working out in pads and Tomlin still upset
Mighty Casey ran and ran, and he worked up quite a sweat

He lumbered back and forth, his course going from east to west
His big belly bounced up and down as did his two man breasts
As the hot summer day wore on, the Steelers did their drills
While their nose tackle huffed and puffed and started feeling ill
He kept on going with his body begging him to stop
Then from his mouth onto the grass came out some ugly slop


Somewhere in this great big land, ballplayers are in shape
They are not kept out of practice by the tale of the tape
Somewhere athletes step on scales without a hint of doubt
But there is no joy in Pittsburgh, mighty Casey has tapped out

We're talking

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com owner
August 7, 2008

Too bad Anthony Smith can't stop anyone not wearing a Steelers uniform.

Smith has come to be known for his big mouth as well as his big hits. Too bad those hits are in practice. Smith leveled Hines Ward on a pattern up the middle during a drill on Wednesday. Ward wasn't pleased. He's had words in the past with Smith about hits on other receivers during practice. Is there any way opposing receivers can be disguised as Steelers during games? Smith hurt the Steelers enough by predicting a win over the unbeaten Patriots last season. The Steelers don't need him putting their own receivers on the disabled list.


Stanley Druckenmiller's offer to buy the Steelers is still on the table. I say the Rooney brothers not named Dan should sell to the man.

I think it would be the best-case scenario for the Steelers. It appears that he would allow Dan Rooney and his son, Art Rooney II, to run the Steelers as they do now. Forbes magazine ranks Druckenmiller as the 91st richest person in the United States. His money would allow the Steelers to compete for the top free agents. So the Steelers wouldn't automatically be a have-not if the NFL does away with the salary cap.

For Dan Rooney to buy out his brothers, he'd have to hock some if not all of the Steelers' Super Bowl trophies. Yeah, the Steelers would still be owned by the Rooneys, but they'd be in debt up to their chinstraps. Forget about signing even the crappiest free agents like Duce Staley and Sean Mahan.

The end of 75 years of Rooney ownership might be a tough pill to swallow for some Steelers fans. But just like in life, change is inevitable in sports. At least the Rooneys still will be associated with the franchise if Druckenmiller buys the team. One of the best things about the Rooney ownership is their patience with head coaches. It paid off with Bill Cowher. Being a huge Steelers fan, I bet Druckenmiller is aware of that and would maintain that philosophy as Mike Tomlin tries to become the team's third straight coach to win a Super Bowl.

The Steelers might lose their mom-and-pop charm if they sell outside the family. But Druckenmiller, who once painted his face at a Steelers game, has the potential to be a swashbuckling, free-spending owner without being obnoxious like Jerry Jones, clueless like Dan Snyder or incoherent like Robert Kraft. Look what happened to the Red Sox when John Henry bought them after they were owned by the Yawkey family for decades. The Steelers have to do this deal.

When you're a Jet

Is there anything else going on in the NFL right now? Any quarterbacks changing teams? Hmmm. Oh yeah, there is this Favre guy going to the Jets.

It's a case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. By that I mean the NFC was already significantly weaker than the AFC. Now one of the conference's best quarterbacks goes to the AFC. The weakness of the NFC is one of the reasons the Packers were able to go from .500 two years ago to within a heartbeat of the Super Bowl last year. Sure, having Brett Favre makes the Jets better. But it doesn't make them a playoff shoo-in like the Patriots, Colts, Chargers and Jaguars. The Steelers don't have to worry about having Favre in the conference. They just have to worry about getting into the playoffs, and the way to do that is to win the AFC North, a task the Browns won't make easy.

Dog days

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com groomer
July 29, 2008

Any more PUPs for the Steelers, and it's going to be a dog of a season.

Third day of training camp and the Steelers already have three guys on the physically-unable-to-perform list.

As if it wasn't bad enough that the Steelers didn't draft anyone for their aging defensive line, roly-poly Casey Hampton came to camp too fat to practice. We better get used to the sight of opposing running backs zig-zagging through the Steelers' defense this season. Let's hope the Steelers can win a lot of 38-35 ballgames.

We can't get upset with Troy Polamalu and Chris Kemoeatu. They have legitimate injuries. But their absence doesn't bode well because they're both key guys. I know the Steelers say Polamalu's injury is minor, but hamstring injuries can linger. If Polamalu doesn't return to his pre-2007 form, the Steelers are a wild-card team at best. And for some reason Kemoeatu has been hailed as their heir to Alan Faneca. That was dubious enough before his injury.

It's not even August, and I'm worried.

Tomlin's Troopers

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com Drill Sergeant
July 25, 2008

Now that Mike Tomlin has a full year under his belt as the Steelers head coach, there have been a few observations made about him.

I heard someone say he looks like Omar Epps. When he's angry, I think he looks like Bernie Mac.

But with training camp upon us, what we need from Tomlin is a little bit of Louis Gossett Jr.

As in Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley from "An Officer and a Gentleman."

This was a team that was knocking on the door of the NFL's elite last season before losing four of its last five games. And this season, the Steelers have the NFL's toughest schedule.

So this should be no ordinary training camp. Tomlin needs to put those worms and maggots through Basic Training Camp.

Here's a sampling of the dialogue in this 2008 remake of the classic movie starring Richard Gere and Debra Winger:

Tomlin: "I don't know but it's been said!"
Steelers: "I don't know but it's been said!"
Tomlin: "Coach Bill Belichick wets his bed!"
Steelers: "Coach Bill Belichick wets his bed!"
Tomlin: "I don't know but I've been told!"
Steelers: "I don't know but I've been told!"
Tomlin: "Super Bowl champs wear black and gold!"
Steelers: "Super Bowl champs wear black and gold!"
Tomlin: "A left, right. A left, right. A left, right. Halt!"

Ben Roethlisberger plays Zack Mayo. If Mayo, who often rode around on a motorcycle without a helmet, can be one of Foley's Fire Eaters' top candidates, Roethlisberger can lead Tomlin's Troopers. Mayo had the stash of money and shiny belt buckles hidden in the ceiling. Roethlisberger has the eight-year, $102 million contract.


Tomlin: "You better stop dancing around that pocket, Mr. $100 Million Man! 47 sacks last season is totally unsatisfactory! You made your offensive line look bad. It wasn't all their fault!"
Roethlisberger: "But I can make something out of nothing, sir!"
Tomlin: "Don't you eyeball me! And don't you eyeball your receivers, either! Use your peripheral vision! Out there behind enemy lines in Jacksonville, Rashean Mathis can read you like an eye chart. Three interceptions in the first half of a playoff game! That simply cannot happen! And I'm tired of seeing you limping around pretending you're hurt every time a defensive player lays a hand on you! The Jaguars have improved their pass rush this season. When you face the Jaguars' defense on October 5, you're going to be deep in a sea of teal! What are you going to do then?"


Tomlin: "None of this video was shot by a member of our staff! They were taken by the Patriots from outer space! That's right, men, the Axis of Evil has resorted to stealing information by satellite. Therefore, we will have to come up with our own form of intelligence. And it's not just the superpowers we have to worry about. The Cleveland Browns are rising to power and have developed Weapons of Steelers Destruction."


Tomlin: "You think practicing in 95-degree heat is tough? Wait 'til you're at Gillette Stadium on November 30, and the only thing standing between you and another bitchslapping by the Patriots is what you learn from me! You didn't have to beat the Patriots to win that one Lombardi Trophy! If you want to win another one, you're going to have to win in Foxboro!"

What might also help the Steelers win in Foxboro is if Anthony Smith can keep his mouth shut the week before the game. Last year, Smith awakened a sleeping giant by guaranteeing a Steelers win over the unbeaten Patriots.


Tomlin: "I want your DOR!"
Smith: "But I got nowhere else to go! I got nowhere else to go! (crying) I got nowhere else to go."

Then hopefully Smith will be assigned to clean a staircase at St. Vincent College with a toothbrush.

If Smith doesn't straighten out his act, he'll end up like Worley. The Steelers defense has enough to worry about, starting with an aging front line. The 2007 draft will be put to the test with second-round pick LaMarr Woodley starting at outside linebacker and first-round pick Lawrence Timmons challenging Larry Foote on the inside.

Playing supporting roles for Tomlin's Troopers are Willie Parker as diminutive Della Serra. So that he doesn't have to cut his hair, Troy Polamalu will be an extra, playing one of the shaggy candidates getting berated by Foley on the first day of basic training. No Alan Faneca, of course. He's flying Jets.

The Steelers couldn't afford both Faneca and Roethlisberger. For all that money, Big Ben better be hoisting at least one more Lombardi Trophy under that contract. After all, it will be up to him to lift the Steelers Up Where They Belong.

Steelers' draft
report card

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com's Mr. Irrelevant
April 29, 2008

These are the moments that make it worthwhile to stay inside on a gorgeous spring day.

When the Steelers were on the clock with the 23rd pick Saturday in the first round of the NFL draft, ESPN went to a commercial, but just before they cut away, there was a shot of Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall talking on his cell phone. The people around him all started cheering. I think we all knew who the Steelers would get when ESPN came back from the break.

Seeing Mendenhall on his cell phone was a nice bit of draft drama. But nothing will top the shot of Ben Roethlisberger on the phone with Bill Cowher when the Steelers were on the clock in 2004. Roethlisberger was just an unassuming kid then. His half of the phone conversation consisted of deferential phrases like "Yes, sir" and "Yes, coach" and "Beg your pardon."

Now, four years later, Roethlisberger is much more than a fresh-faced young lad. When Big Ben talks, the Steelers listen. So when he said after the season that he wanted a tall wide receiver, that's just what he got in 6-foot-4 Limas Sweed of Texas with the 53rd pick. It's another weapon in his arsenal. Now it's up to the Steelers' $102 million man to take full advantage of that tall receiver and show that the Steelers really do need him.

What do I know?

In Mendenhall and Sweed, the Steelers essentially got two first-round picks. A lot of mock drafts had them picked ahead of the Steelers in the first round, and the Steelers ended up with both of them. Saturday might have been the best day to be a Steelers fan since Super Bowl XL.

OK, if you look at the blog that accompanies my columns, you will see that I preferred South Florida cornerback Mike Jenkins over Mendenhall when the Steelers were on the clock, even though I had previously written that the Steelers should stay away from Jenkins. Well, I changed my mind. My thinking was that defense wins championships, and that the Steelers could have used more interceptions than the 11 they had last season. And when do the Steelers ever not need help in the secondary?

Fortunately, the Steelers didn't waver nearly as much as I did. Maybe that's why I never got that call asking for advice on the draft. All along, they were going to take Mendenhall if he was available. Let's thank the Detroit Lions, too. A lot of mock drafts had Mendenhall going to the Lions and Boston College offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus going to the Steelers. The Lions traded down to No. 17, and Mendenhall was still available. But the Lions reached a little and got Cherilus. That cleared the way for Mendenhall to fall to the Steelers. So it was sort of like the Steelers traded up to 17 to get Mendenhall.

With Mendenhall, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin won't have to run Willie Parker until the wheels come off. Parker will be able to take more pit stops. Mendenhall can run between the tackles and keep the chains moving.

Maybe now the Steelers can get rid of Najeh Davenport. It's amazing that with Davenport as their starting running back, the Steelers were within two points of getting a second shot at the Patriots. Having Davenport as the featured back in a playoff game is something that can't happen again. With Mendenhall, it won't.

Mendenhall and Sweed make the Steelers' offense more potent, especially in the red zone. Think of the Steelers in a first-and-goal situation at the 1-yard line. They could have the bruising Mendenhall lined up in the backfield, a double tight-end set with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, the always reliable Hines Ward and 6-foot-4 Limas Sweed as the wideouts, and Roethlisberger, who can always use his size to dive into the end zone from a yard out. The defense can't stop all of them. The Steelers couldn't have asked for a better first day of the draft.

Curb your enthusiasm

The first sign that Sunday wouldn't be good as Saturday for the Steelers came when the Dolphins made Hampton defensive end Kendall Langford the third pick of the day. I was hoping the Steelers would get him for their aging defensive line. Apparently I wasn't the only one impressed with Langford. But the Steelers did get Bruce Davis of UCLA, who is likely to be moved to outside linebacker in the NFL. Davis had 24 1/2 sacks over the last two seasons.

The Steelers took steps to restore a couple of Pittsburgh traditions in this draft. Mendenhall should help bring back the punishing ground game, and Davis should help the Steelers bring back the "Blitzburgh" defense.

The Steelers sacked the opposing quarterback 36 times last year, tied for 13th in the NFL. That's not going to cut it.

The fourth round is where the Steelers' draft starts to disappoint. In March, the big debate was whether the Steelers would pick Jeff Otah or Branden Albert to address their needs on the offensive line. Then as the draft drew closer, it became apparent neither would be available to the Steelers, so I figured they'd settle for Gosder Cherilus, and I slowly but surely became a fan of Cherilus. Of course, we can't be upset about not getting Cherilus when we got Mendenhall. So I figured the Steelers would get an Anthony Collins, a Mike McGlynn or a Carl Nicks on the second day. All were available to them in the third round. Or maybe they could get Roy Schuening to compete for Alan Faneca's old job at guard. Apparently the Steelers really like Chris Kemoeatu. So no Otah, no Albert, no Cherilus, no Collins, no McGlynn, no Nicks, no Schuening. With Nicks still on the board in the fourth round, the Steelers ended up with Tony Hills, a left tackle from Texas. Hills is finesse blocker who doesn't have that Cherilus-like mean streak. He could use more aggressiveness He also has to clutch and grab his opponents, so he might end up being flagged for holding an awful lot.

If the Steelers can't keep Marvel Smith, I'm a little worried about Hills being the guy to protect Roethlisberger's blind side for the duration of his eight-year contract. Hills has shown some heart and determination to overcome a career threatening knee injury in high school. But then his college career was cut short by a broken leg, which probably dropped his stock. He needs to get better if he's going to be the next Marvel Smith. The Steelers should have used that fourth-round pick to grab Virginia Tech defensive tackle Carlton Powell.

Calling for backup

The minor letdown of the fourth round gave way to outright bewilderment in the fifth round when the Steelers picked Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon. I understand that Charlie Batch isn't getting any younger, and that if the Steelers are going to throw all that money at Roethlisberger, they want to have an insurance policy in the form of a damn good backup. But with only seven picks, the Steelers didn't have the luxury of picking a future backup quarterback, especially one who tore his ACL last season. Yes, he was a Heisman Trophy candidate before the injury, and he probably would be a first-day pick had he not been hurt. But it's maddening that the Steelers still could have had Schuening and Nicks in the fifth round. The Rams had the next pick and got Schuening. The Steelers also could have had Trae Williams, who teamed with Jenkins to form a fearsome cornerback tandem at South Florida. Williams went to the Jaguars three picks later. I wish the Steelers had picked a cornerback somewhere, but as Kevin Colbert said, they couldn't get everybody, and the prevailing wisdom in the NFL these days is that a good pass rush will make any secondary look good. Nicks went eight picks after Dixon to the Saints. USA Today labeled Nicks as "aggressive." I'd rather have him than Hills.

One thing that's clear in this draft is that the Steelers better have some damn good doctors. Dixon, Hills and Sweed all had injuries in 2007. That's three out of the Steelers' seven picks who probably dropped because of medical concerns.

The Steelers acquired an extra sixth-round pick in a trade with the Giants. That slightly increases their chances of getting that hidden gem in the late rounds. They got Iowa linebacker Mike Humpal and West Virginia free safety Ryan Mundy. From what I read, Mundy seems like a smart player. That's a good starting point. At least the Steelers got some secondary help. Humpal could be a good special teams addition.

Making the grade

I haven't forgotten to give the Steelers a grade for their draft. You didn't think I was going to unveil it without making you read my column, did you? Shame on anyone who scrolled past my insightful paragraphs just to get the grade. You know who you are.
I would have given the Steelers an A if they had taken a defensive lineman. With Aaron Smith, Travis Kirschke, Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke all 30 or older next season, that was their biggest need. So that's going to hurt their grade. But the Steelers aren't exactly young or deep at linebacker. You can start to see the next generation taking shape with LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Davis. Good job addressing that need with two linebackers taken. The offensive line might not be as bad as it seems, and they got a body there. Taking that into consideration, along with the undeniable success of the first day, the Steelers get a ... B

Day Two Downer

By Mike Batista
April 28, 2007

Any Steelers fan with visions of the 1974 draft dancing in their head got a reality check on Sunday.

The first day of the 2008 draft couldn't have gone any better for the Steelers. They essentially got two first-round caliber players in Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall and Texas wide receiver Limas Sweed. But their fortunes leveled off on the second day of the draft.

They failed to address the defensive line, which was their most glaring need. They picked an often-injured offensive tackle even though better ones were still on the board. They picked a quarterback even though that's the one area, along with tight end, where they don't need help. They picked a safety even though they might have been better served taking a cornerback.

The Steelers did choose two outside linebackers to remedy their lack of depth in that area. But besides that, the Steelers' Day Two strategy was a head-scratcher.

Bruce Davis of UCLA was the Steelers' third-round selection, a 6-foot-2, 252-pounder who can get to the quarterback. They could have had Kansas offensive tackle Anthony Collins or Oregon State guard Roy Schuening. In the fourth round, they got Texas offensive tackle Tony Hills, who at least has shown some heart overcoming a career threatening injury. But they could have had Virginia Tech defensive tackle Carlton Powell, who went in the fifth round.

Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon was their fifth-round selection. The only rationale I can think of is that Charlie Batch won't be around forever, and the Steelers want to groom someone to be an insurance policy for their $102 million quarterback. But my heart sank when I saw some of the players chosen after Dixon. Schuening, ranked by USA Today as the second-best guard in the draft behind Branden Albert, was chosen immediately after Dixon by St. Louis. Three picks after Dixon, Jacksonville took South Florida cornerback Trae Williams, who teamed with first-round pick Mike Jenkins to form a dynamite cornerback tandem.

The Steelers took Iowa linebacker Mike Humpal in the sixth round. He isn't much of a pass rusher and figures to play inside. Then they got an extra sixth-round pick in a trade with the Giants and chose West Virginia safety Ryan Mundy.

To be a championship team, you need to get future stars on the second day of the draft. I saw stars on Saturday, but not on Sunday.

A double steal
for the Steelers

By Mike Batista
April 27, 2008

It seems too good to be true. On the first day of the 2008 NFL draft, the Steelers got the players ranked No. 11 and No. 26 in USA Today's overall rankings.

Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall fell to No. 23, and the Steelers grabbed him. Good thing they didn't trade out of the first round. The 5-foot-10, 225-pounder is someone who can get the tough yards between the tackles, something the Steelers had trouble doing last season.

Then in the second round, at No. 53, the Steelers picked 6-foot-4 wide receiver Limas Sweed of Texas, giving Ben Roethlisberger the tall receiver he's looking for. At least one mock draft had Sweed going to the Steelers in the first round, and they got him in the second round. Not a bad first day for the Steelers.

There are some knocks on Sweed, but he was too good for the Steelers to pass up late in the second round.

Now the Steelers have to tackle the defense. A good start would be defensive end Kendall Langford of Hampton this morning in the third round. Then in the fourth round, guard Mike McGlynn of Pittsburgh might not be a bad pick to address the offensive line. Maybe Oregon State guard Roy Schuening will still be available. After that, they could use a cornerback and another defensive lineman or a linebacker.

I'm sure Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert slept well last night.

Big Ben turns 150;
Steelers stunned

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com comedian
April 11, 2008

Big Ben celebrated the big one-five-oh yesterday, and the Steelers were left wondering how they could have signed a 150-year old quarterback to an eight-year, $102 million contract.

"What a bunch of ding-dongs we are. He looked a lot younger when we drafted him," said Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, who is now asking all of the Steelers' 2008 draft prospects to provide birth certificates and be accompanied by a parent at their workout.

Rooney went on to say that the Steelers drafted Big Ben in 2004 because they were so impressed with his towering height that they looked past some obvious shortcomings, like the fact that he had a big hand and a little hand. They did say, however, that he's shown a lot more mobility than they expected.

Attempts to reach Big Ben in London were unsuccessful.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said that the organization can't dwell on this blunder. "We're not going to throw a pity party," he said.

Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert are now focusing on the upcoming NFL draft. They want to be prepared when their pick comes up at No. 23 because, after all, they'll be on the clock.

But seriously ...

Go to to find out why the Steelers have to rethink their draft plans.

Royal blues

By Mike Batista
Steelahs.com guy
April 3, 2008

Not sure what to get that special Steelers fan in your life? How about a 2004 Steelers playbook? It's available on eBay for $10. The Steelers don't appear to be the ones putting the playbook on the market, but maybe they should be. In fact, they should sell all their old playbooks, because in the years to come, they might need the extra cash.

Folks, it looks like the NFL salary cap might go the way of the single-bar facemask, and that might not be the greatest thing for the Steelers.

In an NFL where big-market teams can spend freely to sign the game's best players, teams like the Steelers would struggle to keep their stars. It could become an environment like Major League Baseball, a league of haves and have-nots. Pittsburgh fans have to be worried that the Steelers would become the Pirates of the NFL.

But the Pirates aren't the only team that's suffered under baseball's economic structure. I'm afraid the Steelers are going to follow the path of another team.

The Kansas City Royals.

Glory days

These two franchises already seem to be operating in parallel universes, two decades removed, in terms of their fortunes on the field.

Like the Steelers today, the Royals were considered a class organization during their heyday. Both teams play in distinctive stadiums that serve as a backdrop for their identity. A giant crown decorates the top of the scoreboard at Royals Stadium, as it was called in the 1980s, and the water fountains beyond the outfield fence add to the scenery. The seats at Heinz Field form a sea of yellow, one of the Steelers' colors. A giant Heinz ketchup bottle, representing a brand name synonymous with Pittsburgh, sits on top of the scoreboard at one end of the stadium.

Let's take a look at what's gone on inside those stadiums. The Royals lost the American League Championship Series three straight years from 1976-1978. The Steelers lost the 1994, 1997, 2001 and 2004 AFC championship games. The Royals did make it to the World Series once during the ascent to their eventual world championship, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980. The Steelers made it to Super Bowl XXX in 1995, losing to the Cowboys.

The Royals remained competitive in the early 1980s, but slipped below .500 in 1983. They bounced back and lost to the eventual champion Detroit Tigers in the 1984 American League Championship Series, then finally won the World Series in 1985 when no one expected them to.

Exactly 20 years later, the Steelers drew up the same three-year blueprint to win a championship. They fell to 6-10 in 2003, bounced back and lost to the eventual champion Patriots in the 2004 AFC championship game and won the Super Bowl in 2005.

Both the Steelers and Royals flourished as underdogs in their championship seasons. The 91-71 Royals came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the 99-62 Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series. Then they faced the 101-61 Cardinals and again came back from a 3-1 deficit, becoming the first team to win the World Series after losing the first two games at home.

The Steelers became the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl, upsetting the Indianapolis Colts along the way.

The Royals remained competitive for a few more years after winning their only world championship, but since the strike year of 1994 (they were 64-51 before the work stoppage), they've had only one winning season, finishing 83-79 in 2003. Since then, they've won less than 70 games every year. Yeah, I know they're 2-0 right now, but it's a long season.

Basically, these two respected franchises were perennial contenders in their respective leagues for about a decade, then finally won championships in surprising fashion.

Let's hope the similarities end there.

The parity's over

It looks like the owners are going to vote to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement in November. That would eliminate the salary cap after the 2009 season, and the players have said that once the salary cap is lifted, they'll never accept a cap again. The collective bargaining agreement wasn't on the agenda at this week's NFL owners meetings, but it was certainly on everyone's mind.

The Steelers probably wouldn't do business much differently if there were no salary cap. They've never been big players in the free agency market. They don't throw much money around in prorated signing bonuses, like many other teams do, to circumvent the salary cap.

Under the current system, the Steelers can operate that way and still be on even footing with the big-market teams. But if there were no salary cap, the Steelers could be in a situation similar to the one they were in before they had the revenue generated by a new stadium in 2001. There was an annual exodus of free agents in the mid-90s. Bill Cowher doesn't get enough credit, by the way, for leading the Steelers to three AFC championship games and a Super Bowl in four years while losing the likes of Eric Green, Chad Brown, Brentson Buckner, Ray Seals, Leon Searcy, Willie Williams, Kevin Greene and of course Neil O'Donnell along the way.

There could be a similar revolving door in Pittsburgh if there's no salary cap.

The Steelers wouldn't be the only team that's affected. The salary cap is one of the things that's ensured parity in the NFL. It's helped teams like the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams go from having nine straight losing seasons, including 4-12 in 1998, to winning the Super Bowl in 1999. Such rags-to-riches stories would quite likely be a thing of the past.

Step away from the ledge

OK, before everyone starts crying in their Iron City, I'm going to back off my sky-is-falling stance a little bit. Even though it might be harder to stay competitive, the Rooneys will continue to put the best team they can on the field. They have too much respect for the league and the game to be like their neighbors at PNC Park. Besides, a salary cap doesn't keep everyone from trying to buy a championship.

Remember the 2000 Washington Redskins? Owner Daniel Snyder went on a spending spree that year, signing Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Mark Carrier and doling out $47 million in signing bonuses. The Redskins also traded up so they could have the second and third overall picks in the draft. They got LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels.

All that, and they didn't even make the playoffs. It was the Steelers who mathematically knocked them out of the playoff race. In the last game played at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers defeated the Redskins 24-3, officially foiling their bid to buy the Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers didn't make the playoffs that year, either. But shoving it up that spoiled brat Snyder's ass made their season as far as I was concerned.

The Redskins finished 8-8 that year and the year after and didn't have another winning season until 2005.

Perhaps it isn't as easy to spend your way to success in the NFL as it is in Major League Baseball. A few good pitchers can put a baseball team in the upper echelon. In football, you need 22 guys, and you can't forget special teams. There are many more parts to the machine.

Sweet 16

Let's assume there's no salary cap after the 2009 season, my doomsday scenario comes true and there are teams in the NFL who have as much a chance of making the playoffs as the Pirates and Royals.

Well, I have a solution: Expand the playoffs to 16 teams.

That would give the struggling franchises a better chance of making the playoffs, and thus more incentive to be competitive. Under this plan, there would be no byes. The big-market teams will have enough of an advantage. They shouldn't have a chance to get a free ride into the second round of the playoffs. The NFL wouldn't even have to add an extra week to the postseason, just have eight games instead of four on what is now wild-card weekend. The only drawback is that games would be played simultaneously, so not all games would be available to every TV viewer in this opening round.

Some might say this would put too many teams in the NFL playoffs and make it like the NHL and NBA playoffs. Well, there are a few differences. One of the problems with the NBA and NHL playoffs is that they go on for more than two months. As I said, the duration of the NFL playoffs wouldn't change. Also, the game of football isn't as susceptible to upsets. So much of the game boils down to the strength and technique of the men in the trenches. It's not given to the vagaries of basketball, with the rhythm and lucky bounces needed to get the ball through the hoop. The better team will emerge more often in a 60-minute football game.

Could a 16-team NFL tournament actually happen? Well, we know the owners are resistant to change when it comes to this stuff. They didn't even approve a rule that would have reseeded the playoff teams in terms of records, regardless of division winners. I'd have been in favor of that. The Jaguars beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh during the regular season and had a better record than them. They deserved to have their playoff game against the Steelers at home. They won anyway, so it was a moot point.

But a 16-team NFL playoff format isn't unprecedented. Probably in an effort to recoup some lost TV revenue, the NFL went to a 16-team playoff when a strike reduced the 1982 regular season to nine games. Anything that increases revenue has a chance of passing.

Strike three?

As bad as it would be if the Patriots' payroll was twice as large as the Steelers', it would be even worse if there were no games to watch. Unfortunately, a strike after the 2010 season is a real possibility.

One reason the NFL has a leg up on the other three major sports leagues in terms of popularity is the fact that there hasn't been a work stoppage since 1987. All the other leagues have had at least one since then.

The NFL has to realize that it has a good thing going. Let's hope they're smart enough to not screw it up.

Broadway Ben?

By Mike Batista

Steelahs.com architect

March 5, 2008

It’s nice to see that the Steelers are finally breaking the bank to keep a star player. Ben Roethlisberger will remain in black and gold through 2015 after signing an eight-year, $102 million contract.

Roethlisberger is worth every penny of it – as long as he helps the Steelers add to their collection of Lombardi Trophies.

After a quarter century of Mark Malone, Mike Tomczak, Kent Graham and Kordell Stewart, the Steelers had to do everything they could to keep Roethlisberger. To say he’s a franchise quarterback is an understatement. I think Roethlisberger has the potential to combine a Namath-like aura with a Bradshaw-like resume and work his way into the discussion of the best quarterbacks of all-time.

Joe Namath became bigger than life when he backed up his bold prediction that the Jets would defeat the heavily favored Colts in Super Bowl III. Not only did that feat define Namath’s career, but it gave him a certain swagger.

Had he worked while Namath was playing, Boston sports talk radio host Eddie Andelman undoubtedly would have said that Namath had “It.” Andelman used to complain that former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe didn’t have “It.” He couldn’t define what “It” was, but he said that quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Dan Marino and John Elway had “It.” Andelman turned out to be right, because Bledsoe’s injury in 2001 opened the door for Tom Brady, another quarterback who has “It.”

I’m convinced that Roethlisberger has “It.” After all, mortal human beings aren’t supposed to win their first 14 games as a rookie, become the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, come within a minute of dying in motorcycle crash and play three months later, then make the Pro Bowl the following year despite playing behind an offensive line that stinks worse than all the Swiss cheese in Roethlisberger’s home land.

Now it’s time to get to work on winning more championships. Anything less would be a disappointment.

Farewell to Faneca

I know the Steelers couldn’t afford to sign both Roethlisberger and Alan Faneca to mega-contracts. That said, I think the Steelers will regret letting Faneca go. I admit I’ve changed my stance on this since last May. I figured at 31, Faneca would begin an inevitable decline. But the more I think about it, the more I think he has about five more good years left in him. And wouldn’t you know it, the Jets signed him for five years and $40 million. It would be tempting the think that Faneca will fare as well as the last big-time free agent to bolt the Steelers for the Jets, Neil O’Donnell. But I think Faneca’s going to do a little bit better. I think he’ll be polishing up his Hall of Fame credentials down there in Jersey.

Now it’s time for the Steelers to address the offensive line, which was a mess even with Faneca. To do that, the Steelers need to get as many bodies as possible to compete for spots on the O-Line. They need to get a couple of guys in the draft and hopefully get lucky by finding someone decent on waivers or through a trade during training camp.

Bargain basement

The Steelers made their annual trip to the free agency dollar store and picked up Vikings running back/kick returner Mewelde Moore.

I wish they would have cashed in their loose change, restructured a few contracts to stay under the salary cap, and acquired Patriots safety Eugene Wilson.

The Steelers need a better kickoff returner and they need talent at running back to complement Willie Parker. Moore addresses that weakness. But I’m starting to wonder if Steelers coach Mike Tomlin realizes that the NFL isn’t limited to players he’s seen in person. This is another example of the Steelers getting a guy who played for or against the Vikings and Buccaneers while Tomlin served on their coaching staffs, like kick returner Allen Rossum, who’s already gone, and former Buc Sean Mahan, who’s been a bust so far at center. By favoring players he’s familiar with, Tomlin seems to have tunnel vision when it comes to acquiring players by trade or free agency.

A Terrible loss

Did anyone catch Seth Meyers of “Saturday Night Live” waving a Terrible Towel in honor of Myron Cope at the end of the show’s newscast last Saturday? Like me, Meyers grew up in New England and roots for the Red Sox and Steelers.

The reason I’m more than a week late with a take on the passing of Myron Cope is because, literally, I was at a loss for words. Being a Steelers fan from the Northeast outpost of Steelers Nation, there’s not much I can say about Cope because I never heard his voice during live Steelers action. I rely on the NFL Sunday Ticket to see most Steelers games.

Of course, I know what Myron Cope is all about. I know what “double yoi” means. What I was surprised to find out in reading about him was the fact that, like me, he was a wordsmith. He wrote for newspapers and magazines before he became a broadcaster. I also know that he invented the Terrible Towel. The best I can do to honor Myron Cope is reflect on the time I purchased my cherished Terrible Towel.

It was January 1996. The Steelers had barely beaten the Indianapolis Colts to earn a berth in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys. The morning after their win in the AFC championship game, I ordered my Terrible Towel.

Keep in mind the early-to-mid 1990s were tweener years in terms of technology. The Internet was well known by 1996, but it wasn’t as universal as it is today. And in 1996, I didn’t even have a computer, so I called 1-800-TEAMTUF to get my Terrible Towel. This being the day after the Steelers earned their first Super Bowl berth in 16 years, the phone lines were flooded. Ordering items online wasn’t as common a practice as it is today. I certainly wasn’t the only one who had yet to grasp the Internet. So I waited and waited to order my Terrible Towel. This was good practice, because being a Steelers fan in the years to come would require a lot of patience.

Finally, I got my Terrible Towel, and waved it proudly in a pro-Cowboys house when I watched the Super Bowl.

Last but not least

R.I.P. Buddy Dial. Speaking of patience, some fans had to wait 40 years for the Steelers’ first championship. Dial helped make the wait a little more entertaining.

The finish line

By Mike Batista


February 8, 2008

Who did the Patriots think they were, anyway?

I received permission from myself to take this quote from my previous column:

“The Patriots are the unquestioned Team of the Decade. But that’s not good enough for Belichick and the Boys. They want to be perfect. The 1972 Dolphins were perfect, but that was before the 16-game schedule. It was before the era of parity that has made the NFL the most popular sports league in the history of our culture. Every Super Bowl winner of the last 35 years has had to deal with at least one loss. It builds character. It also shows that the checks and balances of that precious parity are in proper working order.”

Before losing to the Giants 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots thought they were above the law of “Any Given Sunday.” Yes, they were seconds away from finishing a perfect 19-0. But they also came within a hair of losing during the regular season. It might have been the best thing for them if they had lost. The challenge of winning the Super Bowl combined with the burden of perfection proved too much for the Patriots. In this day and age, trying to get through an NFL season without a loss is like a boxer trying to get through a 12-round fight without a scratch.

It’s also like a runner trying to win the Boston Marathon by leading from start to finish. You’re not a sports fan if you haven’t heard the words “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” as a metaphor for a professional sports season. But it’s more than just a tired cliché. It’s true. A marathon course is too demanding, and there are too many elite runners for a competitor to be able to win without seeing someone in front of him at some point. The best strategy to win a marathon is to hang back, draft off the other runners, break your stride to get some water once in a while, then make your move. It’s grueling, just like the NFL season. Every team that has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy has had a day of reckoning, a time during the season when winning the Super Bowl didn’t seem likely.

Let’s take a look at all of the Super Bowl champions since the Patriots won their first one in 2001.

Giants, Super Bowl XLII: They started out 0-2, with the defense giving up a combined 80 points in the first two games. How do you like that defense now? Nobody believed in Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning. There were ugly home losses to the Vikings and Redskins later in the season. Then they decided to actually challenge the Patriots’ perfection in Week 17. They lost, but it turned out to be a springboard to success in the playoffs. Nobody’s doubting Coughlin and Manning now.

Colts, Super Bowl, XLI: They learned the hazards of flirting with perfection in 2005, when they started out 13-0. Like the Patriots this year, they were the obvious frontrunners in the Super Bowl chase that year. Nobody caught up with them until the Steelers upset them in the playoffs, and there’s no such thing as recovering from a playoff loss. In 2006, however, the Colts emerged from the pack to win the Super Bowl. Late in the season, they lost 44-17 at Jacksonville and 27-24 at Houston. Because of those defeats, they lost out on a first-round bye. But then they beat the Chiefs at home in the wild-card game, Adam Vinatieri kicked five field goals in a 15-6 win at Baltimore, then they had their memorable comeback against the Patriots in the AFC championship game, winning 38-34. Quick! Who did they beat in the Super Bowl? C'mon, admit it. I bet some of you forgot for a minute who the Colts beat in the Super Bowl last year. Cue the Joepardy music. ... OK, it was the Bears.

Steelers, Super Bowl XL: I think everyone on this site knows the story. The Steelers lost three games in a row to fall to 7-5 in early December. But they didn’t lose again. They had to win their last four regular-season games to get into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. Then like the Giants this season, they won three straight on the road in the playoffs. Their 21-18 upset of the Colts in the divisional playoffs put the NFL on alert that they were a Super Bowl-caliber team. They rode that momentum to a rout of the Broncos at Denver in the AFC championship game, then beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl to get that long-awaited One for the Thumb. (Click here to see why I think it might be a while before the Steelers win another Super Bowl.)

Patriots, Super Bowl XXXIX: They were 14-2, but their regular season wasn’t without some adversity, including a 34-20 loss in Pittsburgh that ended their 21-game winning streak. Then late in the season, they were upset 29-28 by the lowly Dolphins on a Monday night. But it was the Steelers who peaked too early in 2004. Perfection wasn’t a possibility because they lost to the Ravens in Week 2. That’s when Ben Roethlisberger replaced Tommy Maddox and led them to 15 straight wins. But the Patriots had an answer for the rookie quarterback and the Steelers in the AFC championship game before beating the Eagles in the Super Bowl.

Patriots, Super Bowl XXXVIII: The hardship came early in the season for the Patriots in 2003. They cut former Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy days before the season started. The Bills scooped up Milloy and pounded the Patriots 31-0 in the season opener. The Patriots lost to the Redskins in Week 4 to drop to 2-2. But they didn’t lose again. The Panthers were their Super Bowl victims.

Buccaneers, Super Bowl XXXVII: They got their punch in the mouth from the Steelers in the second-to-last week of the regular season. At the time, the Steelers and Buccaneers had about as heated a rivalry as two interconference teams could have. Lee Flowers, a Steelers safety, publicly referred to the Bucs as “paper champions.” He and the Steelers backed it up on a Monday night in Tampa, beating them 17-7. They certainly made them look like paper champions. But the very next week, the Bucs overcame their storied cold-weather curse, closing out the regular season with the franchise’s first win in sub-40 degree weather, 15-0 at Chicago. Then they did it again in the NFC championship game, winning 27-10 at Philadelphia before going on to beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl.

Patriots, Super Bowl XXXVI: They faced all kinds of hurdles on the way to winning their first Super Bowl. They started out 0-2. The Jets’ Mo Lewis hit Drew Bledsoe so hard he sheared one of the quarterback’s blood vessels. Sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady took over. After falling 24-17 to the Rams at home to drop to 5-5, the Patriots didn’t lose again. They had their asses saved by the Tuck Rule in the divisional playoffs against the Raiders. Then Vinatieri sent that game into overtime with a line-drive, 45-yard field goal in the snow, a play almost as breathtaking as Eli Manning’s escape and David Tyree’s catch six years later (The Slip & Grip?). Vinatieri kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime. From there, the Patriots exploited the Steelers’ Stonehenge special teams units in the AFC championship game, videotaped the Rams’ final walkthrough the day before the Super Bowl, and a dynasty was born.

Now, that dynasty might be over. Three different teams have won Super Bowls since the Patriots won their last one. That’s what I call parity.

Deliver us from evil

By Mike Batista


January 25, 2008

Hatred makes strange bedfellows.

Because of my white-hot hatred of the Patriots, I find myself in the compromising position of having to root for a New York team over a New England team. Yes, I’ve lived in the New York area for more than two years, but I grew up in New England. I normally take great joy in rooting against any and all New York sports franchises. I delight in the Knicks’ troubles. I laughed at the Mets’ late-season collapse last fall. I found watching Eli Manning struggle to be a guilty pleasure.

Now, I want Manning to get a Super Bowl ring, because when it comes to football, I’m not a New England fan. I’m a Steelers fan, and with that comes a natural loathing of the Patriots. It wasn’t always this way. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Patriots were like blind squirrels. They occasionally found a nut, but most of the time, they were nothing to fear.

Then Robert Kraft replaced James Orthwein as the owner. The sleek Flying Elvis replaced the stodgy Pat Patriot on the helmets. Bill Belichick replaced Pete Carroll on the sidelines. Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe at quarterback. Glitzy Gillette Stadium replaced the old cement block with metal benches known as Foxboro Stadium. And the Patriots suddenly went from blind squirrels to squirrels that hoard nuts, or in this case Super Bowl trophies.

I’ve seen quite enough Patriots championships. That’s why I want the Giants to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

I am the proud owner of T-shirts that say “Jeter Drinks Wine Coolers” and “A-Rod Slaps Balls.” I vociferously rooted against the Yankees at various bars with fellow Red Sox fans during those epic American League Championship Series in 2003 and 2004. But when it comes to the NFL, I break from the ranks, just like Russia becoming an enemy of the United States after World War II.

So shouldn’t I feel dirty supporting a New York team against a New England team in the world’s biggest sports spectacle?

The answer is no, because if the Giants win, the Lombardi trophy would at least be in the Steelers’ family.

The niece of Steelers owner Dan Rooney, Kathleen, is married to Chris Mara, the Giants’ vice president of player evaluation. Dan Rooney is the son of Steelers founder Art Rooney, and Chris Mara is the son of former Giants owner Wellington Mara and the grandson of Tim Mara, who bought the Giants in 1925. In fact, Art Rooney named his son Tim, Chris Mara’s father-in-law, after Tim Mara.

The Rooneys and Maras are both pillars of the NFL. Kraft? Yeah, yeah, yeah, he’s a respected NFL owner, but he’s nowhere near as cool, and his wife looks like a school marm.

The parallels between the Steelers and Giants don’t end with the Rooney-Mara nuptials. The Giants’ 2007 playoff run is similar to the Steelers’ supernova-like 2005 postseason. Both teams won three road games to reach the Super Bowl. Both teams won wild-card games that everyone pretty much knew they’d win even though they were the lower seed. Both teams brought down behemoths in the divisional round. Both teams beat favored but flawed opponents in the conference championships.

But there’s a big difference. The Steelers beat the 2005 Seahawks to win Super Bowl XL, not nearly as daunting a task as beating the 2007 Patriots. The Giants are huge underdogs. But theirs is a noble mission. All good and decent football fans are counting on them to defeat Team Evil and foil their pursuit of perfection.

The Patriots are the unquestioned Team of the Decade. But that’s not good enough for Belichick and the Boys. They want to be perfect. The 1972 Dolphins were perfect, but that was before the 16-game schedule. It was before the era of parity that has made the NFL the most popular sports league in the history of our culture. Every Super Bowl winner of the last 35 years has had to deal with at least one loss. It builds character. It also shows that the checks and balances of that precious parity are in proper working order.

One more win and the Patriots would become the first NFL team ever to finish 19-0. One of the reasons we’re drawn to sports is to see athletes doing what’s never been done before. The problem here is the Patriots sold their soul to get this shot at history.

The Patriots' dynasty was founded on a team-first mentality. It was a unit made up of equal parts without any stars drawing attention to themselves. Then they got Randy Moss, who’s made dubious headlines for his acts on and off the field. Rodney Harrison was already one of the least liked players in the NFL before being suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy. After getting pinched for Spygate, the Patriots showed they can win without videotaping opposing coaches. But we’ll never know if it gave them an unfair edge in winning their three Super Bowls, two of which the Steelers could have won if it weren’t for the Patriots.

Even when they’re not winning Super Bowls, the Patriots give me reasons to hate them. It still bothers me that Tom Brady flipped the coin before Super Bowl XL. They brought out all the Super Bowl MVPs (at least those who showed up) in honor of the 40th anniversary. As the most recent Super Bowl MVP to that point, Brady was the last one announced and given the honor of flipping the coin. So there was pretty boy in his velvet suit standing between the fully armored Steelers and Seahawks captains. During the most glorious day in post-1970s Steelers history, the Patriots still wouldn’t go away. I tell you, they’re evil!

It’s up to the Giants to deliver us from that evil. They can’t let the Patriots get their hands on what would be the crown jewel of their oppressive dynasty.

I actually think the Giants have a better chance to beat the Patriots than the Packers would have had. The Packers were tied for the second-best record in the NFL at 13-3, but they were the youngest team in the league. I don't know how that can be with 38-year-old Brett Favre on the roster. It must mean that everyone else on the roster is about 12. Beating the Patriots isn’t child’s play, and right now, the Giants are the best the NFC has to offer. Like the 2005 Steelers, they’re peaking at the right time.

All the Patriots need to complete their dastardly mission is one more win. But that’s all the Yankees needed when they had a 3-0 lead on the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS. If the Giants upset the Patriots, the heartache that was felt by New York sports fans in October of 2004 would be felt by all New England sports fans.

Well, almost all of them.