Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The greatest sports franchise?

We’ve made it this far.

::catches his breath and pinches himself again::

It’s still a bit hard to believe that the Steelers are in Super Bowl XLIII, with as many rough patches as we’ve hit this year. (And if it’s hard for me to believe, I can’t imagine what Cardinals fans must be thinking!) Then again, a Super Bowl seemed inconceivable to me in October of the 2005 season.

The Super Bowl is being analyzed to death, as usual. Will Hines Ward play? Will Ben Roethlisberger post a passer rating that media pundits won’t make fun of for years to come? How many Bruce Springsteen songs will we hear this week?

I’m not going to analyze the nuances of every position and matchup, mainly because I have a life and am not getting paid to write this blog. Instead, I’m going to talk about the team behind the team.

An ESPN columnist recently put forth the proposition that the Steelers are the greatest sports franchise—which, of course, set the message board on fire. And a case can be made for many different pro sports teams.

In baseball, there are the Yankees. In the 1950s, they would be the only candidate for the honor, but they have lost some of their luster, mainly because baseball has lost its luster. The steroids scandal looms large over the sport, and the lack of a salary cap has given the Yankees the reputation as “the best team money can buy.”

Within the NFL, some will say that the Dallas Cowboys are “America’s Team.” In the NBA, arguments can be made for the Celtics and Lakers. Quite a few hockey fans voted for the Montreal Canadiens. If I looked deep enough on the board, there was probably some Brit making a case for Manchester United.

Only the truly blind fans of any of those teams can hold out against the Steelers as the greatest franchise.

I moved here in November 2002 (I will always remember it as the day the Steelers and Falcons tied), and it didn’t take long to get caught in Steelermania. When a co-worker was selling tickets to a game the next year, I jumped at the chance.

It was, technically, a meaningless game against the Chargers. It was December and both teams had been eliminated from the playoffs. The temperature was in the 20s—not ideal conditions to sit seven rows from the top of Heinz Field.

You wouldn’t have known that by looking at the fans. The parking lot was filled with tailgaters and the place was as packed as if a playoff spot were on the line.

But fan fervor isn’t the only thing that makes Steelers fans great. Win or lose, we do it with class. While there are exceptions, as a rule, you would never see Steelers fans pelting the turf with beer bottles or cheering over an injured player. And, as far as I know, Heinz Field does not have, or need, its own jail.

This was borne out in the AFC Championship Game when Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee was taken off the field on a stretcher after a scary neck injury. The sound in a stadium is far louder than it sounds on TV, and it was with pride that I could clearly hear Steelers fans shout, “Good luck, Willis!” as the gurney wheeled past.

Whatever happens on Saturday, I’m sure that the vast Steeler Nation will continue to represent the greatest sports franchise with class.

Steelers 31, Cardinals 17.

Monday, January 12, 2009

When everybody shows up

After a season of teasing us with glimpses of greatness, the real Pittsburgh Steelers stood up Sunday.

With a few minor glitches, the Steelers played as if their jobs depended on it (which may have been true for some of them) and turned in the best game of the season.

The NFL playoffs have been a real nightmare so far if you bet the favorites. The Steelers were the only fave among last week’s winners, as well as the only home team. And the only one not named for a bird, whatever that means.

What the playoffs have lacked in predictability, they should make up for in excitement, as the final four (yeah, I know, that’s basketball talk) are all teams with checkered regular seasons that are peaking at the right time.

I never thought I would use the phrases “Arizona Cardinals” and “NFC Championship” in the same sentence—but I just did. The Cardinals have, at least in my lifetime, been one of the most hapless sports franchises. I was nine when they last won their division in 1975. Prior to this year, they had won one playoff game since their 1947 NFL Championship. This year’s NFC West title was dismissed by many (including me) as the result of playing in football’s worst division, and a pitiful game in New England in December didn’t help, but the Cardinals have proven the skeptics wrong with upsets over the Falcons and Panthers in the playoffs.

They face the Philadelphia Eagles, who sneaked into the wild card picture with some help, then earned their spot in Week 17 with a blowout of the Cowboys. Their season has been a rollercoaster. Besides the Cowboys rout, another high point was a win over…uh…some other team in Pennsylvania, while the nadir may have been, not a loss, but a tie—the first in the NFL since 2002—with the wretched Bengals. Donovan McNabb has endured injuries, being benched in favor of Kevin Kolb, and even being dissed by Rush Limbaugh, but still seeks that elusive Super Bowl ring.

On the AFC side, the Steelers have their third game of the season against the





(One for the Bugs Bunny fans out there)

The Ravens have generated bad karma from the start, as the team was formed when Art Modell pulled the Browns out of Cleveland in 1996 after he failed to get a new stadium. Since then, they have laid claim to the title formerly held by the Oakland Raiders as the NFL’s bad boys, with a formidable defense led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. With the Browns and Bengals fighting for the AFC North cellar, the Ravens have emerged as the Steelers’ arch-rival in recent years. Not that we don’t pwn them anyhow. Although they do get kudos for knocking off the towel-stomping Titans for us.

Then there are the one, the only, your Pittsburgh Steelers! It appears that the final piece of the puzzle came together in the Chargers game. The offensive line, maligned everywhere from this blog to a Wal-Mart parking lot, finally played to its potential, protected Ben Roethlisberger and opened lines for Willie Parker. I never imagined that the O-line would be one of the strongest parts of any game this season. Just one of many surprises in these playoffs.

For Sunday, as in any Steelers-Ravens game, expect the mother of all defensive struggles—and with the AFC championship on the line to boot. Sub-freezing temperatures, hits you can hear from the back row of section 512, the titanic struggle of good vs. evil. I can hear the NFL Films music now.

Does it get any better?

Steelers 17, Ravens 6.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pleasant surprises, playoffs and otherwise

While I'm trying to distract myself from the Pittsburgh Penguins' latest woes, I thought I'd go ahead and do the column I promised a couple of weeks ago, the year-beginning "best of" the NFL.

The San Francisco 49ers didn't make the playoffs, but they did make a great decision in hiring Mike Singletary as interim head coach. The 49ers were having a dismal season before they fired Mike Nolan, and Singletary's chances at keeping the head coaching job were far from guaranteed, but he sparked them to finish 7-9, and second in the NFC west. Look for the 49ers to be a force in upcoming seasons.

The Atlanta Falcons seemed to be headed for a multi-season skid after the whole Michael Vick debacle but they managed to come out strong with a playoff trip capping an 11-5 overall record. Quarterback Matt Ryan seems to have a good future, if they can keep him healthy with a good running back to take pressure off the throw. Mike Smith has secured his job there, for now, with AP Coach of the Year honors and exceeding expectations in a big way for Atlanta's football fans.

The Miami Dolphins went 1-15 last year. This year they made the playoffs with a division win before running out of gas against the Baltimore Ravens. Watch for GM Bill Parcells to continue to be head coach Tony Sparano's man behind the curtain. I expect Miami will continue to be a contender, especially if they can build a decent receiving corps that is worthy of 2 time Comeback Player of the Year, Chad Pennington.

Of course, what kind of Pittsburgh Native would I be if I didn't mention the Pittsburgh Steelers among teams that exceeded expectations? After an 07-08 season that could only be described as "meh", head coach Mike Tomlin came back this year to run roughshod over the conference at 6-0 and over the division at 10-2. With perennial foes New England and Indianapolis eliminated from contention, the Steelers biggest worry will be the Tennesee Titans if they manage to beat a strong Baltimore Ravens team this afternoon. Of course, the Steelers will have to prevail against an LT-less San Diego Chargers team and hope they get better officiating than last time they played the Bolts.

Everyone, enjoy watching the games this weekend and GO STEELERS!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Defense Always Wins Games

How far do you think the Pittsburgh Steelers will go in the playoffs?

Take a look at how far they’ve come.

Just like in their Super Bowl-winning season of 2005, the Steelers have had a habit of exceeding expectations.

Before the season, all the pundits were predicting grim things for them. The schedule was too tough, Ben Roethlisberger has lost a step, and the offensive line stinks. A common prediction around the office was 6-10.

As often happens, the Steelers proved the naysayers wrong.

It’s a bit hard to see how they achieved the first-round bye. Following the Steelers this season has required a great deal of patience. They have won some of their games in unbelievable fashion, pulling games out at the last minutes and leaving fans more relieved than celebratory.

The offensive line has been nonexistent at times, Ben’s season has had more sacks than Giant Eagle, and the punters could have been picked at random from the Pittsburgh phone book. Even fans could be forgiven for not being able to picture these guys wearing Super Bowl rings.

So could they go all the way?

You bet.

When I was a reporter, I covered a high school football team called the Greyhounds. They were nicknamed the “Dawgs,” which the coach said was an acronym for “Defense Always Wins Games.”

So it is with the Steelers. The defense, led by linebacker James Harrison, has been compared to the great “Steel Curtain” of the 1970s. It’s noteworthy that Harrison was the only defensive player to receive MVP votes this year. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Add to this Troy Polamalu, Lamarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and the rest, and, barring injuries, there isn’t a weak spot on this unit.

Is the defense enough? Maybe. I am reminded of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, a team that won the Super Bowl primarily on the strength of an incredible defense. Remember that the starting QB on that squad was Trent Dilfer. Starr…Namath…Staubach…Bradshaw…Montana…and Dilfer. As they sang on "Sesame Street," one of these things is not like the others.

As we look forward to Saturday’s divisional playoff game, remember what Coach Brian Cross knew back at Grove City High School—Defense Always Wins Games.

Steelers 23, Chargers 10.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Omens and Portents

I'm normally the last person to get worried, long season and all, but the Penguins are starting to worry me.

Complete inability to score on the power play
Complete inability to score, at all
Terrible defense.
No spark. Flat play all around. The only player with any interest in the game is Whitney.

If I were Michel Therrien, I'd be worried about my job at this point. Something has to change, and soon.

Also, the fans in New York are assholes. Instead of cheering your own team for decent play and great goalkeeping, yell disparagement at the opposition, making yourselves sound stupid.

More soon.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Our honor defend, we will fight to the end

The quote is attributed to Jesus: “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.”

I doubt if he was thinking of the Ohio State Buckeyes, but that idea could have easily applied to them as far as my family is concerned, for the team has been held in much higher esteem by my brothers and me since we all left Ohio.

If you live in Columbus, it is hard to escape the long shadow cast by the Buckeyes, even if you could care less about football. Every fall, the place goes football crazy. I don’t know if it’s because there were no major-league professional sports in Columbus until 2000, but every Saturday in the fall, the town’s eyes are on the Buckeyes.

Such was the case in my house when I was growing up, although we were fans in the loosest sense of the word. We followed the Buckeyes not because of any great loyalty to The Ohio State University (only two of five kids were OSU graduates), but because the team happened to be in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, it was hard not to be caught up in the spirit of a town that was coated in scarlet and gray. I remember listening to a show called the Byers Buckeye Bandwagon on Saturday mornings, which was basically one long ad for a local car dealer interspersed with numbers from the OSU Marching Band. Nothing like hearing that brass echoing “The Buckeye Battle Cry” as it could only on AM radio. The first time I really understood how much the Buckeyes meant to the town was when I saw the 1974 OSU-Michigan game on TV, when Michigan missed a field goal for the win and the crowd stormed the field.

While we cheered when they won, the losses were actually good for a few laughs. No figure was—and is—more associated with the Buckeyes than Coach Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes. He was one of the greatest college football coaches in history, with five national titles and 13 Big Ten championships to his credit. But he was often the subject of ridicule in our house for his conservative play-calling and the violent temper that led to his downfall. I remember the 1977 Ohio State-Michigan game where he charged an ABC cameraman following an interception. The camera zoomed in on Woody, he ran towards it, and the next thing you saw was several seconds of sky.

Then there was The Punch that ended his career at the 1978 Gator Bowl. My brother Mike owned the first VCR I ever saw, and he caught The Punch on tape during a newscast. One night, burned out on tapes of horse races, we played The Punch repeatedly and laughed ourselves silly.

Not that we were the Buckeyes’ only critics. Then, as now, few college football teams come under more scrutiny from their fans. Columbus radio call-in shows following a loss to Michigan are unique in their criticism of coaches, players and anything else you’ve got. It doesn’t matter if the Bucks won every other game that season—you lose to Michigan and your job is in jeopardy. The Buckeye faithful never warmed up to former coach John Cooper, mainly because he declared that the Michigan game was “just another game.”

Now that each of us has moved to a different state, we are much bigger Buckeye fans. Whether that’s ironic or appropriate, I’ll let you decide.

It was incredible to listen to my brothers talk about the Buckeyes when we met in Florida for our nephew’s wedding last year. We sat in a restaurant watching OSU play Wisconsin as they analyzed the team’s strengths and weaknesses at every position and talked seriously about how they could win it all. Hard to believe these guys used to call them the “Choke-eyes.”

Why the difference? Because the Buckeyes are not just the local team anymore. They represent something bigger—our family, our roots, and the things that made us who we are today. As John Mellencamp once put it so eloquently, “I cannot forget from where it is that I come from.”