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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What in the world is going on with the Steelers?

I've had the question posed to me a number of times: "What's going on with the Steelers? Why are so many guys getting in trouble?"

The answer has many facets.

First and foremost is the fact that players in the NFL today make more money and are better-known than at any other time in league history.

Football in the past couple of decades surpassed baseball as America's favorite sport and in this digital age where sponsors are constantly using stars to sell their wares and ESPN constantly brings these guys into America's living rooms, NFL players are more well-known than ever before.

Not only does that make them celebrities, it makes them targets.

At the same time, the money and fame can inflate egos, making a guy that was perhaps humble at one time, change over the course of a few years. In 17 years of covering the NFL, I've seen it happen again and again.

Money and the salary cap also become a factor. Teams can get rid of coaches or front office people a lot easier than they can players. The players know this and, if they so choose, can take advantage of it.

The other thing about the digital age is that not only does it allow the media to perform its job more easily - making plenty of information readily available - it also allows for forums such as this one to discuss at great length anything that comes up.

I'm not saying that's a bad things. Fans should have places they can go to talk to others of a like mind. But, it does allow for the flames to be fanned on issues.

And because information is so readily available, things cannot be covered up or hidden as easily as they could, say, 10 to 20 years ago.

Think about it this way: Remember Penn State's squeaky-clean image of 20 years ago. Now think about the trouble Penn State players have gotten into in recent years. Think those kind of things - frat fights, public intoxication, etc. – didn't happen before? It's now much more difficult for things to be swept aside.

There have always been guys who get in trouble on every professional team's roster. When you are dealing with that many people - particulary young men, they are going to do some stupid things.

And let's face it, the NFL isn't populated by choir boys. These guys are playing in the NFL because they're stronger, faster, tougher than 99.9 percent of the population. In many cases, they've been pampered throughout their lives because of that.

But they also have to be smart enough to know that they cannot put themselves into situations where they not only jeopardize their own character and/or wealth, but also the image of the league and their respective team.

This current group of Steelers has had its share of run-ins, both minor and major, with the law. And that is out of character for a team that has prided itself on not having players like that.

But it's not a problem that is foreign to all NFL teams or sports teams in general.

What can the team do about it? Short of releasing every player who has an indiscetion, something that's not likely to happen, it can pull in the reigns on these guys and also educate them better on what will and will not be tolerated.

When a player is guaranteed a large sum of money, he begins to feel as if he's bullet proof. And professional athletes feel that way already. If they didn't, they would not be able to do many of the things they do in their respective sports.

Has Mike Tomlin given this team too much freedom in terms of treating them like men and professionals? Perhaps.

But the reality is that there's not a lot he can do short of releasing offenders outright - again, something that's not going to happen in every case.

He's in the business of coaching a football team, not babysitting.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Back in the saddle

Geez, you go away for a week during the offseason and all kinds of things happen.

Let's recap:

The Steelers picked up a pair of fifth-round picks and one seventh in compensatory draft choices. That's pretty much what everyone assumed they'd get for losing Nate Washington, Bryant McFadden and Byron Leftwich.

It gives Pittsburgh 10 picks in this year's draft and I'll be shocked if they make all 10. With the two extra fifth-round selections, they could likely move a fourth and a fifth to pick up an extra third, or a third and a fifth to move up in the third round. You get the idea.

The Steelers now have additional options.

© In another unsurprising move, Charlie Batch is back with the Steelers, signed to a two-year deal.

The Steelers like Batch because he's comfortable in his role, knows the offense and is very active in the community. But, regardless of the Batch re-signing, Dennis Dixon is now the No. 2 quarterback.

That's important because of the charges that still hang over Ben Roethlisberger's head.

© Things are still crawling along slowly with the Roethlisberger situation. The fact that there have not been any charges filed remains a positive sign for Roethlisberger.

The Steelers are obviously not happy with their quarterback and neither is commissioner Roger Goodell.

Goodell said he'll meet with Roethlisberger at some point to discuss the situation.

Some are calling it a double standard - with racial preferences coming into play - but that's silly.

Again, Roethlisberger's first sexual assault accusation has the look and feel of a money grab, pure and simple. And there is still no real proof that any assault occurred in the Georgia case.

Doesn't mean Roethlisberger won't still draw a suspension or fine of some sort from the league. But to do so at this point would be premature, to say the least.

© There are rumors that the Steelers could be interested in acquiring Byron Leftwich via a trade with Tampa Bay. The only way that happens is if all hell breaks loose with Roethlisberger and he's charged and suspended.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Roethlisberger spoofed

From the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

Ben Roethlisberger’s battered public image took another hit Wednesday when the Steelers QB was lampooned on the season premiere of “South Park.”
The 28-year-old appeared, along with President Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan and David Letterman, at a meeting for sex addicts in an episode inspired by the Tiger Woods scandal. After hearing fourth-grader Butters discuss how he could not keep his mind off a certain part of the female anatomy, the animated Roethlisberger responds, “I heard that!”
Later, when asked by the sex addiction counselor how to avoid getting caught, Cartoon Ben said, “Don’t (have sex with) girls in the public bathrooms.”
A Georgia College and State University sophomore accused Roethlisberger of sexual assault following an early morning encounter in a Milledgeville, Ga., bar nearly two weeks ago. Milledgeville police and the GBI have been pursuing a second interview with the Pittsburgh quarterback but his lawyers have not yet made him available.
Authorities also hope to speak with Andrea McNulty, who accused Roethlisberger of sexual assault in a civil suit filed last year in Nevada. The quarterback denied the allegation.
“They need information from us, and frankly we need information from them, so I will make a decision on how to proceed as the need arises,” Calvin Dunlap, McNulty’s attorney, told KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh.
Roethlisberger continues to lie low, skipping offseasons workouts with his teammates and withdrawing from an upcoming celebrity pro-am golf tournament, according to TMZ.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Moving forward

With the Steelers apparently done with their flurry of free agent signings and things dying down in the Ben Roethlisberger saga - it has been nearly two weeks and no charges have been filed - it's time to start thinking more seriously about the draft.

The Steelers met with a number of rookies at the combine and will have more visiting Pittsburgh in the coming weeks. Normally, their draft picks come from the group of players they've checked out the most - though there have been exceptions to that rule over the years.

Here are the players with first-round or high second-round grades who they've already spoken to or will bring into Pittsburgh soon. I'm sure there are more, but these are the guys we know about so far:

Golden Tate, WR, Notre Dame
Patrick Robinson, CB, Florida State
Sean Weatherspoon, LB, Missouri
Rolando McClain, ILb, Alabama
Earl Thomas, FS/CB, Texas
Mike Iupati, G, Idaho

Of those players, the last four would make the most sense to me.

With the signing of Antwaan Randle El, the Steelers really don't have room or the need for Tate, though I think he's one of the best offensive playmakers in this draft.

Robinson, to me, is more of a low-first, second-round pick. I watched him play a couple of times last season and just wasn't that impressed with him.

Weatherspoon could be added as the future replacement for James Farrior and if he were eventually paired with Lawrence Timmons, would perhaps give the Steelers more speed at ILB than they've ever had. But the signing of Larry Foote would make both he and McClain luxuries.

McClain has been viewed as a possible top-10 pick, but his admission to having Crohn's disease at Alabama's pro day recently, could cause his stock to drop. Fatigue, weight loss and abdominal pain are just a few of the symptoms of the disease and none are anything you want a player to suffer through during a grueling 6-month long season.

McClain would provide value at pick 18 to be sure, but like Weatherspoon, he would be something of a luxury item on this roster at this point.

That brings me to the last two guys who the Steelers have or will talk to.

Thomas played free safety for Texas and picked off eight passes last season. But he has the speed to line up at cornerback. In fact, he's actually faster than the player considered the top CB prospect in this draft, Florida's Joe Hayden.

The only knock on Thomas is his height. He's 5-10. Then again, so is Troy Polamalu.

Thomas would fill a definite need for the Steelers, even with the signing of Ryan Clark and Will Allen, particularly if he could be used immediately as a CB.

He would give the Steelers an immediate upgrade in terms of ball skills, something that is seriously lacking in the current group - Polamalu aside.

As for Iupati, frequent readers of this blog will remember that prior to the Senior Bowl, I touted the big man as a player to watch at the Senior Bowl as a possible first-round pick for the Steelers.

Nothing has changed in that regard. He's an excellent run blocker and though his pass blocking needs some work, that is often the case with kids coming out of college. His size and demeanor cannot be overlooked.

For the Steelers, a first-day pick – remember, the draft is three days long this year - of Iupati or Thomas would be outstanding.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Foote signs with Steelers

Saying he wanted to play with a winner, Larry Foote returned to the Steelers Monday, signing a three-year deal worth $9.3 million.

Foote said he's comfortable returning in a backup role with the Steelers, one year after asking for and getting his release because he wanted to start.

I guess it's a case of being careful of what you ask for.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Foote to visit Pittsburgh Monday

Another one of the players I felt the Steelers would target in free agency will visit Monday when Larry Foote returns to his old stomping grounds - no pun in intended - for a meeting with the team.

Foote, of course, asked for and was granted his release last Spring when it became apparent Lawrence Timmons was going to take over his starting job.

Now, after spending a season as a starter in Detroit, Foote is looking for a new employer.

If he were to re-join Pittsburgh, Foote would give the Steelers a solid veteran backup at both inside linebacker positions.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Commenting on Roethlisberger

One week later, we're still not sure what happened between Ben Roethlisberger and a 20-year-old woman in the bathroom of a bar in Georgia.

But what we do know is this.

A. Roethlisberger has been pretty much found guilty in the court of public opinion.

B. No charges have yet been filed.

C. Everyone has an opinion about the situation.

I have put off commenting on the sexual assault charges lodged against Roethlisberger while waiting to see the evidence. But since it seems not to be forthcoming at this time, I feel I cannot wait any longer.

At this point, Roethlisberger is guilty of poor judgment, nothing else. While a number of people in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are calling for the NFL to suspend him and the Steelers to cut or trade him, the bottom line is that he hasn't even been charged with a crime.

Nor was he charged with a crime last summer when a Reno, Nevada woman claimed he raped her in a hotel room. Instead of filing criminal charges in that case, the woman filed a civil case, making it appear money was her main motivation.

That should have been the only life lesson that Roethlisberger needed. But he's a young guy in the prime of his life. He's famous. And I'm sure there are plenty of women out there who are willing to sleep with him just because he's rich and famous.

Does that mean he should hop in the sack with every one? Nope. There are some women out there who likely see him as nothing more than a big paycheck.

I'm not saying his accuser in Georgia is one of them. But many are automatically assuming that since she went directly to the police after the alleged event, she had no ulterior motive.

Maybe they should ask Jerome Bettis about that.

Bettis, you'll remember, was once accused of forcing a young lady to perform a sex act on him outside a Greensburg bar. She immediately went to the police.

It later turned out she had been put up to the whole thing by a relative who figured they could get a payoff out of Bettis.

Here's what we've been able to ascertain about the current case.

Roethlisberger, who owns a home in the area of this Georgia bar, has been known to go into that bar during the offseason.

Roethlisberger at this bar with a number of friends, among them Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon and two off-duty Pennsylvania police officers.

His party was joined by a group of co-eds from a nearby college.

Something happened, in the women's bathroom of this bar between Roethlisberger and the young lady.

KDKA TV reports that "sources" tell them that Roethlisberger had admitted contact with the woman but said there was no intercourse.

The woman, meanwhile, went to a local hospital afterward to be treated for injuries.

According to the KDKA report, those same "sources" tell them that Roethlisberger said the woman fell and hit her head.

I have a great deal of respect for KDKA, but their information is third-hand. I'm sure they have vetted these sources, but unless they have seen a report from Roethlisberger's interview - which at some point will be made public if charges are filed - I have to treat them with some skepticism.

As for the argument that the 28-year-old Roethlisberger should not be hanging out at a college bar, I defy anyone who was single at 28 to tell me they never went to a bar that had a younger crowd.

Those people argue that it's "creepy." Again, would it be "creepy" had this alleged incident happened at a martini lounge populated by 40-something cougars?

It makes me question Roethlisberger's judgment, but it's not damning material.

I've also heard the argument put forth a number of times that somebody knew somebody who knew somebody else that said Roethlisberger wouldn't sign an autograph for them. Therefore, he's a jerk and guilty.

Nonsense. I've seen Roethlisberger be gracious. I've seen him be a jerk.

The bottom line is that I don't know him any more than he knows me. I may be around him more than the general public, but that doesn't mean I know him by any stretch of the imagination.

There are some Steelers players who are a little more friendly with the media that others. Roethlisberger is not one of them. Does that make him a bad guy? I don't know because I really don't know him.

Anyone in the media who does claim to know him is either stupid or fooling themselves.

The Steelers are upset that Roethlisberger is having yet another public incident. They thought he learned his lesson the last time.

People have also claimed that because Roethlisberger has hired a high-priced, high-profile attorney that he must be guilty. Ditto his leaving of the state and his lawyer's denial of giving a DNA sample.

With so much to lose, why wouldn't he hire a high-profile attorney? I know that Ben Matlock may have gotten better play in Georgia, but he wasn't available.

And any good attorney would delay having a client give DNA or an official statement as long as possible. It's just what they do. It neither proves nor disproves guilt.

So let's let the dust settle and wait and see if criminal charges are ever brought forth before we convict Roethlisberger of - at this point - anything more than poor judgment.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Busy day for Steelers

The Steelers added a pair of safeties and a pair of wide receivers Monday in perhaps the busiest free agent day in team history.

After visiting Miami, safety Ryan Clark decided to accept the Steelers' offer of $14 million over four years to remain in Pittsburgh.

That deal was struck at roughly the same time that former wideout Antwaan Randle El was also agreeing to terms with the team on a three-year deal to return to Pittsburgh. Randle El, who received a three-year deal, spent the past four seasons with the Washington Redskins.

Earlier in the day, the team announced the signings of safety Will Allen to a three-year deal worth $4.5 million and a three-year $3.975-million deal with wide receiver Arnaz Battle.

The signing of a pair of veteran wide receivers to long-term deals likely means that former second-round pick Limas Sweed has played his last football with the Steelers.

Sweed was placed on injured reserve at the end of last season so that he could deal with undisclosed personal issues.

The signings of both Clark and Allen, who played for head coach Mike Tomlin in Tampa Bay, means the team will not make an effort to bring back veteran safety Tyrone Carter.

Both Battle and Allen are also top-notch special teams players as well.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Steelers sign Battle, Allen

The Steelers made their first foray into the free agent market, signing veterans Arnaz Battle and Will Allen.

Battle (6-1, 208) was originally drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the sixth round of the 2003 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame. He spent seven seasons with the 49ers and played in 88 career games as a wide receiver, kick returner and punt returner. For his career, Battle has 178 receptions for 2,150 yards and 11 touchdowns as a receiver. In 2009, he was the 49ers primary punt returner with 21 returns for 61 yards and added three kickoff returns for 68 yards.

Allen (6-1, 200) has played all six NFL seasons with Tampa Bay after being drafted by the Buccaneers in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft out of Ohio State. Allen made two starts in 2009 before being placed on the team’s Reserve/Injured List following Week 9. In his six seasons with the Buccaneers, Allen had 63 special teams tackles and was named the team’s special teams captain in 2008. He started 26 games in six years and had 174 career tackles and four interceptions.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Parker to visit Skins

Willie Parker will be the first Steelers free agent to make a visit elsewhere. He is reportedly heading to Washington on Monday to talk to the Redskins about a possible job.

Washington currently has injury-prone starter Clinton Portis and little else in its backfield.

The Redskins may be a good fit for Parker, who has had some injury issues in recent seasons himself. Between Parker and Portis, the Redskins may be able to keep one healthy back on the field for every game.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Free agency period opens up

The free agency period began at midnight and unlike previous years, there were no big opening salvos.

Teams are playing things pretty close to the vest at this point as they feel things out in the uncapped year.

The Steelers are, of course, one of the teams who have been silent. But that's par for the course for them as they usually sit out the opening week or so before scouring the remains to pick up a bargain or two.

They have reportedly contacted the agent for free agent Arnaz Battle and have set up a visit with the former Notre Dame and San Francisco 49ers receiver.

Battle is a mutli-purpose threat - ala. Hines Ward and Atwaan Randle El - and could fit as a slot receiver, something the team could be in the market for given that Mike Wallace, Santonio Holmes and Limas Sweed are outside guys.

Battle could also be insurance for Sweed, who was placed on IR at the end of the season with a yet-undisclosed non-medical problem.

As of this writing there have no reports of any of the Steelers' free agents making or setting up visits anywhere.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Free agency look: DBs

As I do every offseason, I’ll take a look over the next few weeks at the Steelers’ potential free agents and possible veteran replacements or upgrades.

Keep in mind that the Steelers have never been major players on the free agent market. So no matter how much you want them to go out and sign say, Terrell Owens, it’s not going to happen.

This week as we head into the eve of free agency, we’ll take a look at the defensive backs.

Steelers potential losses
William Gay, CB, restricted
Deshea Townsend, CB, unrestricted
Tyrone Carter, S, unrestricted
Ryan Clark, S, unrestricted

If there is any position that will undergo major changes for the Steelers in 2010, it will be the defensive backs.

Few will argue that this was not a weak point for the team in 2009 and with four free agents - including three unrestricted free agents – it could see a great deal of turnover.

In his first season as a full-time starter, William Gay was exposed as a liability in pass coverage. Gay lacks deep speed and because of that, he must give more cushion. He also struggled at times with his tackling in 2009, eventually losing his starting job to Townsend.

But the Steelers will likely tender him and give him another shot at winning the starting job back in 2010.

Townsend, on the other hand, won’t be back unless he finds no takers in free agency. The 34-year-old still sees himself as starting material, even if the Steelers do not. They like what Townsend brings to the table, but durability questions will always be there. In fact, the team kept Keiwan Ratliff for most of the season because it was worried Townsend would break down again in 2009.

Veteran safety Tyrone Carter has also probably played his last game for the Steelers. A nice bit player, Carter’s lack of size and speed is exposed when he has to play regularly. The Steelers can do better with their backup safety position.

Clark, the team’s starting free safety, is also unrestricted and the team would love to bring him back, but won’t break the bank to do so. Though Clark is a heady player and a big hitter, he’s not adept at producing takeaways, something you’d like of your free safety. He does, however, have a nice rapport with Troy Polamalu and the two have an innate sense of where each will be. That cannot be overlooked.

If Townsend and Carter leave via free agency, the Steelers will likely be looking to sign at least one and possibly two veterans to throw into the mix with some of their younger players at those positions.

Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson is considered the top player available at that position, but the former top-10 draft pick’s production – 13 career interceptions, six of which came as a rookie – hasn’t matched what he’ll likely be asking for on the open market.

More affordable options would include New England’s Leigh Bodden, Seattle’s Ken Lucas and Detroit’s Anthony Henry.

At 28, Bodden is the youngest of that trio and is coming off a season in which he made 14 starts with the Patriots, picking off five passes. But three of those interceptions came in one game against Jets’ rookie Mark Sanchez. Still, his five picks were four more than the Steelers’ corners had in 2009.

Lucas, 31, could probably be had for a good deal less than Bodden and still has something left as he showed with the Seahawks in 2009, playing in all 16 games and making six starts. Lucas has 25 career interceptions, including one last season.

At 33, Henry is the oldest of this group of corners, but also has the best hands. The 6-1, 207-pounder saw action in 14 games in 2009 and like Lucas, made six starts. He recorded 46 tackles and two interceptions, giving him 31 in his career.

At safety, the Steelers could throw caution to the wind if they don’t feel negotiations with Clark will prove meaningful and make a run at New Orleans’ Darren Sharper.

Though 34, Sharper is one of the best ball hawks of all-time as evidenced by his 63 career interceptions. There is no doubt he could probably coax at least three more seasons out of himself. The Steelers also have a bargaining chip no other team does when it comes to negotiations with Sharper. He was a teammate of head coach Mike Tomlin at William & Mary and the two remain friends.

If the Steelers are looking for someone who would be a little cheaper but also add some experienced depth, they could go after another player with ties to Tomlin. Tampa Bay’s Will Allen is just 27 and owns 26 career starts at free safety for the Bucs, including 16 games in 2006 when Tomlin was his defensive backs coach. Allen was also first alternate as the NFC’s special teams Pro Bowl representative in 2009, something that would be a welcome addition for the Steelers.

Allen would be a nice replacement for Carter.