Post-Gazette sports reporter Paul Zeise blogs about the world of sports, and Pittsburgh sports in particular, with an assist from Seth Rorabaugh and his Morning Links. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulZeise and Seth @emptynetters.
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** No team in this town seems to have the benefit of the doubt handed to them like the Steelers and given how consistently good that franchise has been, perhaps rightfully so. But I don’t deal in homerism, hero worship and optimism – I deal in reality, which of course in the eyes of fans – and Ike Taylor, apparently – that makes me “negative”. Or better yet, I’m a “hater” which is coded language for “you don’t worship my heroes.” At any rate, I do talk shows in this town, do a lot of reading and listen to talk shows and the consensus now -- after the Steelers have beaten two bad teams in a row -- seems to be the Steelers are back and perhaps even the best team in the AFC. The defense is back, the running game is back, everything is great in Steeler-ville. Of course, here is the reality - the four teams the Steelers have beaten have losing records and are not going to the playoffs. Their combined record is 12-18 and let’s examine them:
(a) The Eagles (3-4) have a turnover prone quarterback, they are a mess as a franchise, they have fired their defensive coordinator and frankly they are a few lucky bounces in their early games away from being about 1-6.
(b) The Redskins (3-5) have a rookie quarterback who has had some decent games running the ball but he is still a rookie and his supporting cast is not very good yet. They also have an awful defense that is riddled with tons of injuries to key players.
(c) The Bengals (3-4) Do I need to say more? This is not a good team and Marvin Lewis is a far better coordinator than head coach. This is a team that got waxed by the Browns and who the Steelers own.
(d) The Jets (3-5) - Speaking of franchises that are a mess. Don’t get used to watching Rex Ryan because this it for him. The offense is awful, the best defensive player is out, the defense was overrated last year and is far more talk than production and anybody that thinks Mark Sanchez is anything more than a journeyman is kidding themselves and the fact that people are actually clamoring for Tim Tebow speaks volumes about how bad Sanchez is.
They also beat up two other teams with losing records Tennessee (3-5) and Oakland (3-4) – oh wait a minute, no they didn’t, my bad.
In short, the Steelers have played exactly one playoff team as far as I can tell – Denver and they lost the game. They are 4-3 against an awful compilation of teams which, if they were named Pitt and not the Steelers, they would be getting ridiculed and discredited by many of the same people who have declared the Steelers back.
So what’s my point?
It is simple – go win beat the New York Giants on Sunday and then we will talk about just how far "back" the Steelers are and just where they fit in among the best teams in the league.
They want to show they are truly “back” go beat the Giants in their own house and that will be something worth getting excited about.
Until then, could we stop talking about how the Steelers defense is no longer old, how the problems we’ve seen all along are solved and how this team is now going to great heights? Could we wait until they at least beat one playoff team?
Is this too much to ask?
I know, I know, I’m a hater, a negative yinzer media type (which is hilarious because so much of the Steelers buzz is so homeristic in nature….) because wins over Mark Sanchez, Marvin Lewis, RGIII and Mike Vick don’t exactly excite me and because I am willing to withhold judgment on just how good this team really is until I see them play a few quality teams.
And that starts Sunday in a game against the Giants, who by the way, I think the Steelers can beat. But they have to beat them, otherwise this team is, to quote Bill Parcells, what its record says it is and with a loss it will be right at the line of mediocrity (4-4).
That, to me, is why this is such a significant game – it is the Steelers second opportunity against a playoff team to prove they belong in the discussion of the best teams in the league. They need to win this game to justify all the glee and excitement that has been generated by the fact that they are on a two-game winning streak.
Like I said, there are some good things that came out of the last two wins – the running game looks like it is getting on track, the defensive backs are playing better, the offense is expanding and has the look of something that is going to be really hard to defend because it can attack in so many ways and all of that is great and a reason to feel a little better about the team.
But let’s wait until after Sunday, when the Steelers play another playoff team, before we start making reservations for the Super Bowl or even the playoffs.
I believe the Steelers can beat the Giants and other playoff teams, I just want to see it first before I start heaping praise on them.
** One thing I will say is this – the Steelers best friend this year was originally thought to be its worst enemy. I am speaking, of course, of their division, the AFC North, which most people thought was going to be one of the best divisions in football. Suddenly, it looks like it may be one of the weakest. That’s because the Ravens, who some picked as a Super Bowl team, are beat up and broken down, especially on defense and look like a team that is going to have to outscore people in order to win. The Bengals were supposed to be good, we’ve established they stink and the Browns are a slightly better version of the awful team they have been. That means there are a lot of wins to be grabbed in the division and it also means that it won’t likely take much more than 10-6 to win the division. That means the Steelers early season slide probably won’t hurt them and they will likely be a playoff team as long as they continue to do what they have done the past two weeks – win games they are supposed to win.
** There might not be a worse organization in sports than the Pirates when it comes to public relations and that is not a result of having bad PR guys as I happen to think the Pirates PR staffs is one of the better ones that I’ve dealt with. But the people in the front office and in the ownership group are clueless in terms of how generate good will with fans and how to counter negative press. Case in point – I know for a fact that at least three media outlets in town (including the team’s flagship radio station) and from what I am told every other outlet as well , have been pursuing interviews with Frank Coonelly, Neil Huntington and/or Bob Nutting since the season ended.
The goal has been to find, in the wake of a second straight historical collapse, what was going to be done to fix what ails the Pirates, what actions were being considered to make some changes within the organization, etc., etc. What these outlets have gotten is stonewalled, ignored and outright rejected. Well until yesterday when Frank Coonelly broke his silence – and talked to a radio station IN ALTOONA.
Now, at first I didn’t think much of seeing some quotes in the Altoona Mirror from Coonelly because he was making some appearance with the Altoona Curve and I assumed that Cory Giger, who is an excellent journalist from Altoona, just caught him at the event and pulled him aside and got a quick interview. That would have been fine – but that wasn’t the case. Coonelly was a guest on Giger’s radio show which means he made a choice to do an interview with a station in Altoona and of course, used this interview to try and take down some of the recent criticisms of the Pirates organization.
I’m sorry, but to use a baseball term – that’s bush league.
The Pirates – Coonelly, Huntington or Nutting – and probably all three – needed to do this interview in Pittsburgh where their fans are. They needed to do some of this explaining to their fans, to their fan base. They needed to be subjected to some of the tough questions journalists here have been asking since about August 1st when the team went into vapor lock and started blowing the season.
But this is an old story with the Pirates – they often come off as an arrogant organization, one that believes they are smarter and above everyone else when in fact, we have 20 years of evidence (and five years with this group) to the contrary.
Incidentally, the silence is probably a good indication that the status quo will be maintained with some extremely minor and mostly insignificant changes. I hope I am wrong, but I fear I am right - nothing is going to change, we're going to be sold the nonsense that the program is right on schedule and the team is close.
Here is, by the way, the link to the audio of the Coonnelly interview with Cory Giger (you have to fast forward to about the 1:13 mark) if you are interested and here is the link to the article in the Altoona Mirror.
** The NBA began its season last night and while I know there are some critics of the NBA here in Pittsburgh, most of the criticism is born in either ignorance, myths or, unfortunately, an element of racism.
The stereotypes, myths and criticisms of the league are often the same and go something like this:
“Nobody plays defense” which is just silly as the NBA used to be far more wide open and run and gun than it is now and the teams that have won in recent years have won because they play great defense.
“They are a bunch of goons and thugs who get away with fouling” Well, which is it – are they goons who are playing hard on defense or are they passive on defense? This is one of those racist sentiments in so many ways because most of the people I hear using it love to root for fights and goons in the NHL. I’m not saying everyone or even a majority of people who don’t like the NBA are racists, I am saying there is a racist element to the dislike of the league by some. And spare me the “I’m enlightened, I rooted for Joe Greene” nonsense I heard this morning on The Fan morning show when this topic was brought up. There is nothing more insulting to ones intelligence than that.
“They have bad fundamentals” which is an old man’s criticism and is almost as silly as the no defense one. Players today are more athletic, bigger and faster than they ever have been. And they are the most fundamentally sound basketball players on the planet. Are they as fundamentally sound as the George Mikan era? Probably not and the reason is this – they don’t a drop step and a bank shot to score when they can fly above the rim and dunk it in your head.
“They can’t shoot” – Really? Guys like Ray Allen – and there are plenty of them in the league -- would beg to differ with you.
“It is not as exciting as college basketball” – Why, because there isn’t a pep band playing? Look if you ever watched these games, these guys go at it just as hard, if not harder, than college athletes and they are playing the game at a much, much higher level than college teams could ever dream of playing it.
“Every game is the same and comes down to the last two minutes” – Well, wait a minute, I thought the games weren’t exciting – now you are telling me they all come down to the final two minutes, which, by definition would make them exciting. The bottom line is this – the NFL comes down to the fourth quarter more often than not, MLB often comes down to the last two innings and in the NHL, most games come down to the final few minutes as well. And the reason is these guys are all pros and therefore most of the teams are evenly matched and thus the games come down to the end.
“They never call travelling” – Actually if you read the rules they are allowed a relaxed half step, so no, they don’t travel nearly as often as you think they do – not too mention the fact that most of them have long strides and can get from just beneath the 3-point line to the basket in two steps.
‘Refs protect the stars” – Oh really – do you think in the NFL the rules about protecting quarterbacks are enforced the same for Matt Cassell as they are for Peyton Manning or Tom Brady? Every league protects their stars and tries to showcase them.
Here is my thing – I don’t care if you don’t like the NBA, just say you don’t like it and move on. But don’t come up with these idiotic reasons that are so far off base that they make you sound ignorant and look like a small-time yinzer. The product is good, the basketball is very good.
The NBA is basketball played at the highest level in the world by the absolute best players in the world and there is no question that right now it is as good as it has been since the glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
And oh yeah, one other thing – a lot of you hockey guys should settle in and watch some NBA for a few months, give it a try, because it will be the only daily professional league going for at least a few more months while Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman continue to have their little standoff.
** That being said here are some of my thoughts on the NBA –
(1) Lebron James and the Heat are going to be a real problem to defend this year. The addition of Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen makes them a lot more versatile, Wade seems far more comfortable in his role as the No. 2 option and James is playing at such a high level right now that you absolutely must try and double him to stop him. What I saw last night from the Celtics-Heat game was Doc Rivers – one of the best defensive coaches in the league – run out of answers on how to stop them. I’m not saying the Heat are going to run away with the NBA title, but it won’t shock me if they are one of the highest scoring teams in the league and given the way they are capable of playing defense, well, they are going to be extremely difficult to deal with.
(2) The Mike Brown era with the Lakers is going to come to an end sooner rather than later – it just has to. The job of coaching the Lakers is not for everyone, it is not easy and it takes the right kind of person and coach. LA is Hollywood, the Lakers require a Hollywood (aka larger than life) personality and one with thick skin who can handle all of the demands and pressures of the job. It is sort of like Kentucky in college basketball – the job chewed up and spit out a lot of good coaches but now has exactly the right guy in John Calipari. He embraces the challenge, embraces the scrutiny and loves the expectations. Mike Brown is an decent coach, I think he has some limitations but he is a good enough coach that he should be a head coach in the NBA – just not in LA. There are simply too many egos on that team, too many expectations on that franchise and he’s simply not the guy to get it done. I felt that when he was hired, I felt even more strongly about it watching their playoff performance last year and I feel even more strongly about it now that I watched them play last night. With a starting five of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Meta World Artest or whatever his name is, you better win and win big and he is just the right fit for those kinds of expectations.
(3) The NBA is far better now than it was ten years ago and light years ahead of where it was 15 years ago. There are far more star caliber players, the game has been cleaned up and is officiated much better and there are more good teams. The league was not very good from the mid-1990s until about 2000 but once the rules changed to get some of the grabbing and hand checking out of it, it started to improve. And the league is even a little better now – especially since players at least need one year of college before they enter so the rookies are a little less of a gamble, a little more experienced and most importantly, we’ve heard of them and seen them play. The league isn’t quite back to the glory years of the 1980s but this is as good of a time as it has been in a long time, so enjoy it.
(4) One other thing – LeBron James will be the best player who has ever laced them up before he is done. You are watching history. This guy is a freak of nature and now he understands that winning championships is all that stands between where he is at and legend status. I know, I know he went on TV and picked his team and made a big deal about it. I find that criticism hilarious for two reasons – (a) he raised a ton of money for charity as a result of it and (b) if he was a big free agent signing with the Steelers or Penguins, many of the same people who claim they hate the Heat because of that news conference/TV show would have been front and center with their Terrible Towels swirling and cheering like their favorite team had just won the Super Bowl or Stanley Cup.
(5) And finally, as much as we rag on the Pirates for being a bad organization, well, let’s be happy that we don’t have the Charlotte Bobcats in our town because that is the worst franchise in sports right now. And while I knew it was bad, I didn’t realize just how bad until my good friend Ted, a guy I’ve known for more than three decades (which means I’m old), laid it out for me. You see, he lives in Charlotte so he gets to see that freak show up close and personal. But one day we were talking about how horrible of an owner Michael Jordan – yeah he is the team owner and runs the show – has been. You want to talk about a team that has no hope – this is it. Don’t believe – take a look at the roster and tell me what young guys (this is a pretty young team) excite you and which veterans (there are a few) you’d pay to go see play? And then ask yourself this – if this collection of young guys stays together for a few years (you know, to gain experience) do you see this as a playoff team? And if you are a superstar free agent – why exactly would you sign up to play with this collection of, well to be nice, journeymen? This is going to be an awful team for a long time. And like I said, the Pirates are not exactly a good organization but they are light years ahead of the Bobcats.
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