Relative Genius: Roethlisberger 2, Manning 1

Did you know that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning watches hours and hours of the 1990s TV drama Dawson’s Creek?  He watches so much Dawson’s Creek that his wife often finds him passed out in front of the television with the remote in his hand in the wee hours of the morning. Peyton even orders rookies to show up at the Colts’ practice facility at 8 a.m. the day after they’ve been drafted so they can soak up the teen angst and heartbreak of Dawson, Pacey and the gang together.

Who didn’t love the Creek? Every high school kid in the ‘90s brought in this Tiger Beat tear-out to their Supercuts stylist and said, “See that? Yeah, that’s what I want right there. Shroom, highlights. I’m so money.”

Actually, I’m just kidding. Peyton isn’t obsessed with Dawson’s Creek. He does, however, devote an obscene amount of his time to analyzing football games. He cares so much about football—so much about winning—that he once berated a teammate for leaving a practice to attend the birth of his daughter. Manning asked his teammate why he couldn’t have babies in the off-season.

The media eats this stuff up. They lavish Manning with superlatives like “genius” and “legend,” not to mention the ultimate gridiron exaltation: competitor. Their voices quiver as they say it. They do this because football is Serious Business. Since Manning devotes so much of his waking life to breaking down zone blitz schemes and obsessively analyzing the tendencies of backup linebackers, he is a savant worthy of our eternal admiration—newborns be damned. That stuff about Peyton falling asleep with the remote in his hand and demanding that rookies show up for pre-dawn film sessions is all true.

Substitute Manning’s compulsive devotion to football for almost any other hobby in the world—be it videogaming, Frolf, pogs or watching crappy 90s TV shows, and you might assume he was an obsessive-compulsive weirdo. Instead, he’s a role model for every overbearing, tracksuit-wearing Football Dad you’ve ever met.

Manning embodies everything that is wrong with today’s NFL, if not the world. He is hyper-competitive, self-serious and overexposed. Worse yet, he never seems like he’s having any fun.

On the field, Manning’s demeanor wavers somewhere between anxiety attack and Clint Eastwood’s expression during the last 15 minutes of Million Dollar Baby. He’s like the anti-Brett Favre.

“Shucks, I’m just havin’ fun out here.”

That’s why the ending of Super Bowl XLIV was so sweet. Because before Manning threw the interception that clinched the game, his butt was clenched tighter than a Heinz ketchup lid. All the traits that supposedly made him an elite quarterback—his seriousness and obsessive devotion and unhinged competitiveness—ultimately led to his downfall.

He just couldn’t keep his cool. For Manning, it truly wasn’t just a game anymore. Leading 10-0 in the first quarter and staring history in the face, Manning could have joined the rarified air of Montana, Elway and Brady, if only he could have imagined Sun Life Stadium as a backyard in October. If only he could have imagined Super Bowl 44 as what it really was all along—a game. If only he could have had an ounce of fun.

In a world of two-a-day middle school football practices, college football coaches courting 13-year-old kids and high school quarterbacks staying after school to study playbooks instead of Algebra books, perhaps Manning’s failure will show young athletes that sometimes you can take the game too seriously.

Not to discount the value or hard work, but a healthy balance is key. After all, when Ben Roethlisberger was asked how he was able to engineer his last minute, 78-yard drive to win Super Bowl 43 under such immense pressure, Ben laughed and said, “I was just playing backyard ball.”

And his play call on Santonio Holmes’ famous Immaculate Extension? Throw all the game tape out the window. It was more sandlot than Samsung:

“Scramble left, scramble right—get open,” Roethlisberger said.

Boom.

Unfortunately, any hopeful notion that football could ever return to simpler times was crushed about five minutes after the Super Bowl ended when Saints cornerback Tracy Porter attributed his interception of Mr. Manning to (wait for it)… “Great film study.” While Manning was analyzing Porter’s every tendency, Porter was analyzing Manning’s. This is all getting a bit too Orwellian.

So much for the days of Jack Lambert chain smoking at halftime. Heck, if you consider the way that quarterbacks are now coddled by the new NFL rules, not to mention the advancements in video game technology, maybe the NFL should just settle all this football business on the old Xbox. No one would ever need to leave the film room.

In real life, Manning has now lost as many playoff games as he has won (9-9) and wears one Super Bowl ring. Roethlisberger is 8-2 in the playoffs and wears two rings.

One man is regarded as an unquestioned legend, and the other is apparently the best damn backyard quarterback in American history (and, depending on which ESPN personality you talk to, perhaps as good as the Chargers’ Phil Rivers).

Figure that one out. Be sure have some Excedrin on hand.

Me, I’d rather revel in the fact that the Steelers have added two more Lombardi trophies to Mr. Rooney’s mantle this decade. Let’s leave Mr. Manning’s much fawned over “Football I.Q.” and his place in NFL history up to the pundits.


Wait a minute… DAWSON?!


And finally, a sign of the ever-approaching (Snow)pocalypse:

Just days before the Super Bowl, local t-shirt makers in New Orleans got a letter from the NFL demanding that they stop selling shirts featuring the traditional cheer of New Orleans Saints fans – “Who Dat?”

“Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?” is the full battle cry.

But ‘Who Dat’ owns the trademark to this multi-million dollar rhetorical phrase? The NFL thinks Dey Do, and are apparently willing to sue $5 t-shirt vendors so they can staple on a gleaming silver tag to the same shirt and sell the “official” one for $25.

Had it been the Steelers in the Super Bowl instead of the Saints, the NFL would’ve had to send in paramilitary troops to the Strip District to cleanse the city of phony merchandise. If the NFL ever figures out a way to copyright Samoan haircuts, all of our precious Polamalu wigs will surely be confiscated.

“I’m only going to ask you one more time, Mr. Donachowski.
Where’s the wigs. WHERE’S THE WIGS?!”

Stay sane, Steeler Nation. Don’t let yourself go, Peyton.

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Grading the Penguins and Making Fun of Small Children

True story: I was a little brainiac as a kid. Thing is, I never read books. I could only stomach the painstaking alliterations of Dr. Seuss if it was read aloud to me. In fact, I was not intelligent in any measurable, traditional sense. Instead, I was “blue-collar Catholic smart.” I absorbed all knowledge through countless hours of television and learned to read by scouring the information section on the back of hockey cards.

This behavior pissed off my family members to no end, because they would buy me Beatrix Potter books for Christmas that I would proceed to use as coasters for my sippy cups. (Note: in later years, just substitute Potter for Fyodor Dostoevsky and Juicy Juice for Guinness and nary a thing has changed.)

More like Infinite Paperweight.

When I was three years old, I took my first trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo. Oh, that smell. Do you remember that kid from your kindergarten class who used Elmer’s glue for hair gel and always smelled like something terribly peculiar that you simply couldn’t place? Well, that little boy or girl smelled like the Pittsburgh Zoo. Either that, or the Pittsburgh Zoo smells like weird children. Whichever.

Moving on – at some point during my trek through the exotic birds and monkeys (and let’s be real; I was there for the lions), my stroller stalled at the African Savannah exhibit. Now, let me get this out of the way first, because I’m going come off like a monster here: seriously, is there any more distinct creature on planet earth than the giraffe? Giraffes literally resemble alien dinosaurs. Not only are they the tallest land mammals on earth, they are also hilarious-looking.

“LOL. Sup?”

With that preamble, back to our story:

So my stroller is parked next to a bipedal five-year-old, who seems to have all of his faculties in order. Upon seeing the giraffes moseying around their fenced-in vista, eating leaves off of 15-foot acacia trees and generally doing awe-inspiring things, this five-year-old points to the mythical creatures and says, “Mommy, look at the elephants!”

But there were no elephants sauntering about the grasslands. Only enormous, one-of-a-kind Masai giraffes. Only the animals that look like no other animal on earth. I couldn’t let it slide. Naturally, I turn to my new friend to enlighten him.

“Excuse me, dude,” I say (I liked the Ninja Turtles, who said “dude” a lot). “Um, those are not elephants. Those are giraffes.”

My new friend’s mother was not amused. She grabbed his arm and turned him away. The boy looked puzzled.

“Elephants,” he pointed again, undeterred.

“No, elephants are fat and have big ears and giraffes are tall and have little ears,” I explained. “They are the opposite. Are you thinking of the antonym?”

My father had just taught me the word antonym, and also the F-word, although the latter by accident.

The little boy’s head nearly exploded. All he had ever known—his limited knowledge of life—was a lie. Elephants were giraffes, up was down. He pointed once more, this time with a twinge of sadness. Ele-phants? On the verge of tears, his mother yanked his arm and led him away.

As they speed-walked off over the horizon, I cupped my hands over my mouth and kept yelling, “They are GIRAFFES!”

“GIRAAAAAAAFFFES!”

I was a smug little tyrant – the three-year-old version of Ari Gold from Entourage.

What does this story have to do with the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins? Absolutely nothing, except for the fact that the dim-witted five-year-old from that day looked exactly like a baby version of Evgeni Malkin. Weird? Yes. Tangential? Sure.

Don’t you just love blogs? You know it.

(Editor’s note: According to Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for this article is 6.8. Damn you, Mr. Flesch-Kincaid! STOP JUDGING ME.)

Grading the Penguins

It’s more than half way through the NHL season and the Penguins are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference heading into the upcoming Olympic break. The bad news is that they are probably not going to catch the boringly efficient New Jersey Devils for the Atlantic Division crown. The good news is that the Penguins didn’t win the division last season either, and they ended up drinking Dom Pérignon out of the Stanley Cup all summer while the Devils sat around being boring in New Jersey.

As a team, the Penguins have been what you might expect: steady. As individuals, they have been…interesting. Let’s grade the boys’ seasons so far, from worst to first.

Max Talbot – D+
Ironically, the breakout star of the 2009 playoffs and the man most responsible for the Pens’ Game 7 win in Detroit has been the team’s most disappointing player through the first half of this season. After returning from injury in November, Talbot has recorded only 1 goal. Worse yet, he has not provided the kind of spark-plug energy that inspired the team in the 2009 playoffs. Relegated to the fourth line, Talbot must rediscover what made him a “superstar,” or else he could be trade fodder.

Eric Godard – C-
Can you really be an intimidating presence on the ice when you play only four minutes per game? Mike Rupp is doing Godard’s job and much, much more. However, it’s hard to argue against a salaried brawler that shows up for work wearing a candy apple red suit.

Chris Kunitz – C-
Harsh? Maybe. But Kunitz was acquired to be a top-line winger for Sidney Crosby, and he has not performed like one despite being paid like one. For $3.7 million per season (4th highest paid forward on the team), Kunitz must do better than 6 goals in 30 games when he returns from a torn abdominal muscle after the Olympic break. His unsung grit and strength in the corners, while valuable, can be found for cheaper than $2 million/year, let alone 3.

Ruslan Fedotenko – C
This summer, GM Ray Shero decided to bring back two important pieces of the Penguins’ Cup run. Wingers Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko were both inked for a final encore season – Guerin for $2 million and Fedotenko for $1.8 million. Guerin has proved to be a tremendous value, scoring 16 goals alongside Crosby. Fedotenko, on the other hand, has tallied only 8 on Malkin’s wing. His –8 plus/minus rating is tied for worst on the team alongside….

Craig Adams – C+
This Harvard grad has a suitable job: be smart; don’t give up goals as the anchor of the fourth line. His empty spot in the goal column is not a problem, but his minus-8 rating isn’t kosher. On the bright side, Adams is an integral part of the Penguins’ 11th ranked penalty killing squad and is third on the team with 137 hits. For a smarty-pants from Cambridge, the boy has some gumption.

“How do you like them apples?”

Sergei Gonchar – C+

I’ll just say it. At times, the five-time All-Star looks a bit lazy on the ice. But with Gonchar, you take the good with the bad. It’s unreasonable to expect a 35-year-old to play full bore on a Tuesday night in February against the Atlanta Thrashers. When May rolls around, Gonch will elevate his game to another level. Complain about his effort all you want – without his #55’s booming slap shot, the Penguins’ power play would go from last in the league to…well, it would somehow be even worse. The league would refuse to keep statistics.

Marc-Andre Fleury – B-
Did you know that Fleury’s save percentage (.908) ranks 19th in the NHL among starting goalies? There’s room for improvement. On the other hand, he leads the league in smiles.

Evgeni Malkin – B-

Speaking of room for improvement…As I discussed last week, Malkin has not been the lazy, huffy Jagr-ish performer that the media rushed to label him. He leads the team in assists (35) and will probably break the 30-goal barrier despite playing alongside the Winger Formerly Known as Fedotenko and a bevy of minor leaguers. The best is yet to come.

Tyler Kennedy – B
Mr. Kennedy has shot the puck 124 times this season. 120 of those were from the exact same spot on the ice. If you’ve ever watched a Penguins game in your life, you know the exact spot I’m referring to. Kennedy has largely filled Talbot’s role as the spark-plug of the team.

Kennedy Owns the Left Circle.

Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang – B
Goligoski has taken some flack lately while Letang has been praised. Oddly, Goligoski actually has more points (23) than Letang (19) while playing in three fewer games. Truth is, both young defensemen have had solid, sometimes inconsistent seasons. “Goose” needs to find the confidence to shoot the puck, especially on the struggling power play (his meager 62 shots on goal are less than Mike Rupp’s 64), while Letang must cut down on needless giveaways (he’s third on the team with 36).

The rest of the defense – B+
Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Brooks Orpik are about as sexy as Paula Deen in pajamas, but they get the job done right. The Penguins are fifth in the NHL in blocked shots because of the fearlessness of this triumvirate. McKee alone has stepped in front of 122 pieces vulcanized rubber this season.

Young Jay McKee with the haircut that defined the 1990s.

Mike Rupp – B+
6’5”. 230 pounds. 11 goals. Makes less than $1 million per season. And guess who leads the team in mitten dropping? Not Godard, but Rupp. Another brilliant Ray Shero acquisition.

Jordan Staal – A-
Despite being only 21 years old, and despite going up against the opposition’s top line every game, Staal has been the Penguins’ best defensive player. His phenomenal penalty killing prowess makes him a contender for the Selke trophy, the NHL’s award for the forward who demonstrates the best defensive game. He is a big deal. His Wikipedia entry is even listed above all of his brothers on Google. Eat it, Eric.

Matt Cooke – A
The best instigator/agitator in the NHL, bar none. In October, he nearly made the New York Rangers’ pretty boy Sean Avery cry on the ice. In fact, you can read all about why Cooke is Awesome with a capital A in the February 2010 issue of Pittsburgh Magazine, on newsstands now.

Buy it.

Pascal Dupuis – A
Outside of Sidney Crosby, no one on the team has more hustle than Dupuis. He plays every game like it’s his last and has been rewarded for his sweat equity with 12 goals, matching his output for all of last season. Naysayers—and there were many—shouldn’t be surprised. Doopers wears his heart on his sleeve and the team on his back.

Bill Guerin – A
Dollar for dollar, Guerin might be the best value in the NHL. 16 goals for a 39-year-old? And an awesome mustache to boot? This is the stuff Disney/Burt Reynolds movies are made of. If he had decided to go for more money and jet for greener pastures this off-season, the Penguins might be heading into the Olympic break fighting for a playoff spot. Instead, they’re sitting comfortably in fourth place because of his superhuman production. No one is more thankful for Billy the Kid than…

Sidney Crosby – A+
Forget the goals for a second. Yes, Crosby has scored 33, good for 3rd in the NHL. However, nothing speaks more to Crosby’s leadership and will to win than the work he put in this off-season to improve his performance in the face-off circle. In his first four seasons, faceoffs were the one weak spot in Crosby’s otherwise flawless game. This season, Sid is ninth in the league in faceoff percentage (57.3%).

Crosby could have taken it easy during summer vacation after winning the Stanley Cup, but he did his homework instead. His commitment to the game is relentless—his leadership and hard work in practice infectious. With a strong finish, he will be a candidate for his second Hart trophy, the NHL’s regular season MVP award, in four years. How do you win the Hart? It’s right there in the name.

As Sid knows, success is all about putting in the work when no one is looking.

BREAKING NEWS: Pittsburgh Sports Writers Think Foreign Player is Overpaid, Sensitive

Less than a year ago, Pittsburgh sports journalists were tripping over one another for interviews with Vladimir and Natalia Malkin – the proud parents of Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin. You couldn’t turn on the TV or flip through the Sunday paper without running into a feel-good story about Mrs. Malkin’s famous borscht soup (Evgeni’s favorite pre-game meal) or a harrowing re-telling of Evgeni’s secret midnight escape to America from the shackles of his former Russian team in 2006.

In 2009, “Geno” Malkin was the undisputed king of SOFT NEWS in the Steel City – a territory usually dominated by orphaned puppies and clips of Little League coaches getting pelted in the groin with errant baseballs. After winning the Stanley Cup and the NHL scoring title in the same season, Malkin flew off to Russia for summer vacation this past June as the most revered Pittsburgher since Myron Sidney Kopelman.

But, yoi, how times have changed.

This week, the Tribune-Review’s Penguins beat writer Rob Rossi penned, or I should say pecked, an article titled, “Malkin paid like Crosby; needs to play like him.” Rossi not only criticizes Malkin’s sagging scoring production this season, but finds enough column inches in his statistically sparse article to rip Malkin for using his limited grasp of the English langauge as an “excuse” for ignoring the media.

“Yes, I secret English genius. I make excuse not talk. I want play good. I want score goal.”

Mr. Rossi needs to cool it with the yellow journalism trying to paint Malkin as a sulking, standoffish Jaromir Jagr 2.0.

The sad part is that other Pittsburgh reporters are echoing Rossi’s sentiments. The Post-Gazette’s Ron Cooke recently published a loaded article, “Sulking won’t cure Malkin’s slump,” full of vague comparisons between Malkin and Jagr (summary: they both speak with funny accents and have gone through slumps at one point in their careers. Hell, they’re practically blood brothers.)

But unlike Jagr – who was chased away from Pittsburgh by the pitchfork mob of the Angry White Press – Malkin has never once complained despite playing alongside wingers like Ruslan Fedotenko, who can’t even finish tying his own skates without Malkin’s help this season. And don’t forget Malkin’s brief stint alongside minor league fill-in Chris Bourque, who is literally 5’5” with clogs on and has the scoring ability of a freshman CMU computer science major.

“HEY! I’m telling on you!”

Yet despite playing with substandard linemates and a lingering shoulder injury, you know who Malkin has blamed for his supposedly shameful scoring drought?

“Me.”

Malkin, who is still second on the team in scoring, has placed the blame squarely on his own shoulders at every opportunity. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told reporters in December, “Geno cares deeply and greatly, and he wears it on his sleeve.

One would expect that kind of selflessness from Malkin. After all, he – not Crosby – leads the Penguins in assists with 30 this season. Strangely enough, Rossi leaves out that stat. Instead, he mostly focuses on all the things Sid the Kid does to take the pressure off of his Russian teammate – namely absorbing all the media criticism when the team is slumping – without acknowledging Malkin’s contributions to Crosby’s success this season.

For example, did you know that Malkin has assisted on 10 of Crosby’s 30 goals despite the two not even playing on the same line (outside of the power play)? Or that Geno is averaging a point per game this season, which is a better clip than many superstars in his same tax bracket, like Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lacavalier, Carolina’s Eric Staal, and Montreal’s Scott Gomez.

The title of Rossi’s insinuates that Malkin is being paid more than he’s worth this season (both Crosby and Malkin make $9 million this season). Do you really want to talk about value, Mr. Rossi? Very well then.

Last season, Malkin led the NHL in scoring in both the regular season (113 points) and the playoffs (36). Not only did he lift the Stanley Cup, he also became the first Russian player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe trophy, the NHL’s award for playoff MVP.

Can you even put a dollar value on how much revenue that Stanley Cup run brought in to the Penguins organization and the city of Pittsburgh? The Penguins will reap millions just in the sale of Malkin’s replica jerseys alone. For years and years.

Can you put a price on the thousands of bodies that crammed onto the lawn outside Mellon Arena to watch the playoff games on Mario’s giant projector? How much value did that bring to a franchise that was on the verge of collapse before Malkin’s arrival?

And how much did Malkin’s services cost the Penguins last season? Less than $1 million.

“Talk about a return on investment.”

All of this, at age 22, while travelling hundreds of thousands of miles across North America and Canada for eight months with just a limited understanding of the language being spoken around him.

Think about that for a second. Really imagine yourself in Geno’s shoes. In the endless string of hotels. Watching TV you have to concentrate really hard to understand. Eating room service food that even Americans get sick of. Even during the good times, would you be able to handle it?

Most of us mortals get frazzled when we’re sent to a business conference in Cincinnati. Rob Rossi has to bring along a translation guide every time he ventures outside of Mt. Lebanon.

No offense, Mt. Lebanon.

Unfortunately for Malkin, it’s the middle of January and the media needs to manufacture drama where there is none (remember, the Pens are still in 4th place in the East). Which begs the question – does the Malkin bashing have more to do with his scoring record, or the fact the Steelers took an early vacation?

I could go on for eons about why the stilted, pandering, deadline-centric world of mainstream media beat reporters should make way for unfiltered outlets like Pittsburgh’s own Pensblog and Yahoo’s national Puck Daddy. But why bother when the proof is in the print? After all. the job of a beat writer is to cover daily news, not fuel controversy.

It’s funny that the mainstream media gentry have always slighted blogs for their perceived proclivity for sensationalism, reaction-baiting and aggrandizement.

As blogs become more accurate, reliable and popular than ever, it is ironically the mainstream media that seems to be stooping lower and lower for attention.

If only Malkin could start playing with Rossi’s desperation.

A Eulogy for the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers

I know that feeling you were feeling. All of Steelers Nation felt it. What feeling, you ask? The feeling I am referring to is the twinge of incalculable pain and immeasurable sadness that you, fine Pittsburgher, felt this past Sunday as you watched the Baltimore Ravens trample over the carcass of the New England Patriots’ dynasty, then proceed to characteristically hoot and holler at the television cameras about their Wild Card success.

It was like being kicked in the shin by a third grader.

Unfortunately, no amount of pillow punching and/or hard drinking could remedy the seething toothache pain brought on by Ray Lewis — pork pie hat tipped over his eyes — praising the work of his teammates at the post-game podium with the kind of canned, faux-humble sincerity usually fashioned by politicians and Amway salesmen.

As he waxed poetic with a spoken word softness about the journey and the work and the commitment and all the clichés in the NFL handbook, you knew deep down inside that what Mr. Lewis really wanted to do was step away from the microphone bouquet, toss his silly hat aside and do his little celebratory chicken dance.

Lewis’ whole routine, accompanied by the CBS studio crew’s congratulatory yuck-up, hurt our souls. For Steelers fans, and probably the Steelers themselves – if they weren’t preoccupied swimming with dolphins or having somesuch millionaire fun – it was hard not to think, “if only it had been us in the dance instead of the Pats, we would have wiped the smirk off Lewis’ face.”

As the Steelers were cleaning out their lockers last week, there was an undercurrent of we-deserved-it injustice in every hushed, shoe-gazing exit interview. Hines Ward looked like someone stole his bowl of cornflakes. So, did the 9-7 Steelers really get screwed, or did they all just come down with a severe case of whaaa-mnesia?

“You just don’t take a man’s cereal…”

On one hand, it’s hard to believe that a team could have the audacity to think they belong in the playoffs after a regular season in which they let up 300 passing yards to a bald man from Seton-La Salle named Bruce Gradkowski and then somehow mustered the indifference to follow up on that dreadful performance with a loss to a Cleveland Browns team led by sensitive man-child Brady Quinn. That’s not the stuff of playoff teams.

On the other hand, the statistics from the 2009 Steelers season are, literally, surreal. Imagine for a second that it is August 2009 – back when you could walk out of your house without your tears freezing to your face and when Pittsburgh sports media luminaries like Mark Madden and Ron Cook were predicting that the Steelers would finish the regular season undefeated.

“To the flux capacitor!”

Imagine that we are living in those glorious, hopeful times and Pulling No Punches visits you from the future to tell you that the following things will happen during the 2009 regular season:

  • Ben Roethlisberger will pass for more than 4,000 yards, including 26 TDs and only 12 interceptions.
  • Rashard Mendenhall will rush for 1,100 yards.
  • The defense will be ranked fifth in the league in yards against.

If you had known those three pieces of information in August, would you have bet your mortgage that the Steelers would win the AFC North? I would have.

The 2009 Steelers might be the best 9-7 team in NFL history – and not just on paper or in videogames, but on the field as well. Don’t believe it? Chew on this nugget: In 2009, the Steelers were out-gained by opposing running backs just three times. Three. Times. To the delight of Medicare recipients across the Steel City, Smash Mouth Football© is still alive and well.

“Run n’at bawl.”

Think the Steelers’ undersized secondary was the problem? Here, Super Size your nuggets: Ben Roethlisberger was out-gained by opposing quarterbacks just six times in 2009, and for all the flack that the Steelers’ secondary received in print and at the water cooler, the pass defense still finished a respectable 16th in the league. Other playoff teams, like the Vikings (19th), Cowboys (20th) and Saints (26th), actually gave up more yards in the air. So please take off your “I Don’t Like Ike” buttons, because Mr. Taylor did quite alright considering the absence of safety Troy Polamalu.

So, if the Steelers were so awesome, what the hell happened?

The Steelers lived off of big plays in 2008 and won a Super Bowl because of momentum-swinging, towel-waving, Renegade-playing acts of bravado. James Harrison’s 100-yard touchdown return in Super Bowl 43 was really a metaphor for the entire season: dramatic, remarkable, sort of unbelievable.  But in 2009 they died by that same sword.

In short, the Steelers were haunted by the ghost of Mr. Plaxico Burress. Nursing a bit of a Super Bowl hangover, the Steelers never bothered to change out of their sweatpants, so they shot themselves in the leg, repeatedly.

Take these gut-punching statistics for example:

  • Roethlisberger was sacked for a total of 348 yards in 2009, compared to 284 last season. For comparison, the Chargers’ Philip Rivers — a quarterback of equal repute — was sacked for only 167 yards this season. The NFL Films 2009 Steelers Season Review DVD should be titled “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.”
  • The special teams allowed four kickoff return touchdowns, tied for the most permitted by any team since 1994. The Steelers ranked 30th in kickoff coverage and 24th in punt return coverage. On average, opponents started their drives against the Steelers on the 31 yard line. This is preposterous.
  • Kicker Jeff Reed went 14/18 on field goals. But all of his misses came in the second half of games, and three of those four clunkers happened in the 4th quarter. For the first time in his career, Reed demoralized more teammates than South Side co-eds.

Reed will likely be waving goodbye to the ‘Burgh and its many affordable watering holes this off-season, and special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky has already been axed. However, head coach Mike Tomlin’s feverish shuffling of special teams personnel during the season proved that no matter the number on the jersey, the same heart beat underneath. A timid one.

For all the sterling statistics and what-ifs and fiery rhetoric that defined the 2009 season, one thing really stood out: No one seemed terribly interested in making a damn tackle. Sometimes, football is that simple.

Back in August, I poked fun at the Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik for writing a column titled, “Steelers are so good they’re boring.” I thought Smizik, with his decades of experience, should know better. The fortunes of NFL teams swing wildly year-to-year based on emotion, momentum and healthy dose of unpredictable cruelty. This is the league of Any Given Sunday, after all.  I didn’t buy into Smizik’s sense of invincibility.

Unfortunately, the Steelers seemed to until the bitter end.

The New Jersey Devils as a Metaphor for Human Existence

You may not like to admit it, but being a Penguins fan is an embarrassingly easy and deliriously enjoyable experience. At least 99 percent of the time. After all, how many couch pillows have you torn asunder in frustration this season? Sure, the Penguins’ power play is hapless, but this season has been one breezy picnic on the ‘Mon. Even Pascal Dupuis’ normally feeble hands have been possessed by the carefree spirit of Jan “Funky Cold” Hrdina. When Dooper is on pace to score 20 goals in a season, your team is living the high life.

If the Pens’ brief losing streak has you feeling blue, just think of the alternative: You could have been born in New Jersey instead. The misery of Garden Staters isn’t limited to the stigma of being associated with those daffy paisans from MTV’s Jersey Shore. They also have to watch the New Jersey Devils meander around the rink every other night. You, noble Pittsburgher, get to enjoy firewagon hockey. You get to live in a city that doesn’t collectively smell like grandma’s house. Both socially and morally: Pittsburgh > New Jersey.

“Woah. Take that back, chief.”

Alas, six times a season, New Jersey gets to have a cheap laugh at our expense by torturing Pittsburgh hockey fans with THE TRAP®. The Trap is an ultra-conservative philosophy of playing defense. Instead of chasing after the puck and having fun, the Devils players sit back and let the puck come to them. The whole team agrees to do this. In fact, if they get the lead in a game, all five skaters just glide around on their side of the ice, flailing their sticks wildly like bubble hockey figurines. It’s derivative, slow and boring – just like all of Bruce Springsteen’s albums after 1987. It’s the game of hockey as if re-imagined by lawyers and Frenchmen.

Still, it works, especially against the Penguins, whose weaknesses only appear when other teams deliberately slow down the pace of the game. Tonight, when the Penguins play the Devils in New Jersey, don’t be shocked if you see four or five Devils players forming a Secret Service wall in front of goalie Martin Brodeur’s crease. The Devils play goalie by committee. Head coach Jacques Lemaire would duct tape his players to the posts if it were legal.

Just brace yourself for 60 minutes of unmitigated frustration, Pittsburgh.

The Devils may beat up the Penguins in short spurts in the regular season, but come playoff time, they don’t have the horses to compete over a seven game series. As good as star left winger Zach Parise is (look out for #9 tonight), you cannot take down the Penguins in May if your team’s second best goal scorer is 36-year-old Brian “Who?” Rolston.

Then again, Rolston did win a Cup with the Devils during the Clinton administration, so look out.

“Glory Days. They’ll pass you by, Glory Days.”

The New Jersey Devils are really just a metaphor for life itself. We’re spoiled rotten by the magic of Crosby and Malkin. No matter what happened at work or what grade you got on your math test at school that day – come 7:00 on a Hockey Night in Pittsburgh, all is right in the world. All is forgotten as soon as Matt Cooke’s bullying antics make a grown man throw a temper tantrum, or as soon as Brooks Orpik shoves his mitts into an opponent’s yapping mouth during a tussle. Watching the Penguins is delightful.

But it’s all a fantasy world. Come the next morning, life is back to running The Trap® on us again. Life isn’t bad, it’s just frustrating.  Here are just a few examples of Life-as-the-New-Jersey-Devils:

Life Frustration # 1 – The Prevalence of Study Abroad Programs

My girlfriend is Spanish. For the most part, this is pretty cool. It’s like having a forged handicap sticker on your car. It just makes things easier. When we go to Taco Bell, she explains what all the foreign burrito verbiage means. When she asks me to do anything I don’t want to do, I just pretend like she has forgotten the correct English word for it.

“Help you fold laundry, you say? What’s laun-dry? I don’t understand. I cannot comprehend. I think you better grab the Spanish-to-English dictionary. Oops, gotta’ run!”

There’s only one time having a Spanish girlfriend is a problem: when you run into Joey Abroad. These days, every underage college kid “studies abroad” in Europe for a semester to escape America’s anachronistic drinking laws, and to spend their parents’ money with the least amount of transparency possible. Think Goldman Sacks is corrupt? Joey Abroad spends his parents’ bailout money with even less honor.

For instance, Joey Abroad will send an e-mail home saying that he’s stuck on a volunteer Red Cross mission in the Balkan foothills and needs emergency funds to buy school books for a small migrant child. In reality, he’s in Madrid just padding his tequila slush fund.

Because of the sluggish economy, many recent college graduates are turning to the service industry. I can’t take my girlfriend out to dinner these days without running into a barista or waiter who detects her accent and starts blathering away in broken Spanish about his five-month glorified spring break trip to Barcelona.

“LOL and then I got totally wasted on the steps of the Castell dels tres Dracs! I’m just a free spirit.”

What’s worse, I have to sit there in silence as the whole charade unfolds, unable to communicate my urgent need for an order of onion rings in one of the romance languages. Man, study abroad programs are frustrating. But not as frustrating as a trip to a corporate restroom.

Life Frustration # 2 – The Social Behavior in Corporate Bathrooms  

During the day, I work in Corporate America in a big building. Each floor of the building has only one male bathroom, which is routinely packed. There’s nary a lonely moment in the lavatory. To make matters worse, the architects of the bathroom decided that it would be a good idea to put a four inch gap between the stall doors and the divider. Someone can literally toss a tennis ball through the gap while you have the door closed.

It gets worse. In a feat of unbridled architectural stupidity, the sinks are located directly in front of the stalls, with a giant, freshly Windex-ed mirror giving participants an unhindered, panoramic view into the hearts and minds of the unfortunate souls sitting on the John.

The stall design makes for some interesting situations. Often, some marketing manager or accountant will start combing their hair in the mirror, then actually recognize an acquaintance through the crack and start up an eye-to-eye conversation while the acquaintance is taking care of their other business.

“Say Marshall, have you heard the third quarter finanicals?”

This is not an exaggeration. Corporate bathrooms are a reminder of how emotionally taxing life can be. But just remember, my friends: the frustrations of life, much like the New Jersey Devils’ trap, can be beaten with patience. So don’t grumble tonight, Pens fans. Give a whistle.

A Game, a Neighborhood, a Hometown Hero

Paul John Rizzo Domenic Sciullo II was a hell of a fitting name for a kid from Bloomfield. Sciullo grew up in the heart of Pittsburgh’s “Little Italy” in the late 70s and early 80s, when the ashen chimney smoke from the city’s steel factories still lingered over Bloomfield’s shingled roofs and brick-top school houses.

Bloomfield is an oasis of ethnic culture in Pittsburgh’s East End. It’s really just a main drag—Penn Avenue—and a few narrow side streets lined with row houses huddled shoulder-to-shoulder. But what the neighborhood lacks in size, it makes up for in heart. Bloomfield still has candy striped barber poles. The bartenders look you in the eye. And who needs chain stores when you can get “Whole Foods” like Prosciutto, Pancetta and Culatello by the pound, and with a smile?

Like a lot of kids growing up in Pittsburgh during the beginning of The Lemieux Era, Paul “The Rizz” Sciullo loved to play hockey. He started out playing on the uneven asphalt of Osceola Park, rattling an orange street hockey ball off the chain link fences surrounding the hoop-less basketball court. After school at St. Joseph’s, Sciullo would run to the park to play pickup games with his friends.

Paul (left) pumping some iron.

The clapping of their wooden sticks and high tops against the concrete would echo through the alleyways of Bloomfield until the sun fell behind the red brick steeples of St. Joe’s church.  There was only one rule – when it got dark, and the smell of homemade marinara sauce started to waft through the neighborhood, it was time to go home for a big family dinner. No exceptions.

I imagine it was the same story for many Gen-X readers who grew up in the ‘Burgh. Like rings on a tree trunk, you can count the influence Lemieux and the Penguins had on kids growing up in the 80s by the puck dents in every garage door and garbage drum from Lawrenceville to Chippewa.

After honing his game on the pavement of city parks, Sciullo went on to play ice hockey for Central Catholic High School – captaining the 1991 team during his senior year, the same year the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup. He wore the old school black and white “Le Magnifique” Cooper gloves – and he had an old soul playing style to match.  Despite being one of the smallest players on the team, Sciullo was a fearless scrapper with a knack for scoring in front of the net, according to teammates. His senior quote in the Central Catholic yearbook was fitting:

“Jesus saves! But I score on the rebound!”

Even after a scholarship took Sciullo to Duquesne University, where he juggled ice hockey, golf, a fraternity, and the Dean’s List, he always went home to Pearl Street for dinner every night. His fraternity brothers even teased him about it.

After graduating from Duquesne, Sciullo worked desk jobs as a computer programmer and consultant. But the Bloomfield boy wasn’t in his natural environment. He wanted to be on the streets, helping people. He wanted to make a difference in the community that raised him, according to his mother. So in October 2007, at age 35, Sciullo joined the Pittsburgh Police department.

By all accounts, it was the best decision he ever made. He even patrolled the streets of Bloomfield on occasion. He would cruise down Liberty Avenue in his squad car – past Lot 17, his favorite weekend pub, the kind where “everybody knows your name” – and then past the lime green astroturf of Dean’s Field, the modest alcove underneath the Bloomfield Bridge where Sciullo played little league baseball.

Before a night shift this past April, Sciullo stopped by his family’s Bloomfield home to eat dinner with his parents, as he did every night. He hugged his parents and went to work. It would be their last family dinner together.

Around 7 a.m. the next morning Sciullo and his partner Stephen Mayhle responded to a domestic disturbance at a home in Stanton Heights – a blue collar neighborhood of skinny, two-story brick houses much like Sciullo’s own neighborhood. There are no easy answers for what happened next. As the officers approached the door of the home, shots rang out in the stillness of the morning.

Four hours later, the deadliest standoff in the history of the Pittsburgh police department came to an end, claiming the lives of officers Sciullo and Mayhle, as well as officer Eric Kelly, a 14-year veteran of the force.

With black ribbons adorning the lamp posts of Bloomfield, mourners lined up outside St. Joe’s church to say goodbye to officer Sciullo. Friends and family had a lot to say about “Paulie.” But almost every tribute to the man was punctuated by one word in particular: Love.  Sciullo loved his family, his neighborhood, his city. He loved life especially.

Perhaps his young niece, Anna Zahren said it best: “My Uncle Paul was the best uncle in the world. I remember his smiles that lit up the whole world.”

After the whirlwind of the G-20 summit rolled into town, Pittsburgh has often been referred to as one of the best places to live in this vast country. Apparently it’s because of things like computer chips and universities and sports teams.

Obviously, Pittsburghers know that’s all just a bunch of bull. We know the real reason why this city has been great for decades, and will continue to be great even if our high-tech companies go bust and our sports teams stink.

It’s because this city keeps raising men like Paul John Rizzo Domenic Sciullo II.

Here’s to heroes.

***

On Friday, December 18, 2009, Central Catholic High School will retire Paul Sciullo’s jersey at a special commemorative ceremony. All Pittsburghers are invited to attend and show their support for the Sciullo family, who will be on hand.

The ceremony will take place before Central Catholic’s game against Pine Richland at the BladeRunners Ice Complex in Harmarville at 8 p.m. Click here for Google Maps directions.

Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for students. Central Catholic’s portion of the ticket sales will be donated to the Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Fund, a scholarship program that provides financial assistance to Central Catholic students.

Hockey Update: Mainstream Media Still Loves to Hate Sidney Crosby

A little more than a week ago, self-professed hockey nerd Tom Awad wrote an article on ESPN.com titled—and I’m not making this up—“Strange But True, Crosby Hurting Penguins.” [ESPN]

Awad tried to make the case that Crosby is not “pulling his weight” this season because he takes “dumb penalties” and is less-than-stellar in a convoluted, made-up statistic called Goals Created that gives goals more weight than assists.

No, you are not hallucinating. No, your morning Sunny Delight was not spiked with Quaaludes. Awad really did make up a statistic called “Goals Created” that diminishes the importance of, literally, creating goals.

There are so many ways to discredit Awad’s petty, contrarian argument that I feel like a kid with an unlimited gift card at Toys R’ Us. I’m about to pass out from choice anxiety. First of all, Crosby’s set-ups are often so scintillating that Mike Lange could jump down from his perch at Mellon Arena, slide the puck into the gaping net, and then call his own goal.

Me-eee-eeee shoots and scores!”

Case in point: Crosby’s ridiculous game-winning slap-pass to Bill Guerin that froze Avalanche goalie Peter Budaj like a Slovakian snow cone (click here to watch).

If you look up “Goal Creation” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of this goal right next to a picture of Mr. Awad gently weeping underneath the dull flicker of his Alex Ovechkin night light.

But more importantly, this little factoid: Despite playing alongside a myriad of marginally talented wingers this season, Crosby has performed like your unstable ex-girlfriend after your break-up. He scores no matter who he’s with.

“But she seemed so normal at the beginning….”

In Crosby’s last 10 games, he has racked up 9 goals and 9 assists. Plug those numbers into your Goal Creation flux capacitor, Mr. Awad. Crosby is now third in the league in points (36), six points ahead of hockey media heartthrob Ovechkin.

“But my golly, the big Russian just knows how to score goals,” they swoon. “Look how much fun he’s having out there!”

Be careful not show the mainstream hockey media any real numbers, or we’ll have a tragedy on our hands.

“Oh, what’s that? Crosby has more goals? Ahhhhh my precious worldview! It burns!”

By the way, you know you’re in for an entertaining time when a sports journalist begins an argument with the line, “It’s true that his traditional stats are pretty good, BUT [let’s take a look at some made-up numbers I scribbled with a pretty purple Crayon].”

I think President Obama should use a similar line of logic to deal with our nation’s ongoing economic crisis.

“Yes, Secretary Geithner, I know the GDP numbers look good, but let’s dig a little deeper. How many chickens are we exporting versus Skittles consumed?!”

Ray Shero is Still a Genius

In the off-season, Penguins General Manager Ray Shero brought in this little-known, veteran fourth liner named Mike Rupp. Rupp is 6”5. He is versatile – capable of playing both wing and center. Shero signed him for $800,000 per season. For comparison, the departed Petr Sykora makes $2.5 million to season.

Rupp was supposed to be a reliable fourth liner who didn’t make mistakes, who didn’t hurt the team. Instead, the former New Jersey Devil has scored 8 goals already this season, two more than his previous career high, and proven that he has the pace to play alongside Crosby and Malkin when necessary.

Oh, and he’s a good chemistry guy, too. In fact, he’s hit it off so well with the guys in the locker room that he would consider going out on a date with Bill Guerin (click here to see what I mean).

 Love is in the air.

Defense? No worries, Shero’s Got It Covered

Even better, Shero let workhorse defenseman Rob Scuderi go in the offseason and replaced him with 6”4, 201 lbs Jay McKee. Both are known for their ability to block shots.

This season, Scuderi makes $3.4 million and has blocked 33 shots. McKee makes less than $1 million and has blocked 75 shots, third-best in the NHL.

Scuderi’s play in the Stanley Cup Finals earned him the coveted, repetitive title of “world’s best defensive defenseman.” But this season McKee’s plus-minus rating is +6, while Scuderi’s is even.

On second thought, maybe the President should solicit the advice of Mr. Shero.

NHL Salivates as Penguins-Capitals Playoff Rematch is Inevitable

If you’ve slept through the first 29 games of the NHL season, you really haven’t missed much. You can pick back up right where you left off with these cliff notes:

  • The Penguins are awesome (40 points, top of Atlantic).
  • The Capitals are awesome (40 points, top of Southeast).
  • The Flyers are not awesome, but think they have a right to be.
  • The Devils, like their city, are just as boring as you remember. Their games at Mellon Arena this season have been a hot, crowded physics lecture.
  • Out west, the Red Wings are hung-over and currently out of the playoffs.
  • The Sharks, as always, are tearing up the regular season schedule with the best record in the NHL, and feature the dynamite one-two combo of perennial jerk-off Danny Heatley and tepid, pass-first center Joe Thornton – who is always afraid to hurt the other team’s feelings once the playoffs roll around.
  • The Blackhawks look a lot like the Penguins – young, extremely talented at both ends of the ice and with good chemistry. But they looked like that before Hossa returned from injury recently. Will Hossa alter that chemistry? Did they really even need to add him, or should they have spent that money on a proven goalie?

 I think we all know the answer to that question.