Sunday, October 31, 2010

Big Easy Looks to Be Anything But for the Steelers

I'm worried about the Steelers tonight. I think the Saints are a tough test because the 2010 Saints look a lot to me like the 2009 Steelers, which is to say, they get up, way up for good teams, and play like ass against bad teams. The Steelers went out and beat the juggernaut unbeaten Vikings, then went to Denver (the Broncos were 6-1 at the time) and smoked them. What could go wrong with cellar dwellers like KC, Cleveland and Oakland looming? The Steelers playing to the competition.

And so it is with the Saints. A loss to Arizona. A loss to the Browns. But, oh ho, the Steelers are in town this week. The 5-1 Steelers. Winners of the Super Bowl before the New Orleans Super Bowl. You think they're gonna be up for this? Because I do. If Drew Brees is ever going to pull out the 2009 version of himself, Halloween Night, in the Dome, against the Pittsburgh Steelers is the night to do that.

When I look at it really hard, if they are going to drop a game, this is a good one to drop. It's a road game against an out of conference opponent. As good as this Steelers team is, they are not going 15-1. From this game in Nawlins, they go to Cincy, then home to play the always scary Patriots, then the resurgent Raiders, before they get the Bills. So in this four game stretch, if they have to drop one, this is the one to drop. Also, I don't hate the Saints, I like Saints fans, and I absolutely adore the City of New Orleans, the greatest American city for my money.

Still, I won't be able to carry that kind of equanimity through the game. I just know it.

In the meantime, if you want to read a good story about James Harrison, check out Judy Battista's story in the New York Times. When Battista first started the Steelers beat for the NYT, I wasn't a fan. But she's been at it for a couple of years now, and she does great coverage of the Steelers.

The Sunday Recipe has moved over to Rub Some Dirt in It at OpenSalon. This week, it's spaghetti sauce that's better than your mom's sauce. Unless your mom is Lidia Bastianich.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Taking a Hard Look at the Loss of Aaron Smith

If you were making an instructional video of tackling form, you would be wise to chose as your subject Aaron Smith. He does it so effortlessly that one barely notices, yet he is picture perfect every single time: line him up, wrap him up, take him down. His technique is one of the reasons that he is the best run stopping defensive lineman in the league -- not the best run-stopper on the Steelers, mind you, but the best run-stopper in the NFL. No question.

And if you likewise want to know why defensive players so frequently launch themselves, missile-like, to try to tackle by hitting with their shoulder-pads rather than using their arms and wrapping up? Just stroll through Aaron Smith's injuries in the last five years:

Exhibit A: Torn rotator cuff.
Exhibit B: Torn biceps mucles.
Exhibit C: Torn triceps muscle.

Steelers fans know how valuable Smith is. It takes a lot of elements to make a great team. You need contributions from all over the place, from the gunner on kickoff returns to the starting defensive end, and the feature running back. But if I can be so simple minded as to point out won-loss records, other than Troy, there may not be a more valuable guy on the team. You can make an argument for Pig Ben, too.

(A quick look at won-loss records reveals that, in his career, Troy has missed just 11 games; the Steelers are 5-6 or a winning percentage of .454.
Pig Ben has missed 10 games [the 4 suspension games and then 6 with injuries] in which the Steelers won 6 and lost 4, for a winning percentage of .600.
And Smith has missed 15 games in his dozen years here and the Steelers record without him on the field is 7-8, or a winning percentage of .466. So there's that.)

The Steelers go as their defense goes and Dick LeBeau's unit's primary task, every game, every year, is to stop the run. Smith is the biggest reason that opposing teams simply cannot run against the Steelers. He disrupts his entire side of the line and forces running backs to either pop way outside, where the outside contain gets them, or cut back inside, where the inside contain gets them. Or run towards him, where he gets them. It's a no win to try to run anywhere near Smith.

But, you say, the NFL is a passing league now! Stopping the run is as old fashioned as the Wing T or the flying wedge. Let's take a look at what the Steelers are up against to (1) get to the playoffs, and (2) who they might face if they get there.

They have to play the Browns and the Ravens (on the road), the Bungles twice, the Saints, the Jets, the Raiders, the Patriots and the Bills. [They also have to play Carolina, but you know, amazingly, I'm just not worried about that game. Dead Coach Walking.]

Of the remaining teams on their schedule, the Ravens, Raiders, Jets and Browns have rushing attacks in the top half of the league statistically and in fact, the Raiders and Jets have the first and fifth most rushing yards, respectively. I'm not sure there is a tougher back to bring down than Baltimore's Ray Rice; I think that New Years game against Browns and Peyton Hillis will be a bitch; and despite their lower ranking, the Bengals Cedric Benson runs like a mack truck.

The point is, they have to face some really good running teams. Really good.

Then, there's the possibility of the playoffs where they might have to face: the Jets, the Patriots, the Ravens, the Titans, the Colts, the Raiders or the Chiefs. (Hey, somebody has to win the AFC West and it ain't gonna be the Norv Turners.) Those teams all have great running attacks, less Indy and New England. But then, of course, you have to deal with Manning the Greater or Justin Beiber. Pick your poison.

I don't think the loss of Aaron Smith can be overestimated and now I will echo the sentiments of so many others out there.

Starting this week, Ziggy Hood can prove he was worth that first round pick. Coach Tomlin and Kevin Colbert didn't draft Hood so that he could just 'spell' Smith from time to time; they drafted him to eventually replace the best run stopper in the league. The Steelers chances of making the playoffs and making noise in the playoffs now rest squarely on the shoulders of one Evander 'Ziggy' Hood. Go get 'em, Tiger.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Timing is Everything, Even in Football

Did he cross? Didn't he cross? Who recovered? Was it Pig Ben? Was it Ikaika Alama-Francis? Was it Jesus?

By now, everybody knows that the line judge called it a touchdown in live action and blew the play dead as his arms went up. Tony Sparano challenged it and, it looked to me, like it was clearly a fumble. Then Gene Steratore, the head official, ruled that it was, in fact a fumble, but that there was no video evidence as to who recovered the ball. Thus, the ball was Pittsburgh's ball on about the 1 foot line and it was fourth down.

We've all been over the minutiae of the call. I'll admit it was one of the stranger calls I've seen, but just because it was strange doesn't mean it was wrong. Yet, I understand the Dolphins and their fans feeling that they got jobbed. I would probably be on their side if the timing were different. If that call was made with the clock showing 0:30 rather than 2:30, I'd feel like the Dolphins had no chance.

But that wasn't the case. The Dolphins got the ball back with 2:28 left in the game. They had one time out left, they would receive a kickoff from the worst kicker-offer in the entire NFL. And they were working against a Steelers defense decimated by injuries to key players, Aaron Smith and LaMarr Woodley.

So, what did they do? I'll let the official NFL gamebook do the talking:

J.Reed kicks 67 yards from PIT 30 to MIA 3. P.Cobbs to MIA 29 for 26 yards (R.Mundy; K.Lewis).

Miami Dolphins at 2:26, (1st play from scrimmage 2:19)

1-10-MIA 29 (2:19) R.Brown up the middle to MIA 31 for 2 yards (J.Harrison).

2-8-MIA 31 (2:03) (No Huddle, Shotgun) C.Henne pass incomplete short middle to A.Fasano.

Two-Minute Warning

3-8-MIA 31 (1:58) (Shotgun) C.Henne pass short left to L.Polite to MIA 33 for 2 yards (W.Gay).
4-6-MIA 33 (1:33) (No Huddle, Shotgun) C.Henne pass incomplete short right to R.Brown (J.Worilds).

Miami has a really good kicker who can hit figgies from 50 yards. They have one of the best, strongest receivers in the league in Brandon Marshall. They have an electric guy in Davone Bess. And they pick up 4 yards without even trying to get the ball to either one of those guys? You cannot be serious.

To say nothing of squandering two idiotic turnovers by the Steelers which gave the Dolphins the ball at the Steelers 22 and the Steelers 13, respectively, before even four minutes had elapsed in the game.

The Dolphins want to be considered an elite team. Then prove it. Elite teams take advantage of any breaks they get - turnovers, flukey bounces, weird calls. Nobody even remembers the Tuck Rule if the Patriots don't win the Super Bowl that year. Nobody remembers the Helmet Catch if the Giants don't go on to win that Super Bowl. The Dolphins didn't take advantage of two heinous turnovers to put the Steelers in a big hole early. Shame on them.

Elite teams also overcome some bad calls from time to time. Do you think Justin Beiber would have failed to move his team into field goal range? Would Manning the Greater? The Dolphins are good, but they've got a ways to go to be considered elite. You want to be elite? That's when you prove that you are. Even against a defense as good as the Steelers.

While I'm here, let's take a moment to revel in the Steelers' D's performance. The big knock on them last year was that they couldn't close out games, hold other teams down when they had the lead, in the 4th quarter. Well, they did just that on Sunday, on the road, in the heat, without the glue that holds the D together (Smith) and one of the most disruptive players in the league. For what it's worth, that was an impressive performance on the last defensive series.

Meanwhile, this guy just added another bullet point to his Hall of Fame resume. All alone at fourth all time for most consecutive games with a catch, and now in second place on the Steelers list with touchdowns, behind only the magnificent Franco Harris.

From the Lost Recipes file

I had planned on posting my super awesome adapted menudo recipe. But then, um, I tasted it and, wow. Just wow. Less flavorful than I had hoped for. But it made up for that by being greasy. Not exactly a winning combo.

So, I wrote about the whole thing over at my other blog, Rub Some Dirt In It, titled, Adventures in Menudo.

Sometimes the food gods smile on me, and sometimes, um, not so much. Ah well.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup Means Good Eats

A few years ago, while traveling around Patagonia, I tried the local staple of pumpkin soup at just about every restaurant, from the most upscale to the combo convenience store/restaurant. It was wonderful stuff. The best was in El Chalten, Argentina and the chef/owner was Chippo. The wind had kicked up and the temperature was dropping outside. Chippo's wife brought a big bowl of this rich, creamy, rustic, delicious goodness. I was in love.

In our efforts to replicate it, we discovered that it works best to actually use butternut squash, rather than pumpkin. Beyond which, I'm not sure that the Argentines mean pumpkin in the "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" kinda way. At any rate, here's my version of Patagonian Pumpkin soup, also known as Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, just in time for Halloween.

You will need:
two butternut squashes, peeled, seeded and cubed
two small to medium sized sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
two carrots, peeled and cubed
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, smashed
handful of thyme sprigs
3 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade, but you can use a box or two of supermarket stock if you're not in the habit of making stock) [also, you can use more or less stock, depending on how thick or thin you prefer your soups]
1/4 pint of heavy cream (you don't need much cream, just a touch to really finish it)

The Prep:
The prep on this is really easy. Clean and dice all the veg, toss them with olive oil, the smashed garlic and the thyme sprigs. Spread out on cookie sheets. You want to have just one layer, so I usually have to use two cookie sheets. Add salt and pepper and roast at 350 degrees for about an hour. Check it after 45 minutes - it can roast faster depending on the size of your dice. You want it to be the veg to be really soft. If they're not, give it another 5 or 10 minutes.

The finish:
Run the roasted veggies through the food processor and then add to simmering chicken stock. You're almost done. I usually run the soup through the blender one more time. The food processor doesn't get the soup creamy enough and you don't want this to be chunky at all -- you're after a really creamy, smooth texture. So, it's a little messy and kinda time consuming to blend unless you have an immersion blender (food gadget lust), but it's worth it. I think that changing the texture alters the flavor, taking it from delicious to sublime.

Once blended, check for salt, stir in about 1/4 pint of heavy cream and let it simmer for another 10 minutes before serving.

It's a simple, elegant soup. I like it with some really good, crusty bread. Today, for the Steelers-Dolphins tilt, I'm serving it with bread from Breadworks.

Today's Growler: Church Brew Works Octoberfest. Easy. Easy like Sunday mornin', yeaaahh.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Three Greatest Linebackers in Steelers History: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

With all the talk of James Harrison's fine, James Harrison's physicality, James Harrison's retirement, why the boys and I got to considering the greatest linebackers of all time, right here at Linebacker Central, a/k/a, Pittsburgh, Pa. Without further delay, the three greatest linebackers in Steelers history, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good: Jack Ham. Always in position. ALWAYS. IN. POSITION. It's almost freakish. He had perfect tackling form and took a good angle on the ball carrier every time. He was not flashy, nor was he intimidating off the field, but he really was a nearly perfect linebacker. There has never been another like Dobre Shunka (the Great Ham.)

The Bad: James Harrison. Coulda been Super Bowl XLIII MVP. The man blows up tackles who outweigh him by 50 to 70 pounds, who has more fines than any other Steeler and, I would point out, who is held on nearly every single play because he's just such a freak. There are very few players in the NFL who have hit with as much force as Silverback. He scares me.

The Ugly: Jack Lambert. The sneer. The complete and total contempt for opponents. It was palpable even through the cathode ray tube. He was the man who once punched a Cleveland Browns player on the sidelines (he had it coming, believe you me) and tossed Cliff Harris to the turf after Harris taunted Roy Gerela in SB X. The Steelers draft report on him described him as having, "a lust for contact."

It's certainly open for discussion, the greatest three. But who would fill out the top five? Where does Gregg Lloyd fit into this?

NHL Player Loses Mind, Attacks Fan

I'm all for fans getting whatever comes their way if they set foot on the playing surface, whether it be the ice, the court, the diamond or the gridiron.

Tazing that idiot fan who ran onto the field of a Phillies game? I'm for it. In fact, I think they should hire sharpshooters and equip them with high powered rifles; if a fan steps on to the field, give them free license to fire away.

When a Cleveland Browns fan ran on the field in 2005, James Harrison took him down. It was totally deserved. Run on the field, you risk running into Silverback. Enter at your own risk.

But Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks is a cementhead and a punk. During a game against the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, on his way down the ramp to the locker room, Rypien grabbed a fan in the stands. Here's the video of Rypien reaching over and grabbing the fan.

Hockey tolerates a lot of stuff. Fighting and tussling is tolerated. Love it or hate it, it is part of hockey culture.

But going after a fan? That's Hansen brothers stuff.

The fan in question was just clapping and claims that he said something along the lines of, 'way to be professional.' It was probably a little stronger than that, probably laced with some adult language, but the guy was where he was supposed to be and it's not like he tossed a key chain (or tire iron) at Rypien. If the fan called Rypien out for being unprofessional, looks like it was a dead accurate comment.

Some have called for Rypien to be suspended 20 games. That would be fine by me. But might I suggest they taze him? And then have James Harrison take him down.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

NFL Addresses Head Injuries

I spent the morning debating the nature of helmet to helmet hits with my merry band of ne'er do wells. It's a tough thing. I love the hard hitting element of the game. I love the speed. I love big collisions. But ...

Any time I see a player face down on the field, lifeless, it makes me sick deep in the pit of my stomach. Something has to be done, because somebody's going to end up dead.

So, I posted about it at my other blog, Rub Some Dirt In It.

Monday, October 18, 2010

BCS Rankings Are Out and, Hey, Wait a Minute ...

So let me get this straight, after starting the year with the Crimson Tide atop the polls and watching them fall. Then watching Ohio State (oh, excuse me THE Ohio State) stick in that Number 1 spot for just six days before falling to the Badger.

After watching Boise State dominate on or off that retina-popping blue field, including games against Virginia Tech and Oregon State.

After watching LaMichael James and the Oregon Ducks put up mad offense on simply everybody, including Tennessee and Stanford.

The BCS standings were released last night.

Oklahoma! Where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain, is the No. 1 team in the country.

You're doin' fine Oklahoma. Oklahoma, okay!

As for the rest of the nation, nope, no need for a playoff system. The BCS operates perfectly. Why, whatever is better than perfect, that's what the BCS is. Move along, now. No gawking.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pig Ben Sparks the Offense Over the Browns

Sometimes erratic, sometimes reckless, and sometimes positively breathtaking, Pittsburgh's Pig Ben Roethlisberger returned, turning a pedestrian offense into an explosive one, making throws of 50 yards to both Mike Wallace and Heath Miller, and tossing a beauty of an over the shoulder pass to Miller to sock the game away. Other times, he strangely overshot receivers and threw an ugly interception on the first drive, but all things considered, it was about as good as anybody could expect and better than most predicted. There were times when he was vintage Ben and good enough that his QB rating was a lofty 112.7. So, there's that.

Bruce Arians called a great game and I so rarely say anything nice about BA that I'd like to go on record saying that I thought he had one of his best games in recent memory. He was aggressive without being greedy, daring without being hasty or thoughtless. He didn't get away from the run, even when the Browns were bottling it up; he called plays that allowed Pig Ben to hit six different receivers. 27 passes and 35 runs on the day and that strikes me as a really nice balance.

Rashard Mendenhall turned in another impressive game, running with power, stiff arming defenders, sticking his head into tight spots, and hanging onto the ball. Issac Redman added 31 yards, each of them hard fought and well-earned. The line, despite shuttling in players as Doug Legursky and Chris Kemoeatu were injured (both returned), did a really solid job up front and it looked like Maurkice Pouncey had a real bounce back game after struggling a bit against the Ravens.I want to give a big shout out to Flozell Adams here. He wasn't flagged all day and that has to be a first in his career. Plus, he positively clothes-lined Cleveland DB Joe Haden as he rumbled back and forth across the field after picking off Pig Ben. The Hotel is 35 years old and the Steelers list him at six feet, seven inches and 338 pounds. He was the only Steelers player who was able to run from one sideline to the middle of the field, probably covering more than 70 some yards, to take down a speedy, elusive corner. Seriously? That might have been the most impressive thing I saw all day.

On the other side of the ball, the Great Troy was quiet, but James Harrison seemed to make a point of trying to be a one man tour of destruction, sending both Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi to the locker room in the first half. And Lawrence Timmons turned in another monster performance and was a large part of the reason that the Steelers were able to hold Peyton Hillis to just 41 yards rushing on they day.

As to the opposition, I think the best things to have happened in Cleveland in a long time may have been the injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace. I thought Colt McCoy played with a tremendous amount of poise, no matter how many times Harrison, Timmons and Lamarr Woodley hammered him and lord knows the kid is accurate when he has time.

Oh, and congrats to Hines Ward, who turned in a very Hines Wardian day -- five receptions for 54 yards and a head-shaking, tackle breaking touchdown. He is now tied for fourth on the all-time list for most consecutive games with a reception at 164. Just who are these people who don't think he's a Hall of Famer?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mexican Inspired Stewed Chicken on Tap for the Steelers Beat Down of the Browns

I am off to some far off land called Greensburg to watch the Steelers beat up on the Browns this week. I am taking with me some Eggplant Dip, which I previously posted here.

But that's no reason to not post a new recipe here. This dish is great for chilly fall days and nights. It's a dish I make regularly. It takes some time to roast, but the prep itself is quite simple and fast. It's rustic, delicious and can be served with rice, rice & beans, roasted potatoes, roasted butternut squash or on tortillas as the base of tacos. I've used it in every one of those combinations and it was fantastic every time. This week, I'm going to make some with cumin scented rice, recipe below.

2 bone in, skin on chicken breasts cut in half (4 pieces)
1/2 or 1 whole can of chipotles in adobo sauce (these are generally about 7 ounces)
10 carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 bay leaf
splash of wine or beer

1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
3 cups uncooked jasmine rice
2 small limes, juiced
6 cups cold water
2 teaspoons salt

In a large, oven-safe roasting pot, brown and salt the chicken breasts on all sides in a small amount of olive oil. (I had to do them in batches to get them nice and really brown.) Remove from heat.

Add the onion, garlic, carrots and bay leaf.

Run the chilis through the blender or food processor. You want to decide if you want it super hot or medium hot. If you like a lot of heat, use the whole can; if not, use half the can. Use one whole can of water though. You want the chicken to really stew. Pour the blended chilis over the chicken and carrots and add a splash of wine or beer, whichever you prefer or have at hand.

Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 90 minutes to 2 hours -- there's so much moisture that you can't really overcook it. Let it rest for about 10 to 15 minutes before serving and you can do the rice while it's resting.

For the rice, heat butter over medium heat in a large saucepan. When butter is melted, add cumin seeds and saute for 1 minute. Stir in the rice and cook for 2 minutes.

Turn the heat to high and add the lime juice, water and salt. Mix well. Bring to boil on high heat. Reduce heat and cook covered on low for 15 minutes until water evaporates.

When done, the chicken should be falling off the bone. Be careful with those little bones.

Go Steelers!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Three Things the Steelers Need to Do to Avoid a Repeats of Last Year's Embarrassment

It seemed unthinkable, actually impossible, that a team led by Ben Roethlisberger could lose to one led by Brady Quinn, that a franchise with six Super Bowl trophies could lose to a team that was 1-11 coming into the game, that Mike Tomlin could be outcoached by Eric Mangini. And yet, on an early December, 2009 night in Cleveland, that's exactly what happened.

Cleveland 13 - Pittsburgh 6.

The horror. Oh, the horror.

But the 3-1 Steelers can avoid falling into the same or similar traps, elevate their record to 4-1 (1-1 in division) and re-ascend to their rightful place as perpetual tormentors of the Browns. It's pretty simple and like a jitterbug, it's just three basic steps:

1. No special teams brain farts. There is no question that return man extraordinaire and Mr. Everything in Cleveland, Josh Cribbs was the best player on the field in last year's abomination of a game. In his career, Cribbs has torched the Pittsburgh special teams units three times for touchdowns. My god, but he must love playing against the Steelers.

The kick coverage teams were the worst in the league last year, so bad that I think high school coaches used film of the Steelers and then said to their charges, "okay, boys, just do it the exact opposite of these guys and we'll be fine." But the coverage teams have been much improved this year and special teams as a whole (except for Skippy's horrible field goal misses) have been a real high point so far, largely due to additions like Stevenson Sylvester, Jason Worrilds and Will Allen. So, before anybody worries about zone blitz schemes or how Pig Ben will fare, those guys need to take care of business: tackle Cribbs. Bottle him up, stay lane sound on returns, don't try to do anything fancy and just stop the guy. Hell, trip him. I don't care. Just get him on the ground.

And it would be nice if Jeff Reed at least pretended he cared, too.

2. Consistent defense. In last year's nightmare, Cribbs worked out of the wildcat and ran for 87 yards (averaging nearly 11 per touch) and those in Cleveland who have a clue, think that Cribbs is their best hope. I tend to agree. So the first thing the Steelers need to do is Stop Cribbs in the wildcat.

Then they have to stay gap sound to bottle up Peyton Hillis and after that, it shouldn't be to hard to confuse and harass Colt McCoy.

Of course, I said that going into last year's game ... but still, these Browns aren't the Brian Sipe or Bernie Kosar editions. Which is to say, they just aren't very good offensively. Heck, they came into the season with Jake Delhomme, the man who never met an ill-advised throw he didn't like as their starter, and the underwhelming Seneca Wallace as the back up. Both of those guys are hurt and it looks like the Browns will start rookie Colt McCoy at quarterback. So the Steelers defense doesn't have to do anything spectacular to win this one. They simply have to protect against any big plays, stay gap sound, be violent and thus, contain and smother any vague hopes the Browns might have.

3. Ball control. It goes without saying this is something I'd like to see more of long term, not merely in this game.

I'd like to see an offense that, while it has Pig Ben at it's disposal, doesn't rely entirely on him, a more balanced attack, with Rashard Mendenhall get at least 22 touches in this game. In the first four games, with defenses keying on him, behind a line that is hardly great (but is, admittedly, better than I thought it would be) Mendenhall managed to average 4.6 yards per carry. With defenses now having to respect the pass, Mendenhall can be even more productive, so let's hope that Arians doesn't forget about him, just because the franchise quarterback is back on the field.

As we all know, the NFL is a funny, cyclical animal. The current cycle dictates that teams are positively obsessed, cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs crazy with "stretching defenses" with the long ball. But in the early years of this decade, teams who dinked and dunked lead the way - the 2000 Ravens, the 2001 Patriots (they later became a long-bomb machine, but in 2001, not so much), the 2002 Bucs and the 2002 Raiders. The Steelers have a guy in Mike Wallace who nobody can catch, so I'm not saying to abandon the long game, but that it would be good to balance that with a short, first-down geared, clock-grinding attack - a passing game that goes underneath to Hines Ward more often. It seems so obvious, but get the ball to Hines. He's a first down machine and doesn't hold all the franchise receiving records by accident. Dude knows what he's doing.

One more thought on the obsession with going deep. Right now, San Diego has the most "vertical" offense in the league -- Philip Rivers leads the league in total yards and in yards per attempt. Yet, the Chargers are a very disappointing 2-3 and I have to wonder if they will even make the playoffs. The Cowboys throw more than any other team - nearly 66% of the time - and they are on the brink of disaster. You just don't want to run a team like Norv Turner or Wade Phillips. I'd like to see the Steelers go anti-Turner, anti-Phillips.

Basically, they just need to not do anything stupid this week and leave the stupid up to the Manginius.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thoughts on the Return of Pig Ben

Pig Ben returns to the field Sunday after serving his four game suspension for conduct unbecoming a grown up person. The questions swirl around.

What kind of reception will the fans give him?

What does this mean for team chemistry? What kind of reception did his teammates give him?

Will he be sharp? Or play more like Carson Palmer has of late?

I think Pig Ben is going to play lights out, perhaps better than he's ever played heretofore (and it's been a pretty spectacular career already), because athletes, the ones who perform at this level, are mostly driven and myopic and have a unique sense of the world and their place in it.

It makes me wonder about the weirdness of professional sports and the rules of conduct in the inner-inner-sanctum thereof.

The smallest slight is coaxed, nurtured into a dis of monumental proportions. Then, once it has been built up into an epic insult, it is fed off of as motivation. The New England Patriots trotted out the tired old "no respect" saw year after year, even though most people recognized their greatness, even while we, er I, resented it. Lather, rinse, repeat. Michael Jordan used to convince himself that fans, media, and other players had been critical just to get himself even more psyched for games. So the slights don't even have to be real to be used as fuel.

Enter Pig Ben. Since his meeting with Judge Dread, he has been saying and doing all the right things. He's been talking about the fact that he had a lot of growing up to do and he was working on that. He's been talking about his obligation to his teammates and the community. Meanwhile, he's been working out like a lunatic (he looks to be in the best physical condition he's been in since his rookie year) and doing yoga with his mom. Take it for what it's worth and everybody's mileage may vary on his credibility.

Publicly, he has been humble. And humbled. But inside? Inside, I expect that he feels that he has to quiet all the critics, make them -- us -- choke on our words. And the only way to do that is win football games, play better than he's ever played, better than anybody else is playing. Some people, most people, would wither under that kind of scrutiny, pressure and general condemnation. But I expect it will have the exact opposite effect on Pig Ben.

Roethlisberger's BFF Ray Lewis can probably explain it. In January of 2000, Lewis was arrested in the stabbing deaths of two people. Lewis' attorney (also Pig Ben's attorney), arranged for Lewis to testify against the other two defendants and the murder charges against him were dropped, reduced to the charge of obstruction of justice.

Almost a year to the day later, Lewis' Ravens won the Super Bowl, in no small part because of Lewis' play on the field in that game and throughout that season. The guy has had many great seasons, but perhaps none greater than that year. Normal people, after an ordeal like that -- being involved in or at the very least, witnessing two killings, being investigated, indicted, testifying and all that jazz -- would be thrown off our games. We would just be a mess. But not Ray.

Then there's the other example. Evil Hoodie got caught with his hands in the cookie jar, busted red handed while violating a league rule about filming other teams. Evil Hoodie was fined and the team was docked draft picks. The rest of the NFL reveled in the great comeuppance. But like Ray Lewis, rather than be disturbed by the whole kerfuffle, Evil Hoodie was even more defiant, more determined to run roughshod over the league and thumb his nose at the commish. His team rallied around him, ripped off 18 wins in a row, often rolled up the score on opponents in the process. It led Bill Simmons to dub that season "the Eff You Season," a totally accurate term.

The point is, these are not normal people. The things that would throw most of us into months of self-recrimination, doubt and inertia, instead drive them forward to their greatest performances. It's an alternate reality, through the rabbit hole, out the back of the wardrobe and into the NFL.

That quality allows them to be the elite. They are all undeniably great at what they do, and yet, would you want to spend a night on the town with Ray Lewis? Be married to Bill Belichick? Go on a date with Ben Roethlisberger?

It's an upside down world, the one of pro athletes.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Pirates Just Be Like That

I don't want to bog anybody down with higher mathematical algorithms and formulas, but a quick check of Baseball Almanac, and Wikipedia reveals that Eric Wedge's record while managing the Cleveland Indians was Crapass and Suck, a tad better than the record of the recently departed Pirates skipper John Russell. (Official record of: Steaming Pile of Bear Scat and Vortex of Despair.)

In fact, a straight up analysis of the records of Wedge versus Russell is not fair, considering the talent Wedge had on his staff. The Indians had C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee as their aces, while the Pirates named Paul Maholm and Zach Duke their aces. (I guess, but those guys are more like Jacks. Or maybe a 10 of clubs.)

Through complex analysis and adjustment for pitching staff, turns out both Russell and Wedge stink sideways. It is fairly evident that the corpse of Danny Murtaugh would, right now today, a better skipper than either of them.

Yet, Pirates management thinks Wedge might be their man.

If you think that a skipper doesn't mean that much to the on field product, drive on down to Baltimore, grab a crabcake and ask the fans how they feel about Buck Showalter, and if they think their team, the team with a winning percentage of just .303 when Showalter was hired, would have finished as strong as they did (winning percentage of .535 after the Showalter move.)

The Pirates front office feigns indignation when fans and media assert that the organization does not care to win. Oh, they get all self-righteous and somehow manage a straight face when crying that they are unfairly picked upon. But in Pittsburgh, and in other places where people care about baseball, sane people have come around to the belief that the Pirates, like the owner in "Major League," actually run their organization with the goal of losing.

No matter what the evidence staring them in the face, the Pirates will hire a proven loser just days after they fired their AA affiliate Altoona manager. Yeah, the one who won the Eastern conference. The nerve of that guy going out and winning and stuff. You wouldn't want a guy like that in your organization.

Why Eric Wedge? Well, why do the Pirates do anything they do? Because that's how the Pirates do things.

As Jason Kendall once said, welcome to hell.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Trying to Quantify the Jeff Reed Issue

There have been no kickoffs returned for touchdowns through the first four games of 2010, no return to the return game horrors of 2009 or chances for Jeff Reed to indifferently flail as a runner goes whizzing by him, of which I think can safely saw we all saw enough last season. Still, with all the talk of Reed’s culpability for the Steelers loss on Sunday, I thought I should take a look at his numbers through the years. I started off with the assumption that last year and the first four games of this year were probably the worst stretch we’ve seen from him since he was hired in 2002, but I wanted to see how the stats actually graded out.

Kickers are hard to break down. Not the field goals, so much, but even there, what is a gimme in a dome or a warm dry stadium like, San Diego, is not necessarily easy at Heinz Field or Soldier Field. And of course, it varies from end to end at Heinz Field and what’s makeable in September is less so in December.

Then, there are the kick off returns, which are complicated because there are or can be mitigating coverage issues. Not every kick off returned for a touchdown is the kicker's fault. Although, off the top of my head, I can think of two times when I’d say that returned kicks were Skippy’s fault last year. Giving up four kick off returned for touchdowns was twice as many as any other NFL team. Putrid.

ESPN and keep stats on return yards, but not on the kickoffs themselves, so trying to figure out where his k.o.’s were coming down - in the endzone or at the 15 - means culling through the game books for eight seasons. Yeah ... I'm thinking about that. If any elves out there want to join in the effort, I’ll give you a box of swedish fish.

So, what follows is a quick look at the average yards per kick return and any touchdowns allowed. Then taking a look at field goals. I'm grading on your grade school A+ to F- model. (I was going to use my own scale of marvelous to appalling, but that got adjectively cumbersome.)

I’m going to give him a grade for kickoff returns and one for field goals. I think an argument could be made that his primary role is to kick figgies, that if the Tomlin had a gun to his head and had to choose: either the guy can boom the ball on kickoffs OR he can be a reliable field goal kicker, he'd chose the latter. So, I’m going to weigh the field goal grade twice as much as the kickoff grade (2/3-1/3). I know what you’re saying, I didn’t know there’d be math, but stick with it.

Through four games, the Steelers rank in the cluster of 25 teams who have not yet allowed a TD on a kick return and they have allowed an average of 21.9 yards per kick return, good for 10th in the NFL. Those are both really good numbers. We should all be pleased.
Kickoff grade: B+
Reed has made only two-thirds of his field goals. Only two other kickers in the league have worse percentages. That stinks, but he is 7 for 7 at distances of up to 40 yards, but he's 0-fer between 40 and 49 yards. Now, Heinz Field is a hard place to kick and one of his four misses was a 55 yard attempt (what was Tomlin thinking?), but still, this is a failing grade. Not quite an F, but
Field Goal grade: D
Average grade for 2010: C-

I don’t even have to look at the stats to tell you what grade the kickoff game is getting, but for purposes of clarity, they ranked 27th in average yards per return and gave up four touchdowns, worst in the league by a long shot.
Kickoff game: F-
Skippy made 87% of his figgies last year, good for 9th in the league, plus he hit 4 of 5 between 40-49 yards. Those are good marks, not perfect, but very good.
Field Goal grade: A-
Average Grade for 2009: C+

Ah, the salad days: zero kicks returned for touchdowns and an average of just 19.1 yards per return, good for first in the league.
Kickoff grade: A+
Skippy was 14th in field goal percentage at 87.1% (same as 2009) and was 9 of 12 over 40 yards, one of those being longer than 50.
Field Goal grade: B+
Average Grade for 2008: A

The kick return game allowed one touchdown and ranked 16th in average yards per return.
Kickoff grade: C
Skippy had the best field goal percentage in the league. Nuff said as far as I’m concerned.
Field Goal grade: A+
Average Grade for 2007: B+

Kickoff return yards averaged 22.4, 18th in the league; they yielded one touchdown, but only two teams in the league gave up more. This is a pretty fair to middling grade, but on the lower end of fair to middling.
Kickoff grade: D+
Skippy also had a terrible year hitting figgies, good just 74.1% of the time, or 26th in the league. Ouch. And he had misses inside the 30 and inside the 40. Double ouch.
Field Goal grade: F
Average Grade for 2006: D

Zero touchdowns and they ranked 18th in average yards returned. That’s pretty good.
Kickoff grade: B+
Reed hit 82.8% of his field goals and was perfect inside of 40 yards. That’s a good year. Not a great year, but a good year.
Field Goal grade: B+
Average Grade for 2005: B+

15th in the league in average return yards, with one touchdown.
Kickoff grade: B
Reed hit nearly 85% of his FGs (10th overall), but gets some demerits. He missed one inside 30 and one inside 40.
Field Goal grade: C+
Average Grade for 2004: B-

They were in the top 10 for average return yards, but they gave up one touchdown.
Kickoff grade: B+
This was a bad year for Reed, who hit just 71.9% of his figgies. Moreover, he missed three inside the 30.
Field Goal grade: F
Average grade for 2003: D

So there you have it. Skippy’s best and worst years. Clearly, he had a monster year in 2008, coincidentally when the Steelers won the Super Bowl and in 2005, also coincidentally when the Steelers won the Super Bowl. I don’t know if there’s a cause and effect thing going on or if his performance just mirrors the rest of the team, i.e., the whole team was appalling in 2003 and so was Reed; the whole team was great in 2008 and so was Reed.

Also, try to grade him out yourself. My method, as you can see is highly scientific ...

But consider this, every time he graded out lower than a B-, he had a bounce back year the next year. Terrible season in 2003, followed by good one in 2004. Awful performance in 2006 and a really solid year in 2007. What is troubling me now is that last year he graded out with a C+ and this year he’s sitting on a C-, the only time he’s turned in C or lower grades in back to back years.

Is it the beginning of the end of Reed's productivity? Is he less than fully committed because he’s miffed about his contract? The franchise tag? His deep-seated, pathological hatred of paper towel dispensers? Who knows what goes on in the mind of Jeff Reed?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ravens 17, Steelers 14, Post-Mortem

Five photos that sum up the loss yesterday.

The Ravens O Line played great and despite the defense's efforts to get to Flacco, they always seemed to be a split second late. Flacco himself got rid of the ball quickly and efficiently. He has come under some heat in Baltimore, but yesterday should shut up those critics. At least for a while. On the last drive of the game, he was perfect and his touchdown pass to TJ Whoseyourmama is the kind that great quarterbacks build careers on.

Bruce Arians' insistence on calling slow developing, deep pass plays when a dink and dunk approach might have worked better, kept the Steelers defense off the field and, you know, picked up first downs.

11 penalties for 88 yards. Ed Hochuli and his crew had awfully quick trigger fingers with the yellow hankies, and I personally believe that Hochuli loves getting face time and showing off his amazing pythons on national tee vee. That said, 11 penalties are going to kill you. Every time.

These penalties deserve their own category. After an amazing defensive stop by the Steelers, just an awesome goal-line stand, Matt "a Draft Pick is a Terrible Thing to Waste" Spaeth and Chris Kemoeatu each jumped on the following series. Who knows? The Steelers may not have been able to pick up a victory ensuring first down there, but those penalties made sure they didn't. And why the hell was Spaeth even out there blocking? He's a terrible blocker. Well, he's pretty much terrible at everything, come to think of it. Off-sides? On home turf? In the waning moments of the game? Be serious.

Of course, dipshit pulled one kick right and then the second one left.

The guy has one job to do. Just one. Were this a new phenomena -- Skippy missing make-able kicks in tight games -- I might just chalk it up to a bad day. Everybody has bad days. I can live with that. But Reed started to deteriorate last year in Chicago and in Cincinnati. This year, he's back to that 2009 form, missing an easy game winner against the Falcons and then yesterday's execrable performance.
Does anybody remember how Reed got the job? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?

Todd Peterson blew some very make-able kicks and Bill Cowher finally got fed up, brought in a bunch of kickers on rainy day and tried them all out. By the end of that week, Peterson was out of a job and Steelers fans had a new kicker. Food for thought, coach Tomlin, food for thought.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Jeff Reed Chokes and Blows a Winnable Game for the Steelers

Perhaps, like me, you're the kind of person who turns Steelers losses over and over in your head, unable to shake the malaise that sets in after after the pain of losing, particularly in such dramatic fashion as was seen Sunday at Heinz Field. Perhaps, you too will lay in bed late this Sunday night, flashing on every missed opportunity, every miscue, every momentum shifting mistake leading to the disappointing loss.

Tonight, I will find no refuge in sleep.

Intrusive will be the thoughts of Charlie not seeing a wide open Hines Ward over the middle and instead going incomplete to Heath Miller.

I may never find the answer to the question of what on earth could have been going through Bruce Arians' mind with 0:45 left in the 3rd quarter when he called a deep pass to Mike Wallace on 3rd and 4 from the Baltimore 27. Why not run the ball there? Or at least throw a short pass to Hines over the middle and try to just pick up the 1st down instead of going for the deep ball? The guy calls his offense like a 13 year old boy playing Madden 2010.

Certainly, 11 penalties for 88 yards will ruin a good night's sleep and even the best teams aren't going to win many with that much laundry on the field.

Ike Taylor actually caught and interception and William Gay has grown up before our eyes. He played another great game. Both wasted. As were all the times that Charlie pulled the Ravens off-sides on a hard count. Well done, Chaz, but that wily veteran effort was wasted, too.

But nothing more than this one single thought will keep me up through the night.Thanks a lot, Skippy. I can almost forgive the first miss, but the second one? That sound you heard was your contract demands going up in flames. Your contract with the actual business operation that is the Pittsburgh Steelers may not expire until the end of the season, but consider your relationship with SteelersNation terminated as of now. You might want to spend less time f*cken' with your hair, f*cken' with your beard and taking pictures of your junk and more time practicing kicking.

Now get out of my face, ya drunk hayseed.

At least UConn Fan brought cupcakes from Vanilla and my roasted tomato salsa was slammin.

Sunday Recipe: Fish Tacos on the Menu

I thought about crabcakes with the Steelers hosting Baltimore and all that, but there are no finer crabcakes in all the world than the ones at the Cross Street Market in Baltimore, so why even bother? It did get me thinking about some delicious goodness from the sea. With complex spices. And maybe some crunch.

Fish tacos, of course.

I turned to a veritable pantheon of knowledge and wisdom in the arena of tacos, fish: Bobby Flay. I don't know how much Flay knows about football and he's probably a Giants fan anyway, but fish tacos? The guy rocks those out.

I sort of culled various elements from a couple of Flay's recipes. I'm serving it with two salsas, one from his "Throwdown" and the other salsa and the fish marinade from Flay's original fish taco recipe. On with the actual cooking.

I got freshly made tortillas at La Reyna in the Strip, both flour tortillas and corn.

The elements:

Fish Marinade:
1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
2 limes, juiced
1 tablespoons ancho chili powder
1 jalapeno, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Place fish in a medium size dish. Whisk together the oil, lime juice, ancho, jalapeno, and cilantro and pour over the fish. Let marinate for 20 to 25 minutes.
Here I've deviated from Flay's instructions. He calls for a fish like Mahi Mahi and then grills it, but the flounder looked good when I was at the market, so I got flounder, which is too delicate to grill, so I'm going to quickly pan fry it. I am still using the marinade above because, seriously, yum.

Tomatillo-Avocado Relish:
2 large tomatillo, husked and rinsed and diced
1 ripe avocado, halved, pitted and diced
1 or 2 jalapeno or serrano peppers, finely diced (depending on how spicy you like it)
2 limes, juiced
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly chopped cilantro leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the tomatillo, avocado, jalapeno and lime juice in a medium bowl. Drizzle with a little olive oil, add cilantro and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before serving.

Pureed Tomato Salsa:
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1/2 small red onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves roasted garlic
2 cups roasted tomatoes
1 serrano chile or 1 jalapeno, sliced
1 tablespoon hot sauce - I'm partial to Cholula.
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Salt and pepper

Again, I'm deviating here. Flay calls for fresh tomatoes, but I just roasted some tomatoes and garlic** so I decided to use those instead and adapted Flay's original instructions.
Heat oil in medium saucepan, add onions and cook until soft. Add chili(s) and cook for about 5 more minutes. Add the roasted tomatoes and garlic and cook for 5 more minutes. Toss it all into a food processor or blender until smooth. Add the hot sauce, oregano, cilantro and lime juice and season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Garnish with --
Shredded white cabbage
Hot sauce
Crema or sour cream
Thinly sliced red onion
Chopped cilantro leaves
Pureed Tomato Salsa and
Tomatillo-Avocado Relish.


** I roast tomatoes per Tom Colicchio's recipe as follows:
Core tomatoes and cut in half crosswise, along the equator, as it were. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and many cloves of garlic (unpeeled) was well as several sprigs of thyme.
Lay on baking sheet so that they are flat side down and roast for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
Drain as much juice as you can and peel off the skins. Return the tomatoes to the oven for another hour at 275 degrees.
Drain the juice again and return to the oven for about another hour still at 275.
When you are done, you will have amazing tomato broth that you can use in sauces and soups, plus a batch of roasted tomatoes and roasted garlic cloves.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Congrats to Natalie Randolph and the Coolidge Colts

I woke up to a message this morning that the Coolidge Colts won their first game, a victory over Anacostia by a score of 48-12.

Per Alan Goldenbach at the Washington Post:
'She ran the down the 50-yard line toward the Anacostia sideline and avoided it, but then Indians Coach Terry Dixon stopped her to offer congratulations. That allowed George Weaver the moment he and his Coolidge teammates had waited six weeks for - a chance to douse their coach in honor of her first victory, a 48-12 home triumph over the winless Indians (0-5).

"It means everything to me," Randolph said. "What they get out of it, I get out of it. I'm ecstatic for them. They needed it."

As the first female football coach in the Washington area - and one of just a handful in the nation - Randolph attracted unprecedented media attention, and it wore on the team as it lost its first five games.

On Friday, the Colts pulled away in the second half, allowing the excitement to build and build with each touchdown. Senior running back Chris Strong ran for four scores."

The first time I sat down with Randolph, she was working on the game plan for her first game on the computer in her empty classroom. We talked while she continued to work, so she seemed a little distracted from time to time.

In my preparations to meet her, it became obvious that the question on everybody's mind was -- who would be the first male coach to "lose to a girl" and what would that be like for him? (The horror!) I felt compelled to ask her about it, even though 'Battle of the Sexes' type things bore me.

She stopped, looked away from her computer and said that she thought that was a pretty stupid thing for people to be thinking about. She wondered herself, do those coaches not mind losing to other men? Why is losing ever acceptable? She didn't want to lose to anybody.

Randolph and her team endured several losses - five - before getting this first win under their belts. I am thrilled for her, for the players, the coaching staff, and the administration at Coolidge. I hope there are a lot more wins in the Colts' future.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Mendenhall, Offensive Line Key to Steelers Victory Versus Ravens

As impressive as Charlie Batch was last week in the Steelers victory over the Bucs, perhaps more impressive was this stat: Total Rushing Yards - 201.

In the last few years, the Steelers have been mediocre at running the football and seemingly indifferent to the idea of running the football. Either they were unable to do it. Or they were unwilling to do it. Or, more likely, some combination of the two.

That five game stretch of putritude in 2009 was punctuated by a marked inability to pick up first downs on the ground, punch the ball in from short yardage and maintain offensive possessions even when they had a lead. In short, they threw so much that other teams always had lots of chances on offense late in the game, a fact that came back to bite them in the butt numerous times. Like this time:
But if last week was a fair indicator of what's to come for the remainder 2010 season, the bad old days of ignoring the running game or being completely inept at it are behind them.

Rashard Mendenhall ran for 143 yards last week but the best part was that he picked up 103 yards of those in the second half. Somewhere, the Bus is wiping away tears of joy.

The whole team picked up 67 yards rushing in the 1st half and another 134 in the second half. No doubt, Bill Cowher is flashing those terrifying new choppers over that stat.

What does it mean for the immediate future?

Heading into the big game this Sunday versus the Ravens, we all know that both defenses are going to try to hit the quarterback, and hard, every chance they get. Ray Lewis will probably try to break Mendenhall's shoulder again, if given the chance. Coach Tomlin is always saying that football is a violent game and no two defenses personify that better than these two. They are built to intimidate other teams. Most of the time, they succeed at doing just that.

Pittsburgh's defense ranks first in average points allowed per game, even with the two garbage touchdowns they gave up late in the Tennessee game and Tampa game, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Ravens defense ranks first in the league in total yards allowed and first in the league in total passing yards allowed.

But where the Ravens have shown a chink in the armor is their run defense. They have allowed 383 yards on the ground in the first three games, about 125 per. They allowed the Browns Peyton Hills to rumble for 144 yards last week, all of which bodes well for the Steelers game plan.

Rookie center Maurkice Pouncey has been solid and, at times explosive in the middle of the line. On the right side, Hotel Flozell is still good for two pre-snap penalties per game, but he's also a dominating steam roller when run blocking. If those guys can get Mendenhall going and, if the defense can pick off Flacco (he threw four ints. versus the Bengals two weeks ago ...)

At the start of the season, with Pig Ben out, Leftwich hurt and only Dennis Dixon and Batch holding down the fort, who would ever have thunk it that a 4-0 start was even a remote possibility? So, sitting on a 3-0 record, they're already playing with house money.

Even better, I don't see this game as a must win for the Steelers, but it's closer to a must win for the Ravens. Somebody pinch me.

Coach Natalie Randolph and Coolidge High School Football Update

The HBO crew was gone.

There were no ESPN reporters or cameras or boom mikes.

Not even a Washington Post or AP reporter was there for kickoff and no post-game press conference was necessary this time. Just the coach, her staff, the kids and a couple hundred people in the stands were left to mull over a disappointing last-second loss.

The atmosphere was a far cry from the first game Natalie Randolph spent on the sidelines at Coolidge High School, about a month ago.

It was hard to get a sense of the football program, the players, and just what kind of coach Randolph would be, with such media buzz around that first day. It was distracting and beyond which, Randolph had just spent several months juggling radio and television appearances, fielding never ending media requests, all while trying to put in place a coaching staff and playbook, run practices and prepare her teaching curriculum for the new school year. Mostly, that first day, Randolph seemed tired to me.

Things are quieter now. Coolidge was 0-4 heading into the September 24th non-conference game versus Forestville and Randolph seemed relieved that it was just me this time, no mob of media swarming around her, no bright lights, no television crews, no mad dash for press credentials. "That was awful, just awful," she said walking down the hall to the locker room.

The thing I noticed the first trip to Coolidge is that the powers that be -- the coaches, the teachers, the administration -- are buoyantly optimistic. This second trip, they remained palpably so. "You know, we're gonna win tonight," smiled Principle Thelma Jarrett when I ran into her in the parking lot a few hours before kick off. She meant it; that the Colts were 0-4 entering this game was irrelevant.

It started off with a bang. The Colts opened the game by running back the opening kick off for a touchdown, a 90 yard return by Keith Dickens.

Forestville tied the game, but Coolidge put up two unanswered touchdowns after that, the first set up by a bubble screen to Sticks (Dayton Pratt) and the second a 27 yard touchdown run right up the gut by Chris Strong.

It was the first time they held such a large lead. A win was possible.

Near the end of the 3rd quarter, Coolidge led 19-6, but Forestville drove for a touchdown and 2-point conversion that made the game 19-14. Around this time, a Washington Post photographer who had been on assignment at another high school arrived at the game after getting a call to head over and get photos of coach Randolph's first victory. Meanwhile, word had also spread through the neighborhood that Coolidge was up, but by then, with no ticket takers left in place, security couldn't let the crowd in in. Most of them hung around in the parking lot and listened to the PA announcer's play by play.

Coolidge's punter, who had been stellar all night, pinned Forestville at their own 1 yard line with seven minutes left in the game. Forestville picked up a first down. Five minutes left. Then another. Then an option run picked up 23 yards. 3:30 left. Then they picked up more yards and were in Coolidge territory. 2:30 left. They drove inside the 10 yard line with 1:21.

With the ball at the 1 yard line, for the first time, Randolph looked nervous. She also looked like she was trying to will a stop from her undersized defensive line from her position on the sidelines, crouched down silently.

But it was not to be. Forestville punched in the touchdown and tacked on a 2 point conversion to go ahead 22-19. Immediately, Randolph was back up and on the headset, talking to her coaches upstairs. Nat Randolph may be a young woman, but in that moment, she looked like every other coach I've ever seen who has just absorbed a body blow, but has to look forward immediately. She just sucked it up and moved forward.

The loss was disappointing, a heart-breaker really, as last second losses always are. But while I'm still mulling my notes, trying to put things in context, find themes and dramatic arc, Randolph and the Colts have to put this one behind them because they get another shot at that first win tonight versus Anacostia, a game that is a very winnable one for them according to folks who know a lot more about DC area high school football than I do.

Good luck Colts!

You can find photos of the Coolidge-Forestville game here.