Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Waiting for Goodell [A play in one act]

I'm not a playwrigt, but I play one on the internet. Here is my dramatic re-enactment of the NFL denying the appeals of James Harrison:

"Excuse me sir, would it please the, er, court, I'd like to appeal these fines."

"Yes. Yes. Appeal. Well, get on with it."

"Well, hey, wait a minute. Aren't you the guy who levied these fines to begin with?"

(Silence. And glowering. Lots of glowering.)

"Ahem, okay, so you see, when I hit Drew Brees, I was flying towards him. I was fighting off a block and I was going at full throttle. It was a bang-bang play. And, you know, I get paid to go after the quarterback more or less."

(More silence and glowering.)

"I didn't hit him high and I didn't hit him low. And yeah, I guess my helmet hit him, but, you know I was leading with my shoulder and my head is right next to my shoulder and all ... So, well, I guess that's the basis of my appeal for that hit."

"Yes. I see. Denied. Next!"

"Just like that?"

"Do you dare to question the Great and Mighty Goodell!" (puffs of green smoke and sound effects follow.) "Well!?"

"No. I, ah, well, I guess not. So on this hit on Mohamed Massaquoi, you see, I know it looks bad. I really do. And he had to leave and game and stuff. I know that you're trying to protect players and I can no longer hit like that now, you know just explode into a receiver. I get that. You guys changed the rules and stuff, so I've really been trying not to do that. But, you see, the rules weren't really in effect when this fine was meted out, so I was hoping that through like a grandfather clause or something ..."

"Denied! The rules didn't change! I've told you and Suzy Kolber that a thousand million times! The rules didn't change! The rules didn't change!"

(More glowering.)

"Of course not. But, how about a reduction. After all, you've fined guys much less money for much more egregious post-whistle incidents and I was just playing hard, snap to whis ..."

"Are you accusing me of bias? Do you not think I am impartially looking out for the health of the league?"

(Harrison just looks down and shuffles feet.)

"Mr. Harrison, I am simply looking out for the welfare of the players. I am the Commissioner who cares about player safety. Don't you get that?"

"I do. Really. I do. I appreciate it. But you know, it's going to be way more dangerous to play 18 games than 16 ..."

"Get out of here! And never darken my door again!"

(Harrison exits. Goodell turns to a toady lurking in the background)

"Can we fine him for something this week?"

The end.

Or, while I stupidly spent time crafting a nuanced one act play, DJ Gallo summed it up with this picture.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Suisham Kicks Steelers to OT Win Over Bills

Anybody out there still questioning the Steelers decision to fire Jeff Reed?

Yeah. Didn't think so.

Veg. Black Bean Soup: The Sunday Recipe on the Road

One of the best things about being a Steelers fans is that, when you travel, you can always find a bar to call home. From Miami, Florida to Miami, Ohio; from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. My cousin Pete went to a Steelers bar in Rome. [The one in Italy, not the one in Georgia. And not Georgia, the Republic of, but the state in the south of the USA.]

One of my favorites writers, D.J. Gallo, wrote a great story about Steelers bars all over for ESPN. We're pretty spoiled as a group. I don't imagine it's this easy to find a joint to watch, say, the Rams. Or the Bengals. First off, who even wants to admit to being a Bengals fan, but that's another post altogether.

Meanwhile, it is pretty easy to find a Steelers bar in NYC, although my favorite haunt, Scruffy Duffy's, is no longer around. (Moment of silence for the great Scruffy Duffy's.) I will likely watch the Steelers whup up on the Bills and the pride of Harvard from Blondie's, a bar on the Upper West Side, so I'll probably end up knoshing on bar food for the game. But the Sunday Recipe must go on and one of my favorite Sunday Steelers foods is black bean soup.

You will need:
3 cans of black beans
vegetable stock (32 oz. container)
several carrots (shredded or one bag of matchstick carrots)
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 bell pepper, diced (preferably red, yellow or orange; green peppers are too bitter for this soup)
2 to 4 chilis, diced (any kind you like and as few or as many as you like, depending on your enjoyment of hot; I tend to eat fire, so ...)
1 can of diced tomatoes (at this time of year, the fresh tomatoes are pretty disgusting, so canned are actually better)
2 limes
2 or 3 tablespoons of ground cumin
The garnishes: sour cream, cilatro, hot sauce, scallions, tortilla chips

The prep:
The prep for this is really simple. Heat some olive oil in a soup pot. Smash and finely dice the garlic. Dice the onion, bell pepper and chilis. Add all the veg to the hot oil, add a pinch of salt and sautee until soft.

Then add the carrots and the cumin and continue to sautee until the carrots soften.

Rinse the beans thoroughly and add to the pot. Add the veg. stock and tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Taste to check for seasoning. You may need more salt. And, if you're like me, you'll probably need more cumin. Cook for about an hour.

Juice one lime and add the lime juice. Cook for another 10 to 15 minutes.

Serve with lime wedges, fresh cilantro, sour cream, diced scallions, cheese, hot sauce and tortilla chips. Super simple, super delicious, strangely healthy (but I don't let that stop me.)

Enjoy. Go Stillers.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Natalie Randolph Wrap Up for Thought Catalog

So I've been following closely the career of coach Natalie Randolph, spent a couple of days down at Coolidge High with her, with the vice-principal and principal. I don't think would have had any kind of access were it not for my connection with the Pittsburgh Passion and coach Randolph's former football coach, Ezra Cooper. So, thanks Horton, Sully and Ezra, for helping me get my foot in the door.

All of my Natalie Randolph writings are at the "women's football" sidebar.

I'm hoping to report on her again in 2011, but here's the 2010 finished product, Introducing Coach Natalie Randolph for Thought Catalog.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Recipe: Updated Italian Beans & Greens

I love beans. All kinds of beans prepared in all kinds of ways. But when I want beans at home (and not in chili or cuisinarted beyond recognition into hummus), I'm usually not prepared. The thing about beans is, they're high maintenance. You've got to soak them overnight and rinse and then, if I want to make my awesome cuban black beans, cook them all day. And I do mean, all damned day. It's kind of daunting. I've tried substituting canned beans, but the texture is all wrong, kind of what I imagine the texture of the inside of a dung beetle would be. Cheap and healthful beans may be. Delicious, too. But definitely high maintenance.

Then, a few weeks ago, Melissa Clark posted this recipe for herbed white beans and sausage stew. It cooks in a matter of hours, no overnight soaking required. What?I'm in! So I tried it and it was good, especially the beans which had real flavor and delicious texture. Not satisfied, I adapted it to a rustic Italian greens and beans recipe. The best part is that you don't have to be organized enough to think of it the night before. The cooking time is about 2 or 2 1/2 hours, but most of that time is just the beans simmering. You can check in on them every 15 or 20 minutes or so, but you can sit around with your feet up reading the paper or watching hockey, knowing that a delicious, healthy and cheap dinner is on the way.

You will need:
1 bag of dried great northern beans
1 pound of loose sausage (hot or sweet, depending on your taste)
2-3 carrots
4-6 cloves of garlic
1 large spanish onion
white wine
chicken stock
3 bundles of swiss chard
several sprigs of fresh thyme
freshly grated nutmeg
crushed red pepper
grated pecorino romano

The prep:
Heat some olive oil in a soup pot or large roasting pot. Add the sausage and really brown it and get it crumbled up. You want it to be cooked and you don't want great big chunks of it. Remove the sausage to a paper towel lined dish.

Add to the soup pot the diced carrots, chopped garlic, diced onion and add about 1 cup of white wine. As to cooking wine, some say that you shouldn't cook with it if you wouldn't drink it. Fiddlesticks. You don't want to use a bottle of wine that's been sitting around open for several weeks, turning vinegary, but you don't have to spend a ton of money on it, either. I usually get wine that is on special, so my cooking wine rarely costs me more than $7 per bottle. This week, I'm using a Mondavi Chardonnay (cost $6) that I would never, ever drink because it's a chardonnay. Blech. But for cooking, it's just fine.

So, you add the veg and wine. You want to deglaze the pan, so really work it to get up all the brown bits of goodness left over from the sausage. Cook about 5 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.

Add the beans, 2 cups of chicken stock and about 6 cups of water. Add the thyme and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Bring that up to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer. Add the sausage back in and let it cook for about 2 hours. If it's too dry, add some more water (or wine). Check for salt. You may not need to salt this much because sausage is usually kinda salty.

Meanwhile, clean and coarsely chop the swiss chard. In a large pot, bring water to a boil and add a pinch of salt. Add the chard and let that cook for about 7 minutes. You want to cook any residual bitterness out of the greens. Strain the greens, add the cooked chard to the bean pot, and add some freshly grated nutmeg. Nutmeg and greens go together like Butch and Sundance. Cook for another 30 minutes or so.

Serve in a bowl with grated pecorino romano cheese and some good crusty bread.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Do NFL Teams Really Need to Stretch the Field?

Every year, the Great Gene Collier hands out his Trite Trophy for the most ubiquitous or annoying (or both) cliche in sports. Past winners have included well-known trite-isms that were so pervasive we just adopted them into the common parlance without even noticing: Smashmouth Football, Gut Check, Crunch Time, West Coast Offense, and Red Zone, a term so insidiously pervasive that we even have a cable channel named after it.

These represent trite cliches, but they often hint at something deeper, start to peel back the protective layer of sports talking head-isms to reveal the fickle zeitgeist of the NFL, unexamined truisms thoughtlessly bandied about as though they were proven principals of physics.

This year, the talking heads all assert this inalienable truth: you must have a deep passing threat to stretch the defense. They say it as though it's a conclusion, like gravity holds you to the earth or something.

If you don't have this essential "deep threat" on your NFL team, you are doomed. Yea verily, frogs and lizards will rain down upon your city, children will find internet porn and atavistic miscreants will roam the streets kicking puppies and knocking over old ladies.

I don't buy it. I don't buy it because it contains some truth, but not all truth. It is unexamined nattering and, as such, needs to be aired out to see if it flies.

About half of the 10 receivers with catches of more than 20 yard are on legitimate playoff contenders. The other half ... well, not so much. Brandon Lloyd of Denver has 18 catches of 20+ yards, but the Broncos are a woeful 3-6, good for last in a very weak AFC West. The Pokes' Miles Austin has 11 catches of 20+ yards and we all know about all the big drama in Big D. TO has 12 such catches, but the Bungles aren't going anywhere except near the top of the draft class. Again. Andre Johnson also has 11 long catches, but the Houston Texans are doing their usual trick -- promising this will be the breakthrough year, but ending up with a record of 8-8. Again. Like they always do.

The fact is, about half the receivers who lead in this category play for non-contenders and the other half play for legit contenders. So: Deep threat? Kind of important.

There are so many other things more valuable than the much drooled over deep threat: an accurate quarterback, a defensive line that can pressure the quarterback, an offensive line that can control games, a shut-down corner, a coaching staff that knows how to manage the clock and on and on. Sure, it's nice to have a speed guy like DeSean Jackson or Mike Wallace. If nothing else, they are just fun to watch, running gazelle-like, the length of the field, a veritable blur on the screen.

But I'm not sure it contributes as much to winning as these other, harder to pin down elements of the game.

Here's a stat that reveals something about the defensive line -- fewest total yard surrendered. The Giants, Jets, Saints, Raiders, Steelers, Ravens, Bears and Eagles are all in the top 10 in that category. The only teams in the top 10 without winning records are the Vikes and the Chargers. Eight teams (nine if you include San Diego) fighting for division crowns rank in the top 10 in fewest yards surrendered.

Sticking with the defense, these teams are all in the top ten in fewest points allowed per game: Bears, Packers, Jets, Saints, Steelers, Ravens, Falcons, Titans. Again, only two teams made the top ten in this stat who are pretty well out of contention for the division crown, the Browns and the Rams (although, both of those teams are much, much improved.)

But it's not just defense, it's other things. As important as the offensive line is, sadly, there are no stats kept for pancake blocks or providing a comfortable passing pocket. But if the offensive line protects the quarterback, it's reasonable to assume he'll be able to do things on the field like convert third downs. The top 10 teams that convert on third down most successfully? You're looking at a list of teams planning on making some playoff money: Falcons, Saints, Eagles, Bucs, Pats, Colts, Ravens. (The interlopers on this list? Chargers, although, again, they're certainly not dead, the Dolphins and the Texans.)

Staying with the offensive line, the top 10 teams who have allowed the fewest sacks include: Giants, Colts, Pats, Jets, Saints, Falcons, Ravens. Allowing very few sacks indicates a good offensive line, but it also can indicate a quarterback who gets rid of the ball quickly, thus avoiding sacks. If the QB is waiting for the deep route to open up, he's probably hanging in the pocket a bit longer than a guy who is dumping the ball off for a 8 yard gain and a first down, thus risking a sack.

Maybe a look at recent Super Bowl winners will reveal something.

If a deep threat were so essential, the Patriots wouldn't have won three Super Bowls. The 2001, 2003 and 2004 versions of the New England Patriots were able to just crush teams under the drip, drip, drip of their short passing game. Not the deep threat, mind you, but the slow burn short game.

The defensive line of the 2007 Giants were a major factor in winning their Super Bowl. Basically, they won by beating up Tom Brady.

The 2006 Colts won because they had the best offensive line in football (and, rightfully, the MVP for that game should have been awarded to the entire line - or Jeff Saturday - rather than King Peyton.)

The 2002 Buccaneers (and their opponents, the Rich Gannon led Raiders) were short passing masters.

If it were absolutely crucial to have a terrifying deep threat, Randy Moss would have six rings. And yet, he has zero.

I'm not saying that having a deep threat is going to prevent you from winning. Certainly not. But the importance of the deep threat is being mightily overstated these days by the nattering nabobs of NFL booths.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Penguins Power Play Key

Every team has holes to fill, every team goes into each new season with questions. Penguins fans wondered, who was going to play on the wing with Sid? Frankly, that seems to be a question every year and Mike Comrie was supposed to be the answer there, but, meh, not so much. (More on that in another post.)

Then there was the question of how and where Arron Asham might fit in? Turns out, of late he's fit quite nicely next to Evgeni Malkin.

There were questions about how they would replace the solid defense of Mark Eaton (not to mention and Rob Scuderi, who I don't think has been adequately replaced since he left after winning the Cup.)

Just when, oh when, would we get the magnificent Jordan Staal back?

And of course, we all wondered if Flower would return to 2008-2009 magnificence? Or be the hot, erratic post-Olympic mess he was in the spring of 2010? That's still unanswered, really.

There were questions. Questions, questions everywhere.

But the big fat elephant at center ice for the Penguins was, in the absence of Sergei Gonchar, just who would quarterback the power play?

So far, the answer is nobody which might account for the fact that I actually groan when the Pens go on the power play. In the words of noted hockey fan Harvey Fierstein, is that so wrong?

A couple of years ago, we watched Geno quarterback the PP and that was P.U. Not wanting to revisit that ineptitude, they did the obvious and plugged in Gonchar's wingman on the PP, Alex Gologoski. Despite Gogo's obvious shooting ability, my buddy the UConn Fan astutely pointed out that dude just thinks way too much at the point and by the time he figures out what he wants to do, the defense has completely adjusted. You know, now that I think about it, rather than groaning, I should run a quick lap from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen, and then reverse my course and do it again, because when I'm done with that, the Pens power play should be set up in the offensive zone. It takes them at least 30 second, sometimes closer to a full minute - an eternity in hockey time - to set up.

Sometimes, I watch other teams and within 15 seconds of the power play starting, they've buried the puck in the back of the net. It looks so easy. They make it look fun, even. Power plays can be fun? Who knew. May god have mercy on my immortal soul, but the Flyers and the Capitals make it look like child's play.

But not our Pens, who convert on the PP only 13% of the time, good for 24th out of 30. I could understand how you might think the power play unit ranked 31st out of 30 if you have been watching them squander 80 out of their 92 opportunities. [That 92 power play chances? Is first in the league by a mile, which makes it even more painful somehow.]

But the problems with the power play go deeper, much deeper than the points they're leaving out there. Its like their special teams futility weighs on them, weighs them down, putting subsequent shifts in a funk, a malaise. Their inability to score -- heck, their inability to even generate scoring chances -- is killing them in all areas. The way they get a lift from a successful penalty kill, they get a comparable drag from failure on the power play.

Rumbles are that Dan Bylsma is going to deploy the pairing of Kris Letang and Paul Martin out there to run the PP starting tonight. Martin has been a really solid addition and I love Letang's speed and grace, so it's worth a shot. They'll need a boost tonight, because they've got Vancouver, a team with a solid penalty kill unit and Roberto Luongo in net.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

See Ya Skippy And Thanks for All the Classy Memories

The Steelers signed Shaun Suisham and cut kicker Jeff Reed today (expect him to turn up on Cincinnati's roster any second), but I thought I'd post an homage to our recently departed Skippy in pictures. Enjoy.

Why, here he is demonstrating just how he 'holds it' when he has to pee during a game, but can't sneak around to the outside of a nearby bar to relieve himself.

And here he is doing some community service by posing for a retirement home's watercolor class. Always giving back to the people, our Skippy.

"Don't make this symbol, dude. Somebody will put a cap in your ass!"

"It's complicated. First, you mix up the bleach and then you take the foil ..."

"If this kicking gig doesn't work, I'm thinking of becoming a hairdresser."

Accompanying text message: "I'd like to do the bathroom in a bolder color, so please think it over and text me with your ideas. Yours, Jeff."

Monday, November 15, 2010

To Boot Skippy Or Not to Boot Him?

Jeff Reed is endearing himself to everybody these days. After he turned in another terrible game against the Patriots, he called out the fans. Per the Post-Gazette:

'Reed's short miss came late in the third quarter with the Steelers behind 17-3. When he next kicked, an extra point following a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, fans in Heinz Field let out a loud, seemingly mock cheer.

Did he notice that reaction from the fans?

"I don't really know what you're talking about, but it doesn't surprise me. If you're not perfect in this city, man, then you're going to hear about it. It's been like that for nine years, and why would they stop now?

"Like I said there's 95 percent of those fans that got my back totally and then 5 percent you always hear. They're right by the kicking net, they were bashing me, but that's life, man, you got to move on. The worst thing for me to do would be to fight back at them.

"They started before the game even started. You know, like I said, they buy tickets just to bash me and Dan [Sepulveda] and Greg [Warren]. It's more me because points come off my foot."'

Really, Jeff? You think the fans were booing the holder and the snapper? He is living in a world of delusion if he thinks: (a) only 5% of the fans are sick of his shit and (2) that anybody in their right mind was booing Sepulveda (or Warren, for that matter.)

Now, he's endearing himself to the grounds crew at Heinz Field, to say nothing of the Steelers front office. Per ESPN:
'After the loss, Reed called into question the quality of the turf at Heinz Field.

"I'm not one to make excuses," Reed was quoted as saying in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I'll take the credit for the miss. It was a great snap, a great hold, great protection. It's kind of hard when you plant your foot and the hole -- a piece of ground moves where the ball's under the holder. I almost missed the ball completely.

"I'm not going to make excuses. If you've played any kind of sports in your life, you realize that what we play on is not very good turf. It happens."'

When our little thunder thighs first came to Pittsburgh, one of his greatest strengths was that he was oblivious to just about everything around him - crowd noise, pressure, rain, field conditions, wind, opponent -- didn't matter. He just went out and kicked.

He won big, big games for the Steelers. Like this one in 2007 versus the Dolphins (at right). I don't know that I've ever seen worse conditions, particularly not worse for a kicker. And yet in a tremendously important game, he hit one of the most unlikely field goals in team history.

He could kick at Heinz Field! Nobody can kick there. He was unfazed by pressure, unbothered by opposing coaches trying to ice him, didn't care about the time on the clock or the game on the line. He went from baling hay to kicking for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dude was a veritable folk hero around here.

Shortly after Super Bowl XL, I was at the Pitt-WVU basketball game at the Pete and a bunch of Steelers were there. Swear to God, Reed's hair was standing straight up(a good two inches) and he was wearing a thick headband. Also, he had on dark knee socks, into which his jeans were tucked. I think he was wearing shower sandals on his feet. Only our Skippy, right?**

Despite his obvious shortcomings - his hair, the photos of his junk, his clothing** -- we loved him for it. We did. The fans loved them some Skippy.

But it's all gone to hell now. Sadly. There was a time when I thought Jeff Reed was one of the three best kickers in the league (along with David Akers and Adam Vinatieri.) And, like any really great kicker, his greatest strength was his nerves. Nothing seemed to get to him.

He was money. Then, somehow, we didn't notice the shift, because it was subtle, but he was mostly money with a few misses. Still, nobody complained. You can't expect him to hit everything, particularly not at Heinz Field and the little hayseed with bad hair still enjoyed beloved kicker status. Then he turned into an erratic kicker, but one still capable of hitting some big kicks at least some of the time.

Now, he's just a kicker who is reliably unreliable. When the Steelers need a big kick, he shanks it like a golfer with the yips.

Reed is like a rotten potato in the vegetable crisper drawer. He makes the whole refrigerator stink.

This is the guy who wants to be the league's highest paid kicker? Get out of my face.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that the Steelers are auditioning kickers today at Heinz Field. I know it's a risk to switch kickers mid-season. I know it could blow up in the Steelers faces.

But it could also turn out as well as it did when Coach Cowher brought in an unknown named Jeff Reed. It's time, people. It's time.

Patriots Thump Steelers. Some Things Never Change

It's a crazy NFL season. Everybody says so. There are no 2006 Colts, no 2007 Patriots and no 2009 Saints. This seems to bother the talking heads quite a bit. I suspect it's because they can't just jump on a bandwagon and stay there. One week the Jets look dominant and the next they look like chumps. One week the Giants look like they've rounded back into 2007 form, and then next week they lay a stinker against the Cowboys (of all teams.)

Every one of the teams that look like contenders have laid at least one huge turd this year. Even the best teams are flawed. It's a crazy, upside-down NFL season, up for grabs for any of a dozen or so teams, but some things never seem to change.

Like the Tom Brady ass-whipping the Steelers. That never seems to change. The Steelers can, when they are on their game, beat 30 other teams in the NFL, but not the Patriots. At least not the Patriots when Brady is under center.

Patriots 39, Steelers 26.

I've seen this movie before. And I hated it the first half-dozen times I suffered through it. Two thumbs down. Way, Way down.

January 27, 2002: Patriots 24, Steelers 17.

September 9, 2002: Patriots 30, Steelers 14. In a game that looked eerily like last night's.

October 31, 2004: Steelers 34, Patriots 20. Yeah, I liked that one. I was hoping we'd see more like that.

January 23, 2005: Patriots 41, Steelers 27. Worse than the 2001 loss? Maybe it's a toss-up. They both sucked.

December 9, 2007: Patriots 34, Steelers 13.

Do I really have to go on? The 2008 game doesn't count because there was no Brady.

There is no NFL team I hate more than Evil Hoodie and his Patriots. This is well documented. Ironically, there is no team that the Steelers lose to like they do the Patriots. Oh, sure, sure, they drop a game to the Colts here and there. And split games with divisional rivals. It's gonna happen. Especially in division.

In hacker speak, Brady just owns them. When he comes to Pittsburgh, he should wear a t-shirt that reads "Because I'm the Daddy. That's why."

QB ratings are really not exact, and require complex logarithms calculate, but while they are not perfect, they do give you some idea of how effective a quarterback has been in a game, in a season, or against a certain team. Brady's played the Steelers six times in his career. The average of all of those six ratings gives him a lifetime QB rating against the Steelers of 106.7. That's really good, people.

A couple of years ago, the Patriots played in a little game against the Giants. No big deal or anything, it was just Super Bowl XLII, so maybe you saw it or heard about it. The Giants toppled the behemoth Patriots and they did it by hitting Brady. Then hitting him some more. They collapsed the pocket and took away a comfortable place for him to plant and throw. And then they hit him some more. It was an veritable instruction manual for beating Tom Brady.

The Steelers didn't hit him last night hardly at all. He could probably wear that game jersey again next week without even laundering it. Brady in a comfortable pocket = death. It's that simple. I don't care who your DB's or linebackers are, but if you give he of the Justin Beiber hair (formerly of the tiny hipster hat) time, he will carve you up like a Thanksgiving turkey. And so he did.

As to last night's mess on the offensive side for the Steelers, there are plenty of reasons for the dysfunction. Heck, most of the starting offensive line has no business starting an NFL game. I'm not sure I've seen a guard have a worse game than Trai Essex did, and except for Hotel Flozell and the magnificent rookie Maurkice Pouncey, they were all taken to the woodshed most of the night. The Steelers never did establish any kind of offensive rhythm and without Hines Ward in there, Pig Ben had no safety blanket in the redzone. (Has there ever been a worse redzone offense than this iteration of the Steelers? Maybe like the Rich Kotite Jets or something, but this is an historically inept team when they get the ball inside the 10.)

So, what does this Patriots mastery over the Steelers mean for right now, today? Is it a blip, just more of the same? The Steelers can beat everybody but Brady, so they can right the ship and hope to not see the Pats in the playoffs? It's possible, right? Right?!

Or, is this loss the tipping point, just the beginning of the another second half swoon like the one we saw last year?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Recipe: Turkey Meatballs & Angel Hair Alio e Olio

My old friend the Deadhead had Steelers season tickets for a long time. Of course, this meant a regular tailgate for several hours prior to each home game. Every year was the same, the players came and went, some years the Steelers won, some years they lost (spawning the refrain, "Steelers are losin', so we're boozin'"), but the rhythm of the tailgate was unchanging. The season kicked off with a feast fit for Henry the VIII -- steak, sausages, salads, fresh bread, turkey, pasta, meatballs, cocktails, beer, wine and anything else you could possibly to lug down to Three Rivers Stadium. (This went on, as I said, for some time, back to the old days of Three Rivers.) By the end of the season, they inevitably lost steam. It was so much work, so much schlepping. The last home game of the year, the repast was usually a pathetic over-sized sub sandwich and a quarter keg. The attrition of a long season wears on fans, too.

As Sunday dawns, while my coffee brews, the Sunday Recipe looms and I am reminded of the Deadhead's tailgate. I view it as a cautionary tale, one I don't want to repeat here in the bloggy-world. The NFL season is taking a toll (are the Steelers going to play all of their games at night? Will the NFL gods ever tire of torturing me so?), so in an effort to stave off the virtual "sandwich ring," I'm serving one of my favorites, a meal I make often and enjoy every time, pasta alio e olio, but the star of the show is the turkey-spinach meatballs.

You will need:
2 pounds of ground turkey (I use white meat)
3 eggs
2 shallots
1 package of frozen spinach (a bag, not a box), thawed and drained
about 2 cups breadcrumbs
1 cup grated romano cheese
crushed red pepper
olive oil
3 cloves of garlic
fresh parsley, preferably flat leaf (a nice handful)
1 pound of whole wheat angel hair pasta (more on this later)

To prepare the meatballs:
Thoroughly thaw the spinach and drain it really well. I usually put it in some paper towels and give it a good squeeze it to get all the excess water out. Water does not equal flavor.
Add the spinach to the turkey, plus two eggs, breadcrumbs (about 3 palmfuls for me, because I don't really measure anything, if we're being honest here), about a palmful (or a little more) of grated romano cheese, the shallots (finely diced), a healthy pinch of salt and a pinch of crushed red pepper.
Mix together and form into balls. Size? Bigger than a golf ball but smaller than a lacrosse ball is what I usually shoot for. Lay out on an aluminum foil lined cookie sheet (you'll need two trays) and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. You'll smell them when they're ready.

For the pasta,
I've never been a fan of whole wheat pasta, despite the alleged health benefits. In the past, in an effort to eat allegedly healthier food and still quell my pasta jones, I'd try choking down some whole wheat pasta, which usually kicked off one of my diatribes against all things whole wheat, and ended with me sputtering that to even call that whole wheat crap "pasta" was an affront to real pasta everywhere. I stand by that original assessment - that most whole wheat pasta is a slap in the face, an affront to proud, delicious semolina pasta.

However, I have discovered a reasonably tasty whole wheat pasta: Gia Russa, angel hair. If you can't find Gia Russa, then get any imported whole wheat. Americans don't grind the wheat finely enough, which just messes with the texture of the pasta. And good pasta is all about the right texture. It should be chewy, yes, but also silky, and coarsely ground wheat is anything but. Also, I think the thinness of angel hair helps perpetuate the illusion that you're eating silky semolina pasta, so I find that angel hair is the only cut of whole wheat pasta I can tolerate. Or, you can do what I usually do and just use regular friggin' pasta. Whatever you decide, cook the angel hair in well salted water until just before it's al dente.

For the alio e olio,
Heat some olive oil in a large skillet and add three cloves of garlic (crushed, grated or finely diced) and a pinch of crushed red pepper until the garlic is soft and starting to brown. Then add the cooked pasta to the skillet for a minute or two and toss with the chopped parsley. Add the meatballs and serve it all with grated pecorino romano cheese.

As to the football, I'm hoping we see a lot of plays that look like this:

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Disingenuous Debate Over Player Safety

The Pittsburgh Steelers, like every NFL team, have suffered a huge number of injuries already, just through eight games on the season. Some of these players returned to the field, but others are lost for the season, and all of the players listed below have missed playing time and shown up on the injury report for one reason or another:

Byron Leftwich, Chris Kemeoatu, Arnez Battle, Bryant McFadden, Dennis Dixon (gone for the year), Heath Miller, Flozell Adams, Maurkice Pouncey, Max Starks (gone for the year), Trai Essex, Aaron Smith (likely gone for the year), Chris Hoke, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, Mewelde Moore, Issac Redman and Will Allen (these last last three suffered concussions, just fyi.)

Meanwhile, Judge Dread talks convincingly of player safety. The League cares. He cares. Deeply, you see. So deeply that the fines just keep on coming for unsafe player hits because, you know, at the NFL's HQ on Madison Avenue they care about nothing more than player safety.

The fines are so numerous that it's hard to list them all. The highlights, the most talked about fines were the ones to Pittsburgh's James Harrison, New England's Brandon Meriweather, Atlanta's Dunta Robinson and Green Bay's Nick Collins.

But on any given week, you can check in with ESPN's Adam Schefter for a rundown of the fines because there are tons that do not get much airplay. This is from Schefter's column from just one single week in the NFL:
"Defensive lineman Myron Pryor has been fined $7,500 for a fourth-quarter hit that opened a cut on Favre's chin. ...

Patriots linebacker Gary Guyton was also fined $7,500 for his first-quarter hit on Favre in last Sunday's 28-18 win. ...

Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison was fined $20,000 for a late hit on Saints quarterback Drew Brees ...

Tennessee defensive end Jason Babin was fined $20,000 for roughing San Diego QB Philip Rivers when he unnecessarily struck Rivers in the knee area ...

Two San Francisco 49ers linebackers were fined for hits on Denver quarterback Kyle Orton in the 49ers' win last Sunday at London. ...

Manny Lawson was docked $12,500 for roughing the passer, using his helmet to hit Orton in the chest. ...

Ahmad Brooks loses $10,000 for striking Orton in the head and neck area. ...

Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons was fined $7,500 for a late hit on Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell. ...

Two Raiders also were fined, including guard Robert Gallery for a late hit on Clemons that cost him $7,500. Rookie linebacker Rolando McClain was hit for a $7,500 fine for grabbing Seahawks running back Justin Forsett by the helmet in an attempt to tackle him."

I'm sure the NFL charities do good work, and I know that, at least for some of these players, a $25,000 fine is the equivalent of a $25 parking ticket for you or me. So I'm not crying poor on behalf of the players, but ...

It seems to me that the players fines and all the talk of possibly suspending players for the most egregious, dangerous hits, has much in common with the the green curtain, spooky lights, amplified voice, smoke and steam in the Wizard of Oz: simply, effects meant to distract Dorothy and her comrades so they wouldn't notice the little man behind the curtain. Don't look there. Look here!

Judge Dread has beautifully positioned himself as Clara Barton and the players as the bad guys. See, he cares about player safety, while the players themselves do not. James Harrison, Roy Williams, even saintly Troy Polamalu have aired grievances about the way fines are meted out and handled. It makes them seem as though they don't care about their own safety or that of other players.

[And, as concerns closed head injuries, there is some truth to this. Football players at all levels still minimize the after-shocks of concussions. I very recently talked to a high school football player who was severely concussed in a game. It was a scary concussion -- the kid was out cold for a good while. The team trainer declared him ineligible to play the last five games of the season, knowing that if she left it up to the player himself, he would have gone back out there the very next week. It's no different at higher levels of NCAA football or the NFL. This is just how players think.]

But yet, does the league care about player safety? Or is all the talk of fines meant to distract us from the obvious disregard for the safety of the workforce not named Manning or Brady?

I am the Great and Mighty Oz and I am fining Nick Collins! [Pay no attention to the fait accompli (and obvious danger to the NFL's workforce) of the 18 game season that the owners want so much.]

The Great and Mighty Oz has declared James Harrison the greatest danger to player safety since the flying wedge was outlawed! [Pay no attention to Thursday night games that requires players to play games after just three days rest.]

Nothing makes the players more unsafe than a lack of preparation and recuperation time. Nothing could add more danger than adding two additional and completely unnecessary regular season games. These moves are more dangerous than the Nick Collins, Dunta Robinson, James Harrison and Brandon Meriweather hits combined. If not more dangerous, then at least as dangerous.

I think it was a Tennesse Williams character who cried, "Mendacity!" Or maybe it was Ray Lewis. (It's so rare that I find myself in complete and total agreement with the elder Ravens linebacker, and yet, on this one, Ray Ray and I are simpatico.)

So long as the NFL continues the disgusting money grab of Thursday night football (prime time football means mad bling for the owners) and the even more disgusting money grab of adding two more games to the regular season schedule, they cannot in good conscience claim to care about player safety.

They only care about the appearance of caring about player safety. Actual player safety? Not so much.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sunday Recipe: Thai Style Chicken Noodle Soup

I love soup. I could eat soup five nights out of seven. I also love noodles, all kinds of noodles: spaghetti, tagliatelle, noodle kugel, mac -n-cheese, rice noodles and on and on. In fact, I can't think of a noodle I don't like or a preparation of noodles I won't eat. As I have been traveling and working all weekend, what I want today is some comfort food, which is to say, noodle soup.

This is one of my favorite soups. It's hearty and warming and spicy. It's the perfect soup for a chilly day like today.

You will need:
1 bundle of bok choy (you can use napa cabbage or celery cabbage, which I am using today because the bok choy was kinda meh)
1 package of extra firm tofu
1 cup of mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 shallots
3 cloves of garlic
3 scallions, sliced
1 hot chili pepper (use a thai chili if you can find it)
fresh ginger, about 1/2 teaspoon
hot sesame oil
soy sauce
roasted red curry paste
1 box of thin rice noodles. (These are easy to find, but you can use italian angel hair pasta if you prefer wheat noodles.)
4 chicken thighs (you can use breast meat, too, but I like thighs in soups)
4 cups of chicken stock

The Prep:
Drain the tofu. Dice into bite sized even cubes. Line a colander with paper towels and put the tofu cubes in there to continue to drain while you do the rest of the prep. The firmer, drier the tofu is, the better. I loathe mushy tofu.

Put the chicken into roasting dish. Finely chop 1 clove of garlic, dice hot pepper and grate a small amount of ginger. Add to the chicken with a drizzle of olive oil and pinch of salt. Cover and roast for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Uncover and roast for another 10 minutes. (You could cook the chicken in the soup, but I think it has a better flavor when it's roasted.)

Finely dice 2 cloves of garlic and 2 shallots. Sautee in soup pot with olive oil and a couple of drops of the hot sesame oil (use more or less depending on your taste for spicy; this stuff is hot.) Add the carrots and pinch of salt. Sautee until the carrots get soft. Add the tofu and crisp that up. Add the mushrooms and sautee that whole mix for just a couple of minutes.

Add the chicken stock, about 1/2 teaspoon of the roasted red curry paste, 1/2 teaspoon of sriracha and 2 teaspoons of soy sauce. Let simmer until the stock is good and hot. When it's hot, add the shredded chicken and let that cook for another 20 minutes.

Bring a separate pot of water to boil for the rice noodles. These only take a few minutes to cook. Salt the water when it's boiling. It's the only chance you have to season the noodles, so do it.

Add the scallions. Clean and coarsely chop the bok choy and add to the stock. Bring the heat up on the stock for a couple of minutes when you add the bok choy; it only takes a couple of minutes to cook, but you do want to wilt it. Add the cooked, drained noodles.

I like mine super spicy, so I usually add more sriracha when I sit down to eat, but not everybody likes to set their entire face on fire when they eat. If you like cilatro, garnish it with some fresh cilantro.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

To Run Or Not To Run? The Question that Plagues the Steelers

More than the missed field goal, more than some strange coaching decisions, more than the crowd noise, and more than the Heath Miller fumble, one series from Sunday's night's game has been flashing in my head, Alfred Hitchcock like, with the accompanying strident string score.

After a brilliant return by rook Emmanuel Sanders, runs by Rashard Mendenhall of 4, 6 and 7 yards, a 6 yard screen pass to Mendenhall, and a nice seam route pass to Antwan Randal-El, the Steelers were stifled at the 1/2 yard line.


Can't be. Because, didn't Art Rooney the Lesser issue a dictum that the team should work on running better in 2010 than it had in 2008 and 2009? Didn't Mike Tomlin promise, not that the team would run more, but that the team would run more effectively? Didn't Bruce Arians say that they would be better at running, even if they were still a predominantly throwing team?

And yet ... three shots to go one yard. Three chances for a touchdown mid-way through the 2nd quarter of a scoreless game against the defending Super Bowl champs changes the complexion of the game. Who knows? Maybe after that Drew Brees goes all Drew Brees on the Steelers and rains long bombs down on them all night? But maybe, just maybe, the satisfaction of scoring a touchdown there, gives both the defense and the offense a lift? Or maybe not. But I like 7-0 a lot better than 3-0.

When fans in Pittsburgh scream to run the ball, this is what they're talking about. They're not screaming to run the ball 39 times a game; nobody's calling for a return to "Hey diddle, diddle, Rogel up the middle" days of coach Walt Keisling. Heaven forfend. But I'm not sure that you can just run when you want to. Offensive lines get good at run blocking through practice and through the doing of it. An NFL team, any NFL team with playoff hopes (dare I say it, Super Bowl hopes), should be able to punch the ball in from the one yard line.

Wasn't this precisely the problem last year?

Three problems defined that 2009 five game house of horrors losing streak: (1) defensive letdowns, (2) special teams shit (sorry, there's no other word for the kick coverage units) and (3) a non-existent short-yardage running game.

Of that terrible stretch, I pin the loss to the Chiefs on the special teams, the loss to the Raiders on the defense, and the loss to the Ravens on, well, on the Ravens. That was a close one and it's tough to beat the Ravens in Baltimore with your back-up, back-up quarterback.

But, the losses to the Bengals and the Browns? The defense and the special teams didn't help much, but the Steelers terrible redzone offense contributed mightily to those losses. Yea, mightily, my friends.

Four times the Steelers drove inside the Bengals 20 and came away with four field goals. Shameful.

Even worse, several weeks later, at 6-6 and fighting for their post-season lives, from their performance, you would never have known that the Steelers offense got the memo that it was, gee, kinda important to win the game against the lowly Browns. A Browns team led by Brady Quinn at quarterback, for crying out loud. Putting up a total of six points against the Browns? Well, there just are no words for a performance like that.

The Steelers are 5-2, which is a good thing, so I'm not complaining. They've played themselves into a really good position for the second half of the season and that's a pleasant place to be.

Still, you'll excuse me, but my post-traumatic stress disorder from the 2009 season is really itching and burning. Last year, after seven games, they were also 5-2. With almost identical losses - one to a divisional opponent and one to a non-conference opponent. Hey, they were in great shape! We're going to the Super Bowl again!

I'll believe it when they actual nail down at least 10 wins.

On a sad note, NBA great Maurice Lucas died on Monday after a battle with cancer. Lucas, a product of Pittsburgh's Hill District, is featured in the amazing David Halberstam book, "The Breaks of the Game," which I count as one of the 10 best sports books of all time. (See list, Part 1 and Part 2.) For more on Lucas, check out David Steele's terrific story at AOL's Fanhouse.

Monday, November 1, 2010

That Was Unpleasant, Saints 20 - Steelers 10

In the words of the great, the one of a kind, the one and only Bugs Bunny, "Ain't I a stinker?"

Yup. It was that kind of night. A stinker.

You just knew Drew Brees was not going to play another error filled game after being humiliated by the Browns last week. You just knew Gregg Williams wanted out LeBeau Dick LeBeau's defense. And yet, that was very unpleasant, wasn't it? The Saints played great. I expect that was exactly the game they wanted to play. Even so, there's plenty of blame to go around on the other black and gold squad.

Through a turgid first half and third quarter, Bruce Arians was completely befuddled by the Saints defense; despite the fact that they were sending all out blitzes on just about every play, he didn't adjust his calls until the 4th quarter. There's slow, there's obtuse, and then there's Bruce Arians.

The offense's inability to get in with a 1st and goal at the 1 yard line. Kudos to the Saints defense for a great stand there, but when you leave four points on the field like that, nine times out of ten, it's going to come back to bite you in the ass. [Of course, the Steelers D basically got those 4 points back when they put on their own amazing goal line stand denying the Saints with a 1st and goal at the 1 yard line, too.]

Pig Ben looked like ass through much of the first half; his throws were into the turf and/or way off target. He seemed to shake that off as the game went on, but he and Hines Ward have been playing together long enough that you'd think they'd have some hot reads down pat when defenses bring that kind of pressure; they didn't and that was perhaps the most discouraging element of last night's loss.

Coach Tomlin made a couple of strange decisions, the strangest of which was sending that moronic hayseed of a kicker in to attempt a 51 yard field goal late in the 2nd quarter. I knew Skippy was going to pull that kick, you knew Skippy was going to pull that kick, all 70,011 costume wearing, besotted spectators at the Superdome knew Skippy was going to pull that kick, so why didn't Tomlin? [Now seems like an appropriate time to mention that I have gone off the reservation in my loathing of Jeff Reed. His inability to hit anything but the chippiest of chip shots, combined with his short kick offs and palpable apathy on coverage units -- I can't even look at the guy anymore. Can they please start auditioning kickers today? Please?!] The end result was that the Saints got the ball at their own 41 and moved easily to get a field goal to close out the first half.

Emmanuel Sanders essentially broke up a perfect pass to Hines Ward which would have given the Steelers a huge 1st down. And it came on what seemed like one of the few perfect hot reads the Steelers made all night. Ouch. C'mon Rook. Get your head in the game.

There's lots of blame to go around, but even with all of the above and more that I haven't mentioned (like Brees playing Polamalu like a fiddle on one occasion), the game really comes down to the Heath Miller fumble.Everything was going the Steelers way. Rashard (no longer Suspect) Mendenhall, had ripped off a huge touchdown run to close the gap to 3 points. B-Mac caused a fumble on a corner blitz and the Steelers were driving for the go-ahead score. Then Miller coughed it up and the game was over because the Saints did what good teams do -- turned a great break into a touchdown. That was some kind of catch by Lance Moore. That he went up for it and held onto it with Troy and B-Mac crunching him (legally, mind you, in the torso area), was a spectacular play. You make plays like that, you deserve to win, as far as I'm concerned.

I think what's frustrating is that we know the Steelers are capable of playing better than that. Still, all hail the Saints, who played the game they needed to play, when they needed it most.