Friday, August 19, 2005

Something's Going Around

Look, I understand that a big part of reporting news is that the more sensational you can make the story the better -- at least in terms of generating interest (good or bad). For a prime example of this business model at work, just take a look at any ESPN program that doesn't include an actual sporting event. For specific examples see "Cold Pizza" with Woody Paige and Skip Bayless, or "Quite Frankly" with Stephen A. Smith. Television makes it much easier to get a controversial point across because the viewer can watch the likes of Bayless or Smith make facial expressions usually reserved for people suffering from severe diarrhea, or hear their screams of incredulity as they disagree with anyone trying to make a cogent point.

However, the print media is still a good place to ply your trade in preparation for the big jump to the small screen. Name an idiot who gets a lot of face time on some dopey ESPN program and I'll show you a guy who got his start writing ridiculous articles for some newspaper. (One exception of course, is Tony Reali, a.k.a. "Stat Boy" -- I don't think he had a job prior to "PTI" and "Around the Horn." Thanks Max Kellerman.)

Anyway, here's my point: I think I've found ESPN's next great treasure. His name is Adam Schein and he currently hosts a radio show on Sirius. He also wrote a pretty silly article for Fox Sports a couple of days ago. I would never have even seen it if it wasn't for David's keen eye, but since I'm a glutton for really crappy writing that substitutes a large helping of insanity for anything resembling rationality, I'll consider this an early Christmas present.

The title to Schein's piece is "Steelers are already in big trouble," with the subtitle reading, "The Pittsburgh Steelers are not going to the Super Bowl." Fine. The Steelers might be in big trouble; they certainly might not go to the Super Bowl. Schein has my attention. Now I want to know why he thinks this might be the case.
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and Duce Staley will get hurt. Bill Cowher spent all last week telling everyone that Staley's knee was nothing to worry about. Staley spent the ensuing Monday undergoing knee surgery to repair a tear. You cannot count on Staley, even when he comes back.


A team that wins and sets everything up based on the run doesn't have a legit starting running back. Plus, the team is starting Max Starks at right tackle, and he was your typical boom-or-bust lineman at Florida. The Steelers losing tackle Oliver Ross to Arizona will also hurt.
Sigh. So let me get this straight. Schein thinks the Steelers will miss the playoffs because Duce Staley is injured and because Max Starks is currently an unproven second year starter? Um, didn't Staley miss a good part of the season in 2004? And didn't some guy nicknamed the Bus have a pretty surprising resurgence in Staley's absence? Just asking. I understand that Bettis has made it clear that he can't start 16 games this season. I know that -- anybody with basic cable and dial-up knows that -- and it's not news. Bettis has also made it clear that he can be the starter until Staley gets healthy.

Not only that, but both Verron Haynes and Willie Parker look to get a lot more playing time. I'm well aware of the fact that the Steelers mix of backs either suffer from old age, injury proneness (just made that one up), or inexperience, but here's the thing: as long as the offensive line can stay healthy, I don't think the running game will be a problem, no matter who's back there (well, just as long as the Steelers don't go out and get Amos Zereoue, I guess). And that leads me to the Max Starks issue Schein raised above. I'll admit that I don't know a lot about offensive line play, other than when a fat lineman gets beat and the QB gets mauled, everybody in the stadium knows it. But I do believe some of the guys that follow the Steelers on a daily basis. Jim Wexell, my new favorite beat writer, and Tunch Ilkin (the Steelers radio guy) have both had pretty positive things to say about Starks since training camp. And from what I saw in the first preseason game, Starks played well save one play where he forgot to block Jevon Kearse.

And don't forget, this team is two years removed from one of the worst offensive lines this side of the 1978 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So like I said, as long as this year's line can stay healthy, I don't think the running game will be an issue. And don't get me wrong, Schein might be right, but I wouldn't mind some explanation for these proclamations. You know, at least more than, "because I said so" type stuff.

Well, as the article progressed, things didn't get any better:
The Ravens will have a special defense this year and will win the division. This secondary has a chance to be one of the greatest in years. I watched this team practice last week and the secondary is already in midseason form. Ed Reed, a game changer, is the best defensive player in the league not named Peppers. Chris McAlister is focused after contractual distractions last year. CB Samari Rolle was one of the best pickups in free agency. Underrated safety Will Demps was flying all over the field. And oh by the way, Dale Carter and Deion Sanders are there, too.

I spent 15 minutes with an all-fired-up Ray Lewis, who told me he's never trained harder in an off-season, sparked by media criticism that he's lost a step. I'd be afraid.
Sigh (louder than previous sigh). Here's something I've noticed as I read preseason articles at the major publications and websites: whenever a writer visits a particular team's practice, they immediately become "the team to beat," or a team that could "sneak up on some people." (see anything Peter King has written in the last month for examples.) In the social sciences they have a name for this: the recency effect. Yeah, that's right, I remember something from college. What's interesting about Schein slurping the Ravens defense is that nowhere does he mention the effect an injury would have on that unit. And what's funny is that if someone in the secondary goes down for an extended period, this unit goes from one of the best in football to decidedly mediocre.

That's what happens when a team switches to the 46 defense, and relies on their cornerbacks to be in a lot of man coverage with no help from the safeties. Both Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle are great cover guys, but who can do their jobs if there's an injury? Sanders? Carter? Combined these two are almost 80 years old and they've missed more games due to injuries than Staley and Bettis combined. Oddly, Schein didn't mention any of this. Hmmm. Schein ends the article by suggesting that the Steelers will win eight or nine games.

Maybe. I doubt it, but after the 2003 season, anything's possible. The thing is, Schein did a really crappy job of convincing me of anything other than he's not very good at expressing himself via the written word.

Of course it's these types of articles that get me really worked up, which I blame squarely on ... me because I'm too dumb to quit reading. But hey, if it weren't for guys like Smith, Bayless and Mark Madden, what would I talk about? Whatever the case, Rowdy of Honest Wagner lends some perspective on these preseason articles that offer little in the way of actual substance.
I'm starting to realize that the CW has Ben Roethlisberger coming "down to earth" this year. Chuck Delsman, for example:
If you're looking for an NFL player who will fall back to earth this season, try Ben Roethlisberger. I look for him and the Pittsburgh Steelers to struggle and miss the playoffs.
The more people bet against the Steelers, the better their chances. They play better with a chip on their shoulders. Last year they were universally disrespected after the 6-10 season. It's a good thing to see the Roethlisberger-will-be-a-dud meme going.

I don't know if it was Ward's good faith or the abundant magic on Monday Night, but I'm growing more optimistic about this Steeler season. No way Roethlisberger will be as good as he was last year. Well, he'll be better, but there's no way his stats will reflect that. Teams will attack weaknesses that he had (but no one knew about) in 2004. We can expect that. But down to earth? I doubt the guy will be mundane. My point in stating the expectation that he'll look worse on paper is mainly to say that everything went right in the 15-1 season, and the odds are greatly against a repeat of that run. He'll throw a game-ending interception into the end zone this year. When comparing the 2005 Steelers to the 2004 Steelers, you have to see that we can't expect Roethlisberger to be as near-perfect as he was last year.
Hey, how about that? A common sense approach to how the season will play out without all the arm-waving and hyperbole. Rowdy still believes the Steelers might only win nine games, but the thing is, he offers some explanation for his beliefs. And that's all I'm asking for. Is that too much? Here's something I wrote last year when Tribune-Review columnist Joe Starkey made some silly, unresearched remarks about the Steelers off-season free agent signings, and I think it holds true here also:
"...making contentious claims without substantiation doesn't mean you're clever, it just means you're lazy."
Adam Schein, make sure you write that down.