Friday night was a perfect night for a football game, even in Prince George's County, Maryland. They may be the Washington Redskins, but they play their games in a nearby suburb known locally as P-G County or, more irreverently, Piggy County.
Piggy County may be suburban, but big cities have nothing on it when it comes to crime and corruption. The former county executive, Jack Johnson, was just sentenced to a long stretch in federal prison for an extensive pay for play scheme that netted him huge sums of money from developers. And when the feds came for him, he called his wife and told her to flush a one hundred thousand dollar check down the toilet and to stuff huge wads of cash in her brassiere.
Movie stars may have million dollar figures, but the lovely Leslie Johnson had a 76-thousand dollar rack. At least that's what the feds found stuffed in her bra. She just resigned from her position on the County Council and will be spending the foreseeable future indoors, though not with her husband.
FedEx Field, formerly Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, is hidden away in Landover, formerly Raljon. It's in a nondescript area just inside the beltway. You get off at Exit 15 and drive east for a couple of blocks and make a right turn where there are signs that say "game parking." Otherwise, you might never know there is a stadium there.
You pass a bunch of new housing, mostly townhouses. There are hundreds of units, all new, and no sign at all of human habitation was visible at 4:45 on Friday afternoon. One was reminded of the Potemkin village in North Korea, just north of the 38th parallel. Perhaps Redskin owner Daniel M. Snyder uses them as housing for his employees and they were all down the street at his stadium at the time.
The green parking lot is the first on your left. Rick from VA is your driver and Homer J is the passenger as we grab a spot at the back of the lot, right by the exit. The area is filled with tailgaters, a slight majority wearing black and gold.
There is absolutely no animosity between Steeler fans and Skins fans at the tailgate, probably because there is no rivalry. Both sets of fans are united in their contempt for Redskin owner Daniel M. Snyder, though most Redskin fans don't stop with contempt. They absolutely hate Snyder, whom they call the Devil. A recent article in the Washington City Paper showed a photo of Snyder with devil's horns added, along with a moustache and goatee. Snyder sued City Paper for a bunch of millions of dollars, and all of the radio, tv, and newspaper outlets (except those that Snyder owns) mocked him and denounced him as everything short of the devil. I guess they stopped short because they didn't want to get sued.
Anyway, if Snyder IS the devil, then I guess his stadium must be the Devil's Den. And that's where Rick and Homer found themselves Friday evening.
Tailgating at an opposing team's stadium is a rite of passage in Steeler Nation. It's a giant Western Pennsylvania reunion. "Where ya from?" is the phrase most commonly heard. People share beer and soda and food, toss around footballs and beanbags and stuff, and search for some commonality like hometowns or mutual friends. We are of different races, religions, and nationalities, but this is nothing but background noise. We are all Black and Gold, and - thus - all friends. No introductions are necessary. It's sort of like Woodstock, only for grownups and their kids.
There are a surprising number of mixed couples. By that, I refer to couples where one is wearing a Steeler jersey and the other a Redskin jersey. They can do what they want, that's fine with me, so long as the kids are raised Black and Gold. And I should probably mention that nearly all the Redskin fans have Rooney Envy. They all talk about how the Steeler management is great, and they wish their owner was more like the Rooneys.
As we get closer to gametime, we wolf down the Subway sandwiches and Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer Ale (cold, sweet, delicious and perfect for a hot summer tailgate) and head into the stadium.
The Devil's Den is just like a real NFL stadium, only really, really tacky. They are handing out white Redskin towels as you enter. This is your first sign that the Redskins are taking this meaningless exhibition game seriously. Homer considers turning down the towel offer but then remembers it's the beginning of allergy season. Good thought. The towel was later put to good use as a honker, at least half a dozen times. By the time Homer discards the Snyder Schmatta it could well be a Jets' towel, because it's green and white. But I digress.
Our seats are terrific. Section 111, row 2, on the aisle. We are in the end zone, at field level, and the goal post is just to our right. We are actually four rows back from the field. The jumbotrons are on either end of the stadium, above each end zone, and are great. You couldn't ask for a better view, once you get used to watching the actual game in front of you and a giant magnification of the game right directly above that on the 'tron.
One really tacky part of the Devil's Den is how they turn up the volume real loud during time outs and play commercials on the jumbotron. And, of course, they use the PA announcer to rile up the crowd as the jumbotron tells them to "get loud" on third down defensive stands. At one point, the jumbotron commanded, "on your feet," and I looked around. Only the ushers, security guards, and vendors selling nine dollar beer were on their feet, along with one guy in the aisle on his way to the crapper. So much for riling up the crowd.
There were also a couple of young men in tight pants running about the field with giant Redskin flags. They looked like refugees from either a Florida State Seminoles game or last year's Capital Pride Parade.
The Redskins Band is a wonderful touch, and the Redskinettes are a wonderful look but don't touch. Of course, as we all know, the Steelers don't need cheerleaders because (all together now) IN PITTSBURGH, ALL THE BEAUTIFUL WOMAN ARE IN THE STANDS.
The crowd was about 50-50, with maybe a few more Redskin fans than Steeler fans. The crowd was friendly and the ushers and security folks were good natured and helpful.
The game sucked. Big time.
Shanahan was playing to win, while Tomlin was playing to win in November. For Tomlin, these were auditions. He wanted to see right away whether the guys in the middle or the bottom of his 90 man roster could play.
Shanny went with his first stringers for the entire first half. Big Ben had five plays. The Redskins first unit scored their only touchdown of the game against the Steelers' second unit. Tomlin rested his veterans and didn't want to risk injury, and yet nearly all the injuries in the game happened to Steeler starters. Go figure.
So it was the Steelers without Troy, without Deebo, without BMac, and pretty much without Clark, without Ike, without Ben, without Heath. And with LeBeau calling vanilla defenses with few complicated blitzes. Coach Dad saves that fancy stuff for when it counts.
I've never seen an exhibition game where so many defensive players with numbers in the 20's and 50's were chasing the quarterback for sacks and hurries. Shanny and his staff were dialing up corner blitzes and safety blitzes all over the place, cause this game really meant something to them. And they were causing great confusion among young and inexperienced Steeler rookie wannabes.
Quite simply, the Redskins had prepared to play the Steelers, but - as Bob Labriola points out - the Steelers had not prepared to play the Redskins. Not that there's anything wrong with that. This was audition time for Tomlin's Got Talent. Sadly, the talent that played on Friday night showed very little.
The Steelers stunk up the joint. And Camp Cupcake will probably be out of business on Tuesday. The defensive backfield was especially inept, and some of them will soon be let go. They will be urged to get on with their life's work, but hopefully none of them will apply for police jobs. Based on Friday night, most of them couldn't cover a dead body with a white sheet.
Briefly, Ben and the first string O looked decent. Antonio Brown and Isaac Redman looked terrific. Robopunter looked great. Foote and Sylvester were impressive on defense. Cameron Hayward looked like a beast out there, huge, raw, talented, and scary. He was playing against scrubs, but the potential was clearly evident.
The defense was miserable, giving up 400 yards plus and failing to stop anybody on third down. Jason Worilds was a huge disappointment, especially on run support. He has great speed, but kept showing up half a second too late. He looks now like Ziggy did in Ziggy's first half season. I'm not sure if it's slow recognition or a lack of strength, but it's cause for concern. With Hood, he adjusted, gained experience, sped up his game and became a star. Worilds has shown he has star potential as a pass rusher, but his run support needs improvement. Ivy looked good at LB against the scrubs.
Lefty hasn't changed. Still the same delivery, still the same rifle arm, still has trouble putting enough air under some of his passes. Batch looked a bit rusty to me, and some of his passes were high over the middle, although the one to Lyons might well have been thrown up there for the 6-foot-8 inch receiver to outjump the defender. Dixon looked absolutely dreadful when he first got in there, but he had some nice runs and decent throws on his last drive. Tomlin taught us all a valuable lesson last year, winning three of this first four games last year, down to his fourth QB. I don't think he's in any hurry to dump Dixon yet.
Dwyer and Clay didn't show much, but some of the wideouts did. Grisham's blocking was a key to Redman's TD, and McRae and Greenwood didn't hurt themselves with a couple of nice catches. Robinson had a nice punt return. Don't worry about kickoff returns. They've been cancelled TFN by the Rules Committee and the lawyers.
I was genuinely impressed by how the Redskins have quietly improved their roster and have done it the right way, from the bottom up. Instead of spending big bucks on the Haynesworths of the world, they've gone under the radar and picked up a lot of decent talent. They seem to have had a decent draft. They are good at running back with Torain (who is injured but will be back soon), Royster, and Roy Helu Jr, who promises to be a fan favorite and was a steal on draft day. They are very deep at wide receiver, and Stallworth looks like he might finally live up to his promise.
The Devil and Shanahan pulled out all the stops Friday night, and there's new excitement here in DC about the Redskins. That's important, because - despite claims of a waiting list for tickets - there's always a lot of Redskin tickets available for premium seats, and Snyder needs to sell them. Winning meaningless exhibition games helps his bottom line. In Pittsburgh, the waiting list is real, and there's no need to sell tickets.
Homer and Rick left the game with five minutes to go and there wasn't much of a traffic jam getting out of the parking lot. Escape from Piggy County was uneventful. It was good getting to meet Rick (Ivan), and learning that we had a number of mutual friends. We grew up in adjacent neighborhoods in Pittsburgh one year apart. His article on Bill Nunn in this year's Steelers' Annual is spot on, and helps you know and understand one of the most wonderful and brilliant men in Pittsburgh's history (not just sports history). It's a must read.
As I write this, I imagine Tomlin and his staff are watching game films and are not very happy with what they saw. They were auditioning talent and hoping especially that some defensive back might step up. None really did. Soon the Turk will come calling. "Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook."
Cutting players and crushing dreams is never easy, but deciding who goes in the first round shouldn't be that hard. And there are still needs to be addressed. I trust the front office, and so I won't suggest they call the (215) or (610) area code to ask about the availability of a certain defensive back on a team that has cap issues and a surplus of DB's. They know better than I do.
Oh, and get well, Baron Batch. There will be better days (and nights) ahead.