Here’s something you won’t read about anywhere else. As those of you who have been to Saint Vincent (Sorry about yesterday Simonsen) already know, the Steelers practice field is surrounded on three sides by hills. The team enters from one location down a path that is usually lined with scores of fans seeking autographs. But when practice ends many players opt to accept a ride on one of several motorized carts that exit at the opposite end of the practice fields and ferry their passenger’s uphill toward the dormitories. A much smaller cadre of fans wait near the exit in order to get a close up look at many of the more well- known players and with the faint hope that the carts may pause long enough to get an autograph or a hand shake. The caravan on Sunday was star studded with the likes of Byron Leftwich, Ben, Ike Taylor and Lawrence Timmons along with a number of lesser known or at least less recognizable players. Chris Kemoeatu, a player that I imagined, based upon his on field persona, to be surly was the most animated and friendly of all the players, smiling and waving to everyone he could. Maurkice Pouncey also was very gracious in his acknowledgement of the fans. While many of the players elicited lusty cheers from the assembled masses, in the case of Hines Ward those cheers escalated to squeals and screams of delight. But the most memorial moment was when Troy Polamalu drove by and unexpectedly tossed each of his gloves to the crowd. It took the fans a beat or two before they actually realized what was happening and then the scramble began. Smiles all around as they appreciated the gesture.
But it is what happened at the end of practice on Monday that I will always remember. Still somewhat soaked from a rainstorm that delayed the beginning of practice, I was in no particular mood to view the player caravan on this day. Instead I headed for my car as the post-practice period was winding down.
The path to the parking area crossed the road where carts climbed the hill to the dorms. Assembled at this intersection were about a dozen people half of whom were camp staffers, the rest being a handful of fans seeking another glimpse of the players. Just as I arrived a cart swung around the corner and began barreling up the hill. In the front was Troy, still wearing and his shoulder pads and giggling. It appeared that a fan was chasing the cart, not an uncommon occurrence as some of the more aggressively enterprising would go to considerable lengths in order to procure an autograph. But my original perception was wrong. Troy was, in fact, alone in the front of cart, seated in the passenger side, but he was manipulating the pedals and the steering wheel.
The person that was chasing the cart was its driver. Troy had carjacked (or is it cart jacked?) the vehicle, driving just fast enough that the pursuing staffer could keep pace, but have absolutely no chance of actually catching up. As they passed the other staffers were urging on and taunting the driver. Everyone was in stitches, not the least of whom was Troy himself. About thirty yards further up the hill he finally stopped the cart, terminating the Polamalu crime spree for now.
Does anyone else find the Isaac Redman saga strange in a kind of delightful way? As I recall Redman started out as one of those training camp wonders who, more often than not, falls far short of the fantasies and expectations. In this case, praise morphs into parody as superhuman and even godlike powers are attributed to the free agent rookie. Only this time this guy begins to live up to the hype…Okay, he hasn’t exhibited any godlike powers…yet. What he has done is to impose his will on defenses with startling regularity. His touchdown run on Friday was a thing of beauty. His work ethic in camp is similar to that of Antonio Brown’s; impressive in drills, putting in lots of extra time after practice, and then out hustling his peers at every opportunity. It is now clear to everyone, including the Steelers brain trust that the starvation diet of carries that Redman was given last year is no longer acceptable. He has earned a much bigger share of the rushing load. In the Pittsburgh papers Arians has downplayed the possibility of instituting a Pony backfield, but I do believe I saw the team practicing some formations where both Mendenhall and Redman shared the backfield.
As was hinted at yesterday, a Rashard/Isaac tandem in combination with a likely Hall of Fame quarterback and the receiver corps profiled yesterday has the potential to be the most explosive offense the franchise has ever fielded. At first blush that sounds like hyperbole, but think about it. This is a group that has the capacity to score from anywhere on the field, on the ground and in the air. I hear you. Don’t worry about the offensive line, they’ll be fine as soon as the internal competitions are resolved and they have the opportunity to work together. What I am saying is that with the continual caution concerning injuries, Ben may have the most complete set of tools at his disposal in his career. If I’m right (a risky proposition at best) then expect also an upgrade of the defense due to them enjoying better field position, less time on the field and the confidence to do more risk taking knowing that the capacity exists to erase mistakes.
Before leaving the running backs a word about Dwyer. I love his running style. He has real nice lateral movement and has the potential to be a nice asset to the offense. Of course he should send flowers to Baron Batch’s knee ligament; otherwise he might be on his way out the door. Compared to the others that have been highlighted here his attitude is disturbing. Whether it is immaturity or a character flaw remains to be seen. But of the remaining backs none seem to approach his talent in my opinion.
In general, the team hasn’t had the greatest luck with the weather. Skies that were threatening on Sunday opened up on Monday, and at the most inconvenient time. As the players drifted on to the practice field there were disquieting rumbles of thunder. Soon the rain became steady as the players exclaimed in alarm with each new peal of thunder. You got the impression that Tomlin did not care. Seconds after the horn blew announcing the beginning of practice there was another rather loud peal of thunder. The team retreated indoors while many fans moved to their cars. Others, me included stood their ground. Thirty minutes later the players returned. It was still raining somewhat steadily but lightning had moved off. All of this meant that the team would, once again, be confined to the turf field. There were no further interruptions and skies cleared in the last hour of practice, but where the Sunday and Tuesday sessions came in at two and a half hours, Monday ended after just two.
Most of the fans returned after practice resumed, but it should be noted that generally it seemed that attendance was down, as compared to the previous time I had attended camp. It’s unclear if it is related to the uncertainty related to the lockout, the weather, the economy or some combination of the three.
Manny Sanders returned to action on Monday. Nice to see him back.
While waiting for practice to recommence I struck up conversation with some of the other fans in attendance. The disappointment of the poor performance against the Skins had pretty much worn off. Predictably, many folk just read too much into what Homer J correctly noted was a meaningless encounter. (A public thank you to Homer, aka Mike Silverstein, for the invite and being great company at the Washington game. My first time actually meeting someone from this community in the physical, and the fact that we had a number of common acquaintances from our years in the ‘Burgh made it a great experience in spite of the fact that the game was a bit of a stinker.) Granted, we’re talking about true believers here, but the consensus is that this team may be truly something special. Of course, the citizens of the …(Hell, go for it) Empire are a famously paranoid lot. We see Barbarians and pitfalls under every rock, so the optimism is always cautious and filled with disclaimers, but it’s there.