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Weekend Check Down: The Top Stories of the Week

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Ladies and gentlemen, our journey through football Hell continues. Weeks ago I likened trying to provide interesting content at this time of the year to trying to serve a banquet with the key ingredients being a can of sardines and some crackers. Well, we're fresh out of sardines.

This being a holiday week we sort of hit bottom on the news front. The main question going forward in these final weeks before camp is whether there will be a bounce back up, or if we start digging toward new depths.

If you are into Pittsburgh sports generally it hasn't been a bad week at all. Sidney Crosby re-upped with the Pens and will be around when your first grader goes off to college. They have also been quite busy in the free agent market. Last I checked the Pirates were eight games above .500 for the first time since Honus Wagner played (or so it seems).

True story: I checked out the Post-Gazette website the other day and found a freshly published piece on Steelers notes that got me fairly excited, until I started reading. The headline was about the unveiling of the new uniforms by Nike. Wait a minute. Are they so bored at league headquarters that they're unveiling the uniforms again? Then I checked out the date of the piece; April 4th. Someone messed up and reposted an old article; that's what it has come to. Even the soft human interest stories have dried up.

But in spite of my whining there is news of a football nature and most of it rather interesting, at least to me.

Jonathan Dwyer

The Trib did a profile of the third year running back highlighting his continuing struggles with his conditioning and his weight that has cost him both in his position in the 2010 draft and his status and role on the team. Dwyer is currently in Florida working out at a performance enhancement facility and promises to report to camp in the best shape in his life.

The light has apparently flickered on for Dwyer. For his sake (and ours as fans) I certainly hope so. There seems to be no question that he possesses the necessary talent to have a very successful career in this league and be an asset to the Steelers. But talent absent discipline is useless at this level. More important is that he has an opportunity- and a danger- this season that is unlikely to present itself again. With Mendenhall likely to be out for a portion of the season Isaac Redman and the team need Dwyer to step up in the supporting role of the number two back. If he is unable to either recognize or respond to the situation then you have to wonder what value his presence has for the team regardless of his potential. And there are three very talented backs, Clay, Batch and Rainey, nipping at his heels and more than happy to provide the team with the rationale to kick him to the curb.

2012 Steelers Outlook

Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated did a piece on the Steelers 2012 prospects as part of a series of off season profiles. The piece was a fair and (from an outsider's perspective) understandable analysis of the issues facing the team in a transitional year. Three areas were identified as points of concern: leadership, with the loss of so many key veterans such as Hines Ward and James Farrior; the situation at running back and the necessity of having to integrate so many rookies into important roles.

From the outsider's point of view Mendenhall's absence would appear to be a cause for greater concern than for those who have watched the progress of the remaining backs more closely. There is no denying the fact that, in spite of some impressive performances in spot duty, the resumes for Redman and our other backs is thin in terms of consistent game experience. So the questions that have been raised are valid. Also the concerns about leadership are reasonable, especially if one is not closely acquainted with the Steelers team culture. The most on point issue is that concerning the rookies. Even if the projections of their potential are on target, the likelihood that, like Maurkice Pouncey, they will immediately step in and provide peak performance would have to be viewed as a bit fanciful. How those growing pains play out will have a lot to say about how far the team goes this year.

These things being said, the outlook was largely an optimistic one, with the projection being that Pittsburgh had the likely potential of being in the thick of the playoff race. A caution was sounded that if there was a time that a step back would occur, this season would be it.

Steelers Draft Analysis

Over at ESPN Jamison Hensley provided an analysis of the Steelers 2009 draft. The grade given was a B-, with the chief success being 3rd round pick Mike Wallace and the chief failure being 3rd round lineman Kraig Urbik. The question was raised, given his subsequent success with Buffalo, if the Steelers were premature in cutting ties with Urbik. If the topic were brought up prior to this year's draft it might a focal point of some intense and perhaps bitter discussion. Today it's just an interesting what if.

The role of travel as it effects competitiveness

I've become a fan of the website. I became aware of them earlier this year as the concussion issue was just beginning to gain some serious traction in discussions concerning the short and long term future of the NFL. The analysis that they published seemed to have more depth and nuance than other sites. Bill Barnwell did a piece this week on the impact of long distance travel upon team competitiveness with a particular emphasis on its impact on the west coast teams.

There has been some discussion over the last week linking the Steelers with the Seattle Seahawks, and coincidentally, Barnwell cites a comparison between the '08 Steelers and Seahawks to make many of the points in his analysis.

I remember when following the Pirates when I was a kid much was made of the difficulty of the road trips to the west coast. The fact that the Giants and Dodgers were really good at that time certainly had something to do with their struggles; but it was also clear that the challenges of cross country travel alone also had an impact.

Given the scheduling structure of the NFL, traveling west to east presents special challenges. While a 1pm start in Seattle or San Diego simply amounts to the equivalent to a 4pm start for the body clocks of eastern teams, a 1pm start in New York for a west coast team translates to 10am with game preparation commencing around 6am for their body clocks. Data is presented that demonstrates that this is not just perception. Nor is east coast travel the only problem facing the western teams.

The geographical and the structural realities of the NFL also present difficulties even within the divisions of these teams. Both the AFC and NFC West have teams in three time zones (Pacific, Mountain and Central). Travel for divisional games involves thousands of miles and many hours of flight time. By contrast the Steelers and the Eagles can and do travel to some of their divisional opponents using either buses or trains in two hours or less. When they fly for divisional games the Steelers will be in the air for an hour or less one way (None of their divisional opponents are more than 300 miles away). So, if the team has a 1pm game at Cincinnati they can expect to be back in their homes for dinner and the night game. The situation for NFC North opponents can be even chummier.

Bounty Gate

Goodell rejected the appeals of players Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita who have been suspended in the Bounty gate situation. The NFLPA has filed suit on behalf of the players in response. And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Sorry for being a little flip here, but this is clearly going to drag on for quite some time and if you want to know all the details you can get it from a variety of sources. There isn't much in way of competing stories at this time.

Drew Brees

The Saints remain in the news as Drew Brees won his arbitration dispute over his franchise tag designation. This provides the New Orleans quarterback with valuable leverage in his contract negotiations.

Sean Payton

And continuing the Saints coverage on a sad note, the head coach and his wife have commenced divorce proceedings in Texas.

Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and his wife are also filing for divorce as well.

Ben Davidson

Speaking of sad news, 1960s era defensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders and television pitchman Ben Davidson passed away this week at the age of 72. Davidson was considered one of the faces of that team.

Kiante Tripp

Concluding our bad news/sad news segment, the Browns reserve defensive lineman was arrested in Atlanta for burglary. The prediction here is that this incident will not materially affect Cleveland's effort to fulfill their destiny this year (whatever that may be).