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Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

The NFL is succeeding in slaughtering the goose.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

All you need to know about the first week of the 2014 NFL season is that, in spite of the fact that the Steelers have already played two games, those contests are not close to being the top story of the week. Not to spend too much time on the whole Ray Rice thing, but it speaks to some issues that have impacted some of what we're seeing on the field, especially on Thursday night. There's a rant coming on this, but first things first.


Ugly stuff in Maryland on Thursday. One of the nicer compliments I receive from time to time is when someone will say that I wrote something reflecting their own sentiments so well that they didn't feel the necessity to write anything themselves. I felt that way about Dale Lolley's take on the Ravens game. If you're more desirous of anger and angst then just scroll down to the comments section of the same article. This end-of-the-world-in-September business can be tiresome, but I would be a fool to expect more.

A quick summary of the main, relevant points.

I agree with Lolley in that, all things considered, the defense wasn't all that bad. It was generally agreed that it would take some time for this unit to gel. What did you think that would look like, the 1976 Steelers? They didn't quit and made some impressive stops in the red zone despite not receiving any help from their offense or the officials (more on that soon). Jarvis Jones continues to improve in my opinion, while Shazier and Tuitt continue to demonstrate why rookies rarely start in the LeBeau system. Cam Thomas and Mike Mitchell also show that veteran newcomers have their challenges as well. The Ike Taylor Death Watch has been derailed for at least a week. On offense, it wasn't the finest hour for Ben, Heath, Marcus Gilbert or Justin Brown. On the other hand, big thumbs up for Le'Veon Bell, Markus Wheaton and Kelvin Beachum. The offense has some gelling to do as well. Brad Wing and Shaun Suisham did their jobs efficiently and special teams didn't commit any any penalties that I'm aware of. Below-the-line performance overall? Absolutely. The final word on what this team is and will be? Have you learned nothing from last year? Check in again on Columbus Day.

Killing the goose

There was one aspect of the Ravens game that got on my last nerve. The penalties called on Courtney Upshaw (his hit on Ben may have had something to do with his poor performance, who knows), Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell speak to a certain level of bankruptcy in the NFL. How can I say that, you may ask? Isn't this the price we have to pay for player safety?

This has nothing to do with player safety other than creating a perception for legal cover. If the league was concerned about player safety, wouldn't part of an effective strategy be to not force teams to play on a Thursday night with just three days rest? If the concern was for player safety, wouldn't it be for all the players? On the same approximate spot where Mitchell was penalized, on the same field on Thanksgiving night last season, they did everything to Le'Veon Bell except shoot him point blank with an elephant gun. No penalty. What's the more reliable driver of what this league (and its partners) does, from how it handles player safety, to punishments on issues from substance abuse to domestic violence, is profitability, greed and the public relations smokescreens that make that possible.

I've stated on a number of occasions that I don't do much in the way of predictions. I did make one a couple of years ago when I said the head-injury issue wasn't going away anytime soon. Score one for me. So here's another one; a bit more dire than that. The league's corporate short-sightedness may well kill the game of football (the goose that lays the golden eggs). The kill-shot will not be player safety. It will not be substance abuse. It will not be domestic violence.

It will be gambling and the perceived manipulation of results.

How can I say such a thing, and where's my proof? I don't have any (and am not searching for any). It's just that the explanation fits the behavioral patterns and motivations better than the relative nonsense we've been fed.

We have been told that rule changes have been made to enhance offense. That's a half-truth. Wouldn't the running game be part of 'offense'? And we don't care about the running game, we've been told it's almost dead. Running backs can't get drafted or paid. When offense is spoken of in this context it's the passing game of which they speak. Why would quarterbacks and receivers be seen as more valuable than the other players on a team? Where is it that this is true?

Fantasy football. And at root, fantasy football is about gambling.

I watched the game in the company of a group of both Steelers and Ravens fans. The one thing of which we were in complete agreement was the injustice and displeasure with the calls involving Upshaw, Polamalu and Mitchell. The Steelers fans were also not happy about the fact that Antonio Brown and Heath Miller took some pretty good shots to the head with no corresponding punishments forthcoming. Now, I'm not suggesting anything more than the maddening inconsistency of officiating in the league. But if we've learned anything this week, it's how a more explicit rendering of the facts can change how those facts are viewed. If the perception takes hold that the game is being adjudicated to facilitate wagering (this would involve much more money than the billions we normally associate with the game's revenue and profits), and marry that to inconsistent officiating. Read between the lines.

The truth of the matter is that those fans who care primarily about the game of football are in the minority relative to those whose connection is more superficial and tied to things such as fantasy and other forms of gambling. Based on their priorities, the league cares more about this second group and it shows in their decision-making. But isn't there a legitimate concern about player safety at play here? Maybe. But when you clearly care more about the well being of a wide receiver than a lineman, more about marijuana abuse than HGH, more about the profitability of adding another night of prime-time football, even though common sense tells you that a short week can't be good for the health of the players, not to mention that it degrades the product and puts the visiting team at a more pronounced disadvantage (something to consider as you lambaste the team over the next few days). But it does have the advantage of bringing in more money for the league and its partners, because $9 billion per year is clearly not enough. And waiting in the wings is the 18-game schedule, another potential boon to player safety (sarcasm font).

I could go on for a few thousand more words about this particular train wreck-in-the-making, but if I'm right about this, there will be plenty of time to appreciate and lament its full impact in the weeks and years to come. There's a more immediate train wreck that has managed to overshadow the games themselves over the past week.

The reckoning of Roger Goodell

What's interesting about how this whole business is unfolding is the juxtaposition of Goodell and the Steelers over the past several years and how it all came together so judgment could be rendered this week. How Steelers Nation and the players on the team have been in an ongoing state of conflict with the league as represented by the commissioner. The fact that the Steelers were the only team to vote against the current Collective Bargaining Agreement precisely because they believed it placed too much unchecked power in the hands of the commissioner. The scapegoating of James Harrison and the more-or-less direct assault on the Steelers' style of play to perpetrate the illusion of a tough, serious-minded approach to player safety, the dismissal of our cries of injustice as the biased rantings of a deluded fan base (and the exquisite timing of Harrison's retirement in relation to all this). And now the irony that it's the Steelers, through the comments of Gay and Polamalu, and the comportment of Tomlin and Taylor, and the leadership of Art Rooney II, which are playing the role of PROTECTING THE SHIELD. This is how it's done Roger.



It seems like a month ago now, but there was another game this past week. The home opener against the Browns, Chuck Noll Day, remember that? I watched this game in the company of PaVaSteelers, Homer J and Bill Steinbach. I mention that because I discovered that it's better to be traumatized when you're in the company of others. Pretty much the full range of potential for this crew was on display Sunday. What proved to be most disturbing was the non-linear nature of how it all played out. If they had played the second half first, followed by the first half, we would have all felt better about things. It would have been a nice, hopeful narrative, begin by sucking and then this great happy ending. Can't wait for the next game. Instead we get Jekyll and Hyde, and no one knows when Mr. Hyde will show up and for how long. (all night apparently in Baltimore). It became clear then that, at least for the early phase of this season, patience and a high tolerance for ambiguity will be required. Obviously, many will live in their fears.


Bonus rant.

While on the subject of tone-deaf PR moves, there's the matter of the football team from Washington DC. For weeks now I am continually subjected to these BS messages about the meaning of the name Redskins and how wonderful and respectful it is of Native Americans. I guess I'd be more open to the idea of the Washington NFL franchise as a leader and trend-setter in intercultural understanding if it weren't for the fact that the owner of what then was known as the Team of Dixie led the charge to have black players banned from the league in the 1930s. That they were the last of the old NFL teams to integrate in the 1960s, and then only because the rest of the league held the proverbial gun to its head. That it created so much disaffection in its own community that many of its residents chose to root for the team's chief rival, the Dallas Cowboys, such that the Cowboys retain a beachhead of support in Washington to this very day. It was in this spirit that they selected and used the name "Redskins." Now they seem to be hell-bent on urinating in our faces and telling us its raining. Roger Goodell supports this gambit.

Another strike Roger.


From a competitive perspective, the news, like the record, was mixed. But though the team has its challenges on the injury front, it's hard to complain at this stage about how it has played out. Depending upon the disposition of Steve McLendon's shoulder injury suffered in the Ravens game, there's a chance the team could take the field against Carolina with all hands available. The player who has been out who probably was missed the most is Lance Moore, especially in Baltimore. I'm sure those who questioned the team's decision to carry six receivers on the 53 man roster understand and would probably endorse that move today.

The class of the Steelers

I spent a portion of the last Checkdown busting Christopher Carter's chops for getting cut by the Steelers. He bounced back nicely with this piece that got displayed prominently on Yahoo and tells a great story.

The disturbing trend of abusing punters from Ohio

The pattern is clear. If you're a punter for the Bengals or the Browns and you come to Pittsburgh, you're gonna get jacked. First Garvin and now Antonio Brown getting into the act. Brown appeared on his way to a touchdown during the second quarter of the Browns game. The only man standing in his way was Browns punter Spencer Lanning. Perhaps inspired by the exploits of Le'Veon Bell, instead of just juking the hapless Lanning out his jockstrap, Brown attempted to hurdle him but didn't achieve the necessary clearance. It looked for all the world like Brown had some anger-management issues (and after watching him in training camp...maybe). But you had to have a pretty jaded view of things to think this was anything other an unfortunate miscalculation. But of course this is the league offices you're talking about here, and they don't tolerate unnecessary violence of any kind (, let's not). Well, anyway, he's a Steeler, so you know how its going to turn out. An $8,000+ fine for Brown. Real bunch of tough guys at that league office. Damn Steelers.

More Ray Rice

Just to be thorough and, in case by chance you may have been off of the planet the last few days, a brief review of the key points in this story. There was the reveal of the elevator tape of what actually happened between Ray and Janay Rice. This was quickly followed by Rice's release by the Ravens and his indefinite suspension by the league, which was applauded by many until...The revelation by law enforcement that the elevator tape had been in league hands since the spring. As the rest of world began to make sounds very similar to what had been emanating from Steelers Nation for years now, an investigation was launched to, at minimum, attempt to salvage what was left of the NFL's credibility. Art Rooney II and John Mara of the Giants will spearhead the effort. And James Harrison showed his compassion for Roger Goodell by channeling a quote that I first associated with Jerome Bettis. Good thing for Roger, thus far, he has not been set on fire.

In other news

You might have lost sight of the fact that a full schedule of games was played and completed this week. Pittsburgh was by no means the only team beset by erratic performances and the threat of upset. The Patriots and Bears actually were upset. The Eagles experienced a significant scare at home against Jacksonville. As has been said by a number of people, the current dynamics of team preparation has meant that the first game or two of the season my resemble more in character that of preseason games.

HGH testing now a go

Player representatives of the NFLPA have approved a plan for testing of HGH. The parameters of marijuana testing have also been changed. A significant consequence is that Josh Gordon is expected to return to playing for the Browns after serving a 10-game suspension.

Cap issues?

Grantland's Bill Barnwell looks at how the Steelers treat their veteran players and their cap situation with an eye on whether the team is hurting itself.


Le'Veon Bell and William Gay received the high marks from Pro Football Focus for the Browns game. Bell was also Steelers Digest Player of the Week. Antonio Brown received the Player of the Week nod for the Ravens game.

Film room

Though it didn't show during the Ravens game, a good tutorial on the emerging Pittsburgh offense, as well a piece that highlights the coming-out party for Markus Wheaton.

Joe Greene

The week was bracketed by the tribute for Chuck Noll on Sunday, and the premiere of a television tribute to Joe Greene on Friday.