NFL Nation: Lynn Swann


NEW ORLEANS -- Jerry Rice expressed surprise after hearing Randy Moss proclaim himself the greatest receiver in NFL history.

Rice's response sounded unnecessarily emotional and personal coming from someone so widely accepted as the best to ever play the position.

"I'm surprised that Randy Moss made that comment because how can you not bring stats in or how you impacted the game?" Rice said on ESPN in the video above. "I impacted the game by winning Super Bowls. I'm sure Randy is still trying to win his first one and I wish him the best, but I was very surprised that he said he is the best receiver who ever played the game."

Rice didn't need to say anything in response. His achievements speak loudly and convincingly. There was no need to diminish Moss by counting Super Bowl rings.

Lynn Swann and John Stallworth each won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Does that automatically make them better than every receiver with fewer championships? Of course not.

Not even the greatest wide receiver can win Super Bowls without tremendous support from the players around him. The 49ers won as many Super Bowls during the four years immediately preceding Rice's arrival as they won during Rice's first nine seasons with the team. That says nothing negative about Rice. It reflects how many components a team must possess to win it all.

Rice's accepted status as the NFL's greatest receiver remains secure. Moss will go down as one of the all-time greats as well. Nothing either man says is likely to change anything on either front.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Ben Roethlisberger became the Steelers' all-time leading passer Thursday night, surpassing Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger
Bradshaw threw for 27,989 yards in 14 seasons. Roethlisberger broke the record before the halfway point of his ninth year and needed only 119 games to do so, 49 fewer than Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger set the record by converting a third down late in the third quarter. He stepped up in the pocket to complete a 17-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller to eclipse Bradshaw by four yards.

On what has been far from his best night to this point, Roethlisberger is still deserving of this record. While Bradshaw put up his numbers in an age where the rules made it tougher to throw the ball, Roethlisberger is the more talented quarterback. He's an accurate passer who can make all the throws and can carry his team.

Bradshaw had the luxury of throwing to two Hall of Fame wide receivers (John Stallworth and Lynn Swann). He had help from the ground game and Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. He was protected by a good line and Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.

Roethlisberger passed the ball to Hines Ward, who might end up in the Hall of Fame, and the likes of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, who can't be mentioned in the same breath as Stallworth and Swann. Roethlisberger handed the ball off to Jerome Bettis for a couple of seasons, but for most of his career, he's been surrounded by an average running game. And, as far as pass protection, no quarterback has been sacked more often than Roethlisberger since he entered the league.

This was a record that Roethlisberger earned.
GonzalezAP Photo/John AmisIs Tony Gonzalez, who holds nearly every tight end record, a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
When it comes to Tony Gonzalez the question isn’t if he’ll get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There’s no doubt the man with the best tight end statistics in just about every category that can be measured will be selected.

The question is, when will it happen?

Common sense would lead you to believe Gonzalez will retire from the Atlanta Falcons and, five years later, he’ll get in on the first ballot. But recent history tells us that common sense may not apply when it comes to putting tight ends in the Hall of Fame, especially on the first ballot. Tight end is a unique position, and voters obviously view it that way.

Take a look at this list of Hall of Famers, sorted by position. You’ll see that kickers are the only group with less representation than tight ends. There are more than double the amount of “contributors’’ than there are tight ends in the Hall of Fame. Same for coaches.

There are currently just seven tight ends in the Hall of Fame. That number will increase to eight later this summer when Shannon Sharpe is inducted. The mere mention of Sharpe’s name and Hall of Fame voting shows that it’s not a slam-dunk that Gonzalez will go in on the first ballot.

A few years back, Sharpe was in pretty much the same spot Gonzalez will be in. Sharpe retired in 2003 as the holder of virtually every all-time record for tight ends. He also had three Super Bowl rings.

When Sharpe was first eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2009, he was passed over. The same thing happened in 2010. There’s a school of thought that some Hall of Fame voters wanted to make Sharpe wait for a couple of years, simply because he was a tight end.

"When Shannon retired, he was the most prolific tight end in all the categories, and if that's not a Hall of Famer, then I'm trying to figure out what the definition of the Hall of Fame is," Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson said after Sharpe came up short in his second year of eligibility. "There hasn't been a tight end ever on the first ballot, but this was his second, so I was thinking and hoping that they would do the right thing.’’

[+] EnlargeShannon Sharpe
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIREThe Hall of Fame voters made Shannon Sharpe -- arguably the game's best tight end before Tony Gonzalez -- wait to earn induction into Canton.
I’ll make a case right now that the right thing to do with Gonzalez when the time comes is to put him in on the first ballot. Anything else would be flat-out wrong.

Gonzalez is simply the best tight end ever. Sharpe might have held that title for a while. But, within a few of years of Sharpe’s retirement, Gonzalez started breaking all of his records. The two aren’t even close in most statistical categories anymore. Gonzalez has 12,463 receiving yards. That’s almost 2,403 more than Sharpe. Gonzalez has 1,069 career receptions. That’s 254 more than Sharpe.

The gap is only going to get bigger. At 35, Gonzalez may not be what he was in his prime as he was back in 2004 with Kansas City when he set a single-season record for catches by a tight end with 102. But in an Atlanta offense that’s already good and could be even better with the addition of rookie Julio Jones, Gonzalez remains an important role player.

Let’s just say Gonzalez has another season something like last year, when he caught 70 passes for 656 yards and six touchdowns. Anything close to that, and he adds another layer of insulation between his records and what Sharpe did.

Anything close to last year and Gonzalez will have numbers that basically double what Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow did. With the San Diego Chargers back in the 1980s, Winslow revolutionized the tight end position. Tight ends used to be pretty much just blockers, but Winslow made catching passes part of the job description.

In other words, Winslow changed the game and the position. If you do that, you should be a Hall of Famer. Gonzalez has done that. He’s left Winslow and Sharpe far behind in the argument about the greatest tight end ever.

Gonzalez is the guy who opened the door for a generation of former basketball players to start becoming as important as wide receivers in many offenses. That brings us to another point about Gonzalez and why he should go in on the first ballot.

He’s a tight end, but he’s got numbers that are just as good as some Hall of Fame wide receivers. Gonzalez has more receiving yards than guys like Charlie Joiner, Don Maynard, Michael Irvin and Lance Alworth.

Yeah, those guys played in different generations when the league wasn’t as geared toward the passing game. But Gonzalez created a whole new generation of tight ends. Yeah, it sometimes takes too long even for wide receivers to get into the Hall of Fame. Guys like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were placed on a waiting list for about two decades and there’s a backlog still sitting there.

But Gonzalez shouldn’t have to wait just because he’s a tight end. Gonzalez currently is No. 6 all-time with 1,069 receptions. The only guys ahead of him are Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Terrell Owens.

If Gonzalez catches 34 more passes, he’ll move up to No. 2. He’ll be behind only Rice, which says a lot. When Rice was first eligible for the Hall of Fame, voters skipped over the usual ritual of making wide receivers wait. That’s because there was a universal agreement that Rice was the best wide receiver ever to play the game.

There's universal agreement Gonzalez is the best tight end ever to play the game, and he deserves the same treatment.

There’s one other argument that could be used against Gonzalez. He’s never played on a Super Bowl champion. He’s never even gone deep into the postseason. For the longest time, a lot of Hall of Fame voters seemed to think a Super Bowl ring was a requirement for selection.

That idea seems to have faded some in recent years. But there is one way Gonzalez can make sure that’s not an issue. He can go out and help the Falcons win a Super Bowl this season. Then, he could go out in a blaze of glory or he could even stick around and pad his résumé for another year or two.

But Gonzalez shouldn’t have to worry about adding much more to his résumé. He’s already done enough to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
What key event significantly changed the fortunes of the Steelers -- for better or worse? Give us your take and we'll give you our definitive moment on May 18.

When you've won more Super Bowls (six) than any team in NFL history, there are a lot of great moments that can define a franchise. But which moment best defines the rich history of the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Was it the "Immaculate Reception" when Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris took an improbable catch the distance to beat the Oakland Raiders late in a 1972 playoff game? What about Pittsburgh's Super Bowl X victory over the Dallas Cowboys, which capped its first of two back-to-back title runs in the 1970s?

Pittsburgh's 1974 draft class to land linebacker Jack Lambert, center Mike Webster and receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth -- all Hall of Famers -- is often viewed as the best ever and led to four championships. Was that the defining moment in Steelers history? Or was it coach Chuck Noll's hiring in 1969?

There are tons of great moments for the Steelers. But using our SportsNation poll, we ask our community to pick the most defining moment in Pittsburgh history.

If you vote Other, give us your suggestion in the comments area below.
Terry BradshawAP PhotoWill the current Pittsburgh team join the Steelers of the 1970s as an NFL dynasty?
FORT WORTH, Texas -- In his 50 years of experience with scouting, personnel and eventually media, Gil Brandt has seen all the football dynasties come and go in the NFL.

In Brandt's eyes, this current group of Pittsburgh Steelers can put its name into that elite category with a third championship in six seasons.

"You have to, yes," the former Dallas Cowboys player personnel executive said of considering Pittsburgh a dynasty. "We have some teams that have been in the NFL 45 years and haven't won a Super Bowl."

The Steelers have a lot on the line Sunday in Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers. Not only is Pittsburgh playing for another Lombardi Trophy, but the franchise can make a strong case to be the NFL's latest dynasty -- a term that applies only to teams winning multiple titles in a concentrated period of time.

Pittsburgh has all the ingredients for sustained success: good coaching, stellar defense, a franchise quarterback and future Hall of Famers. These are many of the same attributes of past dynasties, such as the old Steelers of the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, the Cowboys of the 1990s and, most recently, the New England Patriots of the past decade.

So where would Pittsburgh potentially fit?

"I think if we win this [Super Bowl], you have to put this organization down as being one of the dynasties of the 2000s,” said Steelers 13-year receiver Hines Ward. "We know what's at stake. For us, it's another opportunity to win another Super Bowl. We're 2-0 in Super Bowls and we don't want to experience the other side."

What exactly counts as a dynasty in today's NFL, and how much has the definition changed?

Here is some food for thought: Since free agency began in the spring of 1993, only two teams (the Denver Broncos and Patriots) have won back-to-back Super Bowls. The Cowboys' Super Bowl titles bridged the start of modern free agency. They won Super Bowl XXVII to mark the end of the 1992 season. After the era began with Reggie White's departure from the Philadelphia Eagles to join the Packers in April 1993, the Cowboys still managed to win the Lombardi Trophy that season. Although the 49ers claimed the 1994 season's title, Dallas would later cement its dynasty status by winning a third championship in the modern free-agency era during the 1995 season.

The NFL landscape has changed dramatically in the past 15 or so years where players rarely play for one team. That makes it much harder to consistently stay on top.

"I think if you can get three in a decade, those teams are up for dynasties," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "So I think if you get three titles in six years, you have to be considered."

Even if Pittsburgh wins Sunday, the biggest knock on the Steelers would be this current group has never won back-to-back Super Bowls. But this is a league where parity rules. Eight different teams have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl in the past eight seasons.

"Back-to-back titles is obviously huge, because that to me is the hardest thing to do," said former tailback and Super Bowl champion Ricky Watters with the Niners. "But to stay up there is hard, too. We see teams that get there and then they’re gone. Then they may get back up there, and they’re gone again. So I think the staying power is important."

The Steelers have never won back-to-back titles the past six seasons, but they also never had a losing season. Including playoffs, Pittsburgh holds a 71-35 record over that span.

"Well, I don’t know if it's necessary because it's really hard to win back-to-back," said Brandt explained. "The reason it's hard to win is because the competitive balance in this league is so good."

Now more than ever, the NFL has become a coaching and quarterback league. This is a major reason Pittsburgh has been able to sustain its success.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMike Tomlin can win a second championship in just his fourth season as a head coach.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't put up gaudy numbers but is arguably the most clutch quarterback in the NFL. He is 10-2 in the playoffs and has a chance to improve to 3-0 in Super Bowls this Sunday. Earlier this week, the AFC North blog examined whether a third championship cements his status as a future Hall of Famer.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has a chance to win his second Super Bowl in just his fourth season. Tomlin could surpass his predecessor, Bill Cowher, who won one championship in Pittsburgh in 15 seasons.

Both are young for their respective positions. Roethlisberger, 28, and Tomlin, 38, will be stalwarts in Pittsburgh for a long time with a chance to win multiple championships together.

"We have a great relationship. He's a player's coach and I like playing for him," Roethlisberger said this week of Tomlin. "He's one of the reasons we want to win football games. We are blessed to have him as our coach."

The Steelers don't have to look far for motivation. Perhaps the greatest dynasty of all time was the dominant 1970s Pittsburgh teams that won four Super Bowls in a six-season span. That Steeler dynasty also had two back-to-back title runs.

This week several Pittsburgh veterans say they’re trying to live up to that standard. On their way to meetings at Pittsburgh's complex, Steelers players and coaches must walk by their NFL-high six Lombardi Trophies, including those four won by Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann and Co.

"We have what you can't buy, which is legacy," Tomlin said. "[It's] an unbelievable standard and expectation and all those great things."

No dynasty lasts forever. That is why it's important for this proud, veteran group of Steelers to seize this moment.

There are aging veterans older than 30 such as Ward, James Farrior, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel going for their third ring, and there are no guarantees any of these Steelers will get another chance to win another Super Bowl.

"We're not worrying about what happens afterwards. It's a whole bigger issue than us after this game,” Ward said of potentially making history. "So is this the last run? Why would it be the last run? We have a huge opportunity to win our third Super Bowl, and we're trying to come down here and make the most of it and see if we can bring our seventh Super Bowl back to Pittsburgh."

When it comes to attaining dynasty status, consider Super Bowl XLV a "swing game" for the Steelers.

Beat the favored Packers at Cowboys Stadium and this Steelers group will forever be in the dynasty discussion. But lose to Green Bay, and that conversation abruptly ends.

Andre Reed has strong Hall of Fame case

February, 2, 2011
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Andre ReedUS PRESSWIREFormer Bills receiver Andre Reed finished his career with 951 catches for 13,198 yards and 87 TDs.
Receptions come a lot cheaper these days.

The game has changed, and all you need for proof is a glance at Paul Warfield's career stats. He caught more than 50 passes once. He gained more than 1,000 yards once. In some of his Pro Bowl seasons, his numbers wouldn't have justified a roster spot in your 10-team fantasy league.

Yet Warfield is considered one the most dangerous receivers NFL history, a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.

"Our game is beginning to resemble baseball in which everyone is looking at numbers," Warfield said this week from his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "Numbers tell the story to a degree, but I like to look at one's full body of work.

"I'm from the old-school generation. You might be termed a wide receiver, but you should be a football player first."

Steve Largent is another example of how stats don't quantify a receiver's worth like they used to. Largent retired after the 1989 season as the NFL's all-time leading receiver with 819 catches. He, too, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Twenty-one years later, Largent ranks 20th in receptions behind such names as Derrick Mason, Torry Holt, Keenan McCardell, Muhsin Muhammad and fullback Larry Centers.

In 1985, only four players had caught 600 passes. The list is 55 players long now.

"It doesn't necessarily undermine a player's ability to get into the Hall of Fame because he had great stats or doesn't have great stats," Largent said Monday from his office in Washington D.C. "You're looking for a guy who was the total package."

With that in mind, you might consider Andre Reed's stats if you choose when deciding if he belongs in the Hall of Fame. They're sterling -- if a little outdated and discounted by time.

To both Largent and Warfield and other legendary receivers, Reed qualifies for Canton without even looking at the numbers.

"I saw the value Reed had to that team not only as a receiver, but also as a leader," Largent said. "There are some attributes you don't keep statistics of, but you become aware of as one player watching another play the game."

Reed is Largent's "total package" and Warfield's unequivocal embodiment of "football player."

"It's long overdue for Andre," Warfield said.

Reed is among the 15 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalists who will learn Saturday whether they will be included in this year's induction class.

The star Buffalo Bills receiver has been a finalist five times. There's a belief this year offers his best chance yet. In previous years, he has shared the ballot with at least one receiver who took precedence because they were icons (Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin) or had been waiting longer (Art Monk).

Reed could become the sixth Hall of Famer from a team that went to four straight Super Bowls but failed to win one.

Already enshrined are Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, defensive end Bruce Smith and head coach Marv Levy. Wide receiver James Lofton also is in Canton, but he didn't play on all four Super Bowl teams, and is more closely associated with the Green Bay Packers.

"I was a part of something special, and I'll take that to my grave," said Reed, 47. "We were a family. But the Hall of Fame, I don't know how I would react. It would be a validation of your work and what you did.

"Hopefully on Saturday I can be in that fraternity with them, but every year it's a tough ballot."

The other finalists include running backs Marshall Faulk and Jerome Bettis, receivers Tim Brown and Cris Carter, tight end Shannon Sharpe, center Dermontti Dawson, tackle Willie Roaf, defensive ends Richard Dent, Charles Haley and Chris Doleman, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, cornerback Deion Sanders and NFL Films patriarch Ed Sabol.

The Hall of Fame's 44-member selection committee will decide Saturday. The group includes NFL writers, one representative per franchise, 11 at-large voters and one from the Pro Football Writers Association. The committee will pare the group of 15 finalists down to 10 and then to five. At that point, a vote will be held, with 80 percent agreement needed for induction.

Up to five modern-era candidates may be elected each year. First-time nominees Faulk and Sanders are virtual locks to get inducted. That leaves three spots available for Reed and the other finalists to get in.

Buffalo News reporter Mark Gaughan will make the case for Reed's induction. It's a compelling one.

"He certainly had a great career, one of the great clutch receivers," Warfield said. "He was consistent, one Jim Kelly could always go to and always find open in a situation where they're trying to make a big play. He's an all-encompassing receiver."

Reed was third on the NFL's all-time receptions list when he retired after the 2000 season with 951 catches, behind only Rice and Carter. Reed was a seven-time Pro Bowler and a superstar on a team that won four conference championships in a row.

"He was as dangerous a receiver as there is," former Bills quarterback Frank Reich said. "Versus press coverage, he was almost impossible to stop, coming off the ball. We always felt if they tried to play tight man on Andre it didn't matter who was guarding him. Any shutdown corner in the league in press coverage, Andre was going to beat him."

Reed was a force on the big stage. In 19 postseason games he had 85 receptions for 1,229 yards and nine touchdowns. He didn't score any Super Bowl touchdowns, but he did have 27 receptions for 323 yards.

In the Bills' epic comeback against the Houston Oilers in the 1992 postseason, he made eight catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns.

Reed is known as tremendously durable. He played 253 games, counting playoffs. He often darted into traffic to make plays in a crowd of defenders.

"No fear," Reich said.

Reed was one the greatest ever when it came to yards after the catch, second perhaps only to Rice.

[+] EnlargeAndre Reed
US PresswireAndre Reed, on playing for the Bills: "I was a part of something special, and I'll take that to my grave,"
"Most people that were on that team or played against us will remember how explosive he was in run-after-the-catch," said Reich, now Peyton Manning's position coach with the Indianapolis Colts. "He rivaled Jerry Rice in that category. Like Jerry Rice, his 40 time was good and probably not great. But there was nobody faster with the ball in his hands."

What put Reed's production in even greater context is a closer look at Buffalo's offense in the 1990s.

Many fans, even those who closely followed the Bills then, recall a prolific aerial attack. They remember Kelly running the no-huddle, K-Gun offense and slinging the ball all over the field to Reed and Lofton.

As Gaughan will point out again Saturday, the Bills ranked 17th in passing offense throughout Reed's career. In Reed's six prime seasons from 1988 through 1993, the Bills passed 51 percent of the time. By comparison, the Washington Redskins' famed "Hogs" offense passed 50 percent of the time when Monk was there.

Reed didn't have much receiving help either. He played with Lofton for four seasons, but Lofton was 33 years old when he joined Buffalo. In 1988, for instance, Reed's second and third receivers were Trumaine Johnson and Chris Burkett.

So far, the chief impediment for Reed's induction hasn't been his resume, but the other names on the ballot.

A wide receiver has been inducted each of the past four years, and in seven classes out of the past decade.

Gaughan noted there is room in Canton for at least two more receivers from the 1990s. A breakdown of membership shows seven receivers who predominantly played in the 1960s, four from 1970s, four from the 1980s and two from the 1990s.

Reed, Carter and Brown are the worthiest receiver candidates to join Rice and Irvin from that decade.

There's a velvet rope. This is Reed's fifth year as a finalist. Carter has been a finalist four times, Brown twice.

Reed apparently jockeyed to the head of the receiver line last year. In the selection process, Carter and Brown didn't make the top-10 stage, but Reed did.

That development has raised Reed's hopes for 2011.

"I'll be more nervous because of the way the voting went last year," Reed said. "I feel I'm more deserving of it. It was pretty close. The anticipation is enhanced this year."

But there are no guarantees. Several legendary receivers have waited longer than five years to get the Canton call. Don Maynard, John Stallworth and Monk got in on their eighth time as finalists. Lynn Swann was a finalist 14 times. The Seniors Committee was necessary to induct Bob Hayes 34 years after his last NFL game.

Reed admitted he has fantasized about the phone call too many times to count. He's even tried to research the moment.

"I've talked to a bunch of Hall of Famers who say when they get the call they're at a loss for words," said Reed, who plays a lot of golf and sells his own line of barbeque sauce in the San Diego area. "They don't know how to react.

"I'll just have to wait and see."

And hopefully not have to wait some more.

Ravens-Steelers III: It's 'Armageddon'

January, 14, 2011
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GladiatorsESPN.com IllustrationAre you not entertained? The Steelers and Ravens split their two earlier meetings this season.
PITTSBURGH -- The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is easily the most intense in the NFL.

Baltimore defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs wasted little time after the Ravens defeated the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday to start talking about the hated Steelers. He likened the teams’ third meeting this season Saturday to “Armageddon” and even “World War III” and called the players “modern-day gladiators."

Why, of course.

The Steelers toned down the rhetoric this week, but they’re just as eager for the divisional-round game at Heinz Field.

You know some of the basics -- each team defeated the other on the road this season, Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 20-12 (counting two playoff wins) and the Steelers defeated the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game two years ago in one of the hardest-hitting games I’ve seen.

Here are 10 things you may not know as Ravens-Steelers III looms:

1. Even old ladies despise Ravens

A fan's craft project hangs in the Steelers’ locker room, in between the lockers of offensive tackle Max Starks and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. Made of cotton and knitted with purple and black thread, it has a large “X” through the name “Ray” in the center.

A Steelers fan from Ohio created the piece and sent it to the team along with a lengthy letter explaining how much she despises the Ravens and Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.

“We thought it was funny because it was an elderly lady, like a grandma, but she had enough guts to knit that together,” Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon said. “That’s a real tribute to her.”

Former Pittsburgh starting center Justin Hartwig saw it, loved it, and put it up on the wall next to his locker. The Ray Lewis quilt has been in the vicinity of the offensive linemen’s lockers for nearly two years, regardless of who the Steelers are playing that week. It serves as a nice little reminder all season of the Ravens’ linebacker.

“That’s been our rival and Ray Lewis is definitely the heart of that team and the heart of that organization,” Colon said. “Any time you want to kill a monster you have to go for the heart.”

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger
AP Photo/David DrapkinThe Ravens bloodied the nose of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Dec. 5.
2. Ben Roethlisberger ‘hates’ playing the Ravens

You would think that, with an 8-2 career record against Baltimore, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would love playing against the Ravens.

You would be wrong.

“I hate playing these guys because they are so good, especially on defense,” Roethlisberger said.

And they hurt people, especially Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger owns six straight wins over Baltimore, but the wins rarely come without a price. In the last meeting between the teams on Dec. 5, Roethlisberger suffered a broken nose after taking a shot to the face by Ravens Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata.

The NFL fined Ngata $15,000 for the hit. But Roethlisberger played through the pain and led the Steelers to a come-from-behind win in Baltimore, which helped secure the AFC North division title and a first-round bye.

[+] EnlargeCornflakes
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterDoctors said the broken nose Ben Roethlisberger suffered against the Ravens looked like "Corn Flakes."
Roethlisberger did interviews after the game with a crooked nose that a doctor later said looked like “Corn Flakes.” Roethlisberger had surgery to repair it the next day.

“He actually looks better now,” Steelers receiver Hines Ward joked this week. “They broke his nose, but he’s a warrior.”

In 11 games against the Ravens, Roethlisberger has been sacked 38 times, by far the most times he has been sacked by any team in the NFL. In a Week 12 game at Baltimore in 2006, Roethlisberger was sacked a career-high nine times. In the second quarter of that game, then-Ravens linebacker Bart Scott ran around left end untouched and splattered Roethlisberger with a huge hit to the chest.

"That's probably the hardest I've ever been hit in my life," Roethlisberger told reporters afterward.

3. But look out, Ravens

Roethlisberger finished the season strongly, throwing for 600 yards in the final two games. According to Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, he’s playing the best football of his career.

“He’s as good as I’ve ever been around,” Arians said this week. “He just continues to grow.”

During his four-game suspension to start the season, Roethlisberger worked on several parts of his game, including improving his accuracy and throwing motion.

“He’s shortened his delivery a little bit. … It’s kind of like a golfer changing his stroke a little bit. It was minor, but it really gets the ball out of his hands faster,” Arians explained.

The quicker delivery has contributed to Roethlisberger’s reduced sack total. Last season, Roethlisberger was sacked 3.12 times per game. This season, he was sacked 2.66 times per game, almost a half of a sack less per game.

4. A rivalry within the rivalry

There will be a time when stalwarts such as Ward, Lewis, Ed Reed, Aaron Smith and James Farrior won’t be a part of this great rivalry. But one matchup you can expect to see for the next 5 to 10 years involves Ngata, 26, and Steelers rookie center Pouncey, 21.

Both Pro Bowlers, Ngata and Pouncey will play a large role this weekend -- and beyond -- in which team controls the line of scrimmage in this series. Each is a first-round pick, Ngata in 2006 and Pouncey in 2010.

The 6-4, 305-pound Pouncey had a great rookie season, starting all 16 games, but Ngata was easily his stiffest test. In the first two meetings, Ngata was dominant with 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks. There’s no shame in that because Ngata -- called “The NFL’s version of the the Incredible Hulk” by Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil -- dominates a lot of players.

“The thing about Pouncey is I think his weakness today is big power guys,” Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson said. “His movement skills are so good, and you have to remember few interior offensive linemen come out of school as a junior. So he’s a very young person, and I don’t think his strength and bulk have quite caught up with his frame and athleticism.”

Williamson said that the 6-4, 350-pound Ngata is several years ahead of Pouncey in his development. But Williamson also said that he wouldn’t be surprised if in two or three years Pouncey develops into the NFL’s best center and catches up with Ngata, who may be the best interior lineman in football.

[+] EnlargeAnquan Boldin
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicAnquan Boldin caught 12 passes for 184 yards and a TD in two games against the Steelers this season.
5. Looking for an X factor?

Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin is new to this rivalry, but he’s always been a handful for the Steelers.

Boldin was acquired by Baltimore in an offseason trade with the Arizona Cardinals for key games like this. In four career games against Pittsburgh, Boldin has two 100-yard performances and 28 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns.

In the Super Bowl XLIII loss to the Steelers, Boldin had eight receptions for 84 yards. He caught 12 passes in two games against the Steelers this season.

Of the Steelers, Williamson said, “... quick stuff can be an issue for them,” because of their coverages and blitzes. “Boldin is very smart, and he’s often the hot receiver when opponents blitz. You can move him all over the formation, and he’s especially good in the slot. He’s the type of guy who can give the Steelers problems because he can nickel-and-dime you to death.”

6. Once a Raven? Pffffft!

The Ravens once had a chance to pair 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison with future Hall of Famer Lewis at linebacker. Baltimore signed Harrison to a free-agent contract in 2003. But Baltimore had so much depth at linebacker with players such as Lewis, Peter Boulware, Adalius Thomas, Ed Hartwell and Scott, it cut the undrafted Harrison soon after.

Harrison
Harrison
“He was just one of those guys who slowly developed,” former Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “But he’s developed and is obviously a great player. I think he fits [the Steelers’] scheme perfectly.

“We had a number of guys and he was a little bit one-dimensional in terms of what he did at the time. But he’s obviously matured and grown in his game.”

This week, Harrison scoffed at the idea that he was ever a Raven.

“Everybody has a misconception that I was there for a while; I was there for eight days,” Harrison said. “Everything happens for a reason, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. There is a reason I was there, and there’s a reason that I’m here now. … I’m happy.”

7. The Professor says…

ESPN’s John Clayton, who has covered the NFL for more than three decades, has seen his share of bad blood between teams. “The Professor” said he thinks Ravens-Steelers is the NFL’s most heated rivalry, but said it doesn’t measure up to the Raiders-Steelers rivalry of the 1970s.

“The Ravens-Steelers rivalry now is kind of like the Houston Oilers-Steelers rivalry of the 1970s,” Clayton said. “There was truly animosity between the Oilers and Steelers, but there was always that respect. They wouldn’t diss each other much because they knew there might be a punch coming back.” The Steelers beat the Oilers in AFC Championship games in 1978 and 1979.

“The old Steelers’ rivalry with the Raiders was simply brutal, some of the most physical football I have ever seen. Steelers receiver Lynn Swann used to get squashed in a Raiders secondary that included Jack Tatum and George Atkinson. Now, if they allowed defensive backs today to smack receivers all the way down the field the way they allowed them to back then, maybe Steelers-Ravens would approach that level of intensity.”

8. This series is this close

Since 2003, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have played each other 17 times and each team has scored 302 points. During that span, Pittsburgh has nine wins, Baltimore eight.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens and Steelers are the most dominant and consistent defenses over the past decade. Since 2000, Baltimore has allowed an NFL-low 2,992 points in the regular season (17 points per game). Pittsburgh is second in that span, allowing 3,011 total points (17.1 ppg). No other NFL teams have allowed fewer than 3,200 points since 2000.

9. Lewis, Ward don’t cross trash-talking line

In an effort to spread the love in this rivalry, we asked Steelers veteran receiver Ward this week to name his favorite Ravens player.

Ward
Lewis
Lewis
“Ha ha, I don’t have a favorite Raven, to be honest with you,” Ward said.

Not even a little bit, Hines?

“Nah,” Ward responded. “I respect them. They’re great ballplayers, and to say I played against Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and those guys, it’s a huge honor because I know what type of competitors they are. But you won’t see me and Ray texting each other before the game wishing him good luck.”

OK, we tried. Ward and Lewis have been in the middle of a lot of confrontations over the years, and they usually involve hitting and trash-talking. Ever wondered what is said between these two Future Hall of Famers?

“I’m not going to talk about his mom, and he’s not going to talk about my mom,” Ward said. “Stuff like that we will keep in perspective, but it’s heated. I’m not out there looking to start anything. But over the course of the game, I’m blocking him or somebody’s blocking him and we’re getting into scuffles where I’m kind of in the middle of things. He’s still Ray Ray. People don’t know him like we know him.”

Lewis, of course, weighed in on the subject of the Steelers and Ward this week.

“Listen, I like pizza. I like a lot of things, and then there’s a lot of things I don’t like,” he told reporters. “It’s OK to use that word, ‘like.’ But it’s always good when you don’t get that other word. And that is, when you don’t respect somebody. [Ward] gives us the same respect that we give them.”

10. Hate to break it to you, but …

This rivalry isn’t all bruises and trash-talking.

Oher
Wallace
Wallace
Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace is friendly with Ravens left tackle Michael Oher, whose life story was told in the hit movie “The Blind Side.” Oher famously was adopted by a Memphis, Tenn., family and became a first-round pick of the Ravens in 2009.

Wallace and Oher both went to the University of Mississippi and instantly hit it off. In three of their four years together in college, Wallace visited Memphis to be with Oher and the Tuohy family for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately for Wallace, he wasn’t portrayed in the movie.

“We ate some good food, but I think his mom bought it, though,” Wallace said, laughing. “She may have bought it, but nevertheless, it was still good. We had chicken, mashed potatoes, stuff I wasn‘t really used to eating. Being from New Orleans, I ate gumbo and stuff, but this was different.”

Still best friends, Oher and Wallace communicate regularly and spend time together during the offseason.

Jack Tatum: 'The Assassin'

July, 27, 2010
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Jack Tatum’s playing style was true to his nickname. He was “The Assassin.’’

I was lucky enough to cut my teeth covering the NFL during the 1970s in Pittsburgh. Back then, no matchup was more anticipated than Pittsburgh Steelers-Oakland Raiders. Part of the reason was Tatum, who made sure receivers venturing into the middle of the field did so at their own risk.

[+] EnlargeTatum
AP Photo/Richard DrewJack Tatum (32), who came from an era of hard running and harder hits, died Tuesday.
What is forgotten is how physical the game was in the 1970s. That was the age of great defense, hard running and harder hits. Situation substitution wasn’t part of 1970s football. Cornerbacks were allowed to mug receivers at the line of scrimmage or downfield.

And safeties? Well, the words safety and receiver simply didn’t match up in those days. Tatum, who died Tuesday at 61, played the position like a linebacker. He hit like no other safety in football.

It was probably fitting that one of his notable hits came against the Steelers. I remember sitting in the auxiliary press box at Three Rivers Stadium during the 1972 playoffs. The Raiders were about to squeak out a come-from-behind victory over an upstart Steelers team. In the final seconds, Terry Bradshaw fired a prayer of a pass toward Frenchy Fuqua.

Tatum saw the ball and Fuqua, so naturally you knew a collision was coming. Tatum’s hit caused the ball to fly backward into the hands of running back Franco Harris. The "Ultimate Hit" led to the "Immaculate Reception" as Harris caught the ball just before it hit the ground and scored the winning touchdown.

After Tatum’s career was over, I saw him at a celebrity flag football game during a Super Bowl. He led a chorus of former Raiders players who blasted eventual Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann of the Steelers for not being tough enough. Tatum and the Raiders made Swann a target back in those days.

What’s a shame is the Darryl Stingley incident during a preseason game in 1978. Tatum delivered his usual "Assassin-style" hit, but Stingley never walked again. Tatum didn’t show compassion for Stingley, opening the door for plenty of criticism.

Tatum’s style might have been outlawed in this new age of football. Research continues into the long-term damage the game inflicts on players. Had he played in the 21st century, Tatum might have had to donate his salary to charity because the league office would be fining him every week.

Is Tatum a Hall of Famer? Well, I am surprised he has not received more attention from voters. The Stingley incident is a huge factor there, so don't count on him making it.

Best Steelers Team Ever: 1975

June, 23, 2010
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Notable players: QB Terry Bradshaw, LB Jack Lambert, RB Franco Harris, DB Mel Blount, LB Jack Ham, WR Lynn Swann, DT Joe Greene, WR John Stallworth.

[+] EnlargeFranco Harris
AP Photo/JJWFranco Harris posted career-high numbers during the 1975 season.
Analysis: The '75 Steelers were the first Pittsburgh team to win back-to-back Super Bowls. It was also the best team from the famed Pittsburgh dynasty of the '70s, which included a bevy of Hall of Famers.

Led by the Bradshaw -- aka the "Blonde Bomber" -- Pittsburgh was able to win through the air and on the ground in an era when most teams were one-dimensional offensively and thrived on ground-and-pound football.

Pittsburgh's famed "Steel Curtain" defense was one of the best of all time and held seven opponents to single-digit scoring during the '75 season. In three playoff games, including the Super Bowl, offenses averaged only 12.3 points per game.

The '78 and '79 Pittsburgh title teams were also tremendous. But the '75 group had several key advantages.

For starters, every key member in '75 was in, or approaching, his prime. Hall of Famers Bradshaw (27), Blount (27), Ham (27), Lambert (23), Harris (25), Swann (23) and Stallworth (23) came into their own during this first run of back-to-back titles. By the time the second run of championships came at the end of the decade, this core group was four years older and some were approaching the end of their storied careers.

Further displaying their dominance, the '75 Steelers won by an astounding average of 15.1 points per game in the regular season, which led the NFL. It was also the highest margin of victory for any of Pittsburgh's championship teams. The '78 team won by an average of 10.1 points per game, while the '79 team won by 9.6 points per game.

Most impressive win: The Steelers' 21-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X was the team's crowning achievement. The Steelers won the turnover battle 3-0 to pull out a historic and close game. It completed the first of Pittsburgh's two back-to-back championships in the decade.

Research Room: The Steelers allowed 17 touchdowns in 14 regular-season games in '75. In contrast, Pittsburgh scored 46 touchdowns, including two fumble returns for scores and one kickoff return.

Big Franco: Harris is best known for the "Immaculate Reception" in '72 during a playoff win over the Oakland Raiders. But his best season rushing the football came three years later.

Harris recorded a career-high 1,246 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns during Pittsburgh's title run in '75. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and also caught 28 passes out of the backfield. The nine-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer had eight 1,000-yard seasons.

Honorable mentions (in order):

1978: A dominant group that won 14 games in the regular season and a Super Bowl. They scored at least 33 points in all three playoff victories.

1979: The last championship team of the Steelers dynasty of the '70s. This group was No. 1 in total offense and No. 2 in total defense.

1974: This team started the run of four championships in the '70s. But it wasn't until a year later that the core group of Hall Famers all blossomed and came into their own.

The case for Rice as the greatest ever

February, 3, 2010
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RiceGeorge Rose/Getty ImagesWide receiver Jerry Rice retired with his name all over the National Football League record book.
MIAMI -- Anyone advocating Jerry Rice as the greatest player in NFL history can bury the opposition in statistics.

Rice averaged 1,145 yards receiving and more than 10 total touchdowns per season -- for 20 NFL seasons.

Rice caught 69 touchdown passes -- more than the career totals for Art Monk, Michael Irvin, Charlie Joiner, John Stallworth and numerous other Hall of Fame receivers -- during a five-season span ending in 1993. Rice then caught 28 touchdown passes over the next two seasons, more than half the career total for Hall of Famer Lynn Swann.

He retired holding NFL records for:

  • Touchdowns (208), receiving TDs (197), receiving TDs in a season (22), consecutive games with a TD reception (13), TDs in Super Bowls (8), receiving TDs in a single Super Bowl (3) and postseason TDs (22).
  • Receptions (1,549), consecutive games with a reception (274), receptions in Super Bowls (33) and postseason receptions (151).
  • Receiving yards (22,895), receiving yards in a season (1,848), receiving yards in Super Bowls (589), receiving yards in a Super Bowl (215), postseason receiving yards (2,245) and seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving (14).
Rice, whose selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a formality Saturday, probably enjoyed the greatest NFL career. He was probably the greatest wide receiver despite some arguments for Don Hutson. But was he the greatest player, period?

"Oh, yeah," Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson said almost reflexively during Super Bowl media day.

Woodson, perhaps mindful of history as a member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary team, then showed he could still backpedal a bit.

Brown
Getty ImagesWhen talking about the greatest players ever, Jim Brown needs to be in the conversation.
"I mean, he is definitely up there," he said. "I don't think one player is the greatest player ever, but he is in that water-cooler conversation. Now, if you say greatest receiver, absolutely. But the greatest player, to make him the most dominant player ever in NFL history or just say pro football history, that is a profound statement. But I can say that he will be in that argument time in and time out."

The conversation might include Otto Graham, Jim Brown, Sammy Baugh, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Hutson, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders among players no longer active. And that list is probably shortchanging defensive greats such as Deacon Jones and Dick Butkus.

But Ray Lewis, arguably the greatest defensive player of the current era, didn't hesitate in singling out Rice.

"I don't know what argument you are going to make why he is not," Lewis said.

And that might be what separates Rice from the rest. There really isn't a great case against him. No one played at such a high level for as long with such grace.

"Jerry Rice doesn't rank in the all-time greats," said Saints safety Darren Sharper, a five-time Pro Bowl choice and member of the 2000s All-Decade team. "He is the greatest receiver and maybe the greatest football player of all time."

Maybe?

"I can't comment on eras that I didn't perform in," retired cornerback Deion Sanders said, "but the era I performed in, Jerry Rice is the best football player to play in that era."

On what grounds beyond the numbers?

"Work ethic, precision, routes, physical toughness, awareness, that hunger," Sanders said. "Jerry stayed hungry until the day he retired."

(Read full post)

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