Following up a Super Bowl championship with an eight-win season is obviously disappointing, but is there a better way to end an otherwise depressing season than to beat the Bengals ... in Cincinnati ... with their playoff hopes on the line?
While most Pittsburgh Steelers' fans have been preoccupied with the hometown teams' plight, the Bengals had an equally unimpressive season. I don't mention this to mitigate Pittsburgh's woes but to just point out that perspective is everything: the Bengals were, for many media bobbleheads, preseason favorites to go deep in the playoffs. Instead, they end the year on a three-game-losing streak, finish 8-8 – just like the Steelers – and head into the off-season with just as many – if not more – questions than Pittsburgh. Yep, misery loves company.
There will be plenty of time to talk about 2006, Cowher's legacy (assuming he retires *wink-wink*), and the Steelers' needs heading into free agency and the draft, but we haven’t quite examined Week 17, so let's get to it:
… When the Steelers' kick return unit took the field to start the game and Santonio Holmes and Cedrick Wilson were deep I had a hunch something was up. I think it says something about special teams when you raise an eyebrow because Sean Morey isn't on kick-return duty. Anyway, I never, ever expected the ol' catch-and-huddle routine made famous by Larry, Moe and Curly.
When Holmes was tackled at the 10-yard line – by Ethan Kilmer, no less – I was pretty much convinced Cowher was retiring. Honestly, who does that? After the game Cowher called the play his "end-of-game return" but admitted that with the season 17 weeks old he might not get to use it at the end of a game and decided to start the game with it. Um, okay.
… After Ben Roethlisberger's first-quarter interception into double-coverage – a play we've become all too familiar with this season – was returned to the Bengals' 48-yard line, replays showed that Alan Faneca stripped Tory James before James was down. Now, if Cincinnati had hustled on to the field and got off a play before the Pittsburgh coaches could get a good look at the might-be fumble, well, then, good for Cincy. But after the change of possession, CBS went to a commercial break. Which means Faneca could've made his case to Cowher, Cowher could've called the TiVo guys upstairs to review the play, and the head coach could've challenged the play. But that didn't happen. And I'm still not sure why.
Against good teams – and let's be honest, the Bengals are not a good team – little things like that can cost you the game. Do you think Bill Belichick would've challenged the play? I know it's moot at this point – I mean, the regular season is eight months away – but it's still frustrating.
… I was glad to read that Craig Wolfley liked Willie Colon's effort in his second career start. Through my untrained eyes, I thought Colon looked dominating at times too, but to have a second opinion is somewhat reassuring. I'm still not completely sold on Colon, however. Don't get me wrong, I want to believe he can be a starter, but the difference between the Bengals' and Ravens' defense you can just about squeeze into the Grand Canyon (to paraphrase Silent Bob). Still, it's good to know that both Colon and Trai Essex provide depth along the offensive line.
Right now, I'm of the opinion that Pittsburgh should offer incumbent Max Starks a third-round tender half-hoping another team tries to sign him.
… After the first play of the game, seeing Hines Ward run a reverse and then follow that later with what was supposed to be a wide receiver pass shouldn't have been that surprising, I suppose. The fact that Ward couldn't find an open target and still managed to gain 21 yards rushing was – if not surprising – pretty impressive. It was on this play that Colon was flagged for taunting and apparently dumb personal foul penalties is all it took to wake Cowher from his season-long slumber. Whether he was legitimately perturbed or just putting on a show (personally, I think it was legit), it was fun to watch. Unless, of course, you're either Colon or Essex, the would-be replacement who'll go down in Steelers' history as the last player to be on the receiving end of a Cowher spit shower.
… If not for Santonio Holmes' overtime touchdown, the play of the game might have been Roethlisberger, in his own end zone, somehow avoiding Dexter Jackson. Watching the play live (but not in HD … presumably because CBS would rather spend money on creating the next really awful sitcom than on HD cameras) it seemed clear that Roethlisberger was about to get Bart Scott-ed. Fortunately, Jackson looked more intent on getting the strip than the sack, Big Ben deftly stepped up in the pocket, and then managed to find Jerame Tuman open downfield. Amazing.
After the play, I told Jackson through my television (I don't think he could hear me, but it wasn't because I wasn't yelling) that he gets my "Worst play of the day that could result in your team losing" game ball. After marching 95 yards down the field, I had a change of heart: Willie Parker was definitely getting the game ball after his second lost fumble inside the opponents’ 5-yard line in as many weeks. By the way, I can't think of a quicker way to deflate an entire fan base than to fumble in such a situation.
… I am very much looking forward to watching Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward next season. If there are fans who still want the Steelers to take a wide receiver in the first round, well, there's no changing their minds on the subject. Holmes, after a typically rookie-esque start to preseason and the early regular season games, has evolved into one of Ben's favorite targets. One knock on Holmes coming out of Ohio State was that he sometimes lost focus and dropped passes. I feel quite confident in saying he was the most reliable pass catcher on the 2006 Steelers. It seemed like Ward dropped more passes this year than all his others combined; Heath Miller also struggled at times to replicate his rookie success; Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington were inconsistent, but to Wilson's credit, he made several nice catches Sunday. Realistically, Washington just wrapped up his rookie season, and frankly, he did pretty well. Some fans are ready to give up on Washington, but that would just be silly at this point in his career. Plus, he's making the NFL minimum wage. It's a win-win.
… As soon as James Harrison body slammed Chad Johnson I knew it would be an unnecessary roughness penalty because Ike Taylor was called for the same dopey infraction last season … against the Bengals … in Cincinnati … while tackling Chad Johnson. Whatever. I didn't even care that Harrison was flagged for tackling in a tackle football game because he sent a very clear message to maybe the softest team in the NFL: I will punch you in the mouth. That was worth 15 yards, in my opinion.
Two things struck me as funny about this play:
After the take down, Harrison walked back to the huddle like he does this move all the time … just another day at the office. I was telling my buddy that I wouldn't be surprised if this is what Harrison does at 7-11 when somebody cuts in front of him at the Slurpee machine. He certainly does it in Cleveland when dumbasses run onto the field during a game (I'm referring to fans and not Braylon Edwards here). Meanwhile…
Anthony Smith's dancing around after the hit like he just scratched off the last number on a winning lottery ticket. Too funny.
… Goofy interception return against the Panthers aside, I love Smith's exuberance. The only thing more comical than his post-Johnson body-slam dance was watching him talk smack to T.J. Houshmandzadeh after that vicious hit knocked the ball loose – but before T.J. Whosyourmamma (put it on the board!) finished bouncing off the turf.
The replays showed a great throw from Carson Palmer, Taylor in good coverage and Houshmandzadeh making a nice grab … only to get absolutely housed by Smith. In fact, Smith is so precise in his punishment, he just hit Houshmandzadeh and spared Taylor the indignity of decapitation by a teammate. If that had been Polamalu instead of Smith, Taylor would now be known as "Collateral Damage" Ike.
I could go on for another 2,000 words about how the Bengals are arguably the biggest embarrassment in the AFC North. If players aren't getting arrested, their head coach has to remind them not to be so selfish in the week leading up to the biggest game of the season. Who has to remind adults not to be selfish? Maybe next year, Marvin Lewis can add a child psychologist to the coaching staff to deal with issues like sharing, playing well with others, and why stealing is wrong. What a bunch of buffoons.
… Whatever happens with Cowher, it's nice to end 2006 on a high note. Things certainly didn't go according to plan, but the Steelers found a No. 2 wideout and maybe a starting free safety and right tackle out of the rookie class, and if Big Ben can manage not to get hit by an asteroid or something this off-season, 2007 should be a good year no matter who's coaching.
By Ryan Wilson
Posted Jan 3, 2007