Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mike Leach was railroaded

The Mike Leach saga took a bizarre twist this morning when Texas Tech fired him [Tommy Craggs, Deadspin] just before [Matt Hinton, Dr. Saturday] he received a court order [Pete Thamel, Twitter] allowing him to coach in their bowl game. This comes after [AP] their suspension of him a few days earlier in response to allegations [Craggs] of mistreatment by Tech wide receiver Adam James, the son of ESPN analyst Craig James.

The whole thing stinks to high heaven. Seth C of Double-T Nation, the SBN blog for Texas Tech, has an excellent post here detailing the lack of communication between the university and Leach, the financial implications at stake and the power play between Leach and athletic director Gerald Myers. Spencer Hall goes through more of the details and discusses the power struggle between the two sides over at SB Nation, Chris Brown has an interesting analysis of how this might eventually shake out and Matt Hayes of The Sporting News has a great piece on the real reasons for the firing. As he writes, "This is the definition of payback, everyone. Nearly a year after the fact. The record will show that Leach, Tech's unorthodox yet highly successful coach, was fired Wednesday for mistreatment of a player with a "mild" concussion. The reality is Leach was fired because he took Texas Tech for everything it had last February during contract negotiations -- and made the university brass look like bumbling fools in the process." There's pretty clear evidence that there's more going on here than just Leach's alleged mistreatment of James.

Concussions have obviously been a key issue of mine for a long time, so you'd think I'd be all in favour of a coach getting fired for dealing with them improperly. In this case, you'd be wrong, though. Leach's actions seem perfectly reasonable; when faced with a concussed player sensitive to light, he had him go stand in a dark room during practice. That sounds like a pretty logical treatment, and certainly not something that would cause James further injury. It hardly smacks of cruel and unusual punishment, especially if you watch this video from the local NBC affiliate that explored the "sheds" where James was allegedly confined:

Not bad, eh? They certainly doesn't look anywhere near as awful as the James' family's press release made them sound. Perhaps even more revealing are the e-mails from former Tech players and coaches CBS' Dennis Dodd published on his blog, which give some interesting insights into the character of both Leach and Adam James. Here are some highlights:

Former Red Raider WR, current Saskatchewan Roughrider Eric Morris: "You can find out a lot about a person after playing three years of college football with them. Adam James was a teammate of mine from 2006-2009. Ever since the day he arrived on the Texas Tech campus you couldn’t help but to feel a negative energy from him. He expected people to baby him and that he was going make it solely on the fact that his father was a very successful player. Coach Leach has never been a coach to just give something to someone because of who they are. He believes that everyone is equal and you have to earn respect from your coaches and teammates. Adam was never known as a hard worker. I can honestly agree with this because we played the same position and I witnessed his laziness on a daily bases."

Former Red Raider QB, current Saskatchewan Roughrider Graham Harrell: " Before Adam James ever entered the football locker room at Texas Tech I heard how spoiled and selfish he acted in a team atmosphere from many of my baseball friends. Adam was on the baseball team his true freshman year at Tech, before he ever joined the football team, and did not make it through the baseball season because of his selfish attitude. After a baseball game in which he felt like he did not get enough playing time, but the team still won twenty to one, he came into the locker room after the game and “pouted and threw a big fit” according another player on the baseball team. A few weeks later in the middle of the season, he just stopped showing up to practices or game and quit because he was not happy about how he was being treated.

One of my roommates was a baseball player on the team and many of my friends were a part of the team that witnessed all of this. These baseball players told me he was “spoiled and selfish” before he ever came to the football team. After quitting baseball he came out for football and his selfish attitude was very evident, as was his laziness. During >off-season workouts he often would be caught skipping lifts in the weight room or finding ways to cut corners/get out of conditioning exercises. When we had player organized seven on seven throwing in the summer, when he would show up he was much more interested in playing his own games on the side of the field or telling people that he wasn’t going to run any routes because the coaches do not get him a “fair opportunity” anyway. During the season he was often “injured” (it usually seemed like a very minor injury that could keep him out of practice but never out of any other activity, including games) so he would not participate in some drills in practice. None of these acts were productive for our team, but the most detrimental part of Adam was his off field attitude and actions. ...

Mike Leach was not only my head coach, but he was my position coach all five of my years at Texas Tech. I spent more time with him than any other player during my five years and had meetings with him every day. He was very hard on me and every other player in program and he held very high expectations for every player. He would push us all every day during the season and during the off-season. He felt that hard work, dedication and doing things right was the only way we could be successful and compete in the Big XII conference. He worked harder and longer than anyone else in program and was committed to winning at all cost. He would never have been unfair to a player or not played the best players he had because he wanted to win more than anything else. Coach Leach also expected us to be tough but smart at the same time. He would not pressure a kid to play with a serious injury or play when he did not feel ready to play. Coach Leach is a man that cares about his player and puts his players, coaches and the well being of the Texas Tech football program above all else."

Current Tech slot receiver coach Lincoln Riley: "During the last two years of being the inside receivers coach, I have had the chance to learn a lot about Adam James. He came to Tech because of one person: Coach Leach. Although we adamently doubted his talent, we as coaches came to see that Adam actually had enough talent to help us out. The problem, though, is that Adam is unusually lazy and entitled. Many other players on this team, specifically receivers, have a much larger role on this team with less talent. I have always been worried about Adam's effect on my other players because of his weak and conceited attitude. I recently found out that Adam deliberately undermined my authority on many occasions. This is particularly disturbing because Coach Leach hired me to make our receivers the best group in the country, and Adam has damaged this
group far more than I even realized. ...

Two practices before Adam James claimed he had a concussion, Coach Leach and I were forced to discipline him for poor effort from the previous practice and poor effort during the early drills of that day. This has been a common theme about Adam's work ethic and attitude during his entire career. Adam, along with two other receivers that were also unsatisfactory, was sent to run stadium steps with Bennie Wylie. After the practice, Bennie made it very clear to Coach Leach and I that Adam was a complete "jerk" while he was being punished. After talking with Adam after the practice, it was very clear to me that Adam did not agree with the punishment and believed that we were just mis-asessing his effort. He complained to me that we were not doing our jobs as coaches and that his effort was just fine, all of which is very typical of him to say."

Former Tech slot receiver coach Dana Holgorsen, currently the offensive coordinator at the University of Houston: "I am writing this letter on behalf of Mike Leach in regards to the Adam James situation. I was the inside receiver coach at Texas Tech when we made the decision the sign Adam James in January of 2007. Adam had no offers to play NCAA D1 football during and after his Senior year. After a conversation between Coach Leach and Adams father Craig, Coach Leach acquired a brief highlight tape of Adam and made the decision to take him as a scholarship student athlete. I was opposed to doing so in belief he was not a D1 football player. Coach Leach overrode my opinion and Adam became a Red Raider. During the rest of my time at Texas Tech I was Adams position coach where I always remained critical of Adams ability to play at this level due to being lazy in not only the classroom but also in the off season and during practice. Coach Leach was the one who kept saying he believed Adam would eventually contribute. Adams teammates believed he was selfish and were constantly getting onto him for lack of effort as they sensed entitlement on his part due to his father being a very good football player. Adam eventually ended up playing a little after I left due to his body type being able to do some TE sets which consists of around 5-10 plays a game. Adam should be thankful for the opportunity to play at Texas Tech and for Mike Leach, who gave him the opportunity. In my opinion playing 5-10 plays a game in an outstanding offense is more than he would get at any other school in NCAA D1 football."

I highly recommend going to Dodd's blog to read the whole series of e-mails, but just the excerpts show a lot of what's really going on here. Yes, all of the players and coaches above have reasons to support Leach, but it's very interesting that they all hit the same points about James. Particularly of note are the comments by the coaches on how they didn't want James, but Leach argued for him. Sounds like Leach did James a favour, and for that favour, he's been stabbed in the back and has lost his job. Et tu, Brute?

What's interesting is that this is at least in some way a reassertion of the football establishment. Leach has always been a quirky figure outside the general club of football coaches, as shown by this fascinating 2005 profile of him by Michael Lewis. Craig James is much more of a traditionalist, so it's not surprising that he and Leach butted heads.

It's a shame that this is how things ended for Leach and Tech, though; he created a brilliant passing offence by thinking outside the box and produced greatquarterbacks like Harrell, who were unfortunately overlooked by the groupthink of professional football as I've written before
. He turned an afterthought of a program into a national presence, not by traditional means but through an unconventional system that maximized his players' strengths and minimized their weaknesses. For my money, he's one of the best coaches in NCAA football.

Of course, not everything Leach did was brilliant (blocking his players from using Twitter was just dumb, his "fat little girlfriends" comment was bizarre, renaming his quarterback "Nick" was pretty ridiculous and receiver Ed Britton, who Leach made study outside in a blizzard for missing class, has a much better claim to mistreatment than James). None of that is a reason to fire him, though, and neither is this latest case. In the end, the pirate-loving Leach has been forced to walk the plank before his time, railroaded by an administration looking for an excuse to dump him in favour of a more traditional coach. That's a shame. Hopefully Leach will land on his feet, bring an unconventional but successful approach to a new school and make all involved regret this travesty of a process.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Heads Up, Part II: Independence

[This is the second part of a three-part series on concussions. See Part I here. The final installment will run later this week.]

One of the absolutely essential areas to consider when assessing and treating athletic concussions is the independence of doctors and medical personnel. Generally, injuries are assessed by team medical staff, which is problematic. As in any industry, there are certainly good and bad team doctors out there, but the unique position of a team physician means any less-than-honest ones can cause a lot of harm. These doctors and trainers are paid by the teams, not by their patients, and teams' interests don't always coincide with their players' best interests. Sometimes, it's in the team's favour for a player to return more quickly than he probably should. The classic example of this is James Woods' brilliant portrayal of Dr. Harvey Mandrake in Any Given Sunday, still one of the best sports movies of all time in my opinion. Here's a clip of his confrontation with head coach Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) after it's discovered that he was mistreating players on the owners of owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), who promised to reward him financially for doing so. (Warning; some NSFW language)

Of course, this is a Hollywood movie, not a documentary. Still, there's more truth behind this portrayal than many would expect. Much of the movie was based on the book You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise: A Doctor's Sideline Secrets. That book was an expose of the shady side of medical treatment in the NFL, written by Robert Huizenga, who worked as a doctor with the Raiders for eight years.*

*Huizenga later testified in the O.J. Simpson trial and various congressional hearings, including this year's hearing on brain injuries on football, which has kick-started much of the recent progress on concussions. Lately, he's also appeared on The Biggest Loser.

Huizenga's book set off a massive controversy about football injuries and the methods of treatment used, and he also frankly discussed the prevalence of steroids in football. This 1991 interview he did with Sports Illustrated shortly after he left the Raiders* is fascinating, as is this 1994 article about how the Raiders mistreated Curt Marsh, where Huizenga is quoted. Both articles lay much of the blame at the feet of former Raiders' team doctor Robert T. Rosenfeld, upon whom Woods' character was reportedly based. The medical parts of Any Given Sunday may seem unrealistic at first, but there's a surprising amount of evidence backing them up.

That doesn't mean that this sort of thing is necessarily still going on. There's much more scrutiny of injuries and treatment these days, which would make this kind of skullduggery considerably more difficult to get away with. However, there's still a huge conflict of interest when medical personnel are responsible for treating players, but are paid by the organizations that employ those players. This conflict hasn't been solved; in fact, more evidence of it came out recently with the resignation of Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano, the heads of the NFL's concussion committee.

These doctors, both on the payroll of the league, had denied any link between concussions and pro football for years despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, and were conducting their own severely flawed study in an attempt to try and disprove the relationship between NFL careers and long-term brain damage. Their resignation is a very positive step, as is the announcement that the NFL will work with Boston University on its concussion study; BU professors have done much of the work in this field and have the academic independence necessary for believability. They've already been very critical of the NFL's policies, so this isn't going to turn into a whitewashing study along the lines of the one the league was conducting.

Another very positive step is that the NFL will soon require teams to consult with independent neurologists on concussions. There are still questions on how exactly this will work, and Mike Freeman points out that these neurologists may not be as independent as many of us would like, but this is still a move in the right direction. Other leagues will hopefully follow suit and move to independent specialists as well.

There are a couple of simple options that could dramatically improve independence, though. The key problem is still that these neurologists will be paid by the team who employs the player they're treating. It's not as bad as in the case of full-time team doctors, as their entire employment income doesn't come from the team, but it's still problematic. Freeman suggests the players' association paying these specialists, but that might be a tough sell to the NFLPA; for one thing, it shifts the costs of medical treatment from owners to players, and for another, not every player will use the services of these specialists. If the NFLPA would go for it, this would be a good solution, but it would be difficult to implement and would have to be negotiated through a collective bargaining agreement.

However, what could be done without significant problems would be to shift the doctors and specialists' employers from individual teams to the league as a whole. There still would be some issues, but the conflict of interest is significantly reduced. For example, consider the recent neck injury to DeMarcus Ware, which I talked about in Part I of this series. I'm not sure if he was evaluated by a specialist or just the regular team doctor, as he reportedly had no concussion symptoms. Under the present system, though, either would have been paid by the Cowboys. The Cowboys had a significant interest in Ware's ability to play Saturday against the Saints, and he wound up being crucial to their victory. That doesn't necessarily mean that the team interfered with these doctors at all, or that their diagnosis of Ware was at all impacted by finances, but in a situation like this, there's at least a potential conflict of interest. Even if an actual conflict of interest didn't develop, it still doesn't look good from the outside.

If the league as a whole was paying these specialists, the potential for a conflict of interest greatly decreases. The Saints have at least as much interest in Ware not playing as the Cowboys do in him playing, and there are 30 other teams that have no real stake in the outcome. Moreover, medical personnel and specialists could be put in their own unique branch of the NFL, separate from the teams (much as referees are); accountable only to the head of the medical division and the commissioner, not individual teams.

There still could be problems if the league encouraged doctors to let players return early across the board, but this is where the media responsibility I discussed in Part I kicks in. Governments sometimes employ people who investigate the government itself, such as ombudsmen, auditor-generals or people in the Justice Department. When those governments attempt to interfere with those positions (for example, the Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal), it's the role of the Fourth Estate to bring this information to the public. The sports media should act in the same way, as a check on the power of the league. This would also be much easier with league-wide medical departments and policies.

One final crucial part of independence is that it has to work both ways. It's obvious why coaches and owners shouldn't be involved in medical decisions, but it's less obvious why players shouldn't be allowed to decide if they'll play or not. This is just as important, though. The macho, team-focused culture of sports means that players can't make good decisions about if they should play or not; if they do what's best for their long-term health, they get blasted as wimps and bad teammates.

A key example of this comes from Hines Ward's ridiculous attack on Ben Roethlisberger after team doctors decided that Roethlisberger should sit out the Steelers' game against the Baltimore Ravens. Fortunately, in that case, the decision was out of Roethlisberger's hands; if he had the option to play, he probably would have played, which could have had serious conseqences if he was hit again. You can't blame him when his teammates react that way. If he had chosen to sit out, he would have been blasted even more by teammates and the media, and might have acquired a reputation as a bad teammate, which could have damaged his future earning potential. This is why so many players play through serious injuries, and why all injury decisions, not just those around head injuries, need to be made by doctors, not players or coaches.

The environment of professional sports makes it impossible for athletes, coaches or teams to make the right call on their own. It needs to be out of their hands. This is why independence for doctors is so crucial. The NFL's made some promising steps on this front lately; let's hope this continues, and that other leagues follow suit.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Heads Up, Part I: Media Responsibility

(This is the first part of a three-part, three-day series on concussions. See a list of links to some of my previous writing on concussions here.)

Concussions have been getting a lot of attention in the media lately, which is great to see. For far too long, they've been the dirty little secret of sports. As fans, we love to sit in arenas or stadiums and watch violent hits, but we don't often like to think about the consequences of such entertainment. There's a good reason Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator called out Don Cherry last week; Cherry's certainly not the only one to blame, but he has promoted hard-hitting hockey and fights for years, has consistently taken stands against any kind of headshot ban, and makes plenty of money from his "Rock Em, Sock Em" video line, featuring the most violent hockey moments and plenty of head shots. Of course, Cherry completely missed the point in his Coach's Corner, saying he had nothing to say to Tator and was not to blame;

Of course, Cherry's far from the only one at fault. Our entire sports culture, especially in football and hockey, is rooted in the set of macho ideals Cherry frequently espouses. There's continual speeches about toughness and playing through pain, regardless of the long-term consequences. Part of this is from a lack of education about the severity of head injuries and how they differ from the standard sort of injuries. From an early age, players are taught to "tough it out" and "be a man", so it's hardly a surprise that they continue that behaviour when they get to the pro ranks. In fact, even with all the recent information about the long-term effects of concussions, we still get incidents like the recent one where Pittsburgh Steelers' wide receiver Hines Ward called out quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for not playing a week after suffering a concussion.

The media treatment of concussions plays a crucial role in how players, coaches and fans see them. Scientific research on the subject is critical, but it doesn't mean anything if the word doesn't get out to those actually involved in sports. We've known of some of the dangers of concussions for decades (see William Nack's excellent Sports Illustrated piece "The Wrecking Yard" from 2001 for one example, but there hasn't been a lot of media coverage of head injuries until the past few years. This isn't necessarily all the fault of the media; most outlets and reporters are working on tight, day-to-day deadlines and don't have the time for the kind of long investigations often needed for concussion pieces.

Additionally, beat reporters writing about individual games generally have to rely on what quotes they can get. Even if they notice a potential concussion during the game, it's frequently difficult to get players or coaches to talk about it, especially as there's a (often well-justified) fear out there that admitting to a head injury will make you a target for future hits. Gare Joyce, an excellent hockey writer (I reviewed his book Future Greats and Heartbreaks way back when, and heartily recommend it), wrote a great column for today about the difficulties involved in reporting concussions (and mentioned my Queen's Journal piece on Alyn McCauley to boot); it's well worth a read.

The state of discourse on concussions in the sports media is a long way from where it was, but there's still work to do. One key example came last week, when Dallas Cowboys' linebacker DeMarcus Ware was stretchered off the field on Sunday, Dec. 13 with a neck injury, but came back and played a crucial role six days later in the Cowboys' win over the New Orleans Saints Saturday. Ware played well, but it's very questionable if he should have been involved in that game, and that should have received a lot of attention and coverage from the media. The whole process that saw Ware cleared to play deserves substantial scrutiny, but it didn't receive much; instead, most of the coverage saw Ware lauded as a hero for his performance, with little discussion of how he was cleared to play. According to an AP pre-game piece, Ware didn't have concussion symptoms, but given how fragile the head and the neck are, resting him would have made a lot of sense.

The problem isn't necessarily that Ware was cleared to play; I could understand that if the NFL media had looked into it a bit more and reported how his neck injury didn't threaten further damage. If it really wasn't that severe and there was no evidence of any kind of concussion, that should have been clearly laid out, with full explanations of why Ware's injury was an exception to the NFL's recent moves towards having players sit out after head injuries. The problem is how little attention Ware's clearance to play got, and how many people praised his play without questioning if he should have been in the game at all. That's only going to encourage the play-through-pain culture, especially at the lower levels. Even if Ware's injury wasn't that severe, how many minor football or hockey players will watch his performance and then demand to play a week after suffering a head injury of their own, and how many coaches will let them?

Like it or not, professional athletes are role models to many young athletes, especially when they display the kind of toughness and machismo we often glorify. It's important for us in the sports media to make head injuries a consistent issue. We need to get the message out there that these injuries are a serious threat, and playing through them isn't always the way to go.

The media can have a substantial effect, especially with consistent pressure. After far too long, the NFL has finally gotten rid of its resident head-injury deniers, largely thanks to ongoing media pressure that led to a congressional investigation, and the league is making progress on many fronts. Randy Starkman of The Toronto Star has done some great work on concussions in hockey, especially with this 2007 series. Another key moment on the NHL front was the extensive media coverage of the recent revelation that former NHL star Reggie Fleming had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a concussion-linked disease that had previously been found in football players and boxers, but never hockey players. Concussions have become an issue at the league level recently, and that's a good step.

It's especially worth discussing concussions in leagues where they aren't yet a prominent issue, such as in Canadian and American university sports and women's sports. As Alan Schwarz reported in a 2007 New York Times piece, girls suffer concussions even more frequently than boys in many sports. A lot of those concussions take place in sports like soccer and basketball, not traditionally renowned for being hard-hitting. Another area where concussions only recently hit the radar screen is the CFL; Vicki Hall of the Calgary Herald did several great pieces on concussions during Grey Cup Week and turned the league's concussion policies into a significant issue.

These are all small steps, but we are making progress. Leagues, coaches and players at all levels are starting to realize the serious nature of head injuries, and that's a great thing. There are other steps that they can take to help deal with the problem, and I'll be covering a couple of those in the coming days. On the media side, though, the most important thing we can do is make sure that concussions remain a significant issue. We can't afford to let them slip off the radar screen, and we need to keep asking the tough questions about team policies and player injuries. Hopefully, some athletes and coaches will read or watch something on concussions, educate themselves on the dangers involved and behave more safely as a result. There's a great opportunity here for the sports media to actually do something positive for the games that we cover by keeping this issue alive and pushing for real, significant change. Let's not let that opportunity go to waste.

Just resting...

One problem with the holiday season is it leads to a lack of blogging time, especially when busy writing for other publications. I did manage to get some thoughts on the Roy Halladay trade and what it means for the Blue Jays up over at The Rookies However, I've finally cleared some of the backlog of work, so I should be able to get a few things up here pretty soon. One of the things I've been working on is a three-part series on concussions, which I'm planning to run today, tomorrow and Thursday. The first installment will go up shortly. Until then, here are some of the other pieces I've previously written on the subject:

- "The heads up on head injuries" (Queen's Journal, Sept. 28, 2007)

- "NHL's stance on concussions is troubling" (Queen's Journal, Dec. 28, 2007)

- "The school of hard knocks" (Queen's Journal, Jan. 29, 2009)

- "Take concussions seriously" (The Phoenix Pub, Aug. 11, 2009)

- "Football, brains and dogfighting" (The Phoenix Pub, Oct. 12, 2009)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why the Steelers aren't dead yet

Update: Yeah, they're pretty much dead.

"That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die."
- H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

There are lots of similarities between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cthulhu, of course. One is steeped in ancient history and tradition, has strange rituals associated with its supporters and can inspire terror, revulsion and insanity in those who look upon it. The other, of course, is Cthulhu.

Seriously, though, the Steelers' play these past few weeks has been pretty horrific. They suffered bad losses against the Bengals and Chiefs, then showed some promise against the Ravens with backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, but still lost in overtime. It looked like they might have turned a corner. However, they followed that with perhaps their worst loss of the season last week, where they allowed the not-so-fearsome Oakland Raiders and quarterback Bruce Gradkowski to beat them at home on a last-minute drive. They're now 6-6 with a lousy 4-5 AFC record, and their playoff hopes look dim. Not what many of us expected from the defending Super Bowl champions.

However, like Cthulhu, you can't just write the Steelers off as dead. They have four very winnable games left (at Cleveland tonight, vs. Green Bay, vs. Baltimore, at Miami). Cleveland is pretty much a guaranteed win for this team if they play anything like they should; the Browns have no offence and not much defence, and their only dangerous player is Joshua Cribbs. Green Bay is probably the toughest team left on this list, but the Steelers give them matchup problems; the Packers have had offensive line issues all year and the Steelers have a great pass rush, especially with outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers almost beat Baltimore on the road with a backup quarterback, so I like their chances against the Ravens at home. Miami is difficult, but they may have nothing to play for in that one, and they're already without quarterback Chad Pennington and running back Ronnie Brown. They're still a good team, but I think Pittsburgh is better all around.

If the Steelers can in fact run the table, they'll be in pretty decent shape for a wild-card berth. They would have a 10-6 overall record, with a 7-5 record against the AFC and a 3-3 record in their division. Let's take a look at their other playoff competition and the NFL's tie-breaking procedures.

At the moment, the 8-4 Denver Broncos and 7-5 Jacksonville Jaguars hold the AFC wild-card spots. However, both have difficult schedules left. Denver gets 12-0 Indianopolis on the road this week, then the ever-dangerous Raiders (4-8, but they've beaten plenty of good teams and this is a divisional rivalry game for them) at home. They then face the 8-4 Eagles on the road and division rival Kansas City at home. If they lose to the Colts and Eagles, but win against the Raiders and Chiefs, they'd be 10-6. They'd have an 8-5 conference record, better than Pittsburgh, but they lost the head-to-head matchup, so they lose to the Steelers in a wild-card tie between just those two clubs.

Jacksonville also has a difficult finish to the season. They host Miami this week, then host Indianapolis, go on the road against New England and close the year with a game against the Browns. For them, a lot will depend on how hard the Colts play; if they come out flying in that game, I don't see the Jaguars winning it. If they lose to New England and Indy, the Jags would finish 9-7 and be behind the Steelers. Miami is also a possible loss. If they manage to win two of those games as well as against Cleveland, they're 10-6 with a 9-3 conference record, which would likely get them a wild-card spot.

Of the 6-6 teams, some of them have the chance to get to 10-6, but it's going to be difficult. Baltimore plays Detroit and Chicago at home in games they should win, but they then go on the road against Pittsburgh and Oakland. If the Steelers can win that head-to-head game, they don't need to worry about the Ravens. Miami plays at Jacksonville, at the surging 5-7 Titans, and then hosts 5-7 Houston and 6-6 Pittsburgh. Even if the Dolphins are 9-6 going into the final week, Pittsburgh still controls their own destiny thanks to the head-to-head game. The Jets get Tampa Bay this week and 6-6 Atlanta the following week, but then face the Colts and the 9-3 Bengals, and their conference record (2-4) is worse than the Steelers.

Thus, the Steelers still even have hope if they can't win out, but if they run the table, things look awfully good for them. They're still very good on paper and can make plays in the running game, in the passing game and on defence. If they get Troy Polamalu back, they'll be a team no one wants to face. They may be sleeping right now, but I wouldn't call them dead yet.

A slave to the grind

My apologies for my lack of posts here recently. The downside of spending a week in Calgary covering the Grey Cup was it meant I had a lot of regular work to deal with upon my return (making the above song appropriate), which hasn't given me a lot of time for blogging recently. I do have a lot of things I'm working on, though, so hopefully I'll be able to get a few of them up in the coming days. Until then, you can check out some of the Canucks' posts I've managed to get up over at Canuck Puck. Hope to have more for you here soon!