How the NFL, for One Night, Sucked Less Than the NHL

I want to love the Steelers as much as I used to just like I want to love the NFL as much as I used to. Sports have always been and always will be part of my livelihood. But first and foremost, I’m a hockey person. And hockey people, by nature, don’t like to lose. I don’t like that hockey fans, like football fans, have lost respect from a league that insists upon insulting their intelligence.

That’s not to say I don’t care about Saturday’s result. If anything, historically, I’ve made the common yinzer mistake of caring too much. Sure, I was happy the Steelers won, and I would’ve gone to bed that night kind of bummed if they hadn’t, because I’m a Pittsburgher by blood, and it’s in my blood to wish my town–and all its teams–prosperity. Where I come from, winning football, economically, has always been better for the greater good than the alternative. But between the oversaturation of pro football (I can count on one hand the number of Thursday night games that have actually been good) and its overly ostentatious players, the ethically questionable player signings amid hypocritical bleating about “The Steeler Way”™ and the things I now know about Roger Goodell, I just can’t be as emotionally invested as I once was. Having said that, maybe, just this once, I should stop shaking my fist, and instead, clap my hands.

Maybe I should give the NFL, the most corrupt outfit in North American sports besides the NCAA, its ironically due credit for doing something the NHL hasn’t had the spine to do.

I realize sports were never meant to be a morality play. But I have been told repeatedly that they are entertainment. I am not alone in saying that, as a fundamental principle of entertainment, I am entertained when the victim gets justice, and the villain gets what he has coming. Don’t expect that to happen in Gary Bettman’s NHL.

To be fair, until the very (merciful) end of a Wild Card game at Paul Brown Stadium that would make its namesake spin in his grave, I wasn’t expecting it to happen there, either.

Don’t get me wrong. Bettman and Goodell are two sides of the same wooden nickel. They’re tricky political tycoons and shameless corporate apologists who have only really worked to make their respective products better when they’ve absolutely had to. But there’s a reason why pro hockey, in most places beyond Pittsburgh, is treated as a second-class citizen, and why pro football, universally, is not.

Let’s briefly shift our attention to the other corner of Ohio, where Brandon Dubinsky has shown flashes of brilliance as an assistant captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Still, Brandon Dubinsky doesn’t draw ratings and put asses in the seats like Sidney Crosby does. For all his flashy moves, Dubinsky has an equally robust history of dick moves, especially against Crosby.

Go ahead, Columbus. Bang your narrative drums and troll Crosby all you want for so-called petulance; God knows Dubinsky’s delusional head coach did. What Dubinsky did here is unacceptable (also, water is wet, and your team, last I checked, is still in last place):

In any context, it was a cheap shot, and based on where on his body Crosby absorbed the blow, it could have aggravated the concussion problems he’s had. Dubinsky knew what he was doing. He should have known better.

In summary, a player with a dirty reputation who made a dirty play, and who should have gotten five minutes at best and an ejection at worst was allowed to stay in the game, which gave him the opportunity to do this:

No books thrown at the villain. No justice for the victim. Just follow-up discipline tantamount to a speeding ticket–a one-game suspension–after an elite player was unnecessarily targeted. Sadly, I’ve come to expect nothing less from the NHL; as a result, we, the fans, all become victims. This is where the NFL picked up the ball–or puck, as it were–than the NHL constantly drops, and ran with it to the bank.

I’m not going to anoint Ben Roethlisberger for sainthood, for widely-cited reasons, to say nothing of a number of his teammates. But let’s be honest: What grinds the gears of beer-tossing Bengals fans more than Milledgeville these days is Big Ben’s stardom. He’s one of the NFL’s modern greats, and on top of that, he’s a northeast Ohio native who, historically, has terrorized both of Ohio’s NFL teams. Antonio Brown, meanwhile, is a man-amongst-boys wide receiver who has been a subject of best-in-the-league-at-his-position debates all season long as Ben’s primary target.

Now, for a stark contrast, let’s look at the other side of the ball. One of the chief antagonists on this night were Pacman Jones, the gum-flapping cornerback who, among other things, has shot up a strip club before. His attitude has negated whatever talent he’s possessed since he played at West Virginia, and when the Cowboys had to put up with him, Jerry Jones tried to idiot-proof Pacman by hiring what he called “bodyguards,” but were really the grown-ass man equivalent of babysitters.

The other one was Vontaze Burfict, who, like Jones, has been a suspect player dating back to his college days. Today, Burfict enjoys(?) a reputation as one of the dirtiest linebackers in the game. Dennis Erickson, who was once head coach at Miami, benched him at Arizona State for taking too many personal fouls. That’s like getting kicked out of the KKK for being a bigot.

Again, I can’t exempt my team from criticism. Ryan Shazier should be ashamed of himself for celebrating Gio Bernard’s injury, as should Antwon Blake (keep your eye on the upper right-hand corner):

And I loathe to play the “he started it” card…but:

The loose cannon kept firing Saturday, right into Roethlisberger’s shoulder, then, inexplicably, with a shot straight to Brown’s head. That’s not even counting the aftermath, in which Steelers offensive linemen claim Burfict spit at them. In Brown’s case, a flag was thrown and the appropriate penalty assessed at a time when NHL referees would have kept their whistles in their pockets and let the inmates run the asylum–not that they already weren’t to some degree.

I call B.S. on anyone who says Joey Porter came out onto the field to “check on” Brown. Porter and Jones are of the same generation. They’ve played on the same fields. Porter, like Mr. Dubinsky, knew what he was doing and waited until just the right time to do it. He deserves every penny of his fine, and he should have been penalized at the time. Perhaps, while Peezy was being Peezy, he would have been eventually, if not for Pacman being Pacman.

Hey, Mister Instagram, you know how they say the delete key is your friend? Pro tip: the “ignore” button, when available, is also your friend.

Then again, it’s clear that the Steelers and UPMC have collaborated on a genetic mutation that turned Chris Boswell into Gary Anderson, so who’s to say a 47-yard Boswell kick would have had an outcome different from his textbook 32-yarder? And besides, glass houses and stones:

I don’t know who those officials were, though, regardless which dog you had in this fight (not an expression I’m comfortable using in a year that saw the Steelers voluntarily take on Mike Vick’s baggage), you’d think they were the same 90-year-old knuckleheads who mangled that Steelers-Colts game ten years ago. Nevertheless, the NFL, even if just accidentally, managed to send a clear message Saturday night.

The NFL will embrace its stars unconditionally. The NFL will enforce its rules in a manner that allows its most skilled players to show off those skills, and makes middling and/or openly insubordinate players pay a price–literally, in Burfict’s case, next season–for taking liberties with stars. The NHL is too busy playing antiquated politics and fondling itself to visions of Vegas (the Los Angeles of pro hockey’s parallel universe) to do either of those things. Guess which league, for all the negative attention it has deservedly drawn, has also, deservedly, drawn more of the positive kind?

Saturday’s wild Wild Card was one of two football games I saw over the weekend in which no team had any business winning. But even if they were merely the lesser of two evils, the Pittsburgh Steelers got justice for their stars, while the Cincinnati Bengals got their own football-equivalent Sid Bream moment shoved down their collective throat.

Now that’s entertainment.

Maybe the Steelers, who did not win without cost, will surprise us and gut out another one in Denver? Maybe the Steelers, who have extended their season in spite of themselves and their coaches, will see their good karma run out against the Broncos? Either way, we know both teams will get what they deserve this approaching Sunday. Hell, that might be enough to make me flip over from Pens-Canes at quarter to 5:00.

Wow, did I really just say that? Sorry, fellow hockey people. It’s wrong of me to give you the cold shoulder.

But hey, nobody’s Burfict.

Five Completely Unoriginal Predictions for 2016

1. The Penguins Will Make the Playoffs –

I’m in the camp that believes Mike Sullivan’s sample size isn’t big enough to indicate how well he will do on the Penguins bench. I don’t believe he will do worse than Mike Johnston did with what he was given to work with, because very few English-speaking adult males could. The Pens will officially hit the midpoint of their regular season Saturday in Montreal, and I expect them to have a big second half simply because they can.

Let’s clarify that for a second. I sure as heck don’t expect a Cup this year–not that I expected one to begin with. Their defense will still let them down, and the sport will still be strategized and policed in a manner that the Penguins’ stars will not have room to play to their true potential. The 2008-09 Penguins, the last ones to win it all, were one of the greatest examples of a switch being flipped in NHL history, trumped only by the 1991-92 Penguins. The current state of the Pittsburgh Penguins is the result of multi-layered failure by many people, not all of whom work for the Pittsburgh Penguins, at many times. Sullivan is a hockey coach, not a miracle worker.

History won’t be made, but signs of a turnaround are already present. Evgeni Malkin has risen above team- and league-wide scoring woes and has become quite the leader. Sidney Crosby is finally starting to look like his old, dangerous self. Players have stood up for each other, or, in Kris Letang’s recent case, for themselves. The power play is coming around, and the offense, in general, has played more purposefully under the new boss. Meanwhile, Marc-Andre Fleury, in a sane world, would be a Vezina Trophy and perhaps long-shot league MVP candidate right now.

The gap between the haves and have-nots in the NHL is not as big as it once was, but the gap between the Pens and playoff contention is even smaller–one point entering this weekend, to be precise. Sullivan can’t completely change the DNA of that locker room in less than a year, but his team will play well enough to offset the madness of the first half.

2. The Panthers Will Make More Strides Under Pat Narduzzi –

Had Paul Chryst stayed for a fourth season at Pitt, 2015 would have been a make-or-break year for him. The Panthers would have had to show tangible progress under his watch, or else Steve Pederson, or whomever the athletic director would have been in that alternate universe, would have had a very tough decision to make this offseason. Would a fourth year of Chryst on the Pitt sideline have been successful? Would the decision-maker have made the right decision? Fortunately, we never had to find out.

This approaching season, Pitt football, for the first time since the Dave Wannstedt era, and just the second time since its quarterback was the official spokesman for Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza (cha-ching!), will win ten games. This will be achieved with a 9-3 regular season and a victory in an ACC “Tier One” bowl game. And for the first time since we Feared the ‘Stache, the Panthers will show tangible progress.

It’s funny how we hardly ever hear anymore how much Pitt fans, closet and otherwise, miss Wannstedt, isn’t it? Never mind that he couldn’t beat Navy with four cracks at Heinz Field’s south end zone from one yard out, NFL talent on his offensive line, and a future NFL tailback running through holes all night long that the entirety of Section 132 could have penetrated–and that’s the tip of his iceberg. As bad as things used to be around here, what in blue-and-gold hell made those people think that same guy could have kept up with the Clemsons and Florida States of the world, let alone the version of Navy Narduzzi had to prepare his team for?

Okay, so maybe we shouldn’t break our arms patting the Nard-Dog on the back for an 8-5 season that included rocky home losses to quality opponents and a disappointing showing in the Military Bowl against another quality opponent. But let’s not kid ourselves: anyone who can’t see the difference between Chryst and Narduzzi hasn’t been paying attention. Unheralded players became stars. Talk of the “process” of winning turned into talk of winning, period. Defensively, the Panthers were liberated, ditto on offense, where Narduzzi took chances that Chryst would not–and quite frankly, he and erstwhile OC Jim Chaney probably should have taken more. Pitt showed toughness in tenuous games it hadn’t shown previously.

Chryst would have been scuffling just to get to .500 with the 2015 Panthers, and might not have made it. Narduzzi will have the 2016 Panthers in serious contention for the Coastal Division crown that will only turn more serious when James Conner makes his triumphant return.

Pitt has legitimate depth behind Conner in its backfield. It has an offensive line that can protect Nate Peterman, who gets one more year to prove himself while Narduzzi grooms his other QBs and prays, along with the rest of us, that Thomas MacVittie is the Chosen One Pitt has sought for years at that position. It has a defense that is now, at the very least, well coached, if not yet well peopled, at every spot. And although Tyler Boyd is a virtually impossible act to follow, the sum of Pitt’s remaining parts can certainly fill that hole. In addition, it has a manageable home schedule (e.g.: Villanova, Syracuse, Virginia Tech) that mitigates a less forgiving road schedule (e.g.: Oklahoma State, Clemson).

When put in perspective, it’s easy to call the 2015 season a success for Pitt. It won’t be easy to call the 2016 season a success without Conner kicking cancer and the Panthers kicking Penn State’s butt, among others. Plan accordingly, because both are going to happen.

3. The Riverhounds Will Beat an MLS Team in the U.S. Open Cup –

Back in June, when the Hounds hosted D.C. United, a Supporters’ Shield challenger at the time, there were times when it looked like this prediction might come to fruition a year early. Pittsburgh didn’t play well at all after forcing extra time, but even extra time was not without its chances.

Rob Vincent and Kevin Kerr, the two best players from that team (Vincent, reportedly, even got a look from United scouts), are officially back for 2016, as is stalwart goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap for a second tour of duty. In addition, head coach Mark Steffens, whose team is coming off just its second USL playoff berth ever, has added pieces up front with a little bit of MLS experience, Corey Hertzog and Zak Boggs from the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies (the team they beat for the right to play D.C.), and seems intent on revamping his defense.

Domestic cups are a big deal in pro soccer internationally. In America, to an MLS side, it’s more tantamount to college basketball’s NIT. Teams want to use the opportunity to give their youngsters a look and focus their energies on winning the MLS Cup.

For soccer in Pittsburgh, however, that game against DCU meant more than the minutiae of the game itself. It showed in the work ethic of the Riverhounds that night.

They haven’t upset an MLS team in the Open Cup since Colorado Rapids were ambushed at Bethel Park High School in 2001. The time is right to catch one of them napping.

4. The Pirates Will Win a Playoff Game –

Interpret that however you wish. If you’re a Pirate fan, this winter has been an underwhelming one, but winning winter means nothing–just ask the Washington Nationals. Nevertheless, this management team, still haunted by the proverbial sins of the father, probably doesn’t get enough credit for stabilizing the organization and putting an exciting product on the field despite notable instances of roster attrition in recent years, the latest and most notable being Neil Walker.

Unlike most of the yinzer front-runners, I’m not yet ready to pick up my pitchfork over the Walker trade until I see what Ray Searage, the best pitching coach in the majors, can do with Jon Niese, one of his new projects. More to the point, I wholly expect Alen Hanson to thrive as the eventual everyday second baseman when J-Hay isn’t doing his best Lee Lacy impression. In time, he will make those righteously indignant fans forget Walker the same way Andrew McCutchen made them forget Nate McLouth.

Would I like to see the Pirates swim against their own stream more often for the sake of acquiring impact players? Absolutely, especially if it means bringing in a (natural) first baseman that we’ve, you know, actually heard of. Inevitably, they’ll have to swallow their organizational pride in order to get what they want, as the Kansas City Royals’ front office can attest. In any event, with this mostly intact offense and its usual brand of consistently consistent pitching, plus a healthy Jung-Ho Kang, this team will still be fun to watch.

You can’t pick your division. You can only worry about beating the teams in it. Economically, the Pirates are never going to have a fair fight with the Cardinals or Cubs, and there’s no guarantee they’ll finish ahead of either this year. But with the Royals winning a championship and the Cubs cementing themselves as a sexy 2016 World Series pick, it’s time for the next-most put-upon fanbase in baseball to get a little good postseason karma thrown its way for a change–even if it’s just a harried pitcher dropping the ball (literally, if possible) for one magical night.

5. The Bengals Will (Finally) Win a Playoff Game –

I’m less of a believer in jinxes, curses or what-have-you than ever before. The Pirates’ renaissance had a lot to do with that. I believe in good football, bad football and mediocre football. But a lot of other people think the hex hanging over sports in Ohio* (*Non-Buckeyes only) will stay put Saturday night.

Speaking of the Pirates, it strikes me that Marvin Lewis is to Cincinnati what Jim Leyland was to Pittsburgh–too anal retentive for his own good when the stakes are raised. He is as big a reason as any that the Who-Deys are staring a quarter-century of postseason futility in the face. Too bad that, in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, Mike Tomlin, a Super Bowl-winning coach who some feel rode the coattails of the last Super Bowl-winning coach, has his own demons to exorcise.

Since Tomlin lost that Wild Card game four years ago to Tim Tebow–I repeat, Tim Tebow–he has been, by Steeler standards, an adequate coach at best. Too often the Steelers have been held back by his own hubris, not unlike how the Penguins were held back at the same time by Dan Bylsma’s. Too often they have looked too unprepared to win winnable games, not unlike Saturday’s.

The Bengals may not have Andy Dalton, but they still have A.J. Green ready to line up against a secondary that could be charitably described as suspect. They don’t have anything resembling a running game to worry about when the Steelers have the ball, and we saw how well that worked out in last year’s Wild Card round when the Steelers tried to bleed offense from Ben Tate. Furthermore, the Ben who really matters has been turnover-prone lately, and he already did everything in his power to hand one game to the Bengals on a silver platter. Never put it past history to repeat.

Credit the Steelers for not giving up. They handled their business in Cleveland and accidented their way into this thing because the Browns are still the Browns, and the Jets are still the Jets. Granted, the Bengals are still the Bengals, but the Bengals are also due, and you might as well throw a dart to determine which version of the Steelers will show up at a given time. I could very easily see Cincinnati winning 17-13, which, of course, could only mean one thing:

The Steelers will win 27-10.