Labriola On

Labriola on next man up, playing dirty

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • Tony Romo will be eligible to return for Dallas' Week 11 game in Miami against the Dolphins, and if he in fact plays he will have missed seven games. The Cowboys are 0-6 in the games Romo has missed going into this weekend's contest in Tampa against the Buccaneers, and their playoff hopes hinge completely on winning an NFC East where their 2-6 record is just two games in the loss column behind the current division leading New York Giants' 5-4.
  • The Cowboys also had been playing without All-Pro wide receiver Dez Bryant for five games, four of which Romo also missed. They are 1-4 without Romo and Bryant, 0-2 with Bryant but not Romo.
  • This is a fair comparison to the Steelers' situation this season with regard to the injuries/absences of Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, and Martavis Bryant. The quarterbacks are of equal value to their respective teams and command similar hunks of the salary cap; Bell and Dez Bryant are both first-team All-Pros, albeit at different positions; and Martavis Bryant plays a significant role in the big-play capability of the Steelers passing attack.
  • Sunday is expected to be the fifth complete game the Steelers will have played this season without Roethlisberger, and there also were the two other games in which he was injured where they had to go most of the second halves without him. Let's call that five games so far without Roethlisberger, three-and-a-half without Bell, and four without Bryant. There were two games without Bell and Bryant; one without Roethlisberger and Bryant; almost a full half without Roethlisberger and Bell; and on Sunday the Steelers will play without Roethlisberger and Bell for the whole game.
  • The Steelers are 2-2 in the four full games Roethlisberger missed so far, plus 2-0 in the games during which he was injured early in the third quarter; they were 1-1 in the games without Bell and Bryant; 0-1 in the game without Roethlisberger and Bryant. Overall, the Steelers are 5-4 and one of only two non-division-leading AFC teams with as many as five victories – the New York Jets are the other – which means they currently occupy one of the two Wild Card slots.
  • It's clear – based on comparative records and standings in the respective conferences – that the Steelers better prepared their roster to withstand non-season-ending injuries to significant players than did the Cowboys. Dallas went 0-6 so far by using free agent pickups Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel at quarterback, while the Steelers essentially are 2-2, with two other games closed out as victories, with Mike Vick and Landry Jones.
  • Jones has supplanted Vick as the backup to Roethlisberger, which was indicated during the Nov. 8 game vs. Oakland when Jones was on the game day roster and Vick was inactive, and then confirmed this week with Jones being prepared as the starter and Vick as the backup with Roethlisberger rehabilitating a sprained foot.
  • That was the whole idea behind using the second pick in the fourth round of the 2013 draft on Landry Jones – that he could possibly develop into a capable backup for Roethlisberger. It never was about picking Roethlisberger's eventual successor. It was about getting younger at the position with an eye toward grooming a backup instead of having to buy one on the open market. And if Landry Jones is never anything more than Roethlisberger's capable backup, using that pick in the fourth round on Landry Jones will have been worth it.
  • Another factor in the disparity between the Steelers being able to stay relevant without Roethlisberger and Bell, and the Cowboys falling apart without Romo are the respective approaches of the two teams. Some media and fans roll their eyes whenever Mike Tomlin starts his spiel about injuries and starts throwing out "the standard is the standard" and "next man up," but the results indicate the Steelers players have bought in.
  • After the win over the Raiders, when Tomlin was asked about the eventual impact of losing one key player after another to injury, he said, "We're not concerned about that. You can waste a lot of time focusing on the guys who aren't available to you. We're just focused on the guys who are and how we can put together the right mix to be successful, how we can utilize their skills, how we can work to minimize their weaknesses individually and collectively. Injuries are as much a part of the game of football as blocking and tackling. It's unfortunate, we don't like it, but we embrace the challenge that comes with it. We're not looking for excuses. That's just how we have to be. We're not the only team that deals with it. (Oakland) had a lot of guys who got hurt in game today. I'm sure they feel the same way we do."
  • Contrast that with what Dallas defensive end Jeremy Mincey said earlier this week when asked about the impact of playing without Romo. "We can't sit and wait on Romo," said Mincey. "He's not Jesus. We can't sit and wait on him. There are games we could have easily won without him being there. We have to be sharper and take advantage of every play and every opportunity to make something happen. There are no excuses to how we are playing. We have to get better. It's our fault. We have to suck it up, keep going and get better. … To get the ball rolling we got to get this one this week. We got to find away to win this week."
  • That's an attitude, and it comes from the head coach and is instilled in the players by repeating the message over and over and not wavering no matter what the situation. That's why you'll never hear Tomlin describe an injury as "devastating." It sends the wrong message – even if it happens to be factually accurate – and it can either inject doubt about the ability to win, or provide an excuse for losing.
  • Because in-season Sunday nights are spent writing about that day's Steelers game – with the obvious exception of the weekends when the team plays on Thursday or Monday nights – it's not often I get a chance to watch NBC's Football Night in America. Last Sunday, it was on a television near where I was sitting, and I happened to catch Rodney Harrison – the former safety who played for San Diego and New England – deliver some pointed commentary about playing dirty. The issue at the moment was the hit by Lamarcus Joyner that concussed Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota's game against the St. Louis Rams. Joyner ended up being fined $23,152 later in the week for the hit. In his postgame comments, Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer had taken a shot at Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who had been suspended by the NFL over what came to be known as BountyGate when he held the same post in New Orleans.
  • As part of that segment Harrison said, "I wasn't surprised because it happened to me in 2006. (Titans receiver) Bobby Wade came and chopped my knees and tore my knee up. I'm lying on the ground, and I look at Jeff Fisher and he's smiling and laughing. So this is typical of Jeff Fisher-type teams."
  • That very well may be true, but, really, Rodney Harrison talking about dirty play? Obviously, it takes one to know one.
  • Which is the precise point Jeff Fisher chose to make when responding to Harrison on the Monday after the game. "I don't want to say I took things personal, but it was kind of a personal attack on me," Fisher told reporters. "I think you have to consider the source. . . . You're talking about a guy who had a great career. I mean, the guy played a long time. He was hard to defend. He was a really active defensive player. But this is coming from a guy who had 18 unnecessary roughness penalties, seven personal fouls, four roughing the passer penalties, a total of 77 penalties in his career and was voted three times the dirtiest player in the National Football League and was suspended for a hit, a helmet-to-helmet hit, on Jerry Rice in 2002. Ok? This is where these comments are coming from."
  • There's also this: In 2012, when Fisher became coach of the Rams, Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that from 2001 to 2010, the Titans led the NFL in most personal fouls with 163; led the NFL with 67 unnecessary roughness penalties; and led the NFL with 46 roughing the passer penalties. Miklasz also has combined the full Houston/Tennessee years with Fisher's Rams teams and concluded that Fisher's teams had 236 more penalties than their opponents and 1,937 more penalty yards than their opponents.
  • Jeff Fisher is the head of the NFL Competition Committee. Rodney Harrison has a microphone on one of the most-watched NFL programs each week during the season.
  • My question to Fisher would be, "As head of the NFL Competition Committee, what was your opinion of Mark Barron not being fined or even penalized for the low hit on Ben Roethlisberger that sprained his MCL and bruised a bone in his knee?"
  • And to Harrison: "In that Oct. 31, 2004 game vs. the Steelers at Heinz Field, did you in fact punch Duce Staley in the back of his thigh on the bottom of a pile, because that's Staley's version of the events, and all of a sudden a perfectly-healthy guy who had rushed for 125 yards on 25 carries to that point against the Patriots had a hamstring injury and had to come out of that game and played very little in what was to be left of his career?"
  • In the showdown matching Jeff Fisher and Rodney Harrison, it's doubtful either would deserve to wear a white hat.
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