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Graham's start a Cowher ploy?

Saturday, September 02, 2000

This is the official Stillers tailgating edition of my wildly popular column. It's suitable for vomiting on, burning in a garbage can or using at the end of your stay in the port-a-john. Enjoy ...

The talk show bunch believes Kent Graham was given the Steelers' starting quarterback job so Baltimore's swarming defense would humiliate him tomorrow, thus setting the stage for Kordell Stewart to replace him at Cleveland -- against a weak team and on the road, far away from those nasty, abusive Three Rivers Stadium fans. Such a conspiracy theory seems far-fetched except for two things: Coach Bill Cowher's close emotional ties to Stewart and the fact that Cowher gave Jim Miller the starting quarterback job in '96 only to rip it from his grasp before the season was even a game old, a move that certainly seemed pre-planned. Precedent aside, I believe Cowher gave Graham the job because he earned it, and I believe Graham will get at least several games as the starter. Cowher's job is on the line this season, so he can't screw around.

Ever notice how Jerome Bettis uses every quote opportunity to work in a little advertisement for himself? Earlier this week, he said that the Steelers would embrace Graham as the starting quarterback and run the ball. Huh? What does embracing Graham have to do with running the ball? Nothing. But Bettis wants to make sure everyone remembers that the Steelers need to run the ball, i.e., give it to him. Bettis also said that if the Steelers can't pass the ball and if the receivers don't catch the ball, the Steelers won't be able to run the ball, thereby giving him an excuse for gaining 30 yards tomorrow.

Cowher is right to start receiver Troy Edwards despite a bad camp. He also is right to demote Scott Shields from his starting free safety job in the wake of Shields' lousy preseason. Edwards will catch the ball. He did so all last season. Shields, however, has never shown he can consistently tackle at the NFL level. When he played small college ball at Weber State, Shields could bowl ballcarriers over with size and strength. He didn't have to wrap them up. In the NFL, he does. But he doesn't.

Pitt Coach Walt Harris is wise to extend the competition for the Panthers' No. 1 quarterback spot into the opener today against Kent State. Put bluntly, there's no way the Panthers are going to lose, so why not make the contest the college equivalent of a pro preseason game? Harris is giving David Priestley the benefit of the doubt because Priestley was hindered by a sore arm throughout camp. But Harris also is giving Priestley the benefit of the doubt because he clearly wants Priestley to win the job.

There might be specific incidents that led to Pitt's Antonio Bryant being dropped from the starting lineup for the season opener today, but the big picture is this: Bryant, a sophomore receiver, is getting a reputation for being a royal jackass. Maybe running back Kevin Barlow, should tell Bryant that Harris does not suffer fools gladly. Harris showed Barlow the bench a few seasons back. He won't hesitate to do the same with Bryant.

If Penn State Coach Joe Paterno replaces senior quarterback Rashard Casey with sophomore Matt Senneca anytime during the season's early going, it will indicate one of two things: Paterno never thought Casey was that good in the first place, or Paterno has been looking for any excuse to bench Casey since Casey's racially charged off-season legal problems occurred.

Penguins Coach Ivan Hlinka returned to Pittsburgh this week. I doubt that he totally will master the English language by the time training camp starts Thursday. Winger Aleksey Morozov is expected to report to camp on time. The only thing keeping me from believing the strength-challenged Morozov put in a hard summer at the weight room is the fact that he's never done so before. The Penguins need to demand more of their employees in the off-season. Hlinka should have been in Pittsburgh learning English. Morozov should have spent part of the summer at the Penguins' Southpointe complex under the supervision of strength coach John Welday.

I feel bad that Moon High School's Dan Reda sustained physical abuse at the hands of his football teammates. There's no excuse for someone getting cracked in the head with an alarm clock under the guise of hazing. But I'm also sorry that three Moon seniors were suspended from the team as a result of the school's investigation into hazing. I'm sorry that adults are continually called upon to monitor disputes that used to be settled among kids. I'm sorry about the prospect of team camaraderie being sacrificed at the altar of supervision and scrutiny. Kids shouldn't be hit in the head. But making new players carry lunch trays is OK. The odd shaved head is OK. Even getting smacked around lightly is OK. I say this only because it's been OK for years. Nobody complained until they knew you could complain.

I hope the Moon High investigation doesn't take the luster off the opening of high school football this weekend. There's nothing better than high school football on a Friday night.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM 1250.

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