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Madden: Training camp might be Dullsville

Saturday, July 20, 2002

Everyone is breathlessly anticipating Steelers camp, and rightfully so. It's very clear that fat linemen defying death by running a series of sprints is much more significant than, say, regular-season baseball or a labor stoppage that could shake the very foundation of the former national pastime.

That said, Camp Cowher likely will be boring. Only one starting job is legitimately up for grabs, that being right guard where Oliver Ross and first-round pick Kendall Simmons will do battle, providing Simmons can be bothered to sign and show up, that is.

Don't believe the con at inside linebacker: John Fiala has zero chance to start ahead of James Farrior, who was second in the NFL in tackles as a New York Jet last season and got a $1.7 million signing bonus. Fiala knows the defense, but he isn't a career backup by chance. Fiala's incentive-laden contract might actually work against him: The less he plays, the less the Steelers pay.

Safety is a curious situation. Lee Flowers has wondered aloud if the Steelers have enough money left to keep him when his deal expires at season's end. They don't. Ergo, maybe rookie Chris Hope will get more practice reps and playing time than we expect.

But, basically, things are set in stone for the Steelers. That's a good thing. The Steelers might have the NFL's best combination of quality and continuity.

You know the wretched media, though. Gotta write about something. Gotta talk about something. Make stuff up? I'm certainly not above it.

Here's one thing I'm not making up: Aaron Smith reportedly wants $10 million to sign. That's a pretty heady demand for someone who plays the specialized position of defensive end in a 3-4, which means he's only valuable to a small number of teams no matter how good he is.

Smith is playing hardball. He has refused to sign a one-year contract tender while negotiations continue, which means he isn't planning to be there when camp starts, which means Coach Bill Cowher will soon be playing verbal hardball with Smith, and with Simmons, too.

Football is the one remaining pro sport where a contract holdout isn't looked upon as a private matter concerning one's financial well-being and long-term family security, it's seen as letting the team down, dammit! Take it away, Bill.

I don't know what the rooming assignments are for Latrobe, but I do know that Plaxico Burress and Marvel Smith shouldn't be on the same floor.

You don't want the team's highlight video to wind up being subtitled "Plex and Marv's Excellent Adventure." If Cowher sees Burress and Marvel Smith taking extra apples from the lunchroom, he should remind them that those aren't to be hollowed out. They're for eating only.

Jerome Bettis' health is a question mark. All eyes will be on his groin.

Determining Bettis' condition, though, will be difficult to do until the real games begin. Bettis works at his own pace during camp. No complaint. Bettis has certainly earned that right, and he has never let the Steelers down because of it. But until Bettis is running all out -- and until he has taken a few all-out regular season-style licks -- who knows how his groin is going to respond?

There's one thing you can count on regarding Bettis' groin, though: If/when Bettis does get hurt, he and the Steelers will lie about the injury. In other words, he'll probably play next week.

Speaking of injuries, I expect offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to go down with writer's cramp. The addition of Antwaan Randle El has doubtless put Mularkey's trick play-designing skills into maximum overdrive, and it won't shock me if Mularkey blows out his wrist or if he breaks a leg tripping over a Sharpie. Maybe the Steelers' highlight video will be subtitled "Slash III: Mad Mike's Revenge."

Special teams is obviously an issue, one the Steelers addressed in subtle fashion in the draft by taking a number of players who were accomplished on special teams in college.

New special teams coach Kevin Spencer will be the most interviewed assistant in camp, and I'm sure self-appointed special teams consultant Flowers will chip in words of wisdom, too. (By the way, when do you think Lee will premiere his "poor, poor pitiful me, I don't have a contract" diatribe? When Flowers pointed fingers at the Steelers' special-teamers after the AFC championship game loss to New England last season, he showed that he's not good when times are bad.)

I'm glad training camp is about to start. The Steelers provide a mental calendar for Pittsburghers, and, within the context of said calendar, comes a sense of comfort.

Didn't win the Super Bowl in January? Don't worry. Training camp is in July. It's just around the corner. We get to start all over again. It's a way of marking time, just like visiting Kennywood Park (provided the rides aren't getting blown all over the place "Twister"-style, that is).

Here's when I'll know Steelers season is really here: When a talk-show caller says, "Y'know, Kordell has been struggling. And this Batch kid, he's from right down the road, and he's been looking pretty good ... "

Mark Madden's talk show is heard from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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