Webster's World

NFL history is littered with great examples of players who played through pain and, in some cases, injury in order to try to win a game.

The most famous of those is probably Jack Youngblood playing in Super Bowl XIV with a broken leg as he tried to help the Rams overcome the Steelers. Youngblood failed in his quest that day but 33 years later his feat is still talked about.

I would imagine 33 years from now, nobody will remember what Byron Leftwich did this week as he tried just about everything to put Pittsburgh in a winning position against Baltimore on Sunday night in a game where eventually he came up three points short.

But for pure courage under fire on a football field, it was one of the gutsiest performances I have seen in many a long year despite the fact the Steelers ended up losing.

Leftwich, substituting for Ben Roethlisberger, who is out for three weeks with an injured shoulder, led Pittsburgh downfield in the opening minute and capped the drive by running for a touchdown. As he went in the end zone, he fell over and hurt himself, an injury that haunted him for the remainder of the game.

Although they have been below their best this season, there still cannot be many defenses you would rather not face when you are injured than the one belonging to the Ravens. Even if you enter a game in full health, you know what sort of a pounding you are going to take from that mob. They are brutal and have been as good to watch as any of the great defenses in NFL history.

And on Sunday night, they had a wonderful combination – a quarterback who was already hurt, making his first start in three years, and having to run an offense that belongs to Roethlisberger not him.

In an almost impossible situation, he made some great throws, scrambled well, scored a touchdown, improvised amazingly with a couple of shovel passes and kept the Steelers in a game which the Ravens should have put away much earlier.

And then on the final drive, as he desperately tried to get Pittsburgh in position to kick a field goal and send the game to overtime, he made one reasonable throw and one great one, both of them right in receivers’ hands. On both plays, Baltimore defenders made fabulously-timed, world-class crunching hits to jar the ball loose.

I’m not sure if the way that game turned out says more about Baltimore or about Leftwich but as he limped away from that 13-10 defeat, I heard the Steeler nation booing either him or their entire team off the field. And at that point, I was lost to decipher what it was they wanted.

Byron Leftwich is no Ben Roethlisberger, as the two men’s career stats and achievements will attest but he faced up to a brutal defensive showing and went toe-to-toe with a team whose defensive stars would have been glad to shake his hand in recognition of the fact he stood in against them all night and never quit despite clearly wincing in pain every time he threw the ball or got hit.

I’ve seen a lot of gutsy quarterback performances in my time from Jim McMahon and Randall Cunningham to Brett Favre and Steve Young, all of whom were better quarterbacks than Byron Leftwich.

But each one of those better-known stars of the NFL past would have been proud to have said they were Byron Leftwich on Sunday with the toughness he showed in the face of near-impossible odds and bone-crunching hits when his throwing motion alone caused him pain. After the game, the Steelers discovered Leftwich has fractured ribs on his right side, the side he throws on. Do you have any idea how painful that is?

Any Pittsburgh fan who booed Leftwich off the field on Sunday night should consider having a couple of beers fewer at the next game or learn a thing or two about what actually takes place between the lines.

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So where do you stand on the throwback uniforms? Was that Pittsburgh Steelers monstrosity this week the worst one yet? Up until now, I had awarded the Packers that trophy but the Steelers bee-sting outfit has got to be a contender.

I know it will probably get Cris Collinsworth’s vote. The NBC commentator sounded as though he was being physically sick over the eyesore Pittsburgh’s players were forced to run around in on Sunday night.

And I think perhaps they looked even more out of place than they would have done under any other circumstances because the Ravens uniform is just about the most modern-looking or futuristic one that there is in the NFL.

Like Collinsworth, I am not crazy about most of the throwback uniforms but occasionally I think it is nice to see some of the gaudy creations previous NFL players earned their living in.

But if I could change one thing, I would go back to what I understood to be the original throwback idea. I seem to remember that it was initially introduced as a one-weekend special wherein all the teams would wear one of their club’s uniforms from a previous era. Perhaps they could select one week where all 32 teams play that way and there is a percentage of that week’s NFL revenues from tickets, TV and merchandise that is donated to a fund for old players or to the pension fund or to medical research for problems experienced by players long after they retire.

At the moment it seems as though teams play in throwbacks whenever they like and without much rhyme or reason.

There was one great thing about Pittsburgh’s throwback uniform this week however, and that was that someone fished out a picture of the team from 1934 when they originally wore that outfit and that made my night.

First of all, it was entitled the ‘Pittsburgh Pirates Professional Football Squad, 1934’ and there were only 24 players in the picture. Not because some of them were away doing signing sessions or sponsors’ junkets but because that was all they had and some of those guys would have been back-ups because quite a few of them would have played both ways.

Then on the left of the middle row, wearing a black suit and looking tremendously studious, is none other than Art Rooney, founder and owner of the Steelers, whose son Dan is now the elder statesman and rather better known these days as the US ambassador to Ireland, appointed by President Obama.

I love the fact that the backdrop to the picture is not a shiny new stadium but a field and a row of houses up on the hill.

But my favourite part about seeing that picture is the player on the left of the back row, number 35. From the time I first got interested in football some 29 years ago, one of my earliest football idols was Johnny Blood and the first time I visited the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, his was the first bust I made for.

As John McNally, he got into football in Minneapolis by trying out for a team on the fly. On the way to the trial, he passed a movie theatre where the Rudolph Valentino film Blood and Sand was playing. He decided he would be better served in a football career by being called Johnny Blood and that was how he was known in a sporting life that saw him play for a handful of teams including Green Bay (1929-33), then Pittsburgh in 1934, back to Green Bay for 1935-36 and a second stint as well in Pittsburgh in 1937-38.

He was a wild young man whose exploits have often been exaggerated for sure but some of the things he got up to that have been confirmed include:

  • Being chased to the end car of a train by a teammate and then escaping him by climbing on to the roof and running to the front where he stayed with the engine driver
  • Climbing down the face of a hotel in Chicago to break a curfew
  • Stopping his car in front of the moving Pittsburgh team train he had missed after a night on the tiles (at this point he was the coach)
  • Jumping across a narrow ledge six stories up to get into a Los Angeles hotel room

And we grew up thinking John Matuszak and Jim McMahon invented this stuff. Blood could have taught them – and today’s multi-millionaires – a thing or two although I doubt commissioner Roger Goodell would be too keen on a throwback of that sort.

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I’m not sure I have ever seen a wild card race at this time of the season which is so tight and so wide open.

In the AFC, if you take out the four teams that currently lead the divisions, the next eight teams – effectively those battling for the wild cards at the moment - are all between 6-4 and 4-6.

In the NFC, if you do the same and remove the four division leaders, then remove Chicago at 7-3 as being in the No.1 wild card slot, the next eight teams fighting for the last place are – you’ve guessed it – all between 6-4 and 4-6.

There are only six games left in the regular season. I think it would be fair to say that we can expect there to be a tremendous amount of scrambling up the ladder before it is too late. There are going to be a lot of disappointed teams at the end of the season who have had a mediocre campaign but who will be able to say ‘boy, that could have been us’ once the playoffs commence.