NFL gifts for the holidays

PITTSBURGH -- To most football fans in the Mahoning Valley, the days when the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers play each other already are holidays.
So when the National Football League decides to schedule this year's Steelers-Browns game at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Dec. 24 at 1 p.m., is that piling on?
Steelers fans will celebrate another fall holiday -- Halloween -- with a 9 p.m. game at Heinz Field against the (cue the "Psycho" shower scene music) Baltimore Ravens.
New Year's weekend will be extra special for football fans this winter because NFL teams play their regular-season finales on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. The traditional bowl games will be played on Jan. 2 (also known as the Monday that the U.S. government recognizes as New Year's Day).
Steelers fans with tickets can celebrate the first day of 2006 by watching the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field. Browns fans will be able to stay cozy at home watching on television as Cleveland closes the season against the Ravens in Baltimore.
Draft time fun:predict the order
Want to have some extra fun watching the NFL Draft this weekend? Make a list of draft-eligible players we've come to know over the past few years and challenge your friends to see who can accurately predict the order they will be selected.
For starters, consider Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent and safety Dustin Fox, Michigan cornerback Marlin Jackson of Sharon and Syracuse running back Walter Reyes from Struthers.
And no draft speculation party can be complete this weekend without running back Maurice Clarett, the Youngstown native who played for Fitch High and Warren Harding High before becoming a Buckeye in 2002.
The guess here is that Jackson will go first, followed by Nugent, Fox, Reyes and Clarett.
And for those of you keeping score, here's what skipping school the past two year likely cost Clarett: millions of dollars.
Had Clarett shown the discipline to attend classes at Ohio State, do his own work and stay healthy, he could have been a Top 10 selection this Saturday, someone who might have received a signing bonus in the $15 million range.
Instead, most draft analysts believe he will be available late in the fifth round, probably the sixth. Those players receive minimal signing bonuses (more like $200,000) and incentive-laden contracts.
Clarett's mission will be to dedicate himself to the team that takes a chance on him and make himself so valuable that he'll earn a significant signing bonus after his third year.
The moral of the story -- stay in school.
Niners pick wrong yearfor top draft pick
It's hard to imagine that five years from now we'll consider Utah's Alex Smith or California's Aaron Rodgers with the same reverence given today to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning or the Falcons' Michael Vick.
Maybe they will surprise us.
Talk about hard luck for the San Francisco 49ers, the NFL's worst team in 2004.
The Niners, who play their home games in one of the league's ancient venues and don't reap the benefits of luxury-box laden arenas, will have to dole out a signing bonus in the $20 million range if they hang on to the top pick.
It's hard to imagine they will get their money's worth, especially this fall when the Niners again be one of the NFL's bottomfeeders.
If the team owned by John and Denise DeBartolo York of Canfield wants a true franchise quarterback, they should trade down (even if they get nothing more than savings on the signing bonus).
No matter whom the Niners draft this weekend, they will contend for the top pick in the 2006 draft when University of Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart will be available.
The Niners should save their signing bonus dollars for next year.
Steelers lookingto improve depth
Coming off the best season record that any American Football Conference team has ever had, the Steelers' braintrust knows it means little in 2005.
"We had a pretty good team last year [but] we didn't finish where we wanted to," Kevin Colbert, the Steelers director of football operations, said earlier this week. "We've still got work to do."
No matter what quarterback Ben Roethlisberger says about wanting to open up the offense, Bill Cowher says the running game the Steelers are known for will remain a "big part of our offense.
Cowher suggested the Steelers shouldn't get too full of themselves because of their 14-game regular-season winning streak.
"We're going to understand that what we did last year was last year, and it's going to be a lot harder this year," Cowher said.
The Steelers have lost six components from last year's 15-1 team, some a lot more valuable than others.
The biggest loss was wide receiver Plaxico Burress.
The offense also lost starters Keydrick Vincent (right guard) and Oliver Ross (right tackle) through free agency.
Released was tight end Jay Riemersma, a starter in 2003.
In February, eight-year cornerback Chad Scott was released and linebacker Kendrell Bell, the 2001 Defensive Rookie of the Year, signed with the Chiefs.
Cowher feels the team has players ready to fill in. Tight end Jerame Tuman already has stepped into the starter's role.
Former 49ers wide receiver Cedric Wilson was signed as a free agent.
"They didn't throw the ball a lot out there -- they're going through a rebuilding process right now," said Cowher of the 49ers.
"We feel we got a receiver who can play inside and outside. Yes we'd like to add one but we feel we've got a pretty good group right now."
Tackle Kendall Simmons is expected to be back at starter after missing 2004 with a leg injury. Second-year guard Max Starks is a possible starter.
On defense, Willie Williams replaced Scott as a starter and Larry Foote did well as Bell's replacement at right inside linebacker.
While Cowher won't flat out say that the team's biggest need is offensive linemen, he did say, "We've lost two players and replaced them with no one."
Then he added: "We feel good about the development of Max Starks even though the doesn't have a whole lot of playing experience."
Cornerback is a concern.
"Willie is getting up there," said Cowher referring to Williams' age, 33.
Cowher suggested that the best any NFL team can do this weekend is lay the groundwork for future success.
"This system says that you only are assured of having them -- from the second round on down -- for four years," Cowher said. " It's a lot like college.
"We want to create competitive situations and we want to create depth," Cowher said.
"Nothing was more evident than last year when our football team was not measured by just the starting 22 because we had some people who stepped in and played at a high level.
"Some of them were high draft choices, some of them were free agents, some of them had been here a couple of years -- that's what you are trying to create," Cowher said.
Right now, the Steelers need improved depth at cornerback and the offensive line.
The Niners are on the clock.
XTom Williams is a sportswriter with The Vindicator. Write him at

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