Can we finally put that silly Sports Illustrated cover jinx to rest?
Wasn't it just last week that Steelers linebacker Joey Porter decorated the magazine, scowling, heavily tattooed, half-naked and carrying the burdensome tag of "Most feared player in the NFL"? A lot of other players were offended, but it didn't seem to bother Porter much when he picked off that Daunte Culpepper pass Thursday night and took it to the house to clinch the 28-17 win against the Miami Dolphins. Now Bill Cowher might have felt cursed when Porter planted a big kiss on him on the Steelers' sideline afterward, but that had nothing to do with SI.
Then, there's Hines Ward. He was the Sports Illustrated cover choice after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL in February, a game in which he was MVP. The fabulous photograph of him grinning ear-to-ear and skipping into the end zone with the clinching 43-yard touchdown catch against the Seattle Seahawks will go down as a franchise classic, right there with a falling Lynn Swann pulling in a Terry Bradshaw pass over Dallas cornerback Mark Washington in Super Bowl X, and John Stallworth's over-the-shoulder catch of Bradshaw's 73-yard touchdown pass against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV.
That Ward cover might have given you reason for pause. Early in training camp, Ward pulled a hamstring and had to sit out all four exhibition games. He was questionable for Miami until just a few days before the game. But the most amazing thing happened when they turned on the bright lights at Heinz Field. Ward was there for the Steelers, pulling in a 7-yard touchdown pass from Charlie Batch and making three other third-down catches that went for critical first downs.
"That's why they pay you the big bucks," Ward said, shrugging.
"Big-time players make big plays in big games," Porter said, also shrugging.
Did you really think some mythical jinx was going to stop those guys? Or even a bad knee, in Porter's case? Or Ward's bad hammy?
"You know me. I'm not going to miss anything. Not when the games count," Ward said.
He has missed just one game in his NFL career, now pushing hard toward nine years. So what if he had to pop Tylenol before and during the game Thursday night and ride the stationary bike on the sideline to stay loose? Those were minor inconveniences compared to the payoff of his catches and the Steelers' win.
"Everybody was talking about the Dolphins, about how this was going to be their year," Ward said, sniffing. "Well, don't forget. We're the champions."
Ward finished with five catches for 53 yards, numbers that don't fully do justice to his value to the Steelers. He drew double coverage much of the night, including the fourth-quarter play that turned the game. That attention from the Dolphins' secondary left tight end Heath Miller open for his 87-yard touchdown catch.
"I wasn't 100 percent, but I probably was 90 percent," Ward said. "I just wanted to get through this game. Now, we have a long time before the next game [in Jacksonville Sept. 18]. I'll be fine."
Ward paused, then grinned.
"Who needs training camp anyway?"
Porter got more work during the preseason but not much. His knee surgery in the spring was only part of his tumultuous offseason. There was his tiff with President Bush, which was much ado about nothing. There also was his unhappiness with his contract, which was anything but overhyped. He thought seriously of boycotting training camp even though he has two years left on his contract.
Just say Porter probably won't be kissing Dan Rooney or Art Rooney II any time soon.
Hey, maybe it's good that Porter is angry. He took it out on the Dolphins. He shrugged off a lame block by fullback Darian Barnes to sack Culpepper early in the game -- setting a nice tone for the Steelers' defense -- and later sacked Culpepper in the fourth quarter.
"Sacks are what I do," Porter said.
All Porter wanted to talk about was his interception and 42-yard return for a touchdown with 2:59 left.
"I love having the ball in my hands. I'm glad I could show these guys what I can do with it. I've been bugging for some tight end play, but they keep me on defense."
All everyone else wanted to talk about was Porter's kiss. His affection for Cowher has long been known. It was Cowher who convinced Porter he shouldn't take that ugly contract holdout route.
"You guys will make a big deal out of it because it's me who did it, but it's no big deal to me," Porter said of his peck on Cowher's neck. "That's the love I have for coach Cowher. That means more than you'll ever know."
Don't expect to see another kiss, though.
Porter put on the same scowl he had for the Sports Illustrated cameras when asked if kissing Cowher could become a regular part of the Steelers' victory celebrations, right there with the "Who ride?" chant that Porter leads in the locker room after wins.
"I wouldn't count on that," he said. "I'm not a kissy guy."
What Porter is is a big-time player who makes big plays and big bucks.
Maybe the bucks aren't big enough to suit him, but the plays were big enough to fillet the Dolphins.
SI cover jinx?
What cover jinx?
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1525.