Cook: Disgruntled Faneca will pull his weight

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A piece of advice as you prepare to begin the Alan Faneca Watch at Steelers training camp today:

Don't waste your time or energy.

You don't have to worry about Big Red and his contract bitterness. He's going to do just fine this season even if he is counting down days, much like a man looking at 25-to-life, until the end of the year when he becomes a free agent and can move on to a team that will pay him the really silly money he thinks he's worth.

If you have to worry about something, worry about the rest of the Steelers' offensive line. That unit, more than any other, could sabotage Year One of the Mike Tomlin era, Ben Roethlisberger's bounce-back season from his 23-interception fiasco of a year ago and the team's chances of reaching the playoffs.

Faneca is the least of that group's problems.

The man is smart. He knows he has to have another big year to get the big money, especially because he will turn 31 in December. Beyond that, he is a true pro. He might not feel any loyalty to Tomlin or the Rooneys, who have insulted him by asking him to play his final season here for a paltry $4.375 million. (We all should be so offended!) But he certainly feels that loyalty to Roethlisberger and his other teammates. He will give his best for them. He might not be quite so eager to play with a bum ankle or a tweaked hammy, as he did so often in his first nine seasons, when he missed just two games, none since late in the '01 season. But he will do it for the guys.

"You have to understand how an offensive lineman thinks," former Steelers guard turned broadcaster Craig Wolfley said the last time Faneca was in a public controversy.

That was after the second game of the '04 season, after quarterback Tommy Maddox went down with a serious elbow injury. More than one Steelers veteran grumbled privately that the season was over because Roethlisberger, then an untested rookie, had to take over. Faneca went public: "Exciting? No, it's not exciting. Do you want to go to work with some young kid who's just out of college?"

Yeah, that caused almost as much angst in Steelers Nation as Faneca's infamous minicamp rant this past May: "I've been asking since February to trade me, to let me go. I've done my piece, I've done my time, I've done everything I can for this organization. To make me go out there this year, play football with no security ... "

Tell the truth.

You, too, would be feeling mighty insecure if you made a mere $25.6 million in your most recent contract.

Not to be cynical.

But back to the point.

Those who know Faneca -- Wolfley among them -- knew his catty remark about Roethlisberger wouldn't cause a problem for the team and that he wouldn't approach his job with anything less than total professionalism.

"Offensive linemen are the ultimate sled dogs," Wolfley said. "When there's any sign of adversity, they just throw their weight a little harder into the harness."

So it was with Faneca. Privately, he immediately made his peace with Roethlisberger. Publicly, he said, "We will protect him the way a hen protects her roost." Faneca did his job so well that he made All-Pro. The Steelers won all 13 of Roethlisberger's starts and made it to the AFC championship game.

Don't be surprised if Faneca makes All-Pro again before the door at Steelers headquarters hits him on his way out.

You have to understand how an offensive lineman thinks ...

It's hard to have as much faith in the line's other four starters. You read that number right: four. Although Marvel Smith is set at left tackle and was a hero on the Super Bowl team of '05, he is coming off a down year, at least by his standards.

The other starters are unclear. Will it be Chukky Okobi or Sean Mahan at center? Kendall Simmons, Mahan, Willie Colon or Chris Kemoeatu at right guard? Colon or Max Starks at right tackle?

On top of the uncertainty, Russ Grimm -- one of the NFL's most respected offensive line coaches -- has moved to the Arizona Cardinals after losing out to Tomlin for the Steelers' head coaching job. His replacement, Larry Zierlein, comes with a decent reputation, but what do we really know about him? Aside from the fact he's not very savvy at sending e-mails.

Not to be a wise guy, again.

The early guess here is Mahan will start at center and Okobi will be released in a cost-cutting move, Simmons will be the right guard and Colon will start at right tackle.

"I am one that believes that it will all become obvious," Tomlin said. "Sometimes, I think if you are patient and don't rush to judge, decisions become obvious."

No matter the configuration, the Steelers' line must prove it can keep Roethlisberger clean and open holes for Willie Parker.

It would be a lot easier to feel better about it if there were five disgruntled Fanecas lined up in front of Big Ben.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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