Ron Cook: Good, bad, fascinating weekend for Pittsburgh pro teams
March 14, 2016 12:00 AM
The up-and-down career of Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant continues with his latest off-field trouble.
Newest Pirate David Freese jokes with teammates Saturday morning.
Even as the Penguins won Sunday, Evgene Malkin's latest lengthy injury loomed over the result against the Rangers.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There have been more eventful Pittsburgh sports weekends, but none immediately come to mind. All three professional sports teams were affected the past three days. The Pirates took a step toward another successful season by signing free agent David Freese. The Steelers learned what it feels like to be the Cleveland Browns with the Martavis Bryant suspension. The Penguins saw their season sabotaged by Evgeni Malkin’s arm injury.
The Malkin story is the worst from a team standpoint. The Penguins can’t compete for the Stanley Cup without him. They might not even make the playoffs, although they looked pretty good Sunday in a 5-3 road win against the New York Rangers.
The Bryant story is the saddest from a human standpoint. The kid has major issues, not unlike those of Josh Gordon and Johnny Manziel in Cleveland. Football no longer should be Bryant’s focus. Getting his life in order is more important.
The sports weekend would have been a total bummer if not for the Freese signing.
It would be great if Freese could be dropped into the rotation. Starting pitching will determine how far the Pirates go this season. It would be great if Freese batted left-handed. The Pirates will have a glaring need for left-handed power unless Gregory Polanco turns into Dave Parker and John Jaso becomes Willie Stargell.
But the Freese signing still is terrific. The contract — one year for $3 million — is right. Freese makes the Pirates a better team because he has a good, proven bat and defensive flexibility. He will play third base until Jung Ho Kang is ready, allowing Josh Harrison to concentrate on second base. Freese then will platoon at first base with Jaso, moving Michael Morse to what will be a stronger bench.
Congrats go to Pirates general manager Neil Huntington for getting this deal done this far into spring training.
The Steelers offense will survive and likely still thrive without Bryant, who faces a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse plan. The team still has dancing-machine Antonio Brown, steady Markus Wheaton, developing Sammie Coates and Ben Roethlisberger-favorite Darrius Heyward-Bey at wide receiver. It will get back healthy All-Pros Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey. It kept its solid offensive line together by re-signing Ramon Foster.
But the Steelers offense would be so much better with Bryant. Look what he did in the postseason last year. He had a 44-yard run and a spectacular 10-yard touchdown catch against the Cincinnati Bengals, then nine catches for 154 yards against the Denver Broncos. It was after that Denver game that Roethlisberger told him, “Now, let’s see what level you step up to next. … This offseason, you need to become the best in the world.”
So much for that.
Roethlisberger was among Bryant’s biggest supporters, reaching out to him every day last season when Bryant was suspended for the first four games because of a marijuana violation. “I started crying and everything because it meant a lot for him to show that he cared,” Bryant said after rejoining the team.
It’s easy to blame Bryant for letting down Roethlisberger and his other teammates. It’s easy to call Bryant a fool for wasting his immense talent and blowing millions of dollars. But that’s not what’s important here. Bryant doesn’t need ridicule. He needs help, for drug addiction or, if his agents are to be believed, for depression. Maybe rehab will work for him, although it didn’t seem to do much for Manziel last summer.
Go back to Manziel for a second. He was released last week by the Browns. His father has said he is crying out for help with his off-field antics, including a domestic-abuse incident in January. Paul Manziel went on to say he worries about his son becoming suicidal if his problems aren’t addressed. That’s how powerful and insidious addiction and depression can be.
At this point, it’s fair to wonder about Bryant’s state of mind.
It will not be as easy for the Penguins to move on without Malkin. The team says he will be out 6-8 weeks with some sort of left-arm injury after a hit Friday night by Dalton Prout of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Malkin wasn’t missed so much in the win Sunday. Conor Sheary? Who knew? A little puck luck on Matt Cullen’s winning goal? Who doesn’t love that? But Malkin will be missed in the final 14 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs, should the Penguins make it that far.
The Malkin injury continues a nasty run of late-season injuries for Pittsburgh sports teams. Last year, the Penguins were eliminated by the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs in significant part because they didn’t have defensemen Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff, as well as Olli Maatta. The Steelers had to play the Broncos this past season without Brown and DeAngelo Williams, as well as Bell and Pouncey. The year before, the Steelers lost to the Baltimore Ravens without Bell in their first playoff game.
“One of these years, we’re going to go into the playoffs healthy,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said after the Denver loss.
They must have the same lament at Penguins headquarters.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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