You get bang for your buck when you go see Merril Hoge of the Steelers, ESPN, and Highland Heights Thursday night at Joseph Beth Booksellers in the Hyde Park section of Cincinnati.
It is a 10-minute ride from Paul Brown Stadium, but when he talks about his new book Find A Way, he takes you on a whitewater raft ride of emotion and inspiration ranging from his successful battle with cancer, his improbable NFL career, and his current reincarnation as one of the best prepared analysts covering the league today.
By the way, he says Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is getting unfair criticism but when Ben Roethlisberger returns to quarterback the Steelers, Pittsburgh is the better team. Yet he stands by his preseason prediction that the Bengals can make the Super Bowl.
"They're good enough," he says. "But any team that gets there has to get a break."
Hoge, introduced by ESPN-1530's Mo Egger, gives a nice talk to the 50 or so folks gathered quickly after a day of work and school. If you don't get goose bumps hearing how his nine-year-old daughter climbed into his lap when he told her he had cancer and said, "Daddy, find a way," then you need to get checked.
But he's at his best one-on-one signing the inside of the book ("To Dave, Merril Hoge, Find A Way"), grilling kids about their sports, patiently listening to other survivor stories, and recalling the thrills he had in the those later days of Chuck Noll's Steelers to the faithful that show up in black and gold.
Get him on one of his oldest friends, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, and he is as eloquent as he is on the best weekly show on TV, ESPN's look at various NFL matchups. Lewis began his coaching career at Idaho State when Hoge broke in as a running back 30 years ago and he has the third quote on the list of testimonies at the front of the book.
"There are few people I use the word genuine. Marvin is one of the most genuine people I know," Hoge says. "He's the kind of guy that makes you check your own backyard. Am I genuine to people? He makes me reevaluate myself. Marvin has done a lot for me and he would do anything I ask."
Like Lewis, former Steelers dropped from the Big Sky, Hoge has become a fixture in Cincinnati. He lives in Fort Thomas, Ky., where he has been active coaching his two children ages 17 and 14. But that's not why he likes the Bengals.
"Every Super Bowl team needs four or five difference-makers and I'm one of those that says it doesn't have to be the quarterback," Hoge says. "He can't be a stiff. But as long as he understands your team, the strength of your team, is accurate, and makes good decisions, he doesn't have to throw 250, 350 yards a game."
But Hoge thinks Palmer is a difference-maker as well as all of the above and when he heard him getting ripped while he was out and about Thursday, he decided to go home and study Cincinnati tape a little early. Hoge easily makes a double move from inspirational leader to Bengals observer.
"On the two touchdowns he missed, he's getting hit right in the chest as he throws to T.O. and the ball sails on him," Hoge says. "The Ravens actually did a good job getting inside pressure on him all day. Then on the one to Chad, he's getting pressure from a DB coming free and he has to move left while Chad's going right. That's a hard thing to do. Give him 10 shots doing that and he might hit two."
Hoge is sticking with Palmer until he sees him standing by himself missing receivers.
"His bad throws have people hitting him or they're around his knees," he says. "If you think he's struggling, go outside, have someone hit you as you're throwing, and if you're accurate, then he's got issues."
Bengals running back Cedric Benson made a bit of news Thursday in a Sirius Radio interview in which he wondered why the Bengals were moving away from the running game that won the AFC North for them last season in an effort to incorporate new weapons in the passing game.
"I thought they ran it much better against the Ravens than they did the Patriots; they went back to what they do," Hoge says. "They didn't run it like they did last year with six offensive linemen, misdirection counters and power runs. (But) you have to have different phases to your game. The more phases you have, the more difficult you are. It's like the Bengals began to deteriorate when they lost the vertical phase.
"Sometimes it takes coaches awhile to get used to the new guys and you've got a new tight end and two new receivers, and you're trying to take advantage of that while not losing the identity of your team. They got back to that last week."
And Hoge says for Benson not to despair.
"If the offense continues to be inconsistent, (the running game) is something they'll gravitate to," he says.
When asked to put his finger on the offensive struggles stretching back to late 2006, Hoge says it is simple.
"The offensive line has been inconsistent; that's where it begins and ends," he says. "They're not real athletic. They're fighters. They're power football and they do a good job with that."
He says he likes the way right guard Bobbie Williams plays and wonders why right tackle Andre Smith has yet to get a foothold and says center Kyle Cook isn't coming off one of his best games. But Hoge likes them as a whole and was impressed with the way they bounced back.
"That's a good sign," he says.
Another good sign?
A Merril Hoge signature on a signature motivational book.