Work in Sports
Cowher, Stewart may be facing make-or-break season
The Pittsburgh Steelers, 6-10 last season, were once a fixture in the postseason under coach Bill Cowher, but they've bombed out with losing records in the past two seasons and are 6-15 in their last 21 games. Here are a few questions from Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z, followed by CNNSI.com's perspective on some of the issues facing the Steelers this season. You can find SI's season preview on CNNSI.com on Aug. 23.
Dr. Z wants to know:
1.) Aren't we tired of hearing that this is Kordell Stewart's make-or-break year?
2.) These are the backup quarterbacks Kordell has had at Pittsburgh: Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller, and now Kent Graham. Is there a rule that says that you can't import or draft a top guy and have him ready, just in case?
3.) Billy Cowher won the power struggle, and director of operations Tom Donahoe resigned in January. Too many years of negative export-import ratio in the talent department, was Cowher's complaint. So, I want to know, if he's happy about the situation this year -- two starters gone, four potential front-liners added, including, and I congratulate the Steelers for this, the player with my favorite NFL name, nose tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen. Achtung!
4.) Is No. 1 draft, WR Plaxico Burress, who bears a rap sheet of great potential, weird attitude, inconsistent performance, really a Steelers-type of guy, or is there no such thing anymore?
5.) Somehow, through the years, you got the feeling that no one could run vs. the Steelers. Last year everyone did. They finished 26th in the league. What's going to change that?
The Steelers can make the playoffs if ... Kordell Stewart plays better. Any discussion of Pittsburgh starts and ends with the talented but erratic quarterback. He was benched last season, accounted for only six touchdown passes and had the lowest passing rating (64.9) of anyone in the AFC. This from a guy who threw 21 TD passes and ran for 11 TDs in 1997. He has a good young receiver in Troy Edwards and a tall, possibly explosive WR in rookie Plaxico Burress. If they can loosen up the defense and allow running back Jerome Bettis to bull his way around, the Steelers could challenge. But they'll have to shore up a defense that ranked 26th against the run and has a questionable front and a so-so secondary.
Pivotal Games : A Sept. 24 game in Three Rivers against AFC champ Tennessee will show the Steelers where they are. A Sunday night game against expected AFC Central champ Jacksonville on Nov. 19 may show if the Steelers are going anywhere in January.
On the Hot Seat : Cowher won a power struggle with football boss Tom Donahoe in the off-season that resulted in Donahoe's firing. But another down year and it may be curtains for the steel-jawed coach. Cowher's on-again, off-again relationship with Stewart -- who also will be feeling the heat -- may hold the key to his future.
Up-and-comers : Burress was one of the most coveted players in the draft. But keep an eye on 6-foot-4 strong safety Scott Shields, too, in that leaky secondary. And if Stewart falters and backup Kent Graham is no relief, Tennessee rookie Tee Martin may get the call.