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Burning Questions

Three points to ponder from Steelers training camp

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Posted: Sunday July 22, 2001 2:35 PM
  Bill Cowher Steelers head coach Bill Cowher is 22-26 during the past three seasons. Harry How/Allsport

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

LATROBE, Pa. -- Was last season a sign of a Steelers resurgence in the AFC Central, or just a false reading in a division dominated by defense? Burning Questions is back for another season, and begins its tour of NFL training camps with Pittsburgh, in the ancestral home of Rolling Rock beer. Starting now, we pony up the insights and observations that provide the grist for preseason speculation:

Question: Tell us again why the Steelers felt compelled to extend head coach Bill Cowher’s contract another three years, even though he still had two years remaining on his deal and has missed the playoffs the past three seasons?

Answer: Let's look at some revealing numbers, shall we? In his final three seasons on the job, legendary Steelers head coach Chuck Noll posted two winning seasons and made one playoff trip, but then stepped down after a 7-9 finish in 1991.

In Cowher's most recent three seasons, he has just one winning season and no playoff trips, and yet Steelers owner Dan Rooney rewarded him with a contract that now extends through 2005. Cowher is 22-26 during the past three seasons, while Noll went 25-23 from 1989-91.

Cowher's three-year extension is worth a reported $9 million, with that $3 million average being the current going rate for the NFL's best head coaches.

  • Road to redemption: This year, the swagger is missing. Their steps are a little less sure, their manner not quite as confident. Plaxico Burress and Troy Edwards didn't exactly conjure up images of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth last season, and Pittsburgh's two first-round receivers are quietly back at work, trying to make amends.
  • Tough gig: No matter his choice of decor, you can bet there won't be an easy chair in Mike Mularkey's office this season. How could the first-year Pittsburgh offensive coordinator possibly get comfortable, given that he has landed what many would consider the toughest job in the NFL?
  • Postcard: The first in a series of postcards Sports Illustrated's Peter King will e-mail from his annual NFL training-camp tour, including five observations from practice that you just can't get anywhere else. 

    Logic says the Steelers didn't have to address Cowher's contract until next year at this time, when he was entering the final season of his deal. Instead, Rooney opted to send a loud and enthusiastic vote of confidence Cowher's way as the team moves into its new cash cow, Heinz Field.

    Coming off the first two losing seasons of his career, Cowher deserves credit for not panicking last year when the Steelers started 0-3. His poise and steadying presence helped the team rally to nine wins in its last 13 games, salvaging a winning season. And Rooney is no doubt returning some loyalty to Cowher for his feat of making the playoffs in each of his first six seasons on the job (1992-97).

    But don't forget, Cowher also was the coach of record for that 0-3 start, and the Steelers might have overachieved in getting to 9-7 last season with virtually no passing game to speak of. With Baltimore and Tennessee looking like the class of the AFC Central once again, Pittsburgh's best hope may be to again hover near .500 and fight Jacksonville for third place in the division.

    Given the financial commitment, Rooney's bold move virtually removes any chance the Steelers would be in the market for a new head coach until 2003 at the earliest. If last season turns into the aberration in a five-year down cycle in Pittsburgh, the Steelers' confidence in Cowher could prove costly.

    Question: Who will fill the leadership void created by the departures of the team’s co-captains, center Dermontti Dawson, a Steeler since 1989, and linebacker Levon Kirkland, a Steeler since 1992?

    Answer: Since the start of president Richard Nixon's first administration in 1969, the Steelers have had exactly three starting centers: Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster and Dawson. Into that impressive company steps Jeff Hartings, a free-agent signee from Detroit. Hartings not only has to try and fill Dawson's shoes in the locker room, he has to switch positions, from guard to center. In his five seasons as a Lion, the former Penn State standout never took a snap at center, but he's a tough, tenacious player who should be up to the job.

    The Steelers are less worried about replacing Kirkland. Sixth-year vetearn Earl Holmes will slide from weak side to Kirkland's strong-side position and call defensive signals. Many believe that Holmes, who has led the team in tackles in 1999-2000, and not Kirkland has been the Steelers best linebacker for a while now anyway. The well-chiseled 6-foot-2, 245-pound Holmes is determined to stay on the field every play and take his place in Pittsburgh's storied linebacker legacy.

    The problem may be who takes over for Holmes at the weak side linebacker. The Steelers signed former Ram Mike Jones, he of Super Bowl-saving tackle fame, but there is some buzz that second-round pick Kendrell Bell, out of Georgia, might mount a serious preseason challenge to Jones.

    Question: What can be said about quarterback Kordell Stewart's pivotal role in the success or failure of the Steelers' season that hasn't already been said in 2000, or 1999, or 1998?

    Answer: It has become cliché to decry that Stewart has reached his make-or-break season in Pittsburgh. The saga of his struggles has been a three-year story, and the ending has yet to be written. But there are some positive signs that Stewart may be able to recapture some of his 1997-style magic.

    First off, there's coaching. Stewart has a buffer of protection in Tom Clements, the first Steelers quarterbacks coach since Babe Parilli in 1973. Clements has a soothing touch with Stewart and the pair seem already to have formed a relationship of trust. Also, Stewart gets along great with new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, a well-organized, approachable type who was the team's tight ends coach the past five years.

    Mularkey is taking a common sense approach to Stewart's strengths and won't ask his quarterback to do as much reading and reacting at the line of scrimmage as deposed offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride did.

    It didn't hurt either that Cowher came out and named Stewart the team's clear-cut starter before camp. There is no preseason skirmish to lose to Kent Graham this year. That should boost Stewart’s always fragile confidence, which has been on the rise since he won four of his last five starts in 2000.

    With the Steelers vaunted running game, Stewart doesn't have to carry too much of the load, just his share. The time is now. He has things the way he wants them, and all that's left is for him and his underachieving receivers to produce.

    Related information
    SI's Peter King: Postcard from Steelers camp
    SI's Don Banks: Steeler receivers at crossroads
    SI's Don Banks: Mularkey embarks on rebuilding Steelers' offense
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