The Steelers have to hope that the Stewart who produced 32 touchdowns in 1997 (21 passing, 11 rushing) reemerges; he has generated but 21 scores in the 27 games since. "Name me one quarterback who hasn't gone through this," he says. "There are none. There's no doubt in my mind, from the depths of my heart, that I will succeed."
Pittsburgh must have been equally confident during the off-season. Since the advent of unfettered free agency in 1993, the club has been notorious for letting its marquee free agents sign elsewhere, claiming it couldn't match the signing bonuses that other teams offered. Yet even after a '98 season in which Stewart ranked 26th in the league in quarterback rating, the Steelers signed him to a five-year, $27 million extension, which included an $8.1 million signing bonus. Now if Pittsburgh wants to cut the cord with Stewart after this season, it will have to carry $6.48 million of that bonus against its 2000 salary cap.
Whether Cowher is around to help make that decision remains to be seen. Last Saturday the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette greeted readers with a front-page, above-the-fold headline that read COWHER QUITTING? Citing two Internet reports and another from a radio station, the story said Cowher would leave at the end of the season for a TV job or another coaching position. A coaching friend of Cowher's told SI last week that Cowher, who guided the Steelers to the playoffs in each of his first six seasons before slipping to 7-9 last year, has complained to him about the team's repeated failure to sign its own free agents and the resulting inability to keep a strong team intact. Cowher would be attractive to either the networks or a rebuilding owner, but after this season he'll still have three years left on a contract that pays him about $2 million per. Also, if Rooney agreed to let Cowher coach elsewhere, the owner would demand stiff compensation.
Cowher called reports of his departure "ludicrous." While Rooney said he was sure Cowher would continue as coach, he did make a rare negative comment about one of his employees. Alluding to a Dr Pepper commercial in which Cowher plays a coach who rants and raves, Rooney said, "I'm not wild about it. Bill should have turned it down or asked that it be rewritten." Nevertheless, Rooney added, "If you ask our fans about Cowher, the vast majority of them would want him to stay."
Too bad they don't feel the same way about Stewart.
McCaffrey Keeps On Ticking
This is the kind of year it has been for Denver wideout Ed McCaffrey: One recent afternoon he was playing with his eight-month-old son, Dylan. When his wife, Lisa, heard Ed yelp, she ran in to find blood trickling down his face. Seems that Dylan had dug out a chunk of skin with his fingernail. Great. Now McCaffrey, the reed-thin old reliable who has wobbled off the field so often this season, is getting dinged at home.
"You worry when a guy's getting laid out as much as Ed," says Denver guard Mark Schlereth, who, having undergone 25 surgeries, knows something about battle scars. "It's like he's got a bull's-eye tattooed on him. The way he looks, he reminds me of the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. But every time he gets hit, I go ask him if he's all right, and he nods his head and just starts going again."
The list of injuries—hip pointer, deep thigh bruise, a pair of leg contusions, left knee strain, two concussions—doesn't do his season justice. You can't watch the Broncos without seeing the 6'5", 215-pound receiver getting sandwiched or blind-sided, or gasping for air after having the wind knocked out of him. Week in and week out, the 31-year-old McCaffrey is the toughest wideout in the league, fearless when it conies to going over the middle. "It's a small price to pay to play a game I've loved since I was a kid," he says. "But I'm not sure if I'd have been able to play this season if I didn't do some extra things, like seeing the chiropractor and getting massage therapy weekly."
On Oct. 31 McCaffrey suffered his second concussion in eight days when 468 pounds of Vikings linebacker—Ed McDaniel and Dwayne Rudd—brought him down with a bang after a catch at the Minnesota one in the first quarter. Cleared by Denver doctors to return in the third quarter, McCaffrey hyperextended his left knee after taking a shot from cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock. A deep bone bruise and stretched ligaments forced McCaffrey to miss his first game of the year the following week, but he came back on Nov. 14 at Seattle to catch six passes for 125 yards and a touchdown in a 20-17 loss.