Steelers Hoping To Pull A Few Surprises In 2000
Quarterback (Surprise!) Will Be Under Microscope
By Joe Bendel
The Steelers said goodbye to director of football operations Tom Donahoe in the offseason. Next came the departure of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who took over as head coach of the New Orleans Saints.
Could Bill Cowher be the next to go? Stay tuned.
"I don't worry about whether I should be around," Cowher said. "In this business, if you start to worry about your job security, it's time to move on."
Cowher certainly has proven his worth in eight seasons with the Steelers, leading them to postseason berths in his first six seasons and taking them to Super Bowl XXX in 1995.
But, life in Black-and-Gold country has been anything but rosy for Coach Cowher the past two seasons.
The Steelers have lost 15 of their past 21 games and are coming off a 6-10 season, which included a loss to the expansion Cleveland Browns ...at home!
The two-year swoon can't be blamed on Cowher alone, but if the Steelers struggle for a third consecutive year, you can bet your two-week paycheck that the veteran coach will be on the hot seat.
"Everybody needs to pick things up from last year, you can't just pinpoint one area," left tackle Wayne Gandy said. "We can't say this guy or that guy is the problem. This is a team, and we have to become better as a team. Last year is over and it's time to move on. That's the only way to approach it."
The Steelers appear to have upgraded themselves via the draft, but it remains to be seen if their young players are prepared for the rigors of the NFL.
The receiving corps was improved with the selection of Michigan State standout Plaxico Burress in the first round. And the offensive line got a boost with the addition of second-round draft pick Marvel Smith, a stud from Arizona State who could be the Steelers starting right tackle.
By all indications, those players can help things along, but it's dangerous to place any type of hope on a couple of rookies who have yet to play a regular-season down.
The bulk of the team's success must ride on the shoulders of the veterans, particularly at quarterback, where the Steelers find themselves in a precarious situation.
Kordell Stewart has struggled since the 1997 season, when he accounted for 32 touchdowns (21 passing, 11 rushing) and helped lead the Steelers to the AFC championship game.
His numbers last year were unimpressive: 160 of 275 for 1,464 yards, six touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Consequently, the Steelers finished
25th among the 31 NFL teams in passing, averaged just 180.2 yards per game and had an average completion of only 10.4 yards per catch, the second-worst in the league.
Things got so bad for Stewart that he was used as a wide receiver in the Steelers' final five games.
His struggles this season forced the Steelers to turn to free-agent signee Kent Graham, who is isn't exactly the second coming of Terry Bradshaw. Graham had a 74.6 passer rating with the Giants last season, which is a tad better than Stewart's rating of 64.9.
Suffice to say, the Steelers could be in for a long season.
If the Steelers are looking for a lift on offense, they'll have to rely on the running of Jerome Bettis and Richard Huntley, both of whom are capable of putting up solid numbers provided the offensive line comes together.
The anchor of that unit, center Dermontti Dawson, was hampered with a hamstring injury much of last season and missed nine games. The injury flared up again this year at training camp and there are concerns that the 35-year-old future Hall-of-Famer could be on his last leg.
If that's the case, the entire offensive line, an area where the Steelers struggled last season, could fall apart. Brenden Stai, a five-year starter at guard, was released and then replaced by Rich Tylski, who is joined on the line by Gandy, guard Alan Faneca, and possibly Smith. Roger Duffy would replace Dawson if the latter can't go.
Defensively, the Steelers might have the top inside linebackers in the game in Earl Holmes and Levon Kirkland. Their outside guys, Joey Porter and Jason Gildon, aren't bad, either.
"Those guys have a presence out there," Cowher said of the linebacking corps. "They can really bring it."
The Steelers also have a potentially solid secondary with Chad Scott and DeWayne Washington at the corners, Lethon Flowers at strong safety and second-year man Scott Shields at free safety.
But no matter how good the linebackers and secondary are, they have no chance of being successful without an adequate defensive line. And, unfortunately for the Steelers, they were average up front even before nose guard Joel Steed retired and their best defensive lineman, Orpheus Roye, left via free agency in the offseason.
"People aren't expecting much of us," Gandy said. "That's good. Maybe we can surprise them."
Joe Bendel is a sports writer with the Tribune-Review, Pittsburgh.