What they might get, instead, is an off-season house cleaning. If they keep playing the way they have and do not make a playoff run - and even if they do - many veterans will be playing their final season dressed in black and gold in Pittsburgh.
They won't be forced to break up their team because of salary-cap problems; they'll want to do it to save money and to start what looks like a long rebuilding process. Releasing some of their underperforming players with big contracts would allow the team to become more active in free agency next year.
Those who could be in trouble, and the salaries they are supposed to receive in 2004:
Cornerback Dewayne Washington ($3.75 million), running back Jerome Bettis ($3,757,000), tight end Mark Bruener ($2,395,000), linebacker Jason Gildon ($3,650,000), center Jeff Hartings ($3,750,000), cornerback Chad Scott ($4,085,000) and running back Amos Zereoue ($2.2 million).
Releasing any or all of those veterans would mean the Steelers would carry dead money next year and beyond. But it would not be that bad. For example, they would have to account for what's left of Washington's $2.27 million pro-rated signing bonus. They could take all of that hit in 2004 or half in each of the next two seasons. In the meantime, they would save Washington's $3.75 million salary next year alone, and he's schedule to make another $3.75 million in 2005. He's almost sure to go.
Bettis, too, likely won't be back. He has only 313 yards rushing in 10 games, a paltry 31.3 yards a game. He may be the victim of their surprising lack of commitment to the ground game, which started in training camp when they thought they could rely heavily on their passing game to win. Nevertheless, they're not going to pay him nearly $4 million next year for that.
The Steelers sunk nearly $80 million in signing bonuses since 2001 to keep this team together. Almost all of that came with Cowher's approval. Things looked good when they reached the AFC title game in 2001 after a 13-3 record. They didn't look bad last season when they won their division at 10-5-1 and lost their second playoff game at Tennessee in overtime.
But now the team looks old, uninspired and lacking in talent at key positions such as offensive line, running back and secondary. It's hard to believe that Pittsburgh entered the season as runaway 3-to-8 favorites to win the division and, at 7-1, among the favorites to win the AFC.
This will be the 104th meeting between the two teams, including two in the playoffs. The Browns waxed the Steelers in Pittsburgh 33-13 on Oct. 5 to run their all-time series advantage to 55-48. It was their first win over the Steelers in seven games. The Browns have not swept the series since 1988. Coach Bill Cowher is 14-5 against Cleveland, including victories in the two playoff games.
The Steelers have several key players whose contracts expire after 2004, and they must decide whether to enter negotiations to extend those deals. Among them are wide receiver Plaxico Burress and linebackers Kendrell Bell and James Farrior, who would become unrestricted free agents in 2005 if they are not signed by then.
Farrior has the team runaway lead with 66 unassisted tackles, leads with 77 total tackles and is tied for the lead with 10 tackles for losses. He's tied for second with four passes defensed and has one interception.
Monday night in San Francisco, Tommy Maddox completed 25 of 44 passes for 327 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El completed his only pass for minus seven yards, yet had a higher passer rating of 79.2 compared to 78.5 for Maddox.
Give it another shot
Since Bill Cowher became their coach in 1992, the Steelers have rushed for more yards than any NFL team - 24,976 - and averaged 4.2 yards a carry. So far this season, the once-potent running game ranks 31st in the NFL in yards per game. The Steelers tried but could not get the run going in San Francisco on Monday night. They will try again this Sunday, especially against a weak run defense, but it's likely they'll have to rely on the pass as well as some other tricks to move the ball.
"Obviously, when you start running it, those linebackers start getting in there and the safeties start trying to nose up and the play-action becomes very effective," said QB Tommy Maddox.
OT Marvel Smith, upgraded to questionable, will probably start at left tackle Sunday in Cleveland unless he has a setback during the rest of the week. Smith, who has recovered from a pinched nerve in his neck, has missed six of the past seven games and played only three snaps in the other. All-Pro guard Alan Faneca will then move back to his old position on the left side. Faneca started the past five games at left tackle and did a good job of it, although it may hurt him when it comes to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro voting. The Steelers had thought of moving Smith to right tackle, where they've had some problems, and keeping Faneca at left tackle. But they want Smith to play left tackle for them next season; Faneca's best spot is at guard and left guard Keydrick Vincent has not played well.
Matchups to watch
- Browns QB Kelly Holcomb vs. the Steelers beleaguered secondary. Holcomb, who will be starting the game, threw for 429 yards in a playoff game against Pittsburgh last year, but missed the first Steelers game due to injury.
- Browns DE Kennard Lang vs. OT Marvel Smith, likely to play in his first full game since Sept. 21.
- RB Jerome Bettis, averaging only 33.5 yards per game, vs. a Cleveland defense ranked 28th in the league in average yield per carry.
- LBs Jason Gildon and Joey Porter vs. the Browns offensive line. For whatever reason, Pittsburgh hardly blitzed in the first game, a big Cleveland win. It would seem logical that they might be more aggressive in this game, which means turning Gildon and Porter loose against tackles Ryan Tucker and Barry Stokes.
Quote to Note
"There's always something to play for. We still have a chance to get into the playoffs." - LB Joey Porter.