What the lack of a contract extension means

Will Bill Cowher go into the 2004 season feeling a greater pressure to win if he's not given a contract extension, or does Cowher assume he'll get one following the season as long as the team doesn't go into the tank? <br><br> That is the question of the day following the news the Rooney family has no real intent to extend Cowher before the season begins.

More importantly, how will Cowher's situation - he has two years remaining on his contract - affect how he handles this month's draft?

Without an extension, will Cowher go into this draft with a win-at-all-costs attitude? If that is the case, that would preclude him from taking quarterback Phillip Rivers with the 11th-overall pick. Cowher would instead grab a player more capable of helping him win this year.

But by now Cowher now has a good understanding of Dan Rooney and how he works. Unlike many owners in the league, Rooney does not make knee-jerk reactions. Cowher knows he received his last contract extension following a 9-7 season in 2000 in which he did not make the playoffs.

The extension he received before that came after a disastrous 1998 season in which the team basically quit on Cowher down the stretch.

Rooney looks for something different from his coaches when assessing whether or not he should keep them or not. Rooney doesn't look at whether or not a coach is winning now, he looks down the road and assesses whether he feels that coach can win in the future.

In 1991, he decided after 23 years Chuck Noll had reached the end and the two came to an agreement on Noll's retirement.

That decision came after Noll's teams made the playoffs just one time in seven seasons. Cowher is mired in a slump that has seen him guide the Steelers to two playoff appearances in the past six seasons. But both of those playoff appearances have come in the past three seasons.

The chances are that anything resembling improvement this season will land Cowher a contract extension of at least a couple of years.

And, as Cowher has pointed out time and again, the return of Marvel Smith to the starting lineup for a full season will help in that respect a great deal. The Steelers never recovered from the loss of their starting left tackle last season. Then again, how many teams would?

Couple that loss with the fact right guard Kendall Simmons struggled all season after being diagnosed with diabetes and the poor play of Todd Forham and Oliver Ross at right tackle and you have a line that was in total disarray.

Smith will be back in 2004 and though he missed the majority of the 2003 season, injuries had not been a problem for him earlier in his career. And Simmons has had an entire year to learn how to deal with his illness.

The right tackle position problem has not yet been solved, but it will be addressed in the first three rounds of the draft.

So where does that leave the Steelers in this year's draft? Does Cowher feel the heat enough to pass on a possible franchise quarterback in the first round?

The guess here is no.

The addition of running back Duce Staley, return of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and improvement of the offensive line should help the Steelers improve by at least a win or two in 2004. And who knows? If they get a couple of lucky bounces, it could be more than that.

You have to take the franchise quarterback when you have the opportunity, especially when you haven't had one in more than 20 years.

Cowher knows that even if he's let go by the Steelers tomorrow, he'll have another job in the league as soon as he wants one. If he wants the franchise quarterback, he's not going to let his contract status factor into not getting what he wants.

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