Answer Man

The Pittsburgh Steelers are roaring down the stretch in a late bid to rejoin the NFL's elite. Do they belong in that class? Are they better than last year's 15-1 team? And how long could the window stay open? The Answer Man has those answers and much more.

JW: Bill Cowher answered the same question 15 times today. He's going to focus only on beating Detroit and not even considering any other scenarios. Do you appreciate that?

Answer Man: He talked to the media today the way I imagined he talked to the team, with the whole ‘keep the focus' and all. With the team, he's right. That's the only way you can do that.

JW: Are you as delighted with the team as the fans seem to be?

AM: Well, I think they're playing really well now. But … hey, this league is weird, so anything can happen at any time, but if you look at things now and who has what to play for and who doesn't, the Steelers' most likely scenario is at New England and then at Indy and then at Denver. So if you can beat New England, Indy and Denver, all on the road, in three straight weeks, you should get a trophy just for that. They're playing well, but I don't think that that's possible, though. You could get the '74 Steelers together in their primes and they would have a tough time with that. I think that they're playing really well, but it's just unfortunate because to me, if the quarterback doesn't get hurt this year at all, 13-2; you're the number two seed; you've got a week off; you're playing at home; and if you've got to go to Indy for the championship game, hey, we've seen how it works playing those championship games at Heinz Field, so maybe that's the way to do it.

JW: To prove all is right with the universe, doesn't this team have to beat New England before it can proceed?

AM: In the seventies, the Raiders probably had to beat the Steelers. And I remember having this conversation with Joe Greene in 1990 when, in the last game of the year, the Steelers were going to Houston to play the Oilers for the division championship and Warren Moon got hurt and he couldn't play. Cody Carlson played and beat us. But Joe Greene said ‘It's too bad Warren Moon's not playing because you want to go down there and beat their best.' That doesn't mean anything to me. Maybe to certain players and coaches it does, but winning is winning. If the Steelers go and win a Super Bowl championship this year, without beating New England, I don't think they'll come and take the trophy back five years from now.

JW: Couldn't you imagine their confidence soaring if they win in New England?

AM: Absolutely, but again there's the debilitating effect of the road. There's a reason that the NFL set up the system this way. Not to keep the wild-card teams down, but I think you need to make the regular-season really mean something and you reward the two best teams in each conference, and I think that's a very significant reward. If you look back at this season, it's just a shame about Roethlisberger because I really think that this team is capable of beating anybody.

JW: Is this a better team than last year's team?

AM: It's a better team because Roethlisberger's better. This team now is his team; that's it. The days of playing with Neil and Kordell and winning with those types of quarterbacks, I mean the whole concept of not winning with a superstar quarterback and trying to go the route of Mark Rypien and Trent Dilfer, that's out the door. This is his team now. The Pittsburgh Steelers are now one of those teams like the Colts with Manning, the Broncos with Elway, the Dolphins with Marino. If that guy's not playing, you're not winning any trophies.

JW: Are they clearly a better team than last year's team with Roethlisberger?

AM: He's clearly better, and to me that alone is enough. He's clearly better and he's the quarterback and he touches the ball every snap.

JW: So that's why it's a damn shame. They're clearly better, but they have such tough sledding ahead of them. That's what you're saying.

AM: Right. You know: 11-5. I believed that 11-5 was the floor for this team at the start of training camp, and it looks like they're going to be 11-5. When you consider some of the things they've had to deal with: playing without Marvel Smith for a month and playing without Roethlisberger for three weeks. If you'd have told me that in August, I'd have said they wouldn't even be 11-5. Now, 11-5 usually wins the division. Eleven and five in 1995 was the second seed. Eleven and five this year makes you the sixth. What you seem to have now in this league are a couple of really great records in each conference every year and everyone else fights after that.

JW: But this team will be in position next year, won't it?

AM: (Chuckles) You've got cap problems. The projected cap next year is maybe $95 million, up $10 million from this year. The Steelers are well over $95 million just with the salaries they've committed. Now, granted, it looks like it's going to be Jerome Bettis's last year and so the $6 million that he counts isn't going to count. But a lot of guys are getting big raises. There are a lot of bonuses. A lot of guys who have earned bonuses and they'll become Likely To Be Earned for the following season, so they count again. It's not impossible, but I think it's foolish to make the assumption that you just made, that this team will be there next year. I think it's a possibility that it could be, and it could be good for awhile, but they're going to need to continue to make smart off-season moves.

JW: Any off the top of your head?

AM: You can't have $10 million in centers. Chukky Okobi's cap number next year is $2 million and Jeff Hartings's is $8 million. I don't know what you do. I'm not advocating cutting anybody, but you can't have $10 million in centers. You just can't. So that's just one glaring example there. You cannot believe that your running backs are settled. I don't think you can say ‘We're going in with a pat hand' at running back or receiver. I think you need more linebackers. They're playing great right now, but you need more than five if you're going to play four at a time. I think the secondary looks pretty good down the road. It's solid. I don't know what they're going to do about Chris Hope. That's another decision that has to be made and it has to be made intelligently. By that I mean you want him back but if you overpay for what he actually does for your team, that takes money away from somewhere else. You want to keep guys but you want to keep them at whatever number is reflective of their ability and contributions. So I don't think you can just say that. I think it could happen, but there's work that needs to be done.

JW: What do you think about this week? Blowout?

AM: I don't think the Lions really have any interest. If you were to go through their coaching staff, and ask every one of those guys if they're going to be back next year, they would probably guess ‘no' because the guy who hired them has already been fired. So you have a lot of guys who are anticipating being fired, and so their head is maybe somewhere else. The players don't know what's going on. Matt Millen came in there and fired a lot of people. Now, what he is doing is obviously not working. Is he going to get fired? Or is he going to get to fire more people?

JW: Would anybody in this organization be happy to smash them and force the firing of Millen?

AM: (Laughs) Oh, God.

Steel City Insider Top Stories