The Dirt: Bill Cowher backs down

Kimo von Oelhoffen never called. Marvin Lewis didn't feel the love. The Cincinnati Bengals are fighting mad and the Pittsburgh Steelers are running scared.

Who doesn't like good NFL theatre? The AFC North is busy trying to best the NFC East in terms of the most heated intradivisional rivalry.

Browns fans don't like Steelers fans. The feeling is mutual. Then Art Modell rented a Mayflower moving van and relocated the tension to Baltimore. The NFL returned football to Cleveland, stoking the hate between the Ravens and the Browns.

Brian Billick and Bill Cowher never seemed to get along. The hate between the players was even greater. Billick had the audacity to steal the Super Bowl from the fans in Cleveland and then attempt to rub the trophy in the face of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Or something like that ...

This was a three-way of the worst kind, but the most fun to follow.

Left out of this passion play are the Cincinnati Bengals. So sorry are the Bengals that they can barely get the cross-state team to pay any attention to them. The Bengals did indeed win the division, but Browns fans aren't busy plotting how to unseat the champs.

That all changed when Steelers DE Kimo von Oelhoffen, a former Bengal, ran into the valuable knee of QB Carson Palmer.

Up until that point, Steelers fans pretended they cared that their team beat the Bengals. Bengals fans tried to hate the Steelers.

Marvin Lewis' team quit on him in the face of adversity. He dealt with an attempted mutiny during half time, but he kept his team focused on the opponent in the post-game press conference.

While Lewis was busy engaging a teaching opportunity for his team, Cowher led his players in a chant that mocked Bengals fans. That was captured on film and aired a number of times on the NFL Network.

Cowher might have lived that down if not for his Who Dey/We Dey chant during the Steelers Super Bowl victory parade in Pittsburgh.

Like it or not, Cowher upped the ante.

Palmer came out of the injury closet to host a press conference. The Steelers were still on his mind and he let Bengals fans know that there is some unfinished business. Commenting on Cowher's parade chant, "I realized he might have said something he [Cowher] shouldn't have said and that it will fuel our fire a little more and make us a little bit hungrier to beat them."

Cowher's team won the Super Bowl, but the Bengals would hold the motivational edge going into the 2006 regular season. Instead of welcoming the challenge, Cowher decided to attempt to defuse the situation.

"I'm sure the first time we play [the Bengals] next year, I will have to relive everything I did and I will regret that and I will apologize at the time," said Cowher at the NFL meetings.

One thing is to mend fences with his former assistant coach (who was part of the Baltimore nemesis), but another thing is to back down publicly from a budding rivalry.

Cowher would manage to turn the tables, "They're the team we have to beat in our division because they're the ones on top."

Move over Baltimore and Cleveland, the Steelers are finally worried about the Bengals.


Pass on LenDale White
March 25, 2006


The last stop for the Bus was Detroit. Jerome Bettis ended his career more as a dinosaur than offensive workhorse. There is already a new face for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are excited about the latest mock draft from Fox Sports. Somehow bruising running back LenDale White has fallen all the way to pick #32. Perhaps the Pittsburgh Steelers can fly in Snoop Dogg for draft day, allowing him to oversee the passing of the torch from Bettis to White.

There is a slight hitch in this romantic scenario. The Steelers don't need another Bettis.

Snoop Dogg may be a Steelers fan. White and Mr. Dogg may be good friends. And White played for the USC Trojans like starting safety Troy Polamalu. That's where the connections to the Steelers end.

While Jerome Bettis is synonymous with "Steelers Football", the team didn't march through the playoffs in the traditional fashion. Bettis was the face of the Steelers, but for media purposes only. Of course, he was also a strong locker room presence and his teammates love to watch him bowl over the opposition.

The offensive line did seem to play better with Bettis running behind them, but that undervalues Bettis' nifty footwork and his intelligence. Bettis may have understood the blocking schemes better than any of the linemen. He could make anyone look good.

The Steelers ground attack often carried Cowher's teams through the regular season, but Bettis and company did little to deliver another Super Bowl trophy to Pittsburgh. The 2005 playoffs weren't any different.

QB Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game helped the Steelers win three playoff games on the road, not the storied running backs. Granted the image of a run-first offensive philosophy helped Bill Cowher and Ken Whisenhunt confound opposing defenses, but the Steelers struggled to run the ball at all during January.

RB Willie Parker's home run style also signals a changing of the guard. One touch and Willie is gone, as he demonstrated in the Super Bowl. Parker isn't in there to wear down the defense like Bettis did. The offense also doesn't revolve around Parker like it did Bettis, at least at one point a few years ago.

The offense now revolves around Roethlisberger. There is no torch to pass to White. The franchise quarterback owns it now, and Bettis would tell you that is how it should be.

The eminent re-signing of Verron Haynes helps emphasize this point. Parker, Haynes, and Duce Staley should prove adequate for the 2006 season. The Steelers will buy another year to take stock of what they have in Parker and the draft can offer some depth in the form of a player such as RB Wali Lundy (Virginia).

More pressing is finding additional weapons for Roethlisberger. In this regard, White would be a wasted pick. The Steelers will not build an offense around him.

Chasing the same folly as finding Bettis' heir apparent, the Steelers could search for the next Plaxico Burress. TE Heath Miller is already the imposing target that Burress never was. And you can cross the former battery mate of Roethlisberger, WR Martin Nance, off your list. Nance didn't impress anyone during the combine or the Miami (Ohio) pro day. Maybe the Steelers gift Nance to Roethlisberger early on Day 2.

Cowher may be enamored with QB/WR Michael Robinson (Penn State), but Robinson won't provide much help in the near term. Jason Avant (Michigan) would seem to be a Steelers receiver, but that slips back into the Bettis-centric model.

Risking sounding cliché, the Steelers lack a downfield threat. Roethlisberger tends to look long, often ignoring his safety valves and the underneath routes. Sinorice Moss might fit, but the Steelers wouldn't look past a blue chip defender to grab him.

The wide receiver picture is muddled, but the Steelers should let White slide right by them if that opportunity presents itself.


Drafting for 2007
March 23, 2006


The Pittsburgh Steelers approach this year's draft without any pressing needs. They also approach the 2006 season without any key players in a contract year. The Dirt uncovers the current South Side Complex crisis.

While the media addresses the small concerns of the upcoming season, GM Kevin Colbert is looking at an off-season catastrophe in 2007. Extending Ike Taylor or replacing a slot receiver passes as news, but either story has little to do with the draft.

Any front office would be glad to sit in Colbert's chair. His work is vindicated with a Super Bowl trophy and almost all his starters won't be free agents until after the 2007 season. The Pittsburgh Steelers are content to stand pat for 2006 and defend their title.

Colbert needs to fill a few holes at wide receiver or, perhaps, running back in the upcoming draft. But he could do nothing and still field a Super Bowl competitive team.

For the rest of 2006, Colbert can coast. Come 2007, the Steelers face a host of difficult decisions.

DE Aaron Smith, OLB Joey Porter, OG Alan Faneca, OLB Clark Haggans, and SS Troy Polamalu are all free agents after the 2007 season. Which players will Colbert extend like Hines Ward and Casey Hampton, and which players will he let twist in the wind such as Chris Hope?

The Steelers will have plenty of cap room after next March, about $16 million. Can you remember the last time the Steelers had that much money with which to play?

Colbert can visit free agency as he has never before. That is a scary thought in and of itself. But he can also extend any player he wishes, but at a dear price. He'll need some leverage in those negotiations. He'll need some strong draft picks.

Throwing more money at C Chukky Okobi makes much more sense when you consider the when the big contracts end. Cowher must find the next generation in edge rushers for his 3-4 scheme. You can worry about a center next year.

Cowher bombed with DE/LB Alonzo Jackson. Colbert let OLB Marcus Washington leave town. The long term situation at linebacker is desperate. The Steelers must find a promising OLB prospect in the upcoming draft.

That is just a front line consideration. DE Travis Kirschke, DT Chris Hoke, FB Dan Krieder, and OG Kendall Simmons will also seek extensions. They probably won't receive one, but the Steelers will have to rebuild that depth.

A bad 2006 draft could prove to be disastrous.

Pulling in the other direction is the passing attack and QB Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers are poised to change offensive philosophy and embrace their franchise player, the guy that carried them through the playoffs.

The Steelers were not built to compliment the quarterback, but to compensate for his shortcomings. TE Heath Miller aside, Roethlisberger would require some more weapons. The Steelers have done little in free agency, leading to speculation about their intentions on Day 1.

Colbert would do well to entice another team to give up their first round pick in order to sign Ike Taylor. CB Deshea Townsend's recent contract will keep him in Pittsburgh at least two more years, likely three. CB Bryant McFadden is a keeper and the coaching staff, at least, thinks well enough of CB Ricardo Colclough.

If the Steelers can't sign Taylor cheap or sucker another team to give up a draft pick for his services, the Dirt figures he'll play out his RFA tender and then test the market next year.

Beyond the most immediate needs are Colbert's draft plans. The team, as Bettis pointed out, will need some help along the interior of the offensive line. Cowher will red shirt his next prized outside linebacker. And, with apologies to Ryan Clark, the Steelers will try to land another stud safety.

In the big picture, Taylor is expendable. And if Roethlisberger is as good as some think he is, he can make a mediocre receiver look good. Colbert will try to solve tomorrow's problems today, the real need's still a year away.


Entire NFL city goes deaf
March 21, 2006


April Fools Day is still a few weeks away, but the Dirt jumps all over the funniest headline of the 2006 football off-season. Pop open your favorite Washington State wine and read about how a special master torments a wounded fan base.

"Seattle loses hearing, lets Hutchinson go," squawked the National Football League.

The sudden impairment was a result of a ruling that allowed the Minnesota Vikings to steal OG Steve Hutchinson away from the Seattle Seahawks. That makes the team twice-robbed in 2006 and now the city has stopped listening.

Hutchinson's representative in this sordid affair, Richard Berthelsen, put it best, "The Seahawks lost."

Such finality would have been welcome six weeks ago when the Seahawks came up short in the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead, the NFL muddled the defense of the officials and allowed an open wound to fester.

If the owners and the NFLPA failed to extend the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), no way Paul Taglibue announces his retirement on the same day Special Master Stephen Burbank tells the Seahawks that they must pay Hutchinson's ransom or let him walk.

Instead, the world of professional football is singing the commissioner's praises, sweeping the legitimacy problem of officiating under the rug. The players have scored another victory and the big-money franchises continue to spend money like there is no cap tomorrow.

For all of Taglibue's accomplishments, the poison pill of questionable officiating may undermine his legacy. The bloated contracts, of which Hutchinson's is the shining example, make a mockery of the CBA and the hard-fought-for revenue sharing agreement.

The dismissal of the Seahawks' gripes demonstrates how the NFL could fall from grace and alienate its fans.

For Hutchinson's agent, Tom Condon, to claim "that there wasn't any reason for him to leave Seattle" adds insult to injury. Hutchinson made no bones, through his actions, about where the Seahawks could stick their transition tag.

The over $6 billion per year mandate is going to the NFL's head. For years, questionable officiating has vexed the league, but popularity only grew. There were rule changes, instant replay debates, and public apologies. Certain fans complained, but they keep watching.

Taglibue's announcement overshadowed another news item. The US Supreme Court refused to hear a case concerning how areas surrounding an NFL franchise help fund the building of new stadiums. Such money helps line the pockets of owners like Jerry Jones and are at the heart of the disparity between local team revenues.

Owners are holding entire cities hostage, providing one example of how the success of the NFL is publicly subsidized. Not only has Taglibue endorsed this behavior; he has promoted it.

Like Barry Sanders, Taglibue is trying to walk away at the top of his game. While the bottom line looks great, there are cracks in the NFL's foundation.


The Bill Cowher Slash Project
March 20, 2006


Jai Lewis, a center for George Mason, may cash in on an NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen appearance in an unusual fashion. The Pittsburgh Steelers see basketball size and skills that could make Lewis an NFL star.

Today, Jai Lewis is enjoying his time on top of the college basketball world after his George Mason Patriots upset the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second round of March Madness. Tomorrow, Lewis could be the latest tweener experiment for Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher.

The Steelers, along with at least three other NFL teams, have been hot on Lewis' trail. At 6'7" and a few steaks shy of 300 pounds, Lewis has the footwork that would make retired running back Jerome Bettis proud and offensive line coach Russ Grimm drool.

Virginia Tech, Penn State, Maryland, and other big football schools chased the high school tight end/defensive end, but low SAT scores put a quick stop to those offers. Instead, Lewis headed to Maine Central Institute prep school to focus on a relatively new sport, basketball.

According to Lewis' father Fletcher, the "Big Lazy" didn't embrace basketball until high school, " He really hadn't played that much basketball. Football was his main sport. He went to a basketball camp that summer after his freshman year, and he came back a different guy. The coaches told him if he didn't work out he was going to be sent home. He's been stepping up ever since."

A great athlete, Lewis excelled at basketball and is the main reason George Mason finds itself so deep in the NCAA Tournament. Lewis is nothing less than a freak on the court.

"I've been coaching for, what," said head coach Jim Larranaga, "over 30 years now? And Jai Lewis is the most unique athlete I've ever been around. He can do things for a guy his size that you don't ever see on a basketball court."

Those same skills could make Lewis the next Antonio Gates.

"I've always loved football, and it's something I would like to try if I get a chance in the future," said Lewis. "Right now basketball is my priority, but football is something I think I could do if I had the opportunity to work at it."

Lewis' size, agility and great hands create the possibility of player part tight end and part offensive tackle. Cowher has built a Hall of Fame career with these type of players, starting most famously with QB/WR/DB Kordell Stewart.

Cowher's defense is full of players who have no true position. The safeties and cornerbacks are more like linebackers, while the linebackers are undersized defensive ends. On offense, the centers are converted guards and the wide receivers play occasional quarterback.

Lewis would fit right in. In the red zone, he could either pave the way for RB Willie Parker or catch the fade from QB Ben Roethlisberger.

All eyes are currently on Slash-types Michael Robinson of Penn State and Brad Smith of Missouri, but don't overlook Lewis, basketball/football player.


Kevin Colbert's draft board
March 17, 2006


The Dirt provides an early look at the draft targets for the Pittsburgh Steelers, considering only confirmed reports of interest, interviews or visits.

Where is Bill Cowher? He shows up at the Florida State pro day last year and then the Pittsburgh Steelers draft CB Bryant McFadden.

Triangulating the draft board for the Steelers isn't quite that easy. Like any other team, Cowher and GM Kevin Colbert are capable of subterfuge. But prospects blurt out upcoming visits. The press spots an unknown figure at the South Side Complex. And a member of the Steelers staff is seen at a team pro day.

Short of pegging the right player in the right round, all this information provides a shopping list of Steelers draft needs and interests.

S Chris Hope leaving via free agency supplied the most glaring need. The Steelers picked up a cheap hedge in Ryan Clark, but a first round rookie wouldn't start at the beginning of the 2006 season (see Troy Polamalu).

The safety prospects associated thus far with the Steelers carry a second round tag, with some as high as the late part of the first round. Others may slip into the third round, but will be gone when the Steelers pick.

Cowher and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau were visible at the Ohio State workouts. S Donte Whitner would be a late first round/early second round target. Then again, the Steelers recently signed FB Brandon Joe, who also participated in the pro day events. Was Joe all the Steelers were after? The other attraction was the linebackers, but more on that later.

Darnell Bing (USC) is another late first round possibility, the Steelers hot on his trail after the combine.

Staying in the first round, Jason Allen (University of Tennessee) is set to fly into Pittsburgh for a visit. The Steelers are allowed twenty rookie visits before the draft, so they wouldn't waste one on a smokescreen.

Speaking of visits, Nebraska's Daniel Bullocks writes in his diary that he is preparing for a workout with the Steelers in early April. Bullocks is a Day 1 pick, available if the Steelers go in another direction with pick #32.

Another round 2 or round 3 pick may be LB Jon Alston, who projects as a safety at the NFL level. The Steelers already put Alston through the paces in an individual workout, which means the team is serious. The Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams are also big on Alston.

Linebackers James Farrior and Joey Porter aren't getting any younger. The Steelers are linked with Bobby Carpenter, Ohio State. Carpenter could play inside or outside and LeBeau seemed quite interested in Buckeye linebackers, such as Anthony Schlegel. Powerhouse DE Mike Kudla is a tweener type whom LeBeau views as an OLB project.

If a blue chip linebacker happens to fall in the first round (see Chad Greenway), the Steelers could pull the trigger. However, the Steelers could strike gold later during Day 1 and even on Day 2. DE Brandon Guillory, like Kudla, projects as an outside linebacker. The Steelers sent at least one scout to the University of Louisiana-Monroe for the pro day, but Guillory pulled up lame with a hamstring injury during the 40-yard dash.

Cowher and the Steelers love to draft offensive linemen. OT Willie Colon (Hofstra) is a relative unknown, but he is on the Steelers' radar. OT Ryan O'Callaghan (California) claims that the Steelers were one four teams most interested in him during the Senior Bowl and NFL Draft Combine. OG Davin Joseph was another Senior Bowl target for the Steelers.

When Antwaan Randle El signed with the Washington Redskins, wide receiver became another need. Penn State QB Michael Robinson would seem to be the new slash. Cowher spoke about Robinson at the combine and he made an appearance at the Penn State pro day. Other prospects include Brandon Williams (Wisconsin) and Miles Austin (Monmouth). The Steelers don't appear overly concerned with the top talent at wide receiver.

The last glaring need is at running back. Most intriguing is the diminutive Maurice Drew, from UCLA. Drew has plenty of suitors given his gamebreaking speed and excellent value as a returner. Drew's lack of height clouds where he would go on Day 1, but that the Steelers would be interested in a running back during the first three rounds is news.

Better yet is RB Wali Lundy (Virginia). Lundy brings size and great hands to the position, making him a great fit for third-down back if the Steelers don't re-sign Verron Haynes.

Anything other than a safety, linebacker, running back, and wide receiver on Day 1 would be a bit of surprise. Never count out another offensive lineman either. The Steelers have almost all of their starters signed through 2007, so Colbert can think mainly about restocking special teams and projects for the future.


Beware of the Redfaces
March 14, 2006


The salary cap isn't slowing down the Redskins at all. The Dirt evaluates Pittsburgh Steelers CB Ike Taylor as Dan Snyder's next target.

Not that the Washington Redskins are in the market for a new cornerback, but the current feeding frenzy in free agency casts doubt on any team's ability to retain their restricted free agents (RFA). The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) provides franchises the means to protect some players, but sometimes that isn't enough to fend off a raid.

According to the NFL and the CBA:

Restricted free agentsare players who have completed three accrued seasons of service and whose contracts have expired. They have received qualifying offers from their old clubs and are free to negotiate with any club until April 21, at which time their rights revert to their original club. If a player accepts an offer from a new club, the old club will have the right to match the offer and retain the player. If the old club elects not to match the offer, it may receive draft-choice compensation depending on the level of the qualifying offer made to the player.

The signing period for restricted free agents began on March 11 but concludes on April 21.

The key is the "qualifying offer made to the player." The lowest offer is the cheapest in terms of salary, costing $712,000. The "middle" or "first-round" tender allows for a one-year deal worth $1.55 million. The high-level designation has a price tag of $2.069 million. The lower the offer, the easier it is to fit the player under the salary cap.

The lower the offer, the more attractive an RFA is to another team. Compensation is in the form of draft picks. At the low-level, the team that signs the player must surrender a draft pick that is in the same round that player was drafted, as long as the original team declines to match the offer. The middle-level costs a first-round pick and the highest-level commands a first and third-round pick.

The game is making the lowest offer possible without drawing interest from another team. On the side of the hunters, the game may be finding the best value, typically good players drafted in a low round (if at all).

The Pittsburgh Steelers WR Sean Morey was drafted in the 7 th round, the price for this RFA. The Steelers do not seem too worried about losing him. However, the Steelers are more concerned about the fate of CB Ike Taylor. Taylor commanded a middle-tender, but will that be enough to deter would-be suitors?

Before 2003, no middle-level or highest-level RFAs changed teams. Since 1993, an average of 4 RFAs per year would move. With 79 RFAs this year, Taylor leaving Pittsburgh would seem unlikely.

During the off-season in 2003, NFL teams were more aggressive in their pursuit of restricted free agents. Green Bay applied the middle-tender to Kabeer Gbaja Biamila, only to have the Philadelphia Eagles force their hand. The Packers matched the Eagles' offer.

The Redskins chased WR Laveranues Coles, another middle-tender RFA. The New York Jets declined to match, making Coles the first middle-tender RFA to jump ship.

Dan Snyder struck again in 2006, not letting the San Francisco 49ers' middle-tender offer keep him from signing WR Brandon Lloyd. Surprisingly, the 49ers and Redskins worked out a sign-and-trade that resulted in Washington's third-round pick in 2006 and fourth-round pick in 2007 going to San Francisco, instead of the mandated first-round pick.

The Redskins (and Minnesota Vikings) demonstrate that anything is possible, but like PK Jeff Reed last year, Taylor is safe unless a team makes an offer the Steelers cannot or will not match. The worst-case scenario is the front office stuck signing Taylor to a contract beyond what they thought he is worth.


Troubles at left tackle
March 9, 2006


There is nothing wrong with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They won the Super Bowl. A few players will leave via free agency, but the largest concern may be at left tackle. The Dirt addresses the problems along the offensive line.

To date, the Steelers have struggled to get under the cap. The Dirt speculated that the release of S Mike Logan and the restructuring of RB Duce Staley's signaled preparations to address needs created through free agency. A list of cap adjustments indicates that the Steelers will look primarily to the draft to fill out the roster, though the NFL owners voting to extend the CBA should allow the Steelers to make a move or two in free agency.

If the Steelers are unable to re-sign S Chris Hope, the team is poised to replace him with the first pick in the draft. Unless, there is a bigger hole to fill, such as at the center position.

The Steelers are overly committed to Jeff Hartings and Chukky Okobi. One solution would be to cut them both and chase C Nick Mangold at the end of the first round. Okobi is nothing more than a career back up and Hartings has chronic knee problems.

The Steelers could upgrade this position and the New England Patriots once indicated that they perceived Hartings as the weak link on the offensive line.

Bashing RG Kendall Simmons is common enough, but the interior of the offensive line hasn't been the Achilles' heel. The best indicator of success has been the health of LT Marvel Smith. When Smith doesn't start or is pulled from the game, the Steelers lose.

If you can bank on one thing come April's draft, you can expect the Steelers to draft an offensive lineman in the fourth round or higher. You might be sure that the team will draft for the line on Day 1.

After the disaster of the 2003 season, largely tied to Smith's pinched nerve, the Steelers picked right tackle Max Starks in 2004 and left tackle Trai Essex, both in the third round. The Steelers had Essex ranked as a first round prospect, which means that they think he could start in the NFL.

Despite Smith's health problems, the Steelers would seem well positioned for 2006 at offensive tackle. Starks is a fixture at right tackle and Essex has a year under his belt, getting some playing time thanks to Smith hurting his knee.

Why would the Steelers consider drafting Ryan O'Callaghan, a possible third round talent?

O'Callaghan indicated that the Steelers were interested, suggesting a need little discussed among those following the upcoming draft. The Steelers could be more concerned about depth and their inability to do much in free agency, but another Day 2 pick should suffice.

Lurking are the Steelers rushing Smith back into action, after replacing him with Essex during the 2005 season, and the ineffectiveness of the running game after Smith returned to the field. Somewhat akin to the Hartings-Okobi situation, the Steelers would rather start a hobbled Smith than press Essex into service.

Going into next season, the Steelers have question marks surrounding 3/5 of the starting offensive line (LT, C, and RG). If Essex is as good as the Steelers projected him to be, there is no reason to pick another offensive tackle on Day 1. Teams want to find starters during the first three rounds, not backups.

That bit of draft wisdom makes the Essex pick all the more curious. The Steelers revealed a concern about the long-term availability of Smith during the last draft. In the 2006 draft, the Steelers will reveal their thoughts about the Essex the starter.


Free agents will visit Pittsburgh
March 7, 2006


With NFL players and owners on the cusp of a new collective bargaining agreement, the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers is getting ready to cash in on their Super Bowl dividend.

Part of what allows the New England Patriots to remain competitive during the first decade of the second millennium are the multiple championships. Aging players looking for a shot at a Super Bowl ring take less money to play for Bill Belichick, instead of signing with a team throwing around ample cap-dollars.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will aim to keep their Super Bowl team together, but other teams are already lining up to overpay the soon-to-be free agents such as WR Antwaan Randle El and S Chris Hope. The draft will fill some of these holes, but depending on rookies to start is not the Steeler Way (nor a smart way to run an NFL franchise).

Recent cuts and restructures indicate that the Steelers are struggling to deal with the current cap ceiling of $94.5 million, but that task shouldn't have been this difficult. Regardless of what the owners decide on Tuesday or Wednesday, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert must prepare to do more than squeak under the cap limit.

The Steelers have already found a few million dollars of breathing room that should help with negotiations with centers Jeff Hartings and Chukky Okobi, which will in turn free up even more cap. DE Brett Keisel may be the target, the Steelers attempting to keep him off of the market and maintain a defensive strength, depth on the defensive line. Keisel would also replace DE Kimo von Oelhoffen as the starter.

Beyond re-signing their own, the free safety position looms the largest. Hope is preparing to test his value on the open market. Exacerbating the problem are the recent cuts of safeties Mike Logan and Russell Stuvaints. Come next week, there is Troy Polamalu and ...

Also gone is CB Deshea Townsend, highlighting a glaring need in the secondary that the Steelers would like to shore up before the draft in late April. The Steelers could sign a new free safety in the next few weeks and still pick Donte Whitner in the first round.

If NFL and NFLPA do extend the CBA, the Steelers will have at least an additional $10 million to use. The Steelers could go from searching for a stop-gap safety to chasing a marquee free agent, preferably one looking for his first Super Bowl ring.

The top available safeties include Hope, Marcus Coleman, Tebucky Jones, Marquand Manuel, Marlon McCree, Lawyer Milloy, and Tank Williams. The Green Bay Packers are set to sign Manuel and Hope could end up a New York Giant. Milloy doesn't need a ring. The others could work, but there are a number of teams hunting for a change at safety, including the Dallas Cowboys.

What the Steelers do won't necessarily tip their draft hand. The Steelers could make news signing CB Sam Madison and still need a safety of the future. Perhaps they pick a safety project in a later round if they are sure about the free agent acquisition, but the Steelers are more than one or two defensive backs short of a 2006 team.


Center of the cap problem
March 4, 2006


The Pittsburgh Steelers are doing their best to squeeze under the cap, but with no CBA extension, they will struggle to play at all in free agency.

After letting QB Tommy Maddox and CB Willie Williams go (and Jerome Bettis retire), the Pittsburgh Steelers had enough room to tender offers to WR Sean Morey and CB Ike Taylor. While those moves place the Steelers on the right side of the cap, they would have no ability to sign or re-sign certain players they need to fill out the roster.

For the sake of chasing a player such as DE Brett Keisel, the organization is busy trying to restructure the contracts of RB Duce Staley, OC Jeff Hartings and OC Chukky Okobi. Reworking Staley's deal is a coup because cutting him would result in no cap savings.

The situation is very different for Hartings and Okobi. Cutting either center would result in considerable cap savings for the Steelers to use for signing new players, but cutting both would result in a glaring hole along an offensive line that helped pave the way to a Super Bowl victory.

Complicating matters is the CBA extension impasse. If the NFL and NFLPA can agree, then the Steelers can expect another $10 million in cap room. Restructuring either center's contract is less of a priority. However, with no CBA extension, the Steelers will be desperate to get a deal done that will provide considerable cap relief.

Ideally, the Steelers won't have to cut anyone else in order to free up some cap room.

The key to this tricky negotiation is to land one, preferably Okobi. If Okobi's deal is more cap-friendly, the Steelers gain leverage with Hartings and his agent. If need be, the Steelers will cut Hartings and start Okobi. They could also find another starter in the draft or in free agency given that Okobi's new numbers will allow him to be a backup for another season.

Collusion between Hartings and Okobi would be a nightmare for GM Kevin Colbert. Without reducing Hartings' cap hit, Okobi would know that he would be Plan A for the center position in 2006. And without redoing Okobi's deal, Hartings knows the Steelers have no fallback plan. Either one is cut at any time, the other one gains the upper hand in his own negotiations.

The Steelers could cut both and try their luck in free agency, but that would be losing two players to gain one. With such a tight cap budget, the Steelers have to make sure they can sign enough players to field a competitive roster.

But Okobi and Hartings are playing a risky game. If they don't land a deal before the CBA is extended, if an agreement between players and management is possible, the added cap room will weaken their positions.

If push does come to shove, cutting Hartings makes the most sense. He is due a roster bonus of $750,000 on March 8th. Regardless of the extra cap space, the Steelers are loathe to tie up so much money in the two centers. Hartings offers the most cap relief and the Steelers may find a cheaper alternative out on the open market.

Would the Steelers be comfortable with a new starting center in 2006? To date, the answer would seem to be no. The team has shown little faith in Okobi, while overlooking Hartings' degenerative knee condition. The only thing keeping Okobi a Steeler is the possibility of a new deal with Hartings.


CBA madness
March 3, 2006


Confused? That isn't surprising considering all the conflicting information floating around in the media right now concerning the disagreement between the NFL and NFLPA. The Dirt breaks down the situation.

We've discussed the revenue-sharing debate. Certain owners are making a lot more money than others. The "poor" owners are looking for a little help dealing with escalating player salaries while the "rich" owners claim that they shouldn't be penalized for managing their finances better.

We haven't discussed the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). If reports are to be believed, everything is settled save the percentage of total revenues earmarked for the players. The NFL is offering 56.2%. The NFLPA wants 60%. To date, no compromise is imminent and talks have broken down.

In this disagreement, the players look greedy. Fans have been through this before with the NFL, MLB, and NFL. Players leave town for bigger contracts, but then complain that they aren't getting their fair share. Fans either cannot or will not understand how millions of dollars per year are not enough.

Before we explore the complicated matter of linking the revenue-sharing debate with the CBA debate, let's look at the 3.8% difference currently holding up the show and creating the anxiety among fans.

The players are angling for a greater share of revenues. That number is expressed each year in the cap limit. Meaning, each team is limited as to how much money they can allocate to all their players. This keeps players' contracts in line with how much money the NFL makes.

The new CBA will change the definition of revenues at stake for the calculation of the salary cap. The old CBA limited the amount of revenue the players could share, which is termed "designated gross revenue" (DGR). The new CBA uses "total football revenue" (TFR), which is all the money the entire NFL makes each year, including local revenues.

Looking at the 2006 cap numbers helps to understand the difference between DGR and TFR. The current cap number is set at $94.5 million, using the DGR. Using the TFR, the cap would be about approximately $105 million (some estimates are as high as $110 million).

The Dallas Morning News offered an explanation. They calculated the TFR for the 2005 season to be around $6 billion, resulting in a cap increase of 30%. Moving from the DGR to the TFR is a huge gain for the players, if you accept the numbers of the Dallas Morning News.

There is reason to believe that the TFR number of $6 billion is credible. Using that amount, the 3.8% difference between the NFL and the NFLPA equals $228 million. Divide that up by 32 teams and the individual cap would increase a little over $7 million.

In other words, the NFLPA's offer would allow each team $7 million more in cap room than the NFL's offer. The NFL would rather see an uncapped year than swallow that increase?

Please understand that the NFLPA is proposing that each team have $7 million more to spend on the players per year than what the NFL wants. Granted that moving to the TFR number already provides the players with a significant salary gain, but an extra $130,000 per player doesn't look like too much more money.

Furthermore, teams are not required to max out the cap each year. The Buffalo Bills don't have to spend $7 million more on their players if they don't want to do so. There isn't any controversy here.

Then what is all the fuss about?

The move from the DGR to the TFR is tougher on teams that make less in local revenues. League revenues, the primary source of the DGR number, are split equally among all 32 teams. However, the TFR brings all local revenues under consideration, which is not divided equally among 32 teams.

In the new CBA, as in the old CBA, all teams share the same cap number. But "richer" teams will have more money to spend on players than the "poorer" teams. Under the old agreement, this disparity was minimized. 56.2% or 60% of TFR doesn't make much difference to the poorer teams. Switching from DGR to TFR does.

With that in mind, the NFLPA should take the 56.2% offer and run. They are still getting a huge pay increase. An extra 3.8% is small relative to the gain earned through switching to the TFR. Given the information we have, there is no reason for the NFLPA to be stubborn.

The problem is elsewhere.

Some owners, such as Dan Rooney, are tying a new revenue-sharing agreement to the switch to the TFR number. Lost in the negative publicity aimed at Gene Upshaw and the NFLPA is that the NFL owners have not yet agreed upon how to share, if at all, local the local revenues that will now be included in determining how much money the players will receive.

The real mystery is why the NFLPA seems to care about any revenue-sharing agreement between the owners. Why should a player care if a small-market team can compete with a large-market team for his services?


Cowher era coming to an end?
February 28, 2006


Jerome Bettis punctuated his career in the best way possible, winning the Super Bowl. Bill Cowher is poised to go one better, grabbing a second Lombardi Trophy before his career as an NFL head coach ends after the 2007 season.

Bill Cowher signed his last contract extension after a miserable 6-10 season. Current thinking is that Cowher could break the bank on the heels of two great seasons as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, assuming Cowher wants to come back.

Cowher is looking to get out of Pittsburgh, at least as a resident. Cowher and his wife Kaye secured a million dollar home in Raleigh, NC, following the thousands of economic refugees who left Western Pennsylvania over the past few decades for sunnier climes.

During the long stretch of Cowher's tenure as head coach of the Steelers, which started in 1992, many critiques referred to his ability to shine during the regular season but flop in the playoffs. After failing to win the AFC Championship, again, after the 2001 season, Steelers fans began thinking about life without Cowher.

Despite those shortcomings and a dismal regular season in 2003, the team ownership extended Cowher through the 2007 season. This coincides with his youngest daughter's, Lindsay, junior year at Fox Chapel. Bill Cowher, a fixture at Fox Chapel girls basketball games, wouldn't miss her senior year, making a move anywhere else unlikely.

A one-year extension to Cowher's current deal would be conspicuous, to say the least. But Cowher could simply retire from the NFL and take a year off to reflect on his future occupation.

Consider Cowher's coaching career complete, at least at the professional level. He made noise before and after the Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks about making good on his promise to the Rooneys when they hired him to bring another championship to Pittsburgh. Mission accomplished.

Cowher could retire now and end up in the Hall of Fame. Anything above and beyond the 2006 season is gravy. Purchasing a home in Raleigh at this stage of his career (they already own a summer home off the coast of North Carolina) only reinforces this sense of closure.

The Cowhers can return to the place where they met, North Carolina State University. Current college football head coach, Chuck Amato, is often mentioned as a replacement for Joe Paterno (Penn State) or Bobby Bowden (Florida State), when those two giants retire. Bigger things await Amato than Wolfpack football.

While Steelers fans are dreaming of the beginning of another dynasty, it appears Bill Cowher is busy setting the stage to follow Jerome Bettis off into the sunset.


Free Chris Hope
February 28, 2006


At the NFL Combine, the Pittsburgh Steelers showed considerable interest in Ohio State safety Donte Whitner. Like Hope, Whitner is a strong safety who projects as a free safety in Bill Cowher's scheme.

The prototypical defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers is a player who can support one of the best run defenses in the league. The Steelers have drafted college safeties and converted them into cornerbacks (Chad Scott). They have even drafted a linebacker and played him at safety (Carnell Lake).

The Steelers don't draft a large cornerback in order to match up against some of the bigger receivers in the league. They draft a hybrid defensive back who can take down a running back in the open field.

You might think of the 3-4 base alignment as 3 defensive linemen with 8 linebackers (or 8 strong safeties) playing behind them. Outside linebackers are often asked to engage in pass coverage while the defensive backs commonly fill rushing lanes or play up close to the line of scrimmage.

As Chris Hope's departure becomes a sure thing, don't look for a ballhawking centerfielder to replace him. Instead, keep your eyes on versatile strong safeties or cornerbacks who can hit.

Enter Donte Whitner, a safety for The Ohio State University. One NFL scout compared Whitner to Mike Doss, starting strong safety for the Indianapolis Colts. A better match may be the Colts' free safety, Bob Sanders.

Sportswriter Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is one of the best sources for reliable prospect information. McGinn has cultivated relationships with a number of general managers, pro personnel directors and scouts in the NFL. The highlights of his draft coverage are actual quotes from these talent evaluators, allowing a glimpse into how various teams view the upcoming rookie class.

Concerning Whitner, McGinn quoted one scout as saying, "He's a short in the box type safety. He's tough as hell. He doesn't have great range."

Does that sound like an ideal free safety to you? The Steelers think he could replace Hope. The front office wouldn't draft a safety so high on Day 1, Whitner to go somewhere in the first two rounds, to back up strong safety Troy Polamalu.

Polamalu was also considered as an "in the box type safety" coming out of USC. What he does with the Steelers defies description. He's all over the field, which can leave him in compromising positions.

Polamalu as a rookie was unable to replace Mike Logan as the starting strong safety, leaving many fans wondering why the Steelers moved so aggressively up in the first round in order to draft him. These same fans overlooked Polamalu's presence in the nickel and dime packages, providing a glimpse of how the coaches planned to use him in the future, as a toy to disrupt the opposition's passing game.

This scheme places more run support responsibility on the free safety, which should have suited Chris Hope's game. Opinions on Hope's effectiveness vary, but critiques of his defensive skills against the pass are unfair.

In order to measure Hope's value, consider the Steelers' ability to stop the run when aligned in a nickel package. That data might be hard to come by, but running backs would gain yards by the chunks when the opposition offered a passing look (three or more wide receivers), forcing Pittsburgh out of its base defense.

Don't let Whitner's alleged lack of range scare you off. Polamalu's is more than enough for both of them. The issue is run support, something McGinn's inside contacts will tell you is Whitner's strength and why he is considered one of the top 50 prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.


Drafting in the deepest pool
February 25, 2006


The NFL Combine is in full swing and fans of every team are thinking about the draft, still two months away. The general manager of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kevin Colbert, is front and center, evaluating the depth of various positions.

GM Kevin Colbert keeps his plans to himself. He does drop a few hints here or there, but guessing which players he is targeting isn't an easy task. He doesn't mind making a few observations about the draft class, saying what every general manager in the NFL already knows.

The wide receiver crop is particularly weak this year, Colbert noting that all the underclassman coming out last year left little for this year's draft. If the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to replace free agent Antwaan Randle El, they might have to do so early in order to secure someone talented.

On the other hand, Colbert raves about the group of linebackers coming out this year, "It's strong at the top and strong in the middle. I think there will even be some kids you'll get on the second day who will be contributors, if not starters."

Rick Gosselin, of the Dallas Morning News, agrees, "At first glance, I also like the crop of middle linebackers in this draft. There seems to be an abundance of big, smart, productive players at the position."

A strong linebacker class doesn't come around all that often and the Steelers have an aging corps that you could use a fresh infusion of youth, particularly after Kendrell Bell's promising career in Pittsburgh came to a crashing halt.

Colbert will chase a linebacker at some point, but the depth of talent allows him to wait. There will be other needs as the free agency picture clears and personnel guys on the South Side are not afraid to fill those spots with promising rookies, as opposed to expensive veterans.

Gosselin is also excited about the tight ends available in this draft, but the Steelers already scored picking up Heath Miller last April, demonstrating that Colbert will grab value over need if the opportunity presents itself. But Colbert has also shown that he isn't afraid to be aggressive, moving up to grab the player he covets.

The Steelers can wait and see which linebackers fall to them. If the right guy isn't there at the end of the first round, another player will be available in a later round. However, the Steelers may determine that one of the linebackers is special, like they did with Bell, and thus more willing to make a move in order to secure him.

Clouding the draft picture are the needs developing at wide receiver, free safety, defensive end, and possibly running back. Concerning that position, Gosselin has already mentioned UCLA's Maurice Drew, who could replace Verron Haynes as the third-down back and WR Antwaan Randle El at punt returner. Of course, that would mean that the Steelers would go running back on Day 1, which may not be the best idea, letting need overrule the best player available.

The Dallas Cowboys are also in the market for a free safety. Gosselin wouldn't mind Dallas chasing USC safety Darnell Bing in the first round (the Cowboys pick 18 th). Bing has great coverage skills and may be able to step in right away for a departed Chris Hope. The Steelers could also solve this problem in free agency, which would fall in line with past performance.

Given the weakness of the wide receiver class, there is little to stop Colbert from picking a linebacker on Day 1. The Steelers do not have any glaring needs that free agency couldn't solve, even for a team pushed up against the salary cap. In just two months, we will find out who will become part of the next generation of great linebackers to play in Pittsburgh.


Throwing the Steelers under the Bus
February 23, 2006


What could go wrong for the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006? While Steelers fans sweat the looming departure of Chris Hope and Antwaan Randle El, RB Jerome Bettis reminded everyone that Pittsburgh's fortune is still tied to the battle in the trenches.

In 2003, the Pittsburgh Steelers finished with a 6-10 record. The offensive line was missing LT Marvel Smith, QB Tommy Maddox returned to earth, and head coach Bill Cowher was strangely in love with his passing attack. That was a dismal season for RB Jerome Bettis.

Fortune would swing wildly the next year, with rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger leading the Steelers to a 15-1 finish. Smith would return to the starting lineup, anchoring an offensive line that started UDFA Keydrick Vincent at right guard and journeyman Oliver Ross at right tackle.

Ross didn't impress anyone in 2003 and Vincent was a disappointment for the Baltimore Ravens in 2005, defending himself with the claim that their offense didn't suit his style of play. The Steelers did enjoy stability along the offensive line during the 2004 season, but the entire right side didn't prove to be anything special.

There should be some question as to whether Smith or Roethlisberger is more important to the success of the Steelers. When either player has been absent or banged up, Pittsburgh usually struggles. No one understands this better than Bettis.

During a conference call earlier this week, Bettis described the Steelers' most pressing problem to address during the off-season:

"I think first of all they need depth at the offensive line position. There is also the question about is Jeff Hartings going to continue. I think you have to think long-term and start grooming somebody. All around there are not a lot of key areas, depth is definitely the issue."

Bettis killed any speculation that Chukky Okobi is the heir apparent at center. Okobi is due $2 million in salary this coming season, too much money for a backup. The Steelers will need to cut him, while restructuring Hartings' deal before his $750,000 bonus is due (March 8 th). Of course, the Steelers can easily cut Okobi because they gave him such a small signing bonus, not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Behind Smith at left tackle is Trai Essex, arrested at a Miami nightclub for disorderly conduct on Monday. The offensive line struggled when Essex was forced to play in Smith's place during the 2005 season. While he was just a rookie, the Steelers were desperate to press a less-the-healthy Smith into service when the team was on the verge of elimination from the playoffs.

The Steelers thought very highly of Essex and fellow first-year lineman Chris Kemoeatu. Neither would distinguish themselves, with Kemoeatu rarely dressing on game day, despite the poor play of right guard Kendall Simmons. Neither impressed Bettis.

Of course, one could argue that Roethlisberger is the main difference between 6-10 and 15-1. Smith started at left tackle against the Jacksonville Jaguars this past season, with Maddox in for Roethlisberger. Maddox was horrible and the Steelers would lose a game that almost ended up costing them an appearance in the playoffs.

Roethlisberger can slide around enough to compensate for a bad offensive line, but Bettis was likely thinking about the running game. RB Willie Parker could do plenty of damage, if he could find a hole. The rushing attack wasn't the cornerstone of the offense during the playoffs, with Parker effectively bottled up. Parker set a record for the longest run in Super Bowl history, but he did little else during that game.

The Steelers were able to ride the arm of Roethlisberger during the playoffs. Smith didn't look healthy during this run, but the coaches still thought he was a much better option than Essex. There are no votes of confidence for the second string offensive linemen, setting up a scenario that could look similar to the 2003 season. Cowher will once again turn heavily toward the passing game and the Steelers could endure another reversal of fortune.

Don't expect the Steelers to weather a host of injuries on the line like the Patriots did after their most recent Super Bowl victory. Losing your left tackle is difficult for any team, but Pittsburgh is joined at the hip with Smith. If he misses more than 6 games, the Steelers won't have much of a chance at the playoffs.

Can Roethlisberger carry this team? We may find out next season. Regardless, the Steelers will need a body behind Hartings. Okobi isn't the answer and Hartings' knees won't hold up forever.


Rich man, poor man
February 22, 2006


A new revenue-sharing plan between NFL teams is holding up the renegotiation of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Wealthy teams, like the Washington Redskins, would like to see the current plan stay as it is. Less fortunate teams, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, are arguing for something more equitable.

Rich Tandler, Editor-in-Chief of WarpathInsiders.com, made the case for the Redskins. Tandler claims that taking more money from team owner Dan Snyder could endanger paying off the stadium debt, forcing the team into a financial crisis. Any new revenue-sharing plan could end up being destructive, harming teams currently doing very well financially.

Despite such concerns, Steelers owner Dan Rooney makes the Dan Snyders of the NFL out to be the bad guys:

"There's about eight or 10 of the high-revenue clubs that seem to be united in a block. They want to keep the disparity. They want to knock us down and have us get up at the count of nine, so they can have another fight and knock us down again."

The revenue inequity in the NFL doesn't seem to be slowing down the Steelers, which makes Rooney look like a whiner. Do some NFL franchises need more money? Is Rooney the underdog here? The issue is the health of the league, not the profitability of certain "high-revenue clubs."

Forbes Magazine tracks NFL team valuations each year, ranking the franchises and discussing the business side of football. In 2004, the Redskins did indeed lead the league in revenues, $287 million. This number is the total amount of money a team brings in for all of its home games, after addressing stadium debt.

The Redskins are not facing a financial crisis if NFL teams shared revenue equally. The 2004 average revenue (again, after addressing stadium debt) was $188 million. The Steelers took in $182 million during that year. They don't stand to make much in the way of relative gain with an improved revenue-sharing plan.

Teams like the New York Jets ($172 million) and the New York Giants ($175 million) would appear to benefit from a new plan, but both teams side with the Redskins. Why would two teams that take in less revenue than the Steelers stand on the other side of the debate?

The intrigue concerns the various stadium deals negotiated around the league. The Giants have a lucrative agreement worked out that should considerably boost revenues for the team. They are protecting future assets.

Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is making bank off his team thanks to ample "premium seating" (e.g. suites and boxes) and large corporate sponsorships (e.g. stadium naming rights). Forbes reported that the owners of the Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, and the Cowboys are enjoying "double-digit returns" on their investments (after adjusting for inflation).

Why should teams that cleverly "maximize" their stadium revenues support teams that don't avail themselves of every avenue of profit?

Teams such as the Steelers could very easily price their local fan base out of the market. There is a question if cities like Pittsburgh or Buffalo could support increased premium seating and elevated ticket prices. Furthermore, local tax payers who helped foot the bill for a new stadium might not look kindly upon what would seem to be a much fatter pocket book for the team owner.

The NFL depends a great deal on their relationship with the average fan, but the owners do not, at least at first glance. The successful branding of the NFL includes teams that do not rank highly in terms of revenues. In this sense, Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder are getting a free ride. They also benefit from being located in a large market that supports a greater number of wealthy people who are willing to pay the price for a seat in a luxury suite.

While a new revenue-sharing deal may dampen the eye-popping returns for the owners of the wealthy teams, the future health of the NFL would improve. Believe it or not, Dan Rooney cares more about the league and the average fan than Dan Snyder. Snyder and Jones are hoping to take the money and run.


Around the AFC North
February 18, 2006


The Cincinnati Bengals are kings of the division, the Pittsburgh Steelers are reigning NFL champions, the Cleveland Browns are rebuilding, and the Baltimore Ravens are busy imploding. The 2006 AFC North battle is already taking shape and now is the time to put the Super Bowl hangover to bed.

Concerning the hornet's nest that is the Baltimore Ravens' clubhouse, this team has more problems than any other team in the division. Team stars Ray Lewis and Chris McAlister are top-notch NFL talents, but they made more news as locker room malcontents. Lewis wants a new contract and McAlister is not living up to his. Baltimore is loathe to accede to Lewis' wishes and the rumor mill is alive with word that Lewis was looking for a way out of Baltimore . There is tension between the team and both players, who could be getting ready for their last season as a Raven.

Last off-season, the Ravens were pitching themselves as Super Bowl contenders, but like the promise of the 46 defense, that was hype. The team has figured out some of the issues at wide receiver, only to see weaknesses at running back, at quarterback, and on the offensive and defensive line continue to haunt them once again in 2006.

As a result, the ownership effectively emasculated head coach Brian Billick and stated that QB Kyle Boller would have to compete with a veteran for the starting job. But there wasn't a housecleaning. The organization is still caught between the team that won the Super Bowl a few years back and the one currently trying to forge its own identity.

The Ravens are poised for a tailspin. The team has too much talent to start from scratch, but too many holes to figure that a quick fix would dramatically turn things around. Just when you think Boller and the other players are putting it all together, the Ravens go and lose to the Cleveland Browns.

The Cleveland Browns were more willing to make a break with past than the Ravens and they could take a step out of last place in the division if they can rebuild the defensive line. The bleeding in Cleveland won't end until the Browns can stop the run, something the Ravens still have going for their team.

The Browns have plenty of cap room to make a number of high-profile signings in free agency, but the team isn't a player or two away from contending. GM Phil Savage will likely avoid overpaying aging stars, instead targeting promising players coming off of their rookie contract.

Of course, there is also the draft, which has been an unmitigated disaster since the NFL returned to Cleveland . However, there have been better years to pick a stud at defensive tackle or defensive end. The Browns might be better off raiding Baltimore 's kitchen, stealing away Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Anthony Weaver.

Regardless, Savage has to hit a few home runs in the draft. That's how he helped Baltimore stay competitive when he worked for the Ravens. Do the Browns go boldly after Haloti Ngata? They could do a lot worse.

If the front office can solve the problems with the run defense, don't overlook this team in 2006.

The Cincinnati Bengals are one or two players away from contending for the Super Bowl. They could throw more money at S Chris Hope than the Steelers are willing to spend and they could line the coffers of DT Grady Jackson. The Bengals have options.

They also have locker room issues.

WR Chad Johnson is an NFL star, but his halftime tirade in the playoff game against the Steelers is a bad omen. The Ravens have the worst team chemistry in the division, but the Bengals didn't show much down the stretch, resting on the laurels of the AFC North championship. Add to that WR Chris Henry's off-the-field problems and QB Carson Palmer's season-ending knee injury, 2006 got off to an ominous start.

Those issues aside, the Bengals have drafted well. They have the most talent in the division. Their offensive line offers some of the best pass protection in the league. Cincinnati should continue to score plenty of points as long as Palmer fully recovers.

Then again, the Bengals benefited from turnovers, which tends to vary from year-to-year. A big swing backwards could be in the offering. They play a tough first-place schedule and character-issues aren't going to go away.

Will Cincinnati change draft strategy? A volatile locker room might demand a review of this approach. The Bengals have yet to prove that they handle adversity very well.

As for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you should ask the Answer Man.


Staley best mind his jewelry
February 17, 2006


Will Duce Staley step in and replace Jerome Bettis as the short-yardage closer in the Steelers' offense? Don't be so certain. Staley's story is starting to read a lot like Kendrell Bell's.

LB Kendrell Bell's career as a Steeler is still shrouded in mystery. During the 2002 season, his injuries were much worse than the team let on, something painfully evident during a game in Pittsburgh against the Cincinnati Bengals. Bell could barely walk during that game, but not one single reporter commented on how he struggled to get off the field after the play was blown dead.

The playoffs revealed, without a doubt, that Bell was playing thanks to painkillers. He was all over the place in the thrilling victory over the Cleveland Browns, but then he was unable to play against the Tennessee Titans, when LB Larry Foote spent the game bouncing off of QB Steve McNair.

Bell swore off painkillers before the 2004 season, but the Steelers hardly played him after that. Foote was the starter and Bell was on his way out of town. The Steelers acted as if Bell wasn't healthy enough to play, but that didn't seem to stop them in 2002.

RB Duce Staley's current situation has some similarities to Bell's. Under the cloak of injury, Staley was inactive. Staley would return to the field, but that experiment didn't last long. Staley replaced Verron Haynes on the active roster against the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals.

Staley was ineffective in both of those games and there were rumors that he made a few critical mistakes, which landed him back in street clothes. Haynes regained his job and the Steelers wouldn't lose another game.

All the while, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has fallen madly in love with RB Willie Parker. Staley was brought in to replace Bettis, and now Parker has replaced them both. Suddenly, Parker looks like a one-man wrecking crew.

Bettis is now gone and Haynes is a free agent. The main question about Staley has been his health. But don't forget that he was benched for poor play. The Steelers tried to use Staley as a replacement for Haynes, but they clearly didn't like what they saw. However, the injury story would allow the team to release Staley without really saying he's lost it.

The problem isn't simply Staley's play and his health. His salary goes from $665,000 in 2005 to $2.5 million in 2006, which is too much money for a guy the Steelers don't think is better than Verron Haynes.

The Steelers could cut Staley, breaking even in terms of cap hit, but that would leave them without any running backs under contract. After June 1st would be more likely, when Staley's release would provide significant cap relief that could be used for an extension or to help sign the rookie class.

Meanwhile, Staley's situation keeps getting stranger. The first story described Staley losing $100,000 worth of jewelry in a nightclub during an altercation. Staley would later deny that he was involved in any altercation and that he only lost his bracelet, outside of a "gentleman's club" in Columbia, SC.

Is everything right in Staley's world?

Staley's position with the Steelers is tenuous enough. He doesn't need to give the organization another reason to release him. Already, the gaping hole at running back looks larger.

The Steelers will get Parker under contract, but Staley doesn't offer the team any peace of mind in terms of depth, short yardage, or third down. Pittsburgh doesn't have a lot of spare cap room to throw around at free agents and there are other positions that need attention.

Staley's recent negative publicity only serves to highlight that the Steelers are going fishing for a running back on day 1 of the NFL draft.


Vindicating Bill Cowher
February 15, 2006


Please pardon my blasphemy, but the Steelers fans over at Stillers.com are suffering from an identity crisis. Long home to the most scathing criticisms of the Pittsburgh Steelers and head coach Bill Cowher found in the entire world of fan sites, the membership is struggling to reconcile a Super Bowl victory with an exhaustive negative assessment of the organization.

This tension highlights the questions concerning where Cowher and the Steelers will go from here, the pinnacle of the National Football League.

1) What is the Cowher Way and are we fans now stuck with it?

With a fifth Super Bowl trophy now safely in the confines of Pittsburgh, fans are actually apologizing to Bill Cowher. Some believed (and likely still believe) that Cowher's qualities as a head coach were insufficient for bringing home a championship. However, you would have a hard time convincing anyone of this point after the victory parade.

Fairly or not, many fans perceive Cowher as a motivational coach who doesn't thrive on out-thinking his opponent. He employs a conservative approach, which favors veterans over rookies, sometimes at the expense of talent. And he'd rather eat up some clock and kick a field goal than roll the dice and go for a touchdown.

The result is an impressive number of regular season wins, but an epic choke job in the big game. Cowher is now 2-4 in AFC Championship games. The fact that he has been in 6 of them is impressive enough, but most fans see this as a bottom-line business. When it counts and the pressure is on, Cowher tends to flop.

Captured on NFL Films, Ben Roethlisberger implores his coach during the Super Bowl to stay aggressive offensively, which lends credence to the fan complaints about Cowher‘s propensity to "turtle" during the second half of a close football game. Cowher's philosophy seems to be one of not losing the game, instead of figuring out how to win.

Now Cowher is on top of the football world. If he did indeed win it all his way, we should expect more of the same in the future.

2) Is Bill Cowher or Ben Roethlisberger more important to the success of the Steelers?

In a recent premium content column in the Dallas Morning News, a Cowboys fan compared Ben Roethlisberger unfavorably to Troy Aikman based on Super Bowl performances, "To me, he's overrated." Sports journalist Rick Gosselin cited Roethlisberger's impressive list of accomplishments at such a young age. When Aikman was 23, he was 0-11 as a starter.

Gosselin contends that the quarterback is the difference maker. Great quarterbacks make great coaches, not the other way around. If Gosselin can't convince you of this, perhaps Tommy Maddox against the Jacksonville Jaguars would. If Cowher has learned anything, he's learned that you can't trust your quarterback.

Roethlisberger has changed everything. The buzz during the playoffs was Cowher's surprising reliance on Roethlisberger's arm during the first half of the game. Cowher has relied on his running game for most of his career and if that failed, the Steelers were usually cooked.

When Roethlisberger struggled in the big game, the Steelers had that familiar playoff look. They stumbled in the role of big game favorite and they appeared to buckle under the weight of expectations. Then there was Roethlisberger trying to keep Cowher from returning to his old ways.

3) What can we expect the Steelers to do during the off-season as they reload for 2006?

Cowher has a franchise quarterback and a Super Bowl ring. The team and its fans are in uncharted waters. What was recently a predictable off-season is now a struggle to stay on top. Forget finding players who fit in with Cowher and his ball control approach to winning the game. The Steelers will look to compliment Roethlisberger's game.

In this sense, retaining Antwaan Randle El would seem to be much more important than re-signing Chris Hope. Better yet, the Steelers could fulfill Roethlisberger's request to draft WR Martin Nance. Randle El wasn't picked with this franchise QB in mind.

Emerging are dinosaurs from Cowher's days mitigating the shortcomings of Kordell Stewart, Neil O'Donnell and Tommy Maddox. Pass blocking become more important than run blocking. Willie Parker becomes more useful than Jerome Bettis.

Don't go looking for the next Bus or the heir apparent to Alan Faneca. Instead, think about how the Seattle Seahawks befuddled Roethlisberger and how the Steelers might solve that riddle with new personnel.

Meanwhile, the anti-fans at Stillers.com should take heart. Roethlisberger will have a few more bad games in the future and the old Cowher will rear his ugly chin. Odds are that the Steelers will fall short next season and we will once again smugly point fingers.

Just as a losing season in New England will remind the press corps that Bill Belichick is a jerk, Cowher forgetting whose team this really is will inflame his worst critics. But Cowher won't likely be the problem over the next few seasons.

Beating Stillers.com to the punch, we should start a weekly "Big Head Ben" watch. Cowher may have killed his demon, but now Roethlisberger has the Yuk Monkey on his back. The big-game-choke haunted Cowher, and now fans are waiting to see which quarterback shows up to the Super Bowl.


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