After being forced out, Donahoe had a chance to become a consultant for the Dolphins, but the Steelers put the skids to that with their whining about how they would still be paying him for the last year of his contract. The Steelers did not want Donahoe, yet they also did not want him working for anyone else, knowing how valuable he was. Another casualty of Cowher's thirst for power was Max McCartney, who was a huge part of college scouting and was directly responsible for many of the players that are still on the team. McCartney was not part of the interview process for the position of Cowher's "pet".
The 2000 draft then became an issue when Kevin Colbert arrived and had to determine where Donahoe and McCartney had left off. Colbert's resume was less than impressive, having been the Lions Pro Scouting Director (1988-99) - a team with consistently low talent level and a record that reflected it. What Colbert did bring with him was a reputation for aggressively pursuing and keeping players that he wanted, perhaps the one trait that some people thought Donahoe was lacking. Also, being a native Pittsburgher, there was the assumption that he would at least fit into the community and organization as well as Tom Donahoe did. However, there was not much to base any hopes on that Colbert would be a better evaluator of talent than Donahoe.
Cowher and the new fill-ins of the Cowher Power front office drafted Plaxico Burress, Marvel Smith, Kendrick Clancy, Hank Poteat, Danny Farmer, Clark Haggans, Tee Martin, Chris Combs, and Jason Gavadza. Burress and Smith, the first two draft picks, both have had run-ins with the law since arriving. Burress was involved in an alcohol-related incident and Smith was involved in a "Bill Clinton-I did not inhale" dope incident. Ironically Clancy has appeared to be the classic "bad" Donahoe draft pick (good attitude, good technique, good training habits, too darn small). Farmer is in Cincinnati after having his lunch eaten every day at his rookie Steeler camp. Poteat has yet to prove he can stay out of the Cowher Dog House. Haggans has never been given a chance, for reasons we can only speculate about (lack of speed?). Martin has his bags packed to go someplace else. Gavadza is touring the NFL team by team. And here's the punch line - one of the first major free agent pick-ups in the new Colbert-Cowher club was the signing of Kent Graham to a 3-year, 5.1 million dollar contract.
Not a real good start for the new Cowher Power. The 2000 season started rough, with Kent Graham not knowing which way to go nor what to do if he finally got there. They sunk to 0-3 against an expansion Browns team. Graham looked bad, but Cowher did not wish to look bad, and so he stuck to his guns until Graham was "injured" in a game 4 loss to the Titans where Kordell Stewart came in and showed that he may just be a quality starter in the NFL after all. The quarterback issue was moot after Stewart led the Steelers to a win in game 5 against the Jaguars. The Steelers finished the season at 9-7, after a 0-4 start, and had managed to come close to making the playoffs after a very good second half with Kordell Stewart as the starter.
Early in 2001, the Steelers announced that Omar Khan would become the business coordinator (chief contract negotiator and salary cap manager) for the organization. The youthful Khan had a reputation as a hardworking positive whiz kid in the New Orleans Saints organization and the Steelers lured him to Pittsburgh, signing him to a contract on his 24th birthday. Khan "grew up" with the salary cap. In Omar Khan, the Steelers felt they had someone who would face the cap on its own terms rather than evading it. With Khan's innovativeness coupled with the support and broad knowledge of chief consul Art Rooney II, the front office set out on the task of securing a roster that would keep the team competitive for years without mortgaging the future.
The new front office team was now set and the Steelers were ready to make the player changes that would get them back into the playoffs again. Cowher and Colbert had, by now, worked together for a season and were on the same page as far as draft needs were concerned, or so we hoped. There were also some veteran player changes that were going to have to be made, and the revamped front office would have to seriously look into the free agent pool for some talent.
The 2001 off-season started with fan-favorites Levon Kirkland and Dermontti Dawson being let go. Bill Cowher was signed to a 3-year contract extension in July. The Steelers entered the draft with obvious needs. Kendrick Clancy was not a starting-quality nose tackle and the Steelers finally addressed the need by drafting workmanlike Casey Hampton in the first round. Hampton was a player who many projected as a second round pick but was perfect for the 3-4 nose tackle position. But, not only did team Cowher Power get what looked to be the nose tackle they'd needed since Joel Steed, they did it while not tipping their hand and actually moving down a few slots in the first round. Hampton began the season as a backup and within weeks became the full-time starter. The Cowher-Colbert two-headed monster struck again in the second round when they traded up to get Kendrell Bell, and the Defensive Rookie of the Year has yet to disappoint. Three of the last 5 draft picks of that draft are still on the team. Moving Holmes over, and Bell coming in and starting right away solved the problem of replacing Kirkland. The overdue replacement of Joel Steed was accomplished with Hampton. Free agent OG Jeff Hartings was brought in and moved to center to replace Dawson. It looked like all the bases were being covered. Suddenly, Steeler fans knew that the front office Civil War was over and the Reconstruction had begun.
With many fans feeling good about the draft and the start of the 2001 season, of course the Steelers started off like the past years - disappointing. The Jacksonville Jaguars handed Cowher and company their heads on a dinner plate with a 21-3 loss. The future did not look good, but the ship got righted and the Steelers' season ended with a 24-17 loss in the AFC Championship game. The Steelers finished with a regular season record of 13-3, which made all the decisions in the past look like brilliant moves. Offense and defense played very well, but the ship went down with the special teams. The special teams unit had shown all year that they could not be counted on, and the coaches made very few adjustments. Not long after the season ended, Jay Hayes, the special teams coach, was let go, and another former Cleveland coach, Kevin Spencer, was hired. Spencer's last job was coaching the Colts ST unit, which was ranked near the bottom of the league at 30KC/26PC.
However, the blame game did not end with Hayes, at least as far as the fans and media were concerned. Finger pointing was directed at players such as Troy Edwards, Kordell Stewart, Josh Miller, Jerome Bettis, Marvel Smith, and Rich Tylski. There was also criticism directed at offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey for calling a very predictable offensive game plan. And finally, Bill Cowher's inability to fix the ongoing special teams problems was much criticized after the loss. For a coach who had a special teams background and periodically made statements about his personal involvement in that area of the team, patience was running out for many fans.
Since the 1999 power play, the Steelers have been aggressive in derailing the free agent departure train and have kept many of the key players. In the last two years, only the loss of Orpheus Roye to Cleveland was a disappointment, as the Steelers did want to try to keep the DL intact. Meanwhile, with signings such as Kimo von Oelhoffen, Brent Alexander, and Jeff Hartings, the Steelers have been able to remain within the cap and at the same time upgrade some positions. Well, with Hartings there will be some huge salary increases in the next few years, but overall there is no cap nightmare looming over the horizon. Levon Kirkland and Dermontti Dawson were let go for reasons of age, health, and cap demands. It was quickly decided to move Earl Holmes over to Kirkland's RILB spot. It only took a matter of days into summer camp for the Steelers to know that they struck gold with Kendrell Bell and that he would be the starting LILB. The critical eye was turned on Holmes, and the front office ultimately decided that they could do better, at least as far as speed was concerned and also what looked like future nagging injury problems. And all the moves looked like a master plan that Cowher Power was coolly, calmly carrying out.
The last few years the Steelers have done a very good job in keeping their own, no one can say they have all been good signings as only the future holds that answer. The high draft picks have continued to develop, and all signs indicate that the past two years' draft picks are solid choices. All but 3 veterans that are still considered present and future starters are under contract through 2004 - Lee Flowers, Wayne Gandy, and Kordell Stewart. Their futures all hinge on this upcoming season and what their salary demands will be come February of 2003. Stewart will either be waived or extended after this season. The Steelers most likely will not be able to afford his salary after this season, and he could be on his way out with Flowers and Gandy. The team hopes to have replacements for Flowers and Gandy by next season.
There have been few changes this off-season. Jay Hayes, Earl Holmes, and Rich Tylski have been replaced, and many consider at least two of the replacements upgrades. Money was spent, players stayed, and Camp Cowher at this point looks to be just one long practice before the Monday Night game vs. the Patriots. It is a standard throughout the NFL that special teams are the worst in the first half of the season, with so many young players on the field. It will be interesting if Cowher takes the extra steps to insure a repeat of last year's collapse is avoided by using more veterans.
All the hard work by the Rooneys, Kevin Colbert, Doug Whaley, Bill Baker, Omar Khan, and Bill Cowher will be on display the next two seasons. This will be the report card of all the work and decisions they have made. If they succeed, they will all look like geniuses. If they fail, it will be pretty difficult for Cowher to escape being the lone goat of the blame game this time around. And more than a few will look back at the power play of 1999.