That's why Cowher's announcement Tuesday that running back Jerome Bettis may not be back next season was such a revelation.
Everyone had correctly assumed that Kordell Stewart, who has just one year remaining on his contract with a nearly $8-million salary cap hit, is going to be traded or released.
But Bettis, who has five years remaining on the contact extension he signed before the 2001 season, was thought to be untouchable. Apparently, the Steelers don't feel that way. The Bus has no trade value at this point in his career.
Bettis is scheduled to earn a base salary of $2.25 million next season and his signing bonus bumps his cap hit up to $3.25 million. Releasing or trading him will mean he will count $1.62 million against their salary cap next season, saving the Steelers $4.7 million against the cap. But because Bettis has five seasons remaining on his contract, the Steelers would almost certainly be forced to wait until after June 1 to release him, so that they could spread his signing bonus over the next two seasons. Even then, it would save the Steelers only $750,000 next season and $1.617 million in 2004 because Bettis' signing bonus of $2 million would be spread out over two seasons, even if he did not to play for them in 2003 and 2004.
It's not a huge savings, but it's a price the Steelers may be willing to pay. They obviously feel releasing him may be better than keeping a running back who is in an obvious downward spiral and has spent as much time on the injured list in the past two seasons as he has on the field.
Throw in the fact the Steelers have shifted the focus of their offense from a power running game to a more wide-open passing attack, and Bettis looks a lot like a square peg who would need to be pounded into a round hole next season.
But the release of Bettis would be a sad moment in Pittsburgh sports history. Bettis has been an ambassador for the city and is easily the most recognizable player on the team. He's played through injuries that other players would have sat out the season with. He's been a professional in everything he's done since coming here in a draft-day trade in 1996.
If Bettis is indeed done in Pittsburgh, ideally, he would walk away under his own terms. Unfortunately, Bettis isn't ready to retire, saying Monday he plans to be here in 2003 for what would be his 11th season.
"I expect to come (to training camp) as a football player," Bettis said. "I've never expected to come in and assume the job is mine. I've always told the guys behind me to take my job. That's always been the attitude I've taken.
"I'll be there ready to rock. If somebody outworks me, then they should get it."
Amos Zereoue did that this season, out-gaining him 762 yards to 666. And there's nothing to show that would change in 2003.
It's a harsh reality to face, but a reality nonetheless.
-- Dale Lolley