Steelers' focus on those who stayed
By Alan Robinson, Associated Press, 08/29/00
PITTSBURGH -- For a team that has long preferred continuity to constant transition, the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly embraced change following a second consecutive losing season that was as much an embarrassment as it was a disappointment.
It wasn't just who they lost to in 1999 -- AFC Central rivals Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland at home in a monthlong stretch, for example -- but how they lost. The offense couldn't pass and could barely run; the defense constantly broke down, once allowing three long touchdown catches in one quarter by a single player; and there were glaring deficiencies in leadership, discipline and team chemistry.
As a result, the quarterback is new. So is the director of football operations. The practice field is brand new and, less than a year from now, so will be the stadium.
The alterations began at the top, with Kevin Colbert replacing Tom Donahoe as director of football operations. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett left to coach the Saints. Also departing following a 6-10 season that saw the Steelers lose seven of their final eight were quarterback Mike Tomczak, who started the final five games; former Pro Bowl nose tackle Joel Steed; starting safety Travis Davis; Orpheus Roye, their best defensive lineman; linebacker Carlos Emmons; and starting guard Brenden Stai.
"This team lost its edge," coach Bill Cowher said. "And I lost my edge."
What Cowher didn't lose was his job. Despite 15 losses in the last 21 games, Cowher won a power struggle with Donahoe, whose resignation was accepted after he decided he wouldn't work with the intense Cowher for another season.
The biggest change is at quarterback. Kordell Stewart was benched after throwing only six touchdown passes in 11 games last season. Despite starting training camp as the starter, he lost it again to Kent Graham for Sunday's opener against Baltimore.
"I was stunned," said Stewart, who was signed to a $27 million contract extension only 18 months ago.
This is the third time in four years the less-than-mobile Graham has begun an NFL season as a starter. But he wasn't the starter by the end of the other two seasons with Arizona and the New York Giants. He seems more comfortable in coordinator Kevin Gilbride's complicated offense than Stewart, but his inability to scramble out of trouble could be a glaring deficiency as he lines up behind a reconstructed offensive line.
Cowher has said he will use both quarterbacks, but Stewart "has to win back the respect of his teammates, the coaches and of himself."
The same perhaps could be said of Cowher, who seemed distracted and uncertain how to cope with an unexpectedly bad season as his team constantly broke down around him. Owner Dan Rooney hasn't said Cowher's job is on the line, perhaps because he doesn't need to.
"Everybody needs to win every year," Rooney said. "We look at the situation every year as it develops and that's what we're going to do this year."
The preseason didn't offer many hints, if only because so many key players were injured.
Cowher wants to rely on the defense, the running game and special teams -- kicker Kris Brown and punter Josh Miller statistically were the NFL's best tandem last season -- to carry the Steelers until the passing comes around.
However, the keys to that running game, running back Jerome Bettis (knee) and center Dermontti Dawson (hamstring), again missed most of the preseason with injuries. Running back Richard Huntley also was hurt for much of camp, so most of the preseason carries went to backups who don't figure to play much. The recurring knee injury was a setback to Bettis, who is in a contract year and anticipates having a big season.
The offensive line, in a constant state of flux last season, also is much-altered. Second-round draft pick Marvel Smith takes over at right tackle, a position he has never played, and former Jaguars backup Rich Tylski starts at right guard.
The Steelers' last two first-round picks will start at receiver: rookie Plaxico Burress, who made several excellent catches in the preseason but had problems against physical cornerbacks, and Troy Edwards.
The defense looked much better during the preseason, with cornerback Chad Scott, a year removed from knee surgery, and linebackers Earl Holmes and Levon Kirkland playing well.
However, a defensive line that rarely mounted a consistent pass rush last year is a huge question mark with Roye and Steed gone. Defensive end Chris Sullivan, signed away from the Patriots, is injured and might miss the start of the season, forcing rookie Chris Combs, a sixth-rounder from Duke, to start. Second-year safety Scott Shields had an up-and-down camp.
Still, the defense's biggest problem might again be ... the offense.
After watching Stewart struggle to merely complete a pass this summer, safety Lee Flowers said, "Right now, our philosophy is that every time we're on the field, we've got to get the ball -- and score."
However, Kirkland, who is about 15 pounds lighter after playing the last two seasons at nearly 300, likes the energy, intensity, even the fighting he saw in camp.
"The last couple of years, we had a lot of excuses," he said. "It looks a lot better around here."