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Time for Steelers to change is now

Saturday, July 15, 2000

As the Steelers open training camp tomorrow, they need one thing just as badly as they need to regain the discipline and focus they so obviously lacked last season. They need one thing more than stability at quarterback. More than improvement on the offensive line.

The Steelers need change. Lots of it, too.

That change didn't come in the off-season. The Steelers made remarkably few alterations to a roster that was actually lucky to go 6-10 last year. So change has to come in training camp. It has to come quickly and it has to come decisively and it has to keep coming throughout the season if necessary.

Coach Bill Cowher has got to shove aside some established starters and start young players, even rookies. He has to try to pull potential out of less experienced players who still haven't reached their peak while benching veterans who have no room for improvement. Sure, those veterans might be marginally better right now. But when you're rebuilding -- which the Steelers are, whether their pride allows them to admit it or not -- you sometimes have to sacrifice today for the sake of tomorrow.

Case in point: Rookie wide receiver Plaxico Burress should be listed as a starter the day he signs and sets foot in camp. That very day. Burress was the second receiver taken in this year's NFL draft. He has marvelous skills. But those skills won't develop too quick sitting behind, say, Courtney Hawkins.

I flinched when the Steelers re-signed Hawkins in the wake of Will Blackwell's injury. OK, so Hawkins is only making the NFL minimum. Truth be told, he would be a decent backup.

But I flinched because I don't think Hawkins will be a backup. I think Cowher will plop Hawkins right back in the starting lineup because he knows the system. Because Cowher doesn't take chances with young players anymore. Because Cowher, sadly, plays it safe these days.

If Hawkins plays ahead of Burress because Hawkins knows the system, then maybe the problem is the system. The bloom has certainly disappeared from the rose of offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride after last season. Any system that can't be absorbed over the course of a preseason is too complicated.

You break from the line of scrimmage, you run, you make a move, you catch the ball. Timing has to develop between the quarterback and receiver, but really, a pass play is a simple thing. Burress, regardless of his knowledge of the system, has a penchant for catching footballs. For making plays.

So let him. Right away.

Cowher mangled the Joey Porter situation last year, using this promising outside linebacker very little in his rookie campaign despite a spectacular preseason. Why? Because he didn't know the system. What system? He's a pass-rushing linebacker. Tell him to go find the ball. But Cowher kept Porter on the bench while Carlos Emmons exploited his superior knowledge and experience by stinking up the joint on a weekly basis. By eating up snaps Porter could have used to improve.

It's a shame Cowher doesn't really put his heart into rebuilding properly because he knows how to do it. He did an amazing job of rebuilding after replacing Chuck Noll in 1992. That was easier, though, because Cowher didn't have to go through the embarrassment of correcting his own mistakes. The more dramatically he rebuilds this time around, the more he makes his recent decisions look bad.

The Steelers will start the season with Kordell Stewart at quarterback. They should, if only to justify the investment made in him. But Cowher should have zero patience with Stewart. Kent Graham should replace him the minute we see signs of S.O.S. -- Same Old Stewart.

Same deal at running back. Use Jerome Bettis at the beginning. But if the Bus can't get the motor running, start Richard Huntley. Don't hesitate.

That's the most frustrating thing about the Steelers. They lose and lose and lose and look more inept each week they do it. Yet the same players keep trotting onto the field game after game. After two consecutive bad seasons, the Steelers don't owe any players anything. Not starting jobs, not playing time, not even respect.

Cowher has often said he won't make change for the sake of change. OK, Coach. How about making change for the sake of not embarrassing yourself on an almost weekly basis?

This is a crossroads season for the Steelers as a franchise. If you stink for a season after a half-decade of being competitive, it's a fluke. Stink two seasons, it's a trend. Stink three seasons, you stink.

But this is even more of a crossroads season for Cowher. If the Steelers don't improve, Cowher is done. I'm kind of curious, however, as to what kind of improvement owner Dan Rooney wants. Does he want a better record? Will 7-9 or 8-8 placate him? Or will he tolerate another 6-10 year, or even a worse one, if the Steelers use young players and set the table for the future?

Mr. Rooney is a smart man. I think he wants to see the latter.

I'm not sure what Cowher wants. I do know he'll do exactly as he pleases, however.

Maybe for the last time.


Mark Madden's talk show is heard 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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