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Madden: Steelers' demise is simple formula

Saturday, September 30, 2000

The debate rages: Why are the Steelers so terrible when they were in the AFC championship game three seasons ago? When they were in the Super Bowl just five seasons ago?

Speculation over the Steelers' plight ranges from the reasonable to the ridiculous, from the collapse of the quarterback position to the Rooney family's refusal to manipulate the salary cap. From the Steelers losing their own free agents to their apparent policy of not wooing other teams' free agents, except for the odd scrub.

But really, the debate has a simple, conclusive answer: The Steelers stink because of bad drafting and poor coaching.

Looking first at the Steelers' drafting inadequacies, consider the 30 players the team drafted from 1995-99. Only eight start. That's pitiful. In addition, none of those eight has made a Pro Bowl. Only one, linebacker Earl Holmes, is generally recognized as an impact player.

Ten of those 30 selections are backups. Twelve are no longer with the club. Tackle Jamain Stephens, the Steelers' first-round pick in 1996, was a total bust. Second-round picks such as Scott Shields, Jeremy Staat, Will Blackwell and Kordell Stewart are contributing minimally, if at all.

When the Steelers lose free agents, they always claim they can reload through the draft. For a long time that happened. Not anymore.

Four players that departed the Steelers via free agency are still legitimate standouts: Seattle linebacker Chad Brown, Jacksonville tackle Leon Searcy (who hasn't played this year because of injury), Baltimore defensive back Rod Woodson (badly overpriced at over $3 million) and Jacksonville LB Hardy Nickerson, who back in '93. Tennessee QB Neil O'Donnell would certainly help the Steelers, as would Titans receiver Yancey Thigpen. But even with all those guys, the Steelers might not make the playoffs. So forget the notion that free agency alone has made this team the dregs.

So, the Steelers' drafting has been terrible since 1995. But don't heap all the blame on Tom Donahoe, who was dismissed from his job as Steelers director of football operations this past off-season. The Steelers have always claimed to draft as a team. Blame the scouts and Coach Bill Cowher, too.

Speaking of Cowher, the Steelers' coaching has been no bonus for a long time, either.

Cowher took the Steelers' reins in 1992. His early staffs had plenty of standouts. Dick LeBeau, head coach at Cincinnati. Ron Erhardt, considered an offensive genius then. Dom Capers, defensive coordinator at Jacksonville and a former NFL Coach of the Year with Carolina. Marvin Lewis, defensive coordinator at Baltimore. Chan Gailey, offensive coordinator at Miami.

Cowher motivated. Those guys taught. It was a beautiful combination. The assistants made the players better, and Cowher made the players want to run through walls every Sunday.

But Cowher seems to be trying to reinvent himself as a calm, cool football genius a la Mike Shanahan. His motivational skills have diminished. To wit, the Steelers frequently find themselves falling behind early, an indication they aren't emotionally ready to play.

Cowher's current coaching staff is substandard. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is proving that the talent made him in Houston and Jacksonville, not vice versa. Offensive line coach Kent Stephenson is so feeble that he needs an assistant, Irv Eatman, under him. But Stephenson is a Cowher crony, so he's good as gold.

Cowher's staff certainly isn't. Some guys are OK. But Cowher's staff doesn't have any top-notch assistants. It hasn't had any in quite some time, save perhaps Jim Haslett, who left his job as Steelers defensive coordinator to become boss in New Orleans.

Few coaches want to work under Cowher because he's very demanding or impossible to get along with, depending on what you choose to believe. The result is a lousy staff. The result of having a lousy staff is precious little improvement by the players as individuals.

Guard Alan Faneca isn't as good now as he was as a rookie in 1998. Guard Brenden Stai started as a rookie on the Steelers' Super Bowl team in 1995 and was considered pretty good. He got worse until the Steelers let him go this past off-season. Tackle Kris Farris won the Outland Trophy as college football's top lineman in 1998, then came to Pittsburgh and got cut within two years. Mark Bruener is still a quality tight end, but he peaked statistically as a rookie in 1995 and seems to get less involved every year. Linebacker Mike Vrabel came to the Steelers as Ohio State's all-time sacks leader. He's switched positions a few times and accomplished nothing. Stewart played great in 1997. He's been the worst quarterback in football since.

If one of those players had failed to develop, that would be a fluke. Two or three would make you wonder. But when so many underachieve, when so many don't improve, that's bad coaching.

Everyone likes to blame the players. Everyone likes to boo the players. But it's not their fault. Bad players are what they are. They're bad.

Blame the people who put this woeful squad together. And blame the coaches for not making the Steelers improve as individuals. It really is that simple.

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