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Cook: It's Cowher vs. Donahoe again

Friday, January 12, 2001

Suddenly, the NFL is going to be a lot more fun to watch.

Thank you, Tom Donahoe.

Now that Donahoe is back in the game, as president and general manager of the Buffalo Bills, we'll find out once and for all who is the better football man -- Donahoe or Bill Cowher. I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see how it turns out.

My money was on Donahoe a year ago when Dan Rooney fired him as the Steelers' director of football operations. I thought Rooney made a horrible mistake siding with Cowher at the end of the long, bitter, franchise-damaging Donahoe-Cowher power struggle. Cowher had stayed here too long. He seemed to have lost his passion. Certainly, he lost the Steelers down the stretch in 1998 and 1999. It wasn't time for a new personnel man. It was time for a new coach.

A Donahoe-Jim Haslett team at the top of the Steelers?

That idea made sense to me long before Haslett went to New Orleans, walked on water and became Coach of the Year.

My money still is on Donahoe, although it's no longer such an obvious call.

Cowher made a nice comeback this season. He kept the Steelers together, first after an 0-3 start, then after a three-game losing streak at mid-season. They won four of their final five games and finished 9-7. It's a shame they fell just short of the playoffs. At the end, they were a playoff-caliber team.

Cowher even went out of his way to work well with Donahoe's successor, Kevin Colbert. Time will tell if they can bring the Steelers all the way back. It won't be easy. Key players such as Dermontti Dawson, Levon Kirkland and Jerome Bettis are aging or have a lot of miles. (There's no guarantee the team will be able to re-sign Bettis, an unrestricted free agent). Cowher/Colbert brought in some good mid-level free agents in Kimo von Oelhoffen, Rich Tylski and Brent Alexander, who made sizable contributions. But they must draft a lot better. It's pretty embarrassing when Dan Kreider -- an undrafted free agent from New Hampshire -- is your team's Rookie of the Year.

In any case, Cowher has turned up the pressure on Donahoe in their little competition.

I always thought Donahoe did some wonderful things for the Steelers. He helped keep the team competitive for a long time despite losing one free agent after another. His trade for Bettis ranks with Cam Bonifay's trade for Brian Giles and Craig Patrick's trade for Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson as the best in the city in the past decade, if not the best in franchise history. He brought in some nice free agents such as Kevin Greene, Wayne Gandy and Dewayne Washington. He drafted some good players in the middle or late rounds, including Darren Perry, Willie Williams, Lee Flowers and Orpheus Roye.

But Donahoe's history with No. 1 and No. 2 picks isn't so impressive. Of the Steelers' eight No. 1 picks during his watch from 1992-99, only Mark Bruener, Chad Scott, Alan Faneca and Troy Edwards remain with the team. Of their seven No. 2s, only Kirkland, Chad Brown and Kordell Stewart made a significant impact.

Can you say Jamain Stephens?

Not to bring back bad memories.

There also was Stewart's contract extension after the 1998 season. It might be a long time before the Steelers recover from that, although Stewart did, finally, play better in the second half of this season.

It always was unclear just how much power Donahoe had with the Steelers. There's no question Rooney had to sign off on all big-money decisions. Blame him for the Stewart contract and the big free-agent losses. But who had the final say in the draft and with the other free agents? Was it Donahoe or Cowher?

Rooney, Donahoe and Cowher always portrayed those as "team decisions."

There no longer is any such ambiguity with the Steelers. Cowher clearly answers to only Rooney. There also will be no gray area in Buffalo. Donahoe will hire the team's coach and make all the personnel decisions. He's the Bills No. 1 man.

All you have to do to judge Cowher and Donahoe now is look at the Steelers' and Bills' won-loss records.

The guess here is the Bills will be a bigger winner over the long haul than the Steelers, that Donahoe still will be working in Buffalo long after Cowher has moved on to his next job.

It really is going to be fascinating to watch.

Wouldn't you know the Steelers and Bills are going to play next season in Buffalo?

Do you think, maybe, Cowher, will want to win that game more than any other? Donahoe?

If the Steelers and Bills share even half that intensity, this much is certain:

It will be the game of the season.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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