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Cowher's extension makes no sense now

Friday, July 13, 2001

What's next? A contract extension for Kordell Stewart? That would make about as much sense as the one the Steelers gave to Bill Cowher yesterday.

I mean, what's the rush?

It's not as if Cowher were going anywhere. He was signed for this season and next when the Steelers decided to give him three more years, meaning he will control their fate at Heinz Field at least through 2005.

And it's not as if Cowher automatically would become a free agent and sell himself to the highest bidder after the 2002 season even if the Steelers were to win the Super Bowl this season. He knows how lucky he is to have his job in his hometown. He is thankful his parents get to see him work at the home games. Even more important, they are getting to see his three daughters grow up. He's a strong family guy. He knows his girls are happy, settled and doing well in the Fox Chapel School District. He would be crazy to give that up for a slightly bigger contract elsewhere.

Yes, Cowher's price would go up if the Steelers are successful this season. But so what? The team should be glad to pay him more in a new contract under those circumstances. At least then it would know it still had the right man for the job. It can't be so sure now.

Not after three consecutive seasons of not making the playoffs.

Did you know only six of the NFL's other 30 teams failed to make the postseason during that same period? That includes the Cleveland Browns, who didn't start playing again until two years ago.

Did you also know each of those six teams made a coaching change during that time?

That isn't to suggest the Steelers should copy the Cincinnati Bengals and Chicago Bears. Heaven forbid they ever do that. Cowher doesn't deserve to be fired. Not after he kept the team together last season after an 0-3 start and kept it in the playoff chase until the final weekend. Not after his first six seasons were so enormously successful.

But it's no less ludicrous to give Cowher that big extension now. He would never reward mediocrity from his players. The team shouldn't reward it from him.

What happens if the Steelers go 6-10 this season? They couldn't replace Cowher even if they wanted because they'll still be into him for four more seasons. What happens if they lose again next season? They still couldn't make a change.

It really makes no sense.

It's enough to make you wonder what the Steelers would have done for Cowher if he had won the past three seasons.

Given him an ownership stake?

I repeat:

What's the rush with the extension?

"We're very comfortable with and very confident in Bill," Art Rooney II said. "Had things gone differently last season, maybe we would have taken a different approach. But we were very happy with the way Bill and the team responded. All things considered, he's still one of the best coaches in the NFL. Taking a chance on maybe having to bring someone new in here was not the direction we wanted to go."

Rooney mentioned "continuity" and "stability." He talked of avoiding the "distraction" of Cowher somehow going into the final year of his contract in 2002. And he made it clear he didn't blame him for the team's losing record in 1998 and '99. Of course, he and his dad had made that clear when they fired Tom Donahoe after the '99 season.

"Bill has established a very good working relationship with Kevin Colbert," Rooney said. "We like the direction this franchise is going ...

"Regardless of Bill's record in any season, he functions very well in our organization. We're a little different the way we approach free agency and sign players. Bill is right there on board with us. That's important."

What's most important is winning.

If Rooney thinks a lame-duck Cowher would be a distraction, he's not going to like what he sees at Heinz Field if the Steelers don't win this season.

The Pirates could tell him plenty about the agony of losing in a new home.

The Steelers don't look much like a team on the rise. Their best player, Jerome Bettis, is 29 and has taken a beating for eight NFL seasons. Dermontti Dawson and Levon Kirkland are gone. Who knows if Jeff Hartings and Mike Jones will pick up that slack? The receivers still must prove they can catch the ball.

Then, there's Stewart.

Rooney said he is more sure than ever Stewart is the Steelers' guy. It's a good thing because the team still is into him for a big contract through the 2003 season. Rooney said he's convinced a simplified passing game and new quarterbacks coach Tom Clements will help Stewart.

"No matter what you say about him, Kordell has a tremendous amount of potential and a tremendous upside," Rooney said. "Everyone agrees he hasn't realized that potential yet. But it's not unusual for a guy to be a late bloomer at that position."

Maybe that's what will happen.

Maybe Cowher and Stewart will take the Steelers to the Super Bowl.

The Rooneys would look like geniuses.

Right now, though, they look like anything but.

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

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