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Madden: Cowher should run special teams

Saturday, February 02, 2002

Steelers vs. St. Louis. The best offense against the best defense. The irresistible force against the immovable object ... whadaya mean, the Steelers lost to New England? Well, since no self-respecting yinzer cares one bit about the Super Bowl now, here's a column of refreshing Steelers notes:

Special teams coach Jay Hayes had to be fired. His area of responsibility was a disaster all season, not just in the AFC final. But a replacement for Hayes should not be hired. Hayes' duties should be taken over by Bill Cowher. Cowher, as we've heard ad nauseum, is a special-teams guru of some repute. If Mike Martz can basically act as his own offensive coordinator in St. Louis, and if Brian Billick can do the same in Baltimore, why can't Cowher be his own special teams coach? Surely the time demands on Cowher wouldn't be as overwhelming as the additional demands on Martz and Billick. If special teams play is important -- and I think this past Sunday confirmed that -- Cowher should directly oversee it.

ESPN's John Clayton says that offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey looks like the front-runner for Tampa Bay's head coaching job. Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements is up for the offensive coordinator's job in both Buffalo and Jacksonville. The Steelers' course of action seems obvious: Don't let Clements go anywhere until Mularkey decides what he's doing. If Mularkey goes to Tampa Bay, elevate Clements to offensive coordinator. If Mularkey stays, turn Clements loose. The Steelers can afford to lose Mularkey or Clements. But losing both would dramatically hurt offensive continuity.

If this question wasn't part of Mular-key's job interview with Tampa Bay -- "Are you really dumb enough to believe we won't dump you when Jon Gruden becomes available after next season?" -- it should have been.

The Steelers should bring another kicker to camp to compete with Kris Brown. But I still think Brown is the man for the job. I also think the Steelers ought to micromanage the kicking position. Hire someone like Matt Bahr to be kicking coach. While the rest of the roster toils in Latrobe, Brown should be kicking at Heinz Field on a daily basis. Heinz Field is a very tough venue for any kicker. But if Brown can master a few of Heinz Field's nuances, the Steelers could turn a negative into a huge positive.

I agree wholeheartedly with what Ron Cook wrote in the Post-Gazette yesterday: If I ran the Steelers, I would make Kordell Stewart have another good season before I offered him a lucrative contract extension. Stewart has never had two good pro seasons in a row. And when Stewart had a chance to be a hero Sunday, he squandered it. Big-money quarterbacks win that game at the end.

The Steelers don't get into bidding wars, so unrestricted free agents Jason Gildon and Earl Holmes both will be in a take-it-or-leave-it situation regarding the club's respective offers. That's how the Steelers avoid salary-cap problems while maintaining depth. They don't take anyone else's evaluation into account when paying players. Good policy. Gildon and Holmes might want to stay. But they're going to go wherever they get the most money. So Gildon is gone, and Holmes might be.

Before unrestricted free agents Bobby Shaw and Deshea Townsend sign with teams that promise them starting jobs, each should ask himself a hard question: Am I really good enough to be a starter, or will my shortcomings be exposed if I play every down? Shaw and Townsend are solid role players -- Shaw is an excellent third-down receiver, Townsend a very good dime back -- but I don't think either would prosper as a starter. Townsend, for example, is too small to take the everyday beating a starting NFL corner absorbs. Shaw and Townsend might make more money in the short run if they go someplace else and start. But they might prolong their careers by staying in Pittsburgh.

It would be inaccurate to say the Steelers choked against New England. But it would be accurate to say their knees wobbled a little bit on occasion. The Patriots looked a lot more sure of themselves, that's for certain. Which makes me wonder if the Steelers don't need better leadership. Not more trash talkers. Not strong, silent types. But good, solid, all-around leaders. Big-game guys. Kendrell Bell already has filled a lot of vacancies on the Steelers. Maybe that one will be next.

If you've ever doubted the value of Mark Bruener, consider the loss to New England. The Patriots juggled their front seven to match a defensive end up against the Steelers' tight end. Jerame Tuman and Matt Cushing couldn't handle the challenge of a bigger, stronger player, and the result contributed greatly to the demise of the running game. If Bruener had been healthy enough to play, he could have coped. Actually, I hear Bruener was healthy enough to play -- he rehabilitated his surgically repaired shoulder at a frightening pace -- but the Steelers had long since refused to gamble the 53rd roster spot on the hope that he might recover for the playoffs. They put the NFL's best blocking tight end on injured reserve instead. Oh, well, it was only a shot at the Super Bowl.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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