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Sherman bows out

Was advised by Cowher he'd be fired

Friday, January 01, 1999

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

His offense could not score many touchdowns, but Ray Sherman could recognize the handwriting on the wall when he saw it.

Ray Sherman and Bill Cowher last spring when the Steelers introduced Sherman as the team's new offensive coordinator. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette) 

After reading for several days in the newspaper that he was likely to be fired as the Steelers' offensive coordinator, Sherman talked again to Coach Bill Cowher yesterday and they determined it was best that he resign.

"They came to a mutual conclusion that Ray would resign and pursue other NFL coaching opportunities," said Ray Anderson, Sherman's agent.

Cowher had planned to fire him next week.

Sherman, under contract by the Steelers through February 2000 at $180,000 annually, will be paid until he goes to work for another team, but the Steelers will not pick up the difference if he is paid less in his next job, Anderson said.

"That's the cleanest way to do it. There's no intent to hold them up. We did not want to take a hard-line position."

Mike Mularkey, who coaches the tight ends, will be a candidate to replace Sherman. They also would like to talk to Kevin Gilbride, fired this year as coach of the San Diego Chargers. Before that, Gilbride was the offensive coordinator in Jacksonville and Houston. He also was one of the four finalists to replace Chuck Noll as coach here before Cowher was selected in January 1992.

Sherman, hired last Feb. 23 to replace Chan Gailey after he became coach of the Dallas Cowboys, never hit it off with his young quarterback, Kordell Stewart, and the two took the brunt of the criticism for what was one of the worst offenses in the NFL in 1998.

There had been friction between them during the season, and even during public interviews they seemed at odds. Asked why he did not throw deep much, Stewart replied he could only go with the play the coaches called. Asked why Stewart did not throw deep much, Sherman said the deep passes were being called but the quarterback wasn't throwing them.

Last week, Sherman, 47, said he would speak publicly if he were fired, but yesterday he said through a Steelers spokesman and his agent that he did not wish to talk about it.

    More Steelers coverage:

Columnist Ron Cook: Sherman is Cowher's patsy for woeful year


His agent, though, made it plain where he felt much of the blame should go.

"I'm not objective, but the quarterback has to look at himself in the mirror," Anderson said. "Anyone who has an objective view has to say the quarterback is part of that."

In his first season as the starting quarterback in 1997, Stewart guided the Steelers to the AFC championship game, where they lost to Denver by three points. They scored 41 touchdowns that season. In this one, they scored just 21 on offense and only three of those in the past 61/2 games. Stewart's passer rating slipped form 75.2 in 1997 to 62.9 in 1998.

The Steelers lost their last five games to finish 7-9, their first losing record since 1991 and the first time since then they have not made the playoffs.

Backup quarterback Mike Tomczak last week criticized Stewart's off-season work ethic and praised Sherman.

"It's a tough jury to work against because you come in here - AFC championship game - you're short of the Super Bowl by one game, you've got to replace Chan Gailey, there's a lot of heat on the guy," Tomczak said on KDKA radio. "But I'm a strong supporter of Ray Sherman. Give it some time for this marriage to be consummated and go further."

There was no support for Sherman, however, from Cowher to the front office. Cowher became so frustrated with the way the plays were being called by Sherman, that he called most of the plays from the sideline in Jacksonville himself Monday night. He also became more involved in coaching the quarterbacks this season.

Cowher left for a family vacation in North Carolina on Wednesday and will not return until Monday. Sources said yesterday that while it was likely Sherman would be fired, Cowher would not do so until he returned here next week. That changed abruptly yesterday.

The Steelers released a statement from Cowher that read:

"My intent all along was to sit down, evaluate the entire situation and not make any hasty decisions about Ray or other members of our coaching staff. But after discussing the situation with people in the organization, Mr. Rooney and Ray, it became increasingly apparent a change was necessary. Instead of delaying a decision until next week, I felt it was in everyone's best interest to move swiftly, and Ray agreed."

Sherman has coached in the NFL since 1989, when he joined the Houston Oilers as wide receivers coach. He later coached in San Francisco, Atlanta, the New York Jets and Minnesota. He was offensive coordinator for one year with the Jets and held various offensive positions with the other teams. A Berkeley, Calif., native, Sherman played at Fresno State and coached in the college ranks from 1975 until he joined the Oilers.

Anderson predicted Sherman would have little trouble finding another job.

"Too many people in the NFL recognize the caliber of coach that he is. Pittsburgh was an aberration and bad circumstances that Ray just wants to move away from."

Cowher hired Sherman after interviewing Mularkey, World League coach Galen Hall and UCLA offensive coordinator Alan Borges.

Sherman had been the Vikings' quarterbacks coach the past three seasons and when he was hired he said Stewart had more ability and mobility than Warren Moon.

But little worked for him here. He took over an offense that lost its left tackle and its best receiver. Then, starting fullback Tim Lester missed the first six games because of shoulder surgery and was rarely healthy this season. Halfback Jerome Bettis sustained a torn knee ligament, right tackle Justin Strzelczyk left at mid-season with a knee injury and only two starters remained in their positions in the offensive line from the previous season.

Either the offense was not comfortable with Sherman or he with the offense but it all added up, topped off by the decline of the quarterback.

The Steelers' offense ranked 25th overall in the 30-team NFL, 28th in scoring.

"Things sometimes aren't what they appear when you first go into it," Anderson said. "But Ray's a man, he's the coordinator and he understands if you don't win, you stand up, absorb the blame and move on. He won't point fingers."

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