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Savran: Even the beloved Steelers have to go through a down cycle

Sunday, September 24, 2000

Pittsburgh considers itself, and is regarded by others, as a tough town. A town with a thick hide, willing to stand up and take "it". But now that "it" has arrived, Steelers fans from the four corners of Western Pennsylvania, and everywhere in-between, are wailing a symphony of fine whine.

This is the Steelers' "time." Six consecutive playoff seasons and, eventually, it will be your "time" in the down cycle. You doubt that, Thomas? Look at the five teams that dominated the NFL the past dozen or so years: San Francisco, Dallas, Denver, Green Bay and the Steelers. Last season, that group, which appeared regularly in conference championship games and Super Bowls during that period, was a combined 16 games under .500. This year, their collective record is 4-10. With the possible exception of Denver, none will make the playoffs.

There's no shame in going through the down cycle. It's inevitable. Yet you tell that to Steelers fans, prove it with examples, and they look at you blankly and say, "Yeah. But we're the Steelers!" It's said as if this franchise wears bubble-boy plastic suits, insulated from the germs of reality that infect everyone else.

Fans become desperate to blame someone to soothe themselves while they seethe. "The Rooneys are cheap!"

There has indeed been much talent bled from this team by the leech that is free agency. And this organization does need to become more creative in player procurement and in keeping the value they already have. But while you can correctly point an accusatory finger at Dallas and the 49ers for salary- cap manipulation, under a microscope of higher power you can see they built their nucleus with draft choices and astute trades, not baubles collected through free agency.

Is there one player the Steelers might have added or kept to beat San Diego in '94, Dallas in '95 or Denver in '97? They added a Kevin Greene, a Will Wolford, a Jerome Bettis, all Pro-Bowlers, along the way. But age, greener pastures of greener money, lower drafting positions, and a slowly closing window of opportunity combine to create every team's time in the down cycle. Even the Steelers.

You want to blame something, blame all of the above and very poor drafts. Excluding the most recent, the five previous have largely been terribly unproductive. Every team has a Jamain Stephens skeleton in its closet, but the Steelers' poor drafting performance goes much deeper than that. Second- and third-round picks such as Steven Conley, Will Blackwell, Paul Wiggins, Jeremy Staat, Chris Conrad and Kris Farris have been disappointments. Will there ever be significant contributions in the future from high picks Scott Shields, Amos Zereoue and Mike Vrabel? Or Kordell Stewart?

And one also must examine some of the No. 1s like Chad Scott, Alan Faneca and Troy Edwards. Merely being a starter on a bad team does not qualify as a successful No. 1 pick.

This franchise hasn't drafted a Pro Bowl player since 1993! Perusing the above names, do you think that drought will end anytime soon? There have been recent draft successes, to be sure, but when you make as many errors as they have, you're going to pay the price. And the tariff in this case is their record the past two-plus seasons.

"Cowher can't coach anymore!" they tell me. Funny. He could three years ago. Is the demise his fault? Well, he's the head coach, so he's going to get blamed. That's the way it is. Ask Gene Lamont. And surely, Cowher's fingerprints are on the drafts as well. But how can anybody look at this team today and suggest it even remotely resembles the one that played in the AFC Championship game just three short years ago? Is it coaching or the players? There's always a bit of both in the equation, but the scales tip heavily toward the latter. No matter who whips it, a mule is never going to win the Kentucky Derby.

That the Steelers are in a down cycle is not open for debate. The only thing left to determine is when will they scrape rock bottom so they can start the climb back up? Was it last week in Cleveland? Or is it yet to come? I don't have an answer for you, but I do have some advice. Preserve your reputation. Get tough. It's like bad tasting medicine. You don't have to like it, but you have to take it.

Stan Savran is the co-host of "SportsBeat" on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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