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Savran: Of Cowher, Colbert, whose word is final?

Saturday, November 01, 2003

You would have an easier time finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq than you would determining exactly who is in charge of Steelers personnel. Who gives the thumbs up or down on draft day? Who pulls the trigger on who gets signed and who is let go?

The little people congregating on the street below the balcony of the ivory Steelers' tower have always been told it's a collaborative effort. Still, someone has to have that extra one-tenth percent clout, and that someone has to be held accountable.

The head coach is a natural target. Does Bill Cowher have the final authority to stamp a player in or out? To draft a player or pass? It's presumed Tom Donahoe had it when he was here, and it's further presumed it slid to Cowher once Donahoe was dismissed.

Enter Kevin Colbert. Is his role similarly defined as Donahoe's or does he toil at Cowher's ultimate bidding? Answers are unlikely to be forthcoming, but the decision-making of the Cowher/Colbert team is being questioned. Four-game losing streaks will do that. Some are so spooked by an unexpected 2-5 record that they're suggesting the Rooneys backed the wrong horse in the Cowher-Donahoe heavyweight fight. Revisionist history. Can we all remember that the last two years of Donahoe's regime resulted in a combined record of 13-19, a byproduct of some very unproductive drafts?

In case you've been blinded by the sad state of current affairs, do the following names ring a bell? Jamain Stephens, Troy Edwards, Scott Shields, Kris Farris, Jeremy Staat, Chris Conrad, Will Blackwell, Paul Wiggins, Steven Conley. All were taken in the first three rounds under Donahoe. There were also great success stories on Donahoe's watch, but the point is the good old days weren't always so good.

The new tandem has certainly made its share of mistakes. But under Colbert's watch, or at least the one he -- by the Steelers' definition -- shares with Cowher, they've added Jeff Hartings, Kimo von Oelhoffen, Casey Hampton, Kendrell Bell, Marvel Smith, Tommy Maddox, Antwaan Randle El, James Farrior and Plaxico Burress.

People say they should have drafted quarterback Chad Pennington instead of wide receiver Burress. However, if the previous leadership hadn't made such a terrible mistake on first-round receiver Edwards, Pennington might be a Steeler today. Because things are going horribly now, it's become fashionable to disregard the presence of these core players, but they were a big part of teams that were 23-8-1 the past two seasons.

Their failing is on whom they've lavished lucrative and lengthy contracts. The reviled duo of Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington -- brought here by the previous administration -- is immediately singled out. Yet after the ink dried on their contract extensions, the defense was ranked number one in the league. The Steelers' mistake was in not recognizing that the game has changed drastically, so having physical corners at the expense of cover corners is disastrous.

The problems with the offensive line weren't created solely by declining to pay Wayne Gandy more than he was worth -- it was in the club's poor evaluation of what they had to replace him. The Steelers' matching offer to Oliver Ross was the first falling domino leading to the crash of the offensive line. The other dominoes toppled when the Steelers didn't pursue more help. The St. Louis Rams knew they had tackle problems, so they signed Kyle Turley. The Steelers signed Todd Fordham. Case closed, quarterback sacked.

Fans and others are complaining about the drafting of Alonzo Jackson instead of a cornerback or offensive tackle, suggesting they had more than enough linebackers. How many quality corners were available late in the second round? Or late in the first round, for that matter? And did it ever occur to anyone that they drafted Jackson because they knew that Jason Gildon -- at pres-ent pictured on the back of a milk carton -- was, and is, on his last legs? And that Clark Haggans will be an unrestricted free agent after this season? One could argue that they should have taken a corner instead of Kendall Simmons, but assuming he pulls out of his sophomore tailspin, they're going to need a quality guard.

Mistakes have been made. Mistakes will always be made. The question is how many are made. The winds of change should blow through the Steelers' locker room this winter, as much as the salary cap allows. But those winds should not blow through the front office, regardless of the configuration. Not after one non-playoff year, if that's the way it ends up. It's not yet time for a recall. This isn't California.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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