Cowher Has Weapons in Perhaps a Make-or-Break Season
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2004; 11:36 AM
One of the most interesting early coaching decisions will be made by the Pittsburgh Steelers' Bill Cowher at the end of the preseason, when he chooses between veteran Tommy Maddox and rookie Ben Roethlisberger as his starting quarterback.
The decision will say something about how secure Cowher feels his job is. If he feels it's tenuous -- whether he'd be willing to admit it publicly or not -- he would be more likely to stick with Maddox, hoping for a short-term fix to get the team winning again and keep him in Pittsburgh. If he feels that owner Dan Rooney still backs him fully, he might be more inclined to go with Roethlisberger, living with a few mistakes by the prized first-round draft choice in hopes of getting him ready to be a big-time NFL quarterback sooner.
Cowher is entering his 13th season with the Steelers and has been with his team longer than any other NFL head coach. But the Steelers went 6-10 last season and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in the past six seasons after making the playoffs in each of Cowher's first six seasons. Cowher's contract runs through the 2005 season, but the Steelers previously never allowed him to coach in even the second-to-last season of his contract. There reportedly were no discussions this offseason of a contract extension and at least one NFL team looking for a coach at the outset of this offseason thought Cowher might be on the market. He wasn't, but suddenly his performance and job status are topics of conversation in Pittsburgh.
He will enter the upcoming season with two new coordinators after losing offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who was hired as the Buffalo Bills' head coach, and firing defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. Cowher brought in former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator and promoted Ken Whisenhunt from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator. Offensive line coach Russ Grimm got the title of assistant head coach after being a finalist for the Chicago Bears' head-coaching job and losing out to Lovie Smith.
Cowher also has had to deal with the disenchantment of wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who is entering the final season of his contract and has been absent from the team's offseason workouts. What Cowher does have, however, is a more talented club than he had last season.
The Steelers signed tailback Duce Staley as a free agent and had a superb draft. While the New York Giants surrendered a package that included North Carolina. State quarterback Philip Rivers, the fourth overall pick in the draft, a third-round choice and first- and fifth-round selections next year to land top overall pick Eli Manning in a draft-day trade with the San Diego Chargers, the Steelers simply stayed put and got Roethlisberger with the 11th overall choice. Some scouts and executives around the league regard Roethlisberger as an equal, if not slightly better, prospect. Pittsburgh also got highly regarded cornerback Ricardo Colclough of Tusculum College in the second round and Florida offensive tackle Max Starks in the third round.
Maddox appeared miffed by the selection of Roethlisberger, which came after the Steelers promised to sign him to a new contract to increase his $750,000 salary for the upcoming season, then quickly calmed down and negotiations commenced. But Cowher has made the starting quarterback job an open competition, and few in the league would be shocked if Roethlisberger wins the position. He is big and athletic. And he is not shying from a rivalry with Manning, saying just before the draft that it was fine with him for Manning to be receiving all of the attention because he was confident that he ultimately would earn his place in the spotlight. Roethlisberger even had the foresight -- or simply the luck -- to wear a black suit and a gold tie to the draft, even though the Giants had told him the previous day that they planned to select him with the fourth overall choice.
Cowher perhaps is facing a make-or-break season in Pittsburgh. But the cupboard is not bare, and the Steelers seem perfectly capable of being a solid playoff contender even if Cowher opts to take his lumps with a rookie quarterback.
Around the League
Quarterbacks could begin relocating today. After Kurt Warner was released by the St. Louis Rams on Tuesday, agent Mark Bartelstein said by telephone that he was scheduled to discuss possible contract terms with the Giants today and perhaps could complete a deal. If Warner signs with the Giants today, it probably would be for a one-year deal that could pay him around $3 million and enable him to be an unrestricted free agent next offseason.
The Dallas Cowboys have a three-day minicamp this weekend and likely will make a push to sign Vinny Testaverde -- released Tuesday by the New York Jets -- in time to have him participate. They face competition from the New England Patriots for Testaverde, who issued a written statement through agent Michael Azzarelli about his departure from the Jets.
"I appreciate the Jets for allowing me to move on with my career," Testaverde said. "I want to thank the organization for the chance to play in my hometown. It has been a great experience. We've had some exciting moments on the field and memories I can take with me. It was a pleasure working with Coach [Herman] Edwards and I wish the team and him much success."
The Baltimore Ravens are waiting to see whether Kordell Stewart accepts their minimum-salary contract offer to back up Kyle Boller, at least until Anthony Wright recovers from shoulder surgery. Stewart, a free agent since being released by Chicago in March, visited the Ravens on Tuesday.
The Green Bay Packers reopened contract deliberations Tuesday with agent Tom Condon in their latest attempt to complete a trade with the Cleveland Browns for Tim Couch. The Packers open a three-day minicamp today, have more practices for next week, and would like Couch to participate in some of their offseason program. But they want Condon and Couch to agree to a two-year contract for Couch to back up Brett Favre -- and possibly succeed the future Hall of Famer if Favre retires after this season -- and Condon and Couch have been seeking a one-year deal that would enable Couch to be an unrestricted free agent next offseason. If they can agree to a contract with Couch, the Packers would send a mid-round draft choice to the Browns for Couch, the top overall selection in the 1999 draft.
Gardener, Gildon Likely to Get Released
Denver Broncos defensive tackle Daryl Gardener and Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon are among the players likely to be released today.
The Broncos will save about $1.8 million on their salary cap by cutting Gardener, who is only one season into a seven-year, $34.8-million contract with Denver but clashed with Coach Mike Shanahan. He and agent Neil Schwartz lined up a four-year, $9.3-million deal with Cincinnati after being given permission by the Broncos to talk to other teams as part of a settlement to resolve the dispute arising when the club attempted to have Gardener return a portion of his signing bonus.
The Steelers will clear about $3.65 million in salary-cap room by releasing Gildon, and might use that cap space to sign Maddox to a new deal. Baltimore, Cleveland, Green Bay and Houston are among the teams apparently interested in Gildon.
Jets Hope to Retain Injured Defensive Back
The Jets declined to resubmit their one-year, $628,000 contract tender to defensive back Jamie Henderson, as league rules require a team to do on June 1 if it wants to retain the rights to a still-unsigned player who was a restricted free agent earlier in the offseason. Henderson was injured in a nearly fatal motorcycle accident in April and does not plan to play this season. Jets officials said they were not severing their ties to Henderson, who aims to play in the 2005 season, and hope to work out an arrangement for him to use the team's facilities for rehabilitation. . . .
The one-year contract that defensive end Tony Brackens signed with Jacksonville on Tuesday is worth about $1.5 million. . . . The Patriots reportedly are interested in free-agent cornerback Terrell Bukley. . . . Broncos linebacker John Mobley is scheduled to be re-examined by doctors in the coming days. He has not been cleared to play since hurting his neck during an October game at Baltimore. The injury initially was diagnosed as a bruised spinal cord. Broncos officials don't know whether Mobley will be forced to retire.
Next: St. Louis Rams
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