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Steelers’ Bad Finish Mirrors Past

January 4, 2000

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The Pittsburgh Steelers collapsed down the stretch, badly in need of a quarterback who can throw and who can lead.

Amid questions whether they are wearying of coach Bill Cowher’s in-your-face style, they missed the playoffs. Their failed, flawed season raised doubts if they have the talent to compete in an ever-competitive AFC Central.

Sound familiar?

The same problems the Steelers faced a January ago are staring them in the standings again, only this time there are promises of change. Many, many changes.

``It has to start with me,″ Cowher said Tuesday. ``We are going to sit back and reassess it and look at it. The veterans on this team have already told me they want change.″

Those changes likely will include a tougher training camp, one designed for a young team rather than a veteran team coming off a run of playoff seasons. More discipline _ much more. And more leadership from the veterans.

A season ago, the Steelers were convinced their 0-5 finish and 7-9 record were anomalies, the byproducts of Kordell Stewart’s unanticipated breakdown at quarterback and a subsequent across-the-board loss of confidence.

They responded with some tinkering here and some patchworking there, plugging in a new left tackle (Wayne Gandy) and a new safety (Travis Davis) after tackle Will Wolford retired and safety Carnell Lake signed with Jacksonville.

They also let former offensive coordinator Ray Sherman leave and brought in Kevin Gilbride, confident he would work the wonders with Stewart that he did with Mark Brunell in Jacksonville. He didn’t.

This time, the changes will be far more sweeping and may begin at the top of the roster. Stewart will not necessarily return as the starting quarterback next season and a veteran almost certainly will be brought in to challenge him.

``He (Stewart) has a long road ahead of him, to win back the confidence and respect of the coaches and the players,″ Cowher said.

The season started OK, with Stewart looking confident and composed in a 43-0 rout of expansion Cleveland. The Steelers also won a week later in Baltimore, seemingly laying to rest all concerns their December meltdown of the season before would carry over.

Not so fast.

The Steelers had rewarded Stewart with a huge confidence builder, a $27.1 million contract extension, but he quickly became as confused and as unproductive in Gilbride’s system as he did in Sherman’s. He finished the season as a reserve wide receiver, benched after throwing six touchdown passes in 11 starts.

Based on his $8.1 million signing bonus, that figured out to be $1.33 million per TD pass.

With Jerome Bettis (knee surgery) off to a slow start and the offensive line in disarray _ perennial All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson was limited to six games by a hamstring injury _ the offense never got going. Forward, that is.

There was a brief rally to 5-3. But the season splintered after an unfathomable 16-15 loss to Cleveland on Nov. 14 that 67-year-old team president Dan Rooney called one of the two worst in his memory.

There were many low points, including an 0-5 record at home against division teams and a 2-6 home record that was their worst ever in Three Rivers Stadium.

``It was very frustrating, very disappointing,″ Cowher said.

Cowher, largely immune from blame a year ago, bore the full brunt of the criticism. Rooney called his team’s play ``unprofessional,″ and director of football operations Tom Donahoe said the Steelers had no business losing at home to Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Stung by the criticism and a season-ending stretch of seven losses in eight games, Cowher also was forced to deny widespread rumors he was having marital problems.

Where will the changes come? Just about everywhere, including a new defensive line and a revamped offensive line, where tackles Justin Strzelczyk and Kris Farris will return from injuries. The Steelers also will draft or trade for another wide receiver. And some players will be cut to free up salary cap room.

``We’ve already gotten the word; there will be changes,″ defensive end Kevin Henry said. ``I’ve seen this team at nearly its peak and at nearly the bottom. I know I want to get it back to the peak again.″%bold_off(%) %bold_on(%)%bold_off(%)

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