Can win for losing Steelers: Players come and go in free agency, but Pittsburgh consistently builds the AFC's best teams and proves its critics wrong.

September 03, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Mike Preston contributed to this story.

Every year, the Pittsburgh Steelers defy conventional wisdom.

Every year, they lose a key player or three to the free-agent sinkhole.

Every year, they fill the breach in their lineup with another obscure draft pick, or another low-profile free agent.

And every January, they go to the playoffs. Like clockwork.

If the Steelers haven't solved the riddle of free agency, they've come closer than anyone else in the NFL. Since the free-agent era began in 1993, the Steelers have lost some 35 players to the lure of multimillion-dollar contracts.

Three times in the ensuing five years, they played in the AFC championship game, including last season. Once in that span, they played in the Super Bowl.

So much for their impending collapse.

When the Steelers open the 1998 season on Sunday in Baltimore against the Ravens, it will be in the wake of another round of free-agent hits. They lost their best receiver (Yancey Thigpen) and their left tackle (John Jackson) to free-agent contracts averaging more than $4 million each. They lost their left cornerback (Chad Scott) to a season-ending knee injury, and a safety (Myron Bell) to Cincinnati.

The offensive line got an overhaul last week and the secondary has two new starters.

And nobody in Pittsburgh is devastated by the latest changing of the guard.

"The only thing that devastates me is writers saying how bad we'll be each year," said Tom Donahoe, the team's director of football operations. "We use that as motivation to prove them wrong.

"Sometimes we do shrug our shoulders and wish things were different. But it doesn't do much good to get frustrated."

It's not just writers who predict the demise of the Steelers. It's some of their former players, too.

Ravens cornerback Rod Woodson, a one-time Steeler great, is still upset over his acrimonious exit from Pittsburgh in 1997.

"You can't keep getting rid of players and bringing in nobody's," Woodson said. "Eventually, it will catch up with you.

"Players never turn their back on fans, but fans aren't the Steeler organization. Fans aren't the Tom Donahoes, or everybody else you have to deal with in the front office. Players just don't turn their back on the city, they just don't agree with the front office."

Ravens tight end Eric Green, who left Pittsburgh in 1995 after his second Pro Bowl season, says he thinks this is the year the Steelers pay for their sins, perceived or otherwise.

"It started with Hardy Nickerson and it has gone on with Rod Woodson, myself and others," Green said. "But I think this is the year it happens. When they let Greg Lloyd go, he was their leader on the field."

The Steelers seem to have more lives than Jason of Friday the 13th fame. Every time somebody wants to bury them, they pop up and claim another AFC Central Division title. They have won four in a row now, and five of six since Donahoe and coach Bill Cowher rescued the team in 1992 from back-to-back, non-playoff seasons under legendary coach Chuck Noll.

Cowher said yesterday the free-agent defections haven't been as damaging as the basic math might suggest.

"We have been able to have stability with the system, even though we've lost coaches," Cowher said. "We're still able to keep the corps of the team together. There hasn't been wholesale change. We've lost players, but not a large number of players."

Not a large number of players they wanted to retain, anyway. Perhaps more problematic for Cowher is the constant raiding of his staff. In his sixth season, he is working with his third defensive coordinator and, with the loss of Chan Gailey to Dallas this year, his third offensive coordinator. Still, the system and the terminology remain the same.

"It's harder on me," Cowher said. "We're not just losing coaches, but coordinators. It takes awhile to get acclimated and learn our system. We figure it takes less time for one guy to learn the system than 25 guys."

It is Cowher's patience at developing raw talent, and Donahoe's ability to find those hidden gems in the draft, that have spawned this team of replaceable parts.

The Steelers have just seven players left from the 22 who started Super Bowl XXX three years ago, a staggering turnover rate. When they lost quarterback Neil O'Donnell after the Super Bowl, it opened a door for Kordell Stewart, who took them to the AFC title game last season.

When the Steelers lost three cornerbacks, including Woodson, in 1997, they drafted Scott with the 24th pick in the first round. When they lost wide receive Andre Hastings, they signed free agent Courtney Hawkins. This year's successor to Pro Bowl outside linebackers Chad Brown and Greg Lloyd? Carlos Emmons, a seventh-round draft pick in 1996.

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