Ron Cook: Cowher has intriguing options ahead

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It doesn't matter that the Steelers are 6-7, clinging to their playoff lives and facing elimination as soon as tomorrow night, regardless of what they do today against the Carolina Panthers.

This still is a pretty good time to be Bill Cowher.

You might say the man has options.

Cowher confirmed last week what everyone has known for a while, that he will make a decision about his coaching future soon after the season. The hope here is that he comes back. The belief is that he won't.

Cowher is under contract to the Steelers through next season. If he elects to sit out in 2007 and relax with the family at the mansion just down the road in Raleigh, N.C., he would become a much-coveted free agent and could coach any NFL team in '08. Notice that says NFL team, not college team. Ridiculous speculation had Cowher being interested in the job at North Carolina State, his alma mater. He doesn't work hard enough to be a college coach. Can't you just picture him kissing some high school kid's behind in recruiting? Could you see him schmoozing with boosters at a Tuesday night Rotary meeting?

Me, neither.

On both counts.

Cowher will resurface with an NFL team if he leaves the Steelers. It will be with the highest of what figures to be many bidders. That's his most likely option.

Of course, Cowher could decide to return to the Steelers. He could realize how good he has it with the Rooneys, who always have been supportive of him -- in good times and bad. They surely would welcome him back even though this season hasn't gone the way anyone would have liked.

But a Cowher return could have complications.

The Steelers should, and almost certainly would, insist that Cowher agree to a contract extension before they bring him back. They can't want a lame-duck coach. That's never a good thing. They also don't want to risk losing his possible successor -- most likely offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or assistant head coach Russ Grimm -- by waiting an extra year.

The problem is it's hard to imagine Cowher and the Steelers doing that extension. They tried negotiating one in the summer and failed. It's believed Cowher wants money similar to what Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren is getting -- roughly $8 million a year. It's also believed the Steelers offered about $6 million -- a raise of about $2 million -- and won't go higher. This is an organization that doesn't overpay for anyone. It's not about to start even for Cowher, who delivered its first Super Bowl championship in 26 years last season.

But what if Cowher says he want to coach one more year without an extension? The Steelers could go with that lame-duck situation, which isn't likely. They could pay Cowher not to coach for a year, which won't happen. Or they could allow Cowher to walk on the final year of his contract and not get any compensation in return.

That third possibility seems most probable under that scenario.

That would speed up the Cowher-to-the-highest-bidder process by one year.

If Cowher does leave, it won't be a happy day. The man still is a terrific coach. After 15 seasons, nearly 10 wins a year, eight division championships and that Super Bowl title, he's shown no signs of losing his edge. In some ways even, this season has been one of his better coaching jobs.

I know what you're going to say.

The Steelers have underachieved and Cowher needs to take some blame. You'll get no argument here. He's responsible for the on-field product and it hasn't been good enough this season. I will point out, though, that it's almost impossible to win every year in the NFL.

Cowher blew it early in the season when he sent Ricardo Colclough back to return that late punt against the Cincinnati Bengals. Again, you'll get no argument. That was one of the worst decisions of Cowher's career, although it's illogical to blame the Steelers' next five losses on Colclough's fumble or that defeat.

Cowher also blew it by rushing Ben Roethlisberger back to the lineup after his appendectomy before the season and after his concussion in Atlanta Oct. 22. Now, you'll get a big argument. Once Big Ben was cleared medically, Cowher had to play him. Don't blame the coach for the quarterback throwing all of those interceptions.

What's most impressive about Cowher's work this season is he hasn't lost his players. It's not just that the Steelers have won four of five games since starting the season 2-6. It's the noticeable absence of finger-pointing that often pops up with other teams that don't win as much as they would like. It has happened with the New York Giants; players Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey have blamed the coaches publicly for some losses and defensive end Michael Strahan even blamed wide receiver Plaxico Burress. It has happened with the Cleveland Browns; wide receiver Braylon Edwards all but fought quarterback Charlie Frye on the sideline during a loss. It has even happened with the New England Patriots; quarterback Tom Brady screamed at his teammates on the field in their loss at Miami last Sunday.

You never see that division from within with a Cowher team.

"Number one, we have the right type of players. I think it starts with that," Cowher said last week.

Actually, it starts with the man at the top.

That's just one of the many reasons it will be disappointing if Cowher does leave the Steelers.



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