This article is Part 1 of 2 examining the front office philosophies of the last 20 years beginning wit..."/> This article is Part 1 of 2 examining the front office philosophies of the last 20 years beginning wit..."/> This article is Part 1 of 2 examining the front office philosophies of the last 20 years beginning wit..."/>

Steelers Change In Philosophy, Part 1: The Cowher/Donahoe Years


Cowher like wrath was sometimes needed to get the Steelers to step it up.

This article is Part 1 of 2 examining the front office philosophies of the last 20 years beginning with the Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher era (1991-1999) and the Bill Cowher Kevin Colbert era (2000-2006).  Part 2 which will post on Monday will examine the Kevin Colbert Mike Tomlin era (2007- present).

Steelers Front Office Philosophies

Through the past 20 years the Pittsburgh Steelers under General Managers Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert were consistent in how they ran the organization: Build through the draft, don’t trade away draft picks, don’t reach for draft picks, stick to the draft board, don’t go after expensive free agents including their own, don’t negotiate with a hold out, don’t negotiate with a player in season,  don’t  re-do contracts for cap purposes, cut a player rather than asking that player to take a pay cut, don’t negotiate with a player until he has one year left, negotiate with the quarterback and head coach with (2) years left on their contracts and retain younger inexpensive players over aging more costly veterans. Because the Steelers have stuck to these philosophies it has given the Steelers the reputation as one of the best front offices in the league and rightfully so.

2013 Off Season Just Like the 1990’s

This off season has been the roughest off season of the Kevin Colbert era which began in 2000. It has brought back memories of the entire decade of the 1990’s when just about every single off season was painful. With the loss of prominent and still productive players in 2013 like Keenan Lewis, James Harrison, Max Starks, Mike Wallace, Willie Colon, Will Allen and Rashard Mendenhall replaced with the likes of Matt Spaeth and Guy Whimper, it puts an ominous cloud over the upcoming 2013 season. But it wasn’t all that long ago when this seemed like an every year occurrence and every year the Steelers overcame it.

Donahoe & Cowher

The Tom Donahue reign began in 1991 which was Chuck Noll’s last year. Following a 7-9 season Noll was replaced by Bill Cowher. While the Steelers went on to have much success in the 1990’s, year in and year out the off season was agonizing for the Steelers and their fans as the best and most productive players continually left either through:


Thomas Everett, Safety
Jeff Graham, Wide Receiver
Hardy Nickerson, Inside Linebacker

Tom Donahoe should have never let Rod Woodson get away in free agency. From images.

Free Agency:

Louis Lipps, Wide Receiver
Yancey Thigpen, Wide Receiver
Andre Hastings, Wide Receiver
Ernie Mills, Wide Receiver
Charles Johnson, Wide Receiver
Kevin Greene, Outside Linebacker
Jerrol Williams, Outside Linebacker
Chad Brown, Outside Linebacker
Greg Lloyd, Outside Linebacker
Willie Williams, Cornerback
Rod Woodson, Cornerback
Merril Hoge, Running Back
Barry Foster, Running Back
Leon Searcy, Tackle
Eric Greene, Tight End
Neil O’Donnell, Quarterback
Gary Anderson, Place Kicker

Off Field Issues:

Tim Worley, Running Back
Carlton Haselrig, Guard
Bam Morris, Running Back

These players were productive right up until their last season with the Steelers. However a trend formed with only a few exceptions. Most of the players who left through free agency did not play well at their new destination or were out of the NFL within a couple years. This led to much credit being given to the Steelers front office of knowing when to let a player leave in free agency. However it should be noted that the (3) players cited in trades all turned out to have excellent careers after exiting Pittsburgh.

Despite Many Personnel Losses the Steelers Talent Did Not Drop Off

Meanwhile despite the mass exodus of talent the Steelers just re-loaded and  reeled off six straight playoff seasons from 1992 through 1997, three AFC Championship games and one Superbowl appearance. In 1998 and 1999 the Steelers seemed to be in disarray with 2 consecutive losing seasons. Many blamed the losing on the mass exodus of players. Some were calling for Cowher to go. Was it the loss of talent or was it something else? The 1998 Steelers were 7-4 until the wheels fell off against Detroit on Thanksgiving Day in an overtime loss infamously known as the “Coin Toss Game”. The Steelers did not win another game finishing 7-9. In 1999 the Steelers started out strong at 5-3 but for the second straight year fell apart winning only one (1) more game the rest of the year finishing 6-10.

Kordell Stewart melts down in 16-3 loss to the Buccaneers on Dec.13, 1998. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

It is more likely that the downward spiral in 1998-1999 was for several reasons, none being the loss of talent. First, Kordell Stewart fell apart emotionally in part due to rumors that were haunting him. Stewart who had shown so much promise as “Slash” and then as a first year starting QB in 1997 leading the Steelers to the  AFC Championship, regressed so badly that during the third quarter during a 16-3 loss at Tampa Bay on December 13,  1998  Stewart, angry at being benched, broke down in tears on the sidelines, then challenged Cowher by arguing, pointing his finger at him and screaming.  At the time there were widespread rumors circulating around the league about Stewart’s sexuality and his off field behavior so much so, that Stewart  felt he had to stand up in front of the team to address the rumors. This was even the topic of a Sports Illustrated article in 1999. Being gay is a major issue in today’s professional sports and looking back it is easy to understand how these rumors whether true or not, affected Stewart’s mental and emotional state, and thus, affected his quarterback play which directly affected the Steelers record.

Secondly, were the rumors circulating about Cowher’s marriage and his off-field extra curricular affairs. Lastly a rumor that was proven to be true was the rift between Donahoe and Cowher.

Donahoe vs. Cowher

Cowher was hired by Donahoe in 1992, but the relationship between the Coach and GM deteriorated. After the 1999 season their relationship between the two had deteriorated dramatically. It was reported by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that both had an intense dislike and  deep animosity toward each other forcing Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II to make a choice. Cowher won the power struggle and after 9 years as the Steelers General Manager, Donahoe was fired in January 2000. Cowher took the high road and never publicly gave any reasons what the issues were between the two. In later press conferences when asked about the Donahoe situation,  Cowher outwardly aggravated by the Donahoe questions always gave curt answers. After sitting out the 2000 season Donahoe was hired in 2001 as the Buffalo Bills GM where he took the Bills roster to the woodshed like he did in Pittsburgh albeit with much less success.

Locker room, off-field issues and front office turmoil with the Head Coach and GM along with a failing fragile quarterback were more likely to blame for those 2 losing seasons rather than the losses in free agency as the Steelers effectively replaced most of their free agent losses with excellent drafts by Donahoe and Cowher. For example, despite a poor record in 1998-1999 the Steelers had been putting into place the building blocks they were going to use to make the run they did in the new millennium.  In 1996 they landed future Hall of Fame running back and team leader Jerome Bettis for a second round pick from the  St. Louis Rams in one of the biggest draft day steals in NFL history.  In 1998 the Steelers added Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Deshea Townsend.  In Donahoe’s last year in 1999 they added Joey Porter and Aaron Smith.

2000 Brought the Kevin Colbert Era

The turning point in front office philosophy came with the change of general managers from Tom Donahoe to Kevin Colbert in 2000 who arrived from the Detroit Lions front office. While most Steelers fans had now become accustomed to seeing most of their best players leave after their contracts had expired, Kevin Colbert’s philosophy was to extended the contracts of the Steelers best players the year before the last remaining contract season. That may have been Donahoe’s philosophy too but Colbert was much better at executing it. Colbert still stuck to the Donahoe philosophy of not making the big free agent signing, adding productive if not spectacular college free agents and continued signing low to mid level serviceable free agents. But Colbert was keeping the impact players. This plan became known as “the Steeler way” which is what it is now referred to around NFL circles.

In the Cowher Colbert era (2000-2006) the Steelers  went to 3 AFC Championship games and won Superbowl XL with the likes of  Kimo Von Oelhoffen, Plaxico Burress,  Chris Hope, Tommy Maddox and Antwaan Randle El who all came under Colbert but left before the  Tomlin era began. In 2006 after a difficult 8-8 season and 15 years as the Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher felt it was time to step aside. But before Cowher retired; He, Donahoe  and Colbert had left the foundation for the team that would compete for (2) more Superbowls under Mike Tomlin.

In addition to the players that carried over from Donahoe to Tomlin:  Faneca, Ward, Townsend  and A. Smith;  Cowher and Colbert left the following players for Tomlin:  Marvel Smith, Dan Krieder, Clark Haggans, Casey Hampton, Kendall Simmons, Larry Foote, Brett Keisel, James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch, Greg Warren, Max Starks, Willie Parker, James Harrison, Heath Miller, Chris Kemoeatu, Willie Colon, Jeff Reed, Ryan Clark and Santonio Holmes. All played  a major part of one and most played a major role in both Superbowl teams under Tomlin.

Look for “Steelers Change In Philosophy Part 2: The Colbert Tomlin Years” in Monday’s Column.