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Harris: Steelers lucky to keep Khan

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 11:15 p.m.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
This is a 2012 photo of Omar Khan of the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL football team. This image reflects the Pittsburgh Steelers active roster as of Thursday, May 17, 2012 when this image was taken. (AP Photo)

So Omar Khan returns for at least one more year with the Steelers. That's good for the Steelers, too bad for Khan.

Khan deserves the opportunity to run his own NFL team. Yet, he's 0 for 3 after being passed over for front-office positions with Seattle, St. Louis and now the New York Jets.

It's back to the grind for Khan, the Steelers' director of football and business administration. Nice title, but it doesn't adequately describe Khan's value to the team.

Khan is much more than a “capologist,” a financial expert versed in the nuances of the salary cap, but reputations can be difficult to shake.

Three times NFL teams have considered hiring Khan to be their general manager. We don't know if Khan's reputation for being a numbers guru is holding him back. Let's hope that isn't the case.

Still, you never know. The NFL fraternity is tough to crack. It sounds like Khan may need an owner who values winning above reputations and friendships.

“Omar is an integral part of the Steelers,'' said longtime Pittsburgh-based sports attorney Ralph Cindrich. “He's fair. He's firm. He's never blown a negotiation.

“Omar understands winning organizations,'' Cindrich said. “You don't work with the Rooneys and not understand how to win and how to conduct yourself.”

The best way to describe what Khan means to the Steelers? They'd be in trouble without him.

“The capology part is replaceable. You have people out there who are able to do that. Replacing Omar as a negotiator, that's a big hole,” Cindrich said.

Cindrich has represented several Steelers players over the past 30 years, including Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson and linebacker James Farrior. He's well aware of the Steelers' hardline business approach.

Cindrich wonders how a nice guy like Khan — who serves as a buffer between players and their agents, ownership, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin — ever got involved in a nasty business like contract negotiations.

“My dealings with general managers are confrontational. Omar's not that type of guy,” Cindrich said. “He's always a gentleman. Is he the guy that's going to cut throats? The side I've seen of him is the deal-maker.”

Cindrich saw that side of Khan when Farrior, due to earn $3.2 million in his final year, pushed hard for a contract extension prior to the 2008 season.

Not known at the time for awarding lucrative extensions to players over 30, the Steelers agreed to pay the 33-year-old Farrior $18.2 million over five years.

“Omar was the one who pushed to get it done,” Cindrich said. “The Steelers of old, I can tell you I'd still have the phone at my ear waiting to get an answer.”

Cindrich believes Khan operates best in an organization such as the Steelers, where he's paired with a strong football personality like Colbert. But then again, that could be working against him. So could his age. Khan doesn't turn 36 until next month, and some across the league might feel he needs more seasoning.

Whip smart, Khan earned a degree in sports management with a minor in business administration from Tulane in 3 12 years. He worked with the Tulane football team, filming practices and games and making travel arrangements. He later performed similar duties with the New Orleans Saints. In 2001, he was hired by the Steelers when he was only 24.

To take the next step and finally secure a coveted general manager's position, Khan might have to immerse himself in personnel decisions to convince other teams his value extends beyond mere numbers.

“I wouldn't characterize him as a football guy, though he sits in the room with every Steelers player, every coach,” Cindrich said. “He is the guy who hears and understands how this player fits into the organization, why he is what they like, why he is worth the money, why he is valuable.

“To say he's a scout or someone that's been (trained) that way, no, you can't say that. But to say that someone has a thorough understanding of football talent and how it fits and how that makes a championship team, he's your man.”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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