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Steelers can't stand pat this time

| Monday, Dec. 29, 2003

BALTIMORE - Sunday night was a night for history at M&T Bank Stadium, for Jamal Lewis, for Jerome Bettis and, if the Steelers have been paying attention, for several of Bettis' associates in Black & Gold.

Lewis got his 2,000 yards and then some.

Bettis finally caught Jim Brown.

And the Steelers were at last able to lay to rest a profoundly disappointing season with a finale that figures to be the last appearance by the team as we've known it.

The NFL playoffs begin this weekend.

For the Steelers, the long climb back will begin more quickly, perhaps as soon as today, when coach Bill Cowher conducts his final 2003 news conference. The speed with which Cowher has scheduled the event suggests he has something significant to say. That could mean a staff change, which might mean defensive coordinator Tim Lewis' tenure with the team is about to end.

Openings at wide receivers coach aren't normally announced in such a fashion, and somebody is going to have to pay for this.

Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, too, may have called his last screen or inside pitch for the Steelers. If reports of Bills coach Gregg Williams' demise are accurate, Mularkey will be a strong candidate to become Tom Donahoe's next coach. Despite a curious season at best, Mularkey also stands to be considered for other jobs around the league based on past performance and his personable, professional style.

So, changes are coming, one way or another.

The Steelers must embrace them.

They're not what they used to be, what they need to be, and that couldn't have been more apparent than the Ravens celebrating the 2003 AFC North Division championship in the Steelers' presence, and in the weeks leading up to the Steelers' meaningless December.

They weren't last year, either, despite coming within an overtime of the AFC Championship Game.

The Steelers' answer then was to address an obviously deficient secondary by letting Lee Flowers go and drafting Troy Polamalu.

They can't afford to be as complacent this offseason. A harder line must be taken when assessing the 2003 contributions of and the 2004 projections/expectations for players such as Bettis, running back Amos Zereoue, linebacker Jason Gildon, cornerbacks Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott, free safety Brent Alexander, center Jeff Hartings and tight end Jay Riemersma, to name several.

Once that's done, the Steelers must respond accordingly, even if the evaluations demand difficult decisions.

What specific changes the Steelers make can be debated; the need for change can not.

Cowher, perhaps already sensing as much, harkened back to the days when he coached more on emotion and less by the percentages when he faked a punt from the Steelers' 19-yard line midway through the third quarter.

The resulting 81-yard touchdown changed the game.

If it also altered the Steelers' approach, Sunday night might come to signify a new beginning as well as an end.

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