Monday, February 6, 2006

DETROIT — Bill Cowher is a Super Bowl-winning coach, and he showed yesterday he also is a realist.

“You don’t pick up where you left off. It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “We’ll try our best to keep guys here, but we’ll probably lose some players in free agency.”

Admitting free agent losses are a given is a far cry from the let’s-keep-everybody-together-no-matter-what philosophy the Washington Redskins embraced last month.

But Cowher, whose Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl XL on Sunday, knows the deal: Players who appear in the Super Bowl are pursued.

Seattle has six starters who will be unrestricted free agents, and Pittsburgh has four. The signing period begins March 3.

The marquee name is Seattle running back Shaun Alexander, who was the league’s MVP (1,880 rushing yards, league-record 28 touchdowns). Alexander, 28, made $6.32 million as the Seahawks’ “franchise” player this season. He is seeking a long-term contract, likely in the $7 million to $8 million range a year.

Seattle’s other unrestricted free agents who were starters are two Pro Bowl players, left guard Steve Hutchinson and fullback Mack Strong; receiver Joe Jurevicius; strong safety Marquand Manuel; and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard.

Pittsburgh starters who will hit the open market are receiver Antwaan Randle El, cornerback Deshea Townsend, safety Chris Hope and defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen.

“That’s part of the business we’re in today,” said Steelers receiver Hines Ward, the Super Bowl MVP after catching five passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. “That’s what happens when you win a Super Bowl — everybody wants to get players off that team. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that. Whatever players they bring in, they’ll have to learn our system and learn how to fit into the locker room we’ve got.

“Coach Cowher has been around as long as anybody in the league, and he seems to keep a core of guys around and plug new faces in.”

Ward signed a five-year contract before the season started, but the Steelers’ No. 2 receiver, Randle El, should garner interest from several teams because he also is a punt returner. Randle El had 35 catches for 558 yards and returned 44 punts for a 10.2-yard average and two touchdowns. He would be a nice fit for the Redskins, who are searching for help at receiver and could use an upgrade in the return game.

In the secondary, Pittsburgh doesn’t have great depth at safety, so the Steelers probably will try to re-sign Hope. At cornerback, Townsend will be 31 when the season starts and could be allowed to leave to make way for Ricardo Colclough, who is seven years younger.

Running back Jerome Bettis, who had 110 carries during the regular season, is retiring, and his replacement could be addressed in the draft.

Cowher said the Steelers will begin offseason meetings next week. This week included watching his two high school-age daughters play a basketball game last night and his oldest daughter play for Princeton this weekend.

“Next year is not until at least next week,” he said. “The rest of this week, I’ll sit back and reflect for the first time on this team, this season and what we were able to accomplish.”

Seattle was one of the league’s best players in free agency last year. The Seahawks acquired three defensive starters and Jurevicius, who led the team with 10 touchdown catches.

Hutchinson is arguably the best guard in football and could command a contract similar to the five-year, $20 million deal Marco Rivera signed with Dallas last offseason. Jurevicius will have suitors looking for a No. 2 or 3 receiver who excels in the red zone, Strong is the longest-tenured Seahawk and is expected to return. On defense, Manuel had a strong season replacing Ken Hamlin, who was injured in a off-the-field altercation, and Bernard was second on the team with 8.5 sacks.

That leaves Alexander.

To get him into camp before the season, the Seahawks agreed they would not franchise Alexander, so that move isn’t an option.

The decision Alexander has to make is money vs. winning. Does he take the money if a team with salary cap space like Arizona offers him a deal averaging $9 million, or does he take less to stay with an established playoff contender that has a great offensive line?

“March is so close,” he said. “It’s kind of surreal right now that we’re in the Super Bowl and I’ve lost. But I definitely feel like I’m about to have some off the greatest years of my life.

“This was an exciting opportunity, and I definitely think that if I come back to Seattle, we’ll be back here.”

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