Cowher contract could extend through 2008

Despite a 2003 season in which he matched the worst record of his tenure and failed to guide his team to the playoffs for a fourth time in six years, Bill Cowher and his representatives are negotiating a potential contract extension with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

League sources confirmed the discussions, which were first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and which likely would extend Cowher's contract by at least three years. His current contract runs through the 2005 season.

The newspaper said the two sides are making "good progress" toward a deal. A source told ESPN.com that, while an agreement is not imminent, the shared preference of both sides is to complete negotiations before the start of the regular season.

Cowher, 47, is entering his 13th season with the Steelers. In terms of current continuous service with one franchise, he leads all NFL head coaches, and only eight coaches in NFL history have served with one team longer than Cowher has with the Steelers.

His 122-84-1 record makes Cowher the fifth-winningest active coach in the league, and he is one of 32 coaches in NFL history to post 100 victories. In 12 previous seasons, he has just three losing campaigns, has led the Steelers to the playoffs eight times and has claimed seven division titles.

A Pittsburgh-area native, Cowher tied a league record by reaching the playoffs in each of his first six seasons as a head coach. The most recent six seasons have not been as solid, however, and the Steelers finished third in the AFC North in 2003.

There has been speculation that the Steelers might delay a decision on Cowher's future until after the 2004 season. That was fueled by the fact that the team has usually approached him about extensions early in the offseason, usually by February, and always as Cowher was entering the final two years of his existing deal. But at the March league meetings, owner Dan Rooney cautioned the media not to read too much into the lack of activity on the extension front.

Pittsburgh last extended Cowher's contract in 2001, adding three years to it, with salaries believed to be in the $3 million range.

This figures to be a challenging year for Cowher, who dramatically overhauled his staff -- which means he'll be working with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. While the roster did not undergo wholesale changes, there were some significant departures, and the team did not add many new parts.

In a player-related matter, the Steelers will be without four-year veteran linebacker Clark Haggans for the first few weeks of training camp, a setback for a defense attempting to recover from a subpar 2003 season. Haggans broke two fingers on his right hand during a recent weightlifting session and will be sidelined indefinitely.

Haggans was slated to move into the starting role at strongside linebacker, a post vacated by the release of longtime starter Jason Gildon last month for salary cap considerations. The Steelers re-signed Haggans to a new contract this spring, taking him back out of the free agent market with a four-year deal that included a $3 million signing bonus. In his absence, Alonzo Jackson, a second-round pick in 2003 who was disappointing as a rookie and appeared in just two games, will move up to the first unit. Jackson is coming off recent back surgery but is said to be fully rehabilitated.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.