Back on top: the Steelers coach returned to the smash-mouth style of football he knows best and with stunning results

Back on top: the Steelers coach returned to the smash-mouth style of football he knows best and with stunning results

Barry Wilner

BILL COWHER IS ANYTHING BUT a fool. Still, he knows he allowed himself to be fooled in 2003.

Cowher is as meat-and-potatoes as anyone in the Steel City. He’d fit perfectly on a construction site or in a coal mine. His kind of football has a Midwestern bent: a grind-it-out ground game and a ferocious defense.

When Cowher changed his ways in ’03–enamored of a trio of wideouts who could be game-breakers and thrilled with a revitalized quarterback, Tommy Maddox, who was far more reliable than predecessor Kordell Stewart–he was playing with a raging furnace.

He got burned.

This season, he got even. No more game plans built around chucking the ball to Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, and Antwaan Randle El. Sure, they were playmakers, but they would have to make their contributions within the tried-and-true scheme on which Cowher has built his coaching legacy in Pittsburgh–for almost all of his 13 years in charge.

Duce Staley was acquired to be the featured back, although longtime Steeler Jerome Bettis wound up being even more important in the backfield. The offensive line was healthy and led by two stars, center Jeff Hartings and guard Alan Faneca. A rookie QB with stunning maturity, Ben Roethlisberger, came in when Maddox went down in Week 2 and was unbeatable.

Overseeing it all, his magnificent jaw jutting out to midfield at times, was the brilliant Cowher, FOOTBALL DIGEST’s Coach of the Year.

“Running the ball is what we do best,” Cowher says. “Playing defense is also what we do best. When we put them together the way we did at times this season, we can be very successful.”

Indeed. The Steelers, who sank to 6-10 in ’03, were the most successful team in the league during the regular season. They put together a franchise-record winning streak, better than anything the champions of the 1970s managed, and finished 15-1, also a team record.” Their only loss came in Week 2.

In consecutive weeks, with a rookie quarterback, they manhandled two unbeatens, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. When they were tested in close games, that kid QB brought them back to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants.

Roethlisberger, Bettis, Hartings, Faneca, Ward, Burress, linebackers James Farrior and Joey Porter, and safety Troy Polamalu got plenty of credit, but the man at the center of it all was Cowher. “We got back to our strengths,” Cowher says. “I can agree that last season we got away from that and we threw more and it didn’t pay off. It wasn’t what we do, and I’ll take the blame for being tempted into doing it. And we learned from it. You look at what we’ve done this year. It’s what we’ve traditionally tried to do. We had the personnel for it, and we used those guys correctly. And it worked for us. We lined up and we didn’t try any tricks–we came at you. We challenged teams to stop us, adapt to what we do, because we’re going to keep doing it and, hopefully, doing it well.”

After the ’03 debacle, in which the Steelers ranked 31st in the league in rushing–yes, next-to-last, ahead of only the Detroit Lions–Cowher brought in the rugged Staley as a free agent He would be the main back, while the 32-year-old Bettis would be a complement. When it didn’t happen quite that way–Staley was unable to stay healthy–Cowher wasn’t afraid to turn to Bettis, confident “the Bus” had plenty of mileage left. Bettis responded with one of the best seasons of a brilliant career that could land him in the Hall of Fame.

“I’ve always felt it’s important to have two backs like that, because taking that pounding every week wears you down,” Bettis says. “Bill recognized that, and he knew Duce and I could share the load. It’s an ideal situation for both of us.”

The quarterback situation wasn’t so ideal when Maddox hurt his elbow in a Week 2 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. While the Steelers were eager to get a young stud at the position in last April’s draft, they were unwilling to move up from the 11th spot to do so. Cowher felt either Phillip Rivers or Roethlisberger would slip down that far if things broke right, and there were some other QBs the team liked, as well.

When Roethlisberger, a product of Miami of Ohio, was available, he quickly was snatched up by Pittsburgh. The plan was to groom him this season behind Maddox, but when Maddox went down, Cowher had little choice but to rely on the youngster. With each week’s strong performance, Roethlisberger earned a more prominent role in the offense. So when the Steelers were stymied on the ground or their defense got leaky, he was ready to carry them.

Give Cowher tremendous credit for having so much faith in Roethlisberger. Brian Billick hasn’t showed much of it with young Kyle Boller in Baltimore, and Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was scared stiff to play rookie Carson Palmer at all in ’03.

Roethlisberger was praised for his work down the stretch of a comeback win at Jacksonville that lifted the Steelers to 11-1. But it was Cowher’s skill at handling the clock that was just as impressive; it gave the Steelers a chance to turn the game around in the fourth quarter for a 17-16 win.

In fact, Cowher has long been lauded for his clock management, something that really stood out this season when such coaches as Joe Gibbs, Mike Martz, Herman Edwards, and Mike Tice blew games because they couldn’t handle similar situations.

“Clock management is just keeping your head on straight and understanding the situation on the field, the timeouts, that stuff,” Bettis says. “Bill never loses sight of that He doesn’t let us waste timeouts, and we don’t have the wrong [players] on the field. We’re efficient, which is what you need when it’s Coming down to the clock.”

Cowher’s career record in regular. season games is 130-77-1, but the ’04 mark probably was the most impressive. in any of his 13 seasons at the helm. The Steelers did it in an extremely strong conference, and they did it their way. No messing around, no faltering philosophy–just Steelers football at its best.

“I think when you look at the job Bill has done, he’s gotten his team back to the style of play he prefers, and when you look at their record, Obviously it’s the right style for them,” Billick says. “He deserves the credit for their getting back on top because he knew what he wanted to get done, and he got it done.”

Early in 2004, there were questions about whether Cowher had stayed too long in the job. Coaches rarely can survive lengthy stays in one NFL city anymore. What can be especially damaging is when a hard-driving coach such as Cowher loses the ability to communicate with his players. They simply begin tuning him out, just as happened in recent seasons to Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville and Butch Davis on the Cleveland Browns. The edge that once catalyzed players instead becomes an annoyance.

There was a sense that might be happening in Pittsburgh, but such words rarely came from inside the Steelers’ compound. So when the team per formed so superbly this season, the critics disappeared. Not that Cowher was paying attention. He’s survived” losing seasons (although he’s had only three of them) and power struggles. He’s survived the loss of key free agents and making some ill-advised draft choices. In the end, Cowher has come out ahead. He’s clearly got his team headed in the right direction.

In earning our award, Cowher beat out the San Diego Chargers’ Marty Schottenheimer, the Atlanta Falcons’ Jim Mora, the Buffalo Bills’ Mike Mularkey, and the Carolina Panthers’ John Fox. Schottenheimer was a close second as the Chargers went from 4-12 in 2003 to division champions this season. He lucked out in a way, though, because Drew Brees, a quarterback Schottenheimer didn’t even want, had a turnaround season. A preseason holdout by Rivers wound up helping the team just when Schottenheimer was ready to dump Brees.

That’s not to belittle the job the veteran coach did in San Diego. His defense played inspired football, and the offense was very efficient, if not spectacular. He kept the Chargers believing even when they opened 1-2 and 3-3, and they ran off an eight-game winning streak to secure the AFC West crown.

Mora sensed he had the elements to get Atlanta back to the top slot in the NFC South. The Falcons struggled in 2003 mostly because quarterback Michael Vick was injured for three months. Getting back a healthy Vick transformed the offense back to the level of ’02, when Atlanta made the playoffs. Where Mora had his biggest effect was on a defense that previously was putrid in a 3-4 alignment that didn’t fit the personnel. He switched to a 4-3, got career years from Keith Brooking and Patrick Kerney, and the Falcons ran away with the division.

Mularkey and Fox deserved consideration for not allowing seasons to fall apart after slow starts. In Buffalo’s case, Mularkey recognized the need to get running back Willis McGahee into the starting lineup, and to stick with the offensive and defensive schemes that struggled early on. For Fox, just getting the Panthers into contention for the playoffs after a 1-7 start and a plague of injuries was almost worth coach-of-the-year status. Almost, but not quite.

Cowher, after all, was a tough candidate to beat.

FOOTBALL DIGEST’S

Coaches of the Year

Year Coach Team

2004 Bill Cowher Pittsburgh Steelers

2003 Bill Belichick New England Patriots

2002 Jeff Fisher Tennessee Titans

2001 Dick Jauron Chicago Bears

2000 Andy Reid Philadelphia Eagles

1999 Dick Vermeil St. Louis Rams

1998 Dan Reeves Atlanta Falcons

1997 Marty Schottenheimer Kansas City Chiefs

1996 Dom Capers Carolina Panthers

1995 Ray Rhodes Philadelphia Eagles

1994 Bill Parcells New England Patriots

1993 Dan Reeves New York Giants

1992 Bobby Ross San Diego Chargers

1991 Jimmy Johnson Dallas Cowboys

1990 Don Shula Miami Dolphins

1989 Lindy Infante Green Bay Packers

1988 Mike Ditka Chicago Bears

1987 Jim Mora New Orleans Saints

1986 Bill Parcells New York Giants

1985 Mike Ditka Chicago Bears

1984 Chuck Knox Seattle Seahawks

1983 Joe Gibbs Washington Redskins

1982 Joe Gibbs Washington Redskins

1981 Bill Walsh San Francisco 49ers

1980 Chuck Knox Buffalo Bills

1979 Dick Vermeil Philadelphia Eagles

1978 Walt Michaels New York Jets

1977 Red Miller Denver Broncos

1976 Chuck Fairbanks New England Patriots

1975 Ted Machibroda Baltimore Colts

1974 Don Coryell St. Louis Cardinals

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