Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Cowher Does Nothing But Win

The jaw protrudes, the spittle fires out his mouth and attaches itself on anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way. Then the sneer comes and a stare that freezes the blood stone cold.

This is the face of a football coach – the face of Bill Cowher.

Behind the well-known features is a man who has done what many thought impossible – create his own legacy despite following a coaching legend.

Cowher became head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992 – replacing Chuck Noll – who led the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles in the 70s.

Names like Bradshaw, Harris, Swann, Stallworth, Greene, Ham, Lambert and Blount dominated the football landscape with Noll at the helm. Championships followed. That was the situation Bill Cowher faced when he took the job.

How has he done these last 14 years? His record speaks for itself.

Cowher has compiled a 145-88-1 overall mark (counting the current season), captured eight division titles, made the playoffs nine times and five times advanced to the AFC Championship game. In 1995, Pittsburgh made its only Super Bowl appearance in the Cowher era (Super Bowl XXX), losing to the Dallas Cowboys 27-17.

Critics and armchair quarterbacks love to bring up the fact that he’s never won the big one – like that somehow lowers his value as a coach. Nonsense.

He wouldn’t have lasted this long on the job if he weren’t a winner. The NFL chews people up and spits them out pretty quickly.

Winning is the key to longevity and winning is what Cowher does consistently. Pittsburgh, notoriously tight with the purse strings – has lost more key players to free agency than just about any team during the last ten years. How does Cowher respond? You guessed it. He keeps racking up more victories.

The fact is coaches, like quarterbacks, are judged by Super Bowl victories. Unfair or not, that’s the way it is. But it doesn’t take away from a great coach if he didn’t win one.

Are Bud Grant, Marv Levy, Chuck Knox and George Allen unsuccessful coaches because they never won a ring? Of course not. Neither is Bill Cowher.

This year – more than any other – proves the type of leader that he truly is.

Halfway through the 2005 season – Pittsburgh has compiled a 7-2 record and sets atop the AFC North standings.

They’ve done it with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley out for long stretches. Guys named Antwaan Randle-El, Cedrick Wilson and Willie Parker hold key positions in the offense. Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox have started games at quarterback.

Not exactly world-beaters in the lineup, yet the Steelers keep on winning.

They win because of the man in charge. Cowher’s passion for the game is intense. He hires the best assistants and gives them free reign in a system that’s worked in the league since time began.

I’m talking about good ole smash-mouth football – the not-so secret of their success. That’s the Pittsburgh Steelers in a nutshell.

Forget about how accurate Ben Roethlisberger is or how good his passer rating stacks up with the rest of the league. The Steelers are an in-your-face running team. The Black and Gold want to line up, hit you in the mouth and do it again and again. While chewing up yards and eating away at the clock.

It’s old-school football and Cowher has learned it well. Nothing fancy – just basic power football. The players like the system; they like the guy in charge and play hard for him.

The most important thing that a coach needs to do is develop flexibility. Even though he likes the power running attack, if Roethlisberger is hot or Hines Ward is feeling it – Cowher won’t hesitate to pass all day long. He doesn’t become trapped into one style of play. And that pertains to both his offensive and defensive philosophies.

The Steelers can zone blitz, straight blitz and drop into man, cover 2 or cover 3 if the situation calls for it. It’s a style of coaching that the entire Pittsburgh staff believes in.

Being a flexible coach sounds easy in theory, but its hard to implement in live situations. Many coaches will stick to what they know and refuse to change things up even if that change is beneficial. Just look at the St. Louis Rams as an example.

Mike Martz likes to throw 40-50 times a game, regardless of the score or what the defense is giving him. Running game be damned. No matter that he has Stephen Jackson and Marshall Faulk in the backfield. Defensive coordinator Larry Marmie never met a blitz he liked. And boy do the Rams need to blitz once in awhile. But that’s another column altogether.

Cowher is one of the greats this game has ever produced. Never has a coach accomplished so much with so little fanfare. But I happen to think that’s the way Cowher likes it. The glare of the spotlight and press hounds is something he would just as soon avoid. Coaching and winning football games are his bread and butter.

And rest assured, the famous jutted jaw and intense look will be around for many more victories and much greater success. Just watch out for the spit.

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