July 6, 2006
In Praise of Bill
by Bob Hulsey
Since he now sits atop the NFL as head coach of the Super Bowl champions, this is a good time to bring up my secret admiration for somebody I don’t particularly like.
First, let’s get something straight. After the Raiders, the Steelers are the NFL team I hate the most. The Steelers had been the doormats of the National Football League for half a century, a sort of "Bad News Bears" of the league, full of ruffians and castoffs.
How pathetic were the Steelers? They let both Johnny Unitas and Len Dawson slip through their fingers in the 1950s. Yup. Had both of them in camp and let them walk – Unitas to Baltimore and Dawson to the Dallas Texans (later, Kansas City Chiefs) of the emerging American Football League. Both earned multiple football titles before the Steelers had even one.
That all changed in the 1970s when Chuck Noll converted some stellar draft classes (1974 is still considered the best draft by one team of all time – Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, John Stallworth, etc.) into the dynasty of the decade, just as Bum Phillips and the Houston Oilers were making a name for themselves.
The Oilers were unlucky enough to have the best team in football right in their own division. As a consequence, none of Bum’s teams actually won a division crown, even as they made back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game (both losses in Pittsburgh). It sort of parallels what the Astros have been through the past two seasons (and possibly a third) with the St. Louis Cardinals; Houston unable to win their division yet able to go deep into the postseason.
While I don’t hate the Redbirds, I definitely hated the Steelers. There was a lot of respect between the two clubhouses but there were some sore feelings as well, particularly when Mike Barber was cheap-shotted by Mike Wagner and, in another game, Earl Campbell’s ribs were broken by Donnie Shell. Guys like Lambert and "Mean Joe" Greene administered their share of late hits and cheap shots that were rarely called.
It was actually funny to see Noll at midfield many years later grabbing Oiler coach Jerry Glanville’s arm and lecturing him about cheap shots the Oilers were laying on the Steelers. As if the Steelers didn’t administer plenty of their own.
None of this really has much to do with Bill Cowher, except to say I have a natural disposition against liking anyone in black and gold. Cowher didn’t grow up the "Steeler way". He was an assistant of Marty Schottenheimer’s in Cleveland and Kansas City before getting the head job in Steeltown. Cowher’s personality was admirable, a gritty special teamer who pushed his limited physical skills into a job in the NFL. It would help him to motivate others as a coach to outdo their expectations.
Overachieving has been the hallmark of Cowher’s Steelers. The Rooney family, one of the last holdovers from when the NFL was a mom-and-pop business as opposed to the corporate investments most teams are today, can’t afford to pay top-dollar for free agents. The Steelers have let most of their big names depart in the age of the salary cap as soon as the star makes noises about wanting more money (Plaxico Burress being one of the latest examples).
That’s where my grudging admiration for jut-jawed Bill comes in. The Steelers have a fan base that is spoiled with victories. Much like Texas, Western Pennsylvania cares more about football than any other sport. Yet the Steelers lack the resources to lure an Edgerrin James or a Ray Lewis to town. They live off of solid drafting and below-the-radar free agents. Cowher is expected to win like the Dallas Cowboys yet without the cache to get a Terrell Owens or a Deion Sanders in the fold when they need one.
There have been two things that are the hallmarks of Steeler drafting. They take "tweener" defensive ends they can convert into linebackers for their 3-4 defense. A long line of Greg Lloyds and Joey Porters have come from obscurity thanks to Cowher recognizing exactly what he needed at that position and taking them in the second or third round. He also took a chance on Levon Kirkland when he seemed too large to be a linebacker yet too small to play the line. If you think finding 3-4 LBs is easy, look at how well that went at Reliant Park.
Unfortunately for Cowher, the rest of the league is now also snapping up 3-4 players thanks to the succcess of the New England Patriots. Back when the Cowboys and 49ers dominated with 4-3 sets, the copycat coaches all looked for 4-3 players so ideal 3-4 guys fell to the Steelers. My guess is that, eight years ago, a guy like DeMarcus Ware would have been a third-rounder in Pittsburgh. Now, he’s a Top 15 selection because about half the league wants to run the 3-4.
The second hallmark is a steady stream of offensive linemen. Need them or not, the Steelers seem to always look for smaller, quicker linemen they can teach the pulling and trapping plays that Noll ran to perfection and Cowher inherited.
Cowher has stayed at or near the top for many years, in part, because he’s willing to zig when others zag. When the league wants to run 4-3 defenses, he sticks to the 3-4. When teams went to wide-open passing offenses, Cowher perfected a power running game with big backs like Barry Foster, Bam Morris and Jerome Bettis blasting through the line.
How many other head coaches would have had the nerve to start a running quarterback when Cowher went to Kordell Stewart? How many also would be willing to bench him when Stewart began losing the confidence of his teammates?
Granted, Cowher doesn’t deserve all the credit for the Steelers’ success. He must have had some fine scouts to dig up a runner like Willie Parker or to reinvent a journeyman loser like Tommy Maddox. A lot of scouts and a lot of coaches should take some credit behind the scenes (one of which was Dom Capers, by the way).
Some would say that Cowher’s spotty record in AFC Championship games is proof that he isn’t in the Bill Walsh or Bill Parcells category of head coaches. I do think he may, however, be headed into a mini-dynasty with Ben Roethlisberger, provided he can find a way to keep Ben off of motorcycles. Big Ben gives Cowher something the Steelers haven’t had since Terry Bradshaw – a top-flight passer.
I wasn’t rooting for the Steelers to win last January. I still don’t like the Steelers at all. But I must give credit where credit is due. The Steelers keep winning even as they hemorrhage free agents and get outspent by other teams. They are creative and exploit the trendy NFL, often by choosing to take the opposite direction from the herd.
It takes guts to win the way Bill Cowher does and, as he relishes a long-sought NFL title, he deserves to be acknowledged for his unorthodox method of winning.
Bob Hulsey dedicates this month’s column to a pair of gay Steeler fans he saw at a sports bar in Denver a couple of years ago. Both of them sat in front of the big screen in their "Bettis 36" jersies and french kissed after every Steeler touchdown. For two quarters, he thought the loud, high-pitched one was a gal with short hair until he noticed which restroom he went into. Everytime the Steelers win, he’s thinking of those two and getting a little sick.
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