Steelers Go Back to the Future? I Dream of Bill Cowher

Lee HeislerCorrespondent IDecember 15, 2009

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 03:  Head coach Bill Cowher of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches from the sideline against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field on December 3, 2006 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

During the past few weeks, I've been watching a lot of old reruns on TV such as "I Dream of Genie" or old movies such as "Back to The Future." I'm doing this because I don't want to come across any Steeler highlights—well actually, low-lights—on ESPN or the NFL Network. 

These shows got me thinking about the good old days when I was growing up and then about the good old days for the Steelers, such as when Bill Cowher was the head coach.

I'm not pushing to get Mike Tomlin out of Pittsburgh, and I understand that it wouldn't happen even if I were, but I do have to admit that I'd love to see Bill Cowher back as the Steelers head coach.

Look at how the Cincinnati Bengals came out of nowhere this season to take over the AFC North; they're playing Pittsburgh Steelers football. Run the ball, pass to move the chains, and play aggressive defense.

The Steelers have started to play Cincinnati Bengals football this season. They're pass happy, inconsistent despite talent, and finding ways to lose.

I will admit, I have always been a supporter of Bill Cowher, even during the losing years.

But look at what he did with what he had. Yes, he had a lot of talented players. But the Steelers lost as many or more players to free agency during his time as coach than any other team.

Look at some of the names: Rod Woodson, Kevin Greene, Eric Green, Yancey Thigpen, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, Leon Searcy, John Jackson, Levon Kirkland, Carnell Lake, etc.

Then look at what he did with the quarterbacks that he had: Bubby Brister, Neil O'Donnell, Jim Miller, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham, Tommy Maddox, and finally Ben Roethlisberger.

Besides Roethlisberger, the best of the group were O'Donnell and Stewart.

In the playoffs, very good teams would go all out to take away the run and force the Steelers to win by passing. Until Roethisberger, Cowher never had a QB that could do that.

Neil O'Donnell was a solid player that played behind a tremendous offensive line, but he couldn't move, and on the occasion that he got pressured, he'd chuck and duck. 

Kordell Stewart was a great athlete, but couldn't read defenses and was very inaccurate.

Tommy Maddox was basically a one-year wonder that was immobile and turnover prone.

Yet, look at the success that the Steelers continued to have with these quarterbacks, led by Cowher.

And yes, Cowher did lose an AFC championship game with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, but Roethlisberger was a rookie. How many teams could finish the regular season at 15-1 and even play in a championship game with a rookie QB?

Not to bash Mike Tomlin, but he took over a championship-ready team with a championship-caliber QB. 

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, especially in this day and age. If you don't have a very good or elite quarterback, rarely will you win a championship or even compete for one.

I know that there are exceptions like the Ravens, but history backs up that fact.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, led by Mike Tomlin, have in this season alone lost more fourth quarter leads than Cowher's Steelers did in his whole time in Pittsburgh.

Is that all Mike Tomlin's fault? No, but he took a team built by Cowher and Kevin Colbert and tried to change—or let it be changed by Bruce Arians—them into something that they're not.

The offense is built to be a physical, power running offense. Look at the offensive line: They are big, heavy, road graders. Their strength is not pass blocking 50 times a game nor is it finesse zone blocking. It is a hat on a hat, downhill, physical style, run blocking.

Tomlin is dealing with failure for the first time as the head coach. Thus far, he has dealt with it by quoting lines from movies, making idle threats, cutting fringe players, and sticking with what is not working.

And one time he "punished" a player by making him sit out of training camp because he was deemed out of shape. Boy! I bet Casey Hampton was crushed by being forced to sit out most of training camp and missing those those two-a-days!

Whereas, Cowher was not afraid to make changes. They didn't always work, but he was willing to try to fix what was broken.

Cowher fired assistants that weren't up to par, stepped in to make play calls, and even stripped coordinators of their play calling duties.

He had guts, he wasn't afraid to hurt some egos, step on some toes. 

Do you think Bruce Arians would have been able continue to be so horrible as an offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher?  No, he would be told to run the ball and stick with it. And if he didn't get the point, he would have been stripped of his play calling duties and likely fired.

I've heard too many times that Cowher's offense was too conservative and that they didn't pass enough.

During the Super Bowl year of 1995, Cowher allowed the offense to open up. Granted, it got them to a Super Bowl. But the Cowboys were able to pressure an immobile QB and Neil O'Donnell turned the ball over.

What would have happened to the offense the following year? Nobody really knows.

Jerome Bettis was traded for that offseason, and Neil O'Donnell signed with the Jets. My gut feeling is that Cowher would have returned the offense to a more run oriented attack, but with Jim Miller and Mike Tomczak taking the reigns, Cowher had no choice.

Then Cowher allowed the pass happy "Tommy-Gun" offense in 2003 and how'd that work? It didn't, so Cowher made another change and went back to what worked.    

Cowher was the boss. He understood that it was his neck if the team didn't succeed. So he tried to fit the offense around his talent, unlike what the Steelers coaches are currently doing.

Tomlin, to this point, has sat back, done nothing, possibly lost the team, and wasted a season.

I don't hate Tomlin. He is a young coach that has won a Super Bowl and likely has a bright future ahead of him. I just wish he had more guts—like Bill Cowher.

And I know that Tomlin will be in Pittsburgh for a while and deservedly so...because that is the Rooney way.

But I can dream, can't I? 

Of a power running game eating up the clock, with maybe Chan Gailey or Russ Grimm calling the plays.

Of a blitzing, attacking defense that isn't slowly being converted to a "Tampa Two" and thus blowing leads, still led by Dick LeBeau.

And of the Crafton boy with the chin, spitting and yelling on the sidelines, reunited with the only franchise QB that he's ever coached, going to and winning another Super Bowl, or two, or three ...



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