Cowher: Can he pull it off?

We know the one about the defensive back who couldn't cover because the pass rush was lacking. And we know about the pass-rusher who couldn't get there because the receiver came open too quickly. It's akin to the question about the chicken or the egg and will be examined closely this training camp by the Steelers' brain trust.<br> <br> And that brings us to another chapter of the same parable. Maybe we should simply entitle it 'The Brain Trust', or better yet, 'In Bill Cowher We Trust'.

Cowher, of course, is the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers and to that end he may have the best job in all of sports. Consider that in the last 34 years, the Steelers have had only two head coaches. The tie that binds Chuck Noll's 23 years and Cowher's 11 is owner Dan Rooney, who emerged as the head of the organization just before Noll was hired in 1969. Rooney believes greatly in coaching stability and has Cowher under contract through the 2005 season.

But, does Cowher deserve this loyalty? That's perhaps the biggest question on a team that has very few as it prepares to begin training camp Friday at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.

Kordell Stewart is gone and thus the most volatile of all Steelers issues the past five years or so has been removed. You may ask if Tommy Maddox is mobile enough to survive a new left tackle, but you probably won't engage much discussion wondering whether Maddox has suddenly lost his touch, savvy and/or quick release.

Other questions surround Jerome Bettis, Dewayne Washington, Oliver Ross, the battle for the strong safety job and perhaps even the mental state and maturity level of Plaxico Burress, but these are relatively minor issues for a team that appears to be on the verge of a run at a championship.

Really, the only legitimate question being raised these days involves Cowher. Can he pull it off?

On one side of the argument is a coach who's entering his 12th season in the NFL with a 116-74-1 record. The winning percentage of .610 is 11th all-time among NFL coaches with 85 or more victories. Among active coaches, Cowher is third in wins behind Dan Reeves (198) and Marty Schottenheimer (166).

Playoff records are included in these totals, but they certainly don't skew the percentages. Cowher is 7-8 in playoff games, including 0-1 in Super Bowls. When the latter numbers are added with those of Reeves and Schottenheimer, the three most prolific winners among active coaches are 0-5 in Super Bowls. Of course, most of that burden falls on Reeves, who is 0-4 in Super Bowls, but it should be noted that Cowher's mentor, Schottenheimer, hasn't coached a Super Bowl team in his 17 years in the league.

What these numbers suggest is the counter-argument to Cowher's abilities as a head coach. Going into his 12th season, he has yet to win the big one. That he's been in only one suggests he hasn't had the talent to get there, but the point spread in his biggest losses suggest Cowher indeed has had the talent.

As 9.5-point home favorites in 1994, Cowher's Steelers lost to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game. As 10-point home favorites in 2001, the Steelers lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers split the two remaining AFC Championship Games at Three Rivers Stadium, losing to Denver as 2.5-point underdogs in 1997 and winning by a dropped desperation heave as 12-point favorites against Indianapolis in 1995.

Under Cowher, the Steelers are 1-3 at home in AFC Championship games, but then again, he's put them in position to do so. But we must ask whether the team put Cowher in position to be considered among the league's great coaches? That is the great chicken-or-egg debate, which could be answered this season.

This is a team without much in the way of excuses. The quarterback's in place; the running backs are ahead of where they were last year; the line has received much attention in recent drafts; and the group of wide receivers just might be the best in the league. On the other side of the ball is a defense that received all of the off-season attention. Unless coaching is one of them, the Steelers have no excuses this year.

But to know whether this all-time great in the wins category is there because of his team or whether the team has been in position to lose big games because of Cowher still remains to be seen. It's the chicken-or-the-egg question. Or more timely and appropriately, is it the coverage or the rush?

Jim Wexell
Steel City

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