Searching for the Steelers

Not too long ago, Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers provided a blueprint for success in the NFL. Certainly, there are the devotees of Bill Walsh and their collective Super Bowl success is indeed impressive. But teams such as the Jacksonville Jaguars would regularly raid the kitchen in Pittsburgh and Cowher's coaching staff found good jobs throughout the NFL. Like it or not, Cowher's brand of football forged its own path in the NFL.

Something happened on the way to the Super Bowl.

The manic energy of Bill Cowher's early days and a team brimming with talent aside, the pinnacle of Cowher's brand of football was 2001. No Cowher team has dominated a regular season as the 2001 men in Black and Gold did.

The Pittsburgh Steelers averaged more than double the rushing yards than the worst running team in the NFL that season, the Cleveland Browns. Just to demonstrate how bizarre the turnabout in Pittsburgh is, the Steelers this season, just 2 years later, average fewer yards per game on the ground than those lowly Browns of 2001.

Cowher had browbeaten QB Kordell Stewart so vigorously that Stewart was afraid to throw the ball. The result was 12 total interceptions for the entire season. Tommy Maddox already has 8 through 5 games in 2003.

Defensively, the Steelers were just awesome. There was no room to run for the opposing offense and the Steelers surrendered fewer points per game in 2001 than they often give up in a quarter in 2003.

But the statistics are not really the story, they are just indicators of something dramatically amiss in the Steelers organization.

That last statement may seem more than obvious after the Browns completely dismantled the Steelers last Sunday night. Yet the Steelers have struggled mightily early on more often than not during Cowher's tenure. Pittsburgh looked utterly hopeless after Oakland and New England demolished the Steelers to open the 2002 season.

In 1995, the Steelers looked rudderless after a 3-3 start, something they could achieve this Sunday against Denver. Pittsburgh had just lost to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars and there was dissention among the ranks.

Cowher, just like he was Tuesday at his press conference, was somewhat philosophical, "I think it's a very natural reaction when you have the loss we had. You have to keep it in perspective. I'm not saying I accept it. To me, this loss was disappointing, and the loss to Miami was disappointing and the loss to Minnesota was disappointing. The thing you have to look at is why are you losing close football games..

"The thing you have to do is not lose sight of the [positive] things you're doing, not overreact, but at the same time, let's understand what has to get corrected and let's address it."

"We can get the thing on the right track. Let's get back to basics, the fundamentals of the game: tackling, blocking, understanding what defenses are doing to you and then responding, executing, adjusting. That's the game of football."

The losses to Minnesota and Miami were not close. Yet somehow Cowher and the Steelers managed to turn things around and made an appearance in the Super Bowl.

Should we expect another team turnaround in 2003?

There are some reasons to think otherwise. There isn't a Neil O'Donnell on the mend or a Tommy Maddox waiting in the wings. But in 1995 Carnell Lake sounded a lot like Hines Ward did just this past Monday, "I'm worried about our focus. I'm worried about our desire."

"When you start losing some games you should win, it makes you wonder where our head is at because right now the only thing that's stopping us is us and it's all in our head. When we change our mental attitude, that's when we'll start changing outcomes."

Cowher and the Steelers stuck with their game plan and way of playing. The running game was struggling, but not like this season. Even with the advent of an O'Donnell aerial attack, the Steelers retained their identity, on both sides of the ball.

That's the problem with this year's bunch. They don't know who they are and haven't since New England ended their Super Bowl hopes in January of 2002. Mistakenly, Cowher concluded that the Steeler way didn't lead to the Lombardi Trophy.

Cowher probably looked correct after those first two losses in 2002. Teams were torching the Steelers secondary, abandoning the run, and once Maddox took the reins of the offense, the Steelers started mimicking the offenses they faced.

During this last off-season, Cowher played copycat again, this time on defense. The cover-2 nickel was all the rage after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl. Cowher tried to land S Dexter Jackson and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis was charged with bringing a little bit of Tampa to Pittsburgh.

The problem with this plan was that one player, in this case Jackson, would not complete any transformation. Great players such as Kendrell Bell and Casey Hampton were drafted to play in a very Cowher scheme of things, not the nickel. The veterans that the front office locked up, for what now seems like an eternity, have skills that fit an esoteric form of defense.

This goes for the offense as well as the defense. Kendall Simmons and Jeff Hartings were brought aboard to man a run-first team. The shame is that the answer to all this cover-2 that we see in 2003 is a punishing ground game. Cowher, like us fans, has been seduced by all the gimmicks and gadgets sitting at wide receiver only to lose his nerve inside the red zone.

This team is being pulled in two directions. Cowher needs to make a choice, get back to basics or forge headlong into the future. This hybrid is not going to work, at least not with the current cast of personnel. The result thus far has been the worst of both worlds.

Still, Cowher has pulled a rabbit out of the hat before and though it is difficult to imagine, we may yet see some magic come Sunday.

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