Blow It All Up

Hidden among the I-don't-knows of Bill Cowher's latest press conference was a question he asked of reporters. It was perhaps the only hint of information being passed that afternoon because it gave us a clue as to the Steelers coach's intentions this off-season.

Cowher was asked about those intentions as they pertain to his roster and whether he'll "have to blow it all up like Baltimore did two years ago?"

It was a question taken directly from a pulsating and, well, outstanding notes column in the team's own newspaper. Immediately, the intelligence of the question was understood. Here's how Cowher responded:

"I don't know," he said reflexively. "I have a hard time when you say ‘blow it all up.' I still look at Baltimore and there are a lot of good football players who were on that Super Bowl a few years ago. So did they really blow it all up?"

Did they really blow it up? Come on, Bill.

Let's just look at half the team. The 2001 Ravens, a playoff team one year removed from a championship, ranked second in the NFL in defense. The next off-season, they terminated the contracts of five defensive starters and a key back-up, allowed another starter and another key back-up to leave via free agency, and allowed another starter to leave in the expansion draft. They demoted another starter.

Again, the Ravens went into the 2002 season having displaced eight starters and two key back-ups from a defense that ranked second behind the Steelers in 2001.

The official term for what the Ravens did to their defense can be found in the glossary under B for Blew It All Up.

The Ravens had also changed their defensive alignment from a 4-3 to a 3-4. On offense, they jettisoned five starters, including a quarterback – Elvis Grbac – whom they'd signed to a 5-year contract exactly 1-year earlier, and allowed their top special teams player, Jermaine Lewis, to leave in the expansion draft.

They went into the 2002 season with $22.8 million in dead money, which was 32 percent of the salary allotment entitled under the cap. They did spend a little bit of money. They re-signed a young back-up defensive back and added a veteran quarterback to serve as a stop-gap until a young quarterback could be groomed. The Ravens did this before a draft that resulted in 19 first-year players (nine draft picks) making the 2002 opening-day roster. That team went 7-9 and was the bridge to a 2003 division championship that still has a talented rookie QB on its bench and up its sleeve.

Why were the Ravens able to bounce back so quickly after dismantling a championship team? Because they shut it down for a season. They -- altogether now -- Blew It All Up.

"You guys classify it as that," Cowher said. "But I don't look at it that way. You do what you have to do based on the bed you made for yourself. That's all part of the system so I don't look at it that way."

Cowher believes the Ravens only did what they had to do, but the reasons behind the right moves aren't in question. It's the recognition of those right moves and following it up with the guts to be the force behind making them yourself.

Of course, Cowher is convinced the Steelers just fell on the wrong side of "the very, very fine line" that exists between playoff and non-playoff teams, that this extra month can in fact make a difference. The extra month will help. There's no doubt. In fact, Cowher is probably right that his team is a right tackle, young running back and healthy Marvel Smith away from recapturing the magic that is 9-7.

But what about the next season? And those to follow? Will Chris Hope or Rodney Bailey or Alonzo Jackson or Chukky Okobi or Verron Haynes or Lee Mays or Ike Taylor be any closer to realizing their potential? Not with journeymen such as Brent Alexander, Jason Gildon, Jeff Hartings, Oliver Ross, Jerome Bettis, Kimo von Oelhoffen, Chris Doering and Chad Scott being squeezed for one more year by the world's most famous players coach.

It's becoming apparent that this is Cowher's intention. After all, he only has two years left on his contract, and because of his insistence on the "very, very fine line" he assuredly believes there's one year left on this alleged Super Bowl window.

However, that "very, very fine line" has, if anything, refuted the existence of Super Bowl windows. There is good coaching and there are organizations that do the right thing when it comes to reading the cap, the roster and identifying young talent. If you play it the right way, you can play that fine line forever, and if you're really smart you can win a championship every now and then.

To this point, Cowher has played that fine line pretty well, but without a championship it's led to a B on his career report card. In this case, though, at this time and this place, B stands for Blow It All Up.

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