The Man Who Knew Too Much

Bill Cowher hates mistakes. He should know, watching many of his better teams come up short thanks to a miscue or two during the course of a game. He's also benefited from the opposition's blunders. Yet, somewhere along Cowher's career as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, his team stopped playing football.

You might not know it, but LB Kendrell Bell had his best season as a Pittsburgh Steeler in 2003. Bell certainly impressed plenty of people during his rookie season, including recently fired defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, "He'll do something, and I'll say, 'My gawd, I don't think I've ever seen that before. He's just so athletic, so powerful, so explosive."

Bell was a one man wrecking crew in 2001, but Lewis felt the best was yet to come, "We're trying to keep him in situations in which he's comfortable: rushing the passer and playing the run. He'll be even better once he fully understands our base defense."

The sudden impact that thrilled Steelers fans was mostly missing in 2003, Bell's third year. What most of us didn't see during his rookie year are all the mistakes Bell made due to his inability to pick up the defense quickly, forcing the coaches "to keep him in situations in which he's comfortable."

You might think that the coaching staff would work to create as many of those situations as possible for someone as talented as Bell. Instead, we now have a player that understands the system much better, but rarely displays the great football instincts that made him such a rookie phenom.

Enter rookie SS Troy Polamalu. Like Bell, the Steelers traded away picks in order to move up in the draft and pick the talented football player. Polamalu was also known as explosive and powerful, a big hitter with cornerback speed. He was renown for his instinctive football play.

Just as in Bell's case, the entire front office of the Steelers felt Polamalu was a can't miss prospect. However, we rarely, if ever, saw the flashes of greatness that made the football world sit up and take notice of Bell.

Instead, Polamalu looked tentative. He was studying the defense, trying to absorb everything, in hopes of fully understanding the base defense. He said it himself. He was overly concerned with making a mistake, which changed after he missed a sack in the game against the Arizona Cardinals.

"From then on, I was just trying to make plays and not really worrying about messing up," said Polamalu. "From the second half of the Arizona game to this point, I was just playing football."

Perhaps the best is yet to come for Polamalu, but in the meantime, the Steelers struggle to get the contributions they so desperately need from their rookie class. Cowher's obsession with not making mistakes is causing his team to fall behind the curve of the NFL.

Given the demands of the salary cap, the draft is the most important source of personnel. Free agents are too expensive and too risky. Teams such as the Baltimore Ravens emerge from cap jail, forced to play a slew of young players. Yet for all that inexperience, teams manage to win games.

Looking at the Ravens and the Steelers, experience would seem to be overrated. Looking around the NFL at the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, Cowher looks like a dinosaur.

At one point in 2003, the Indianapolis Colts, a playoff team, started five rookies.

"Going into the draft, we had our eye on most of these guys," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "We felt [Dallas] Clark, [Mike] Doss and [Steve] Sciullo were all going to be starters and penciled them in when we drafted them. It's what you have to do in this day and age. You have to feel good about the guys you're drafting and then have the confidence to play them." Dungy has long been an advocate for simple defensive schemes that allow players, particularly rookies, to just go out there and play football.

"In this day and age, there are so many, changes year to year with your personnel," Dungy said during the 2000 season. "Rookies have to be ready to play, free agents from other teams have to be able to come in and pick everything up. So it helps to be simple."

The Patriots managed to be successful despite 41 rookie starts in 2003. First-year free safety Eugene Wilson starts at a position that Cowher would not trust to anyone but the brainy and experienced Brent Alexander, youth and speed be damned.

Cowher's fear of mistakes is killing a defense that is much more talented than it looked in 2003. Jason Gildon and Joey Porter are begging to blitz more, but Cowher refused, despite pleas from Lewis to turn up the pressure. Chad Scott has asked on a number of occasions to play more man-to-man press coverage, but Cowher retreats to safety in numbers.

Interestingly, Cowher became infatuated with Tampa Bay's nickel scheme after the Bucs won the Super Bowl, hoping something similar might work in Pittsburgh. Yet Cowher could not bring himself to push aside the complicated blitz and coverage schemes, something that Tampa Bay mostly avoids.

"We try to keep it simple so players can be aggressive," Bucs coordinator Monte Kiffin once said. "If they think too much, they make mental mistakes and they beat themselves."

Cowher, on the other hand, seems hell-bent on covering up deficiencies in personnel with complex schemes. He doesn't trust his players to play (nor his coaches to coach).

Perhaps Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Jim Bates understands Cowher's dilemma, "If you have less talent, defensive coordinators may be tempted to get more complicated. Sometimes if you hit on everything, scheme can win a game. But if you over game plan and do a lot of stuff, you usually get burned over the long run. It's hard to trick people in this league. So good players usually are a better answer."

Good players are the answer, good players such as Kendrell Bell and Troy Polamalu. But Cowher won't let them play. With Tim Lewis now out of the picture, a change to recently fired New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell would be a step in the right direction.

Cottrell explained his success as defensive coordinator with the Buffalo Bills, where he ran the 3-4 scheme, "We rely a lot on execution and play awareness, being physical and hustling to the ball without doing a lot of thinking, changing on the run. This way, their talents can come out and they can be more aggressive with their techniques."

That's exactly what is missing in Pittsburgh. Cottrell did not need to red-shirt outside linebackers for his scheme. In fact, the 3-4 was born in Buffalo over the course of a game against the San Francisco 49ers. Cottrell simply switched up from the 4-3 in order to confuse QB Steve Young and the Bills never looked back.

Cottrell is not an advocate of fancy blitz schemes and his low-risk approach to defense might appeal to Cowher. When former Steelers offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was chased out of Pittsburgh, the entire offense breathed a sigh of relief. In came Mike Mularkey, who put a premium on letting the players play. Cottrell would do the same for the Steelers defense, if Cowher would let him.

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