When this season opened very few of us believed that the team would be anything more than a .500 ball club with the underlying goal of restoring confidence in an organization hit hard by playoff underachievement and the loss of veteran leadership. Before the 2003 season, the Steelers said goodbye to three starters with regular and post-season experience, QB Kordell Stewart, LT Wayne Gandy and SS Lee Flowers.
Before this season, the Steelers bade farewell to starters TE Mark Bruener, RB Amos Zereoue, OLB Jason Gildon, FS Brent Alexander and CB Dewayne Washington. Again, regardless of the deterioration of skills that comes with age, veteran leadership was leaving. Gone now were most of the old veteran players of the First Bill Cowher Era. I choose to believe it was the beginning of the Second Bill Cowher Era.
The terrible loss in the AFC Championship Game takes nothing away from how Cowher redefined his abilities as a coach and tactician. He managed the egos of a number of marquee players who weren't happy with their roles on the team. Jerome Bettis wasn't thrilled with being demoted to goal-line situations, but Cowher got him to believe in the system. Plaxico Burress was spending what could be his last season in Pittsburgh unsatisfied with a lack of commitment to an open passing attack that the team had experimented with in 2002 and 2003 to mixed results. Still, Cowher still got him to raise his game when Tommy Maddox went down.
The argument is weak that Bill Cowher was again out-coached in the Championship game. In fact, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the better team. That might be the hardest thing for any fan or player to imagine. There is a misconception that the best team wins home-field advantage in the playoffs. While this may hold true in the majority, the top of AFC this season was the most competitive it had been in Cowher's 13 years. Except for Denver, there was not one team that was overmatched.
This season, Cowher's best coaching performance came with recognition that rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger needed only to be protected, not coached. Any amount of tweaking to his game would have resulted in a loss of confidence. Gradually, the rookie began to struggle as opposing defenses recognized the Steelers' one-dimensional attack.
Yet, the team continued to win?
This was due to a stout, over-achieving defense, whose aggressive play compensated for the lack of experience at the safety position and a plethora of injuries. And while the defense kept offenses off the field and created turnovers, the Steelers offense wore down opponents with a brutal running attack, headed by an injury-free offensive line and Jerome Bettis running on a second wind. If you add in a clutch possession receiver in Hines Ward and shifty role-players like Jay Riemersma, Antwaan Randle El, Verron Haynes, and Dan Kreider, the offense had the right recipe for a team that thrives on long drives.
And in the end, the Steelers' commitment to this type of football was not only their only chance at success, but also their undoing. They did not have a fourth and fifth solid wide receiver as in other years past. They did not have the ability to open up the passing game against strong defenses. In fact, most of the big plays this season on offense were due to a breakdown in the play, Roethlisberger scrambling out of the pocket, finding receivers, improvising. Granted there were situations where the big plays did not occur, but they were few and far between.
Eventually, teams needed to only wait out the storm and play mistake-free football. Roethlisberger's rating when teams blitzed was over 100, so teams like the Patriots and Jets stopped blitzing. The Patriots for much of the game forced Ben to throw incredibly difficult passes into zone areas, while rushing only three men. Instead of pressuring him into mistakes, the Patriots forced Roethlisberger to make the perfect pass every time. And as the world found out, at the end of a grueling rookie year, he was unable to do that.
This off-season, Plaxico Burress will find a new home, Jerome Bettis may retire, Hines Ward will be contracted to Pittsburgh for a foreseeable future, Kendrell Bell will not be resigned and a tough decision will have to be made about Casey Hampton. And yet, not one of the players who may leave is irreplaceable. The team will most likely look for an offensive lineman and an inside linebacker in the draft, a deep-threat receiver in free agency and host of role-players.
And thus we sit at the crossroads. The end of the First Bill Cowher Era came this summer with re-commitment to power running football. But, the beginning of the Second Bill Cowher Era came the second the clock hit 00:00 in Heinz Field Sunday evening.
Now that the Steelers season has ended, John Biles can be found adding his opinions on Pittsburgh Panther basketball at sister site PantherReport.com . He will continue to add his insight with "Bites" articles during the off-season, but weekly fixture Wednesday Apple Pie will be on hiatus until training camp.