Wexell: Only one camp question

Make no mistake, there are camp questions.

Will Russ Grimm find some depth for the offensive line?

Will Charlie Batch stay healthy long enough to beat Brian St. Pierre for the third-string QB job?

Will Dick LeBeau find a place for James Harrison as a pass rusher?

Which of the young-ins will grab the left cornerback job from Willie Williams?

Sure, they're important questions; if you're one of the competitors. But is there a truly important question for a team that's virtually intact from a 15-1 season?

Well, there's this one: Can Bill Cowher win the big one?

Yes, we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here, a week before the start of training camp. But, really, it's the only question that will matter at any point of this season.

Cowher is 1-5 in final four games; 1-4 in home semifinal games. He's entering his 14th season without a championship. The only coach to last longer with one team without winning one is Bud Grant, who couldn't win a title in 18 years with the Minnesota Vikings.

There aren't any excuses left for Cowher. He has his staff intact and every one of his key players back from a 15-1 season. Also, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should improve in his second season on the job. So the question begs: Can Cowher win the big one?

Well, he got off to a good start in June. While we in the media tended to lean on those minor questions such as the aforementioned, Cowher ripped those questions asunder in his post-spring practice press conference. He made it apparent that he's not looking for third-stringers; he wants to find first-stringers. And that's something those of us on the outside take for granted. To Cowher's credit, he has not. To wit:

"This is going to be a tough camp," Cowher said on June 9th. "It's going to be very demanding. It's going to be very competitive. It's going to test their focus. We understand that we're not trying to live up to a 15-1 record, and how can you do better than that? Hey, the bottom line (is) we were 1-1 in the post-season. We've got to do better than that.

"It doesn't mean there are any guarantees that you get to the post-season. We've got to go back up to training camp and create that foundation. It's not like we're building this big building and starting at floor 3 and just finishing this thing off. We're back at the foundation. We're back at the bottom ground, building our way up. There's no easy way of doing it."

In other words, don't worry about who's backing up Max Starks, worry about Max Starks. And Marvel Smith. And while you're at it, worry about Alan Faneca. It's the point Cowher made, and he should be commended for setting the proper tone. Most coaches would be looking to simply improve instead of doing over again what made his team 15-1 in the first place.

That is Cowher's genius. He knows how to prepare a team, how to put it in position, and once in position how to play well … as an underdog.

Cowher's problems occur when he sits in the favorite's chair. Forget that the Steelers were underdogs to the New England Patriots last year. In the Patriots' minds, the Steelers, who'd thrashed them earlier in the year, were the favorites, and the Steelers played like it, like they were once again 11-point favorites over the Indianapolis Colts. They played not to lose.

Field goal in the fourth quarter when trailing by 14? Sure. That's what the book says.

Well, maybe it's time to throw the book away, and therein lies the promise of young Roethlisberger.

The second-year quarterback has already defied Cowher publicly with the motorcycle issue, and from this seat that's a good start. Roethlisberger represents the rebel who would wave off the field-goal unit as it trots on for a 17-yarder. He's the guy who – given a few years experience and thus confidence -- would call a timeout and have it out with Cowher. That role is not to be diminished when dealing with a coach who has a tendency to shrink when the season's on the line.

Of course, there's also the concern that Roethlisberger will flatten out as a sophomore; that he'll be devoured by fan idolatry, or perhaps by his own bodyguards and girl friend. And that's where Cowher steps in.

Whatever his failings in big games, Cowher has the keen ability to check personalities, mold a unit and put it in position to win the big one. And so it becomes the old chicken-and-egg argument, but don't misunderstand the situation: both Cowher and Roethlisberger need each other.


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