Wilson: Maybe Cowher should return punts

Blogger Ryan Wilson joins the chorus of fans, the media, and people with only a passing interest in football in wondering why, exactly, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher thought Ricardo Colclough could return punts. Sure, Colclough cost Pittsburgh the game, but the real goat was Cowher.

The worst thing to come from Sunday's game is that Ricardo Colclough will think he's the reason the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Cincinnati Bengals. Yes, he had a punt ricochet off his face with just over eight minutes to go in the game with Pittsburgh leading 17-14. And yes, Carson Palmer threw a touchdown pass on the very next play to put the Bengals up for good. But unless I missed something, Colclough doesn't make the personnel decisions. This loss falls squarely on the shoulders of Bill Cowher and I couldn't be more emphatic about this if I slapped on a sandwich board that read, "Cowher's a Maroon" and picketed outside the team's South Side facility.

Honestly, I don't think I've ever been so angry after a football game. The 2001 and 2004 AFC Championship games were more depressing than anything, and 2003 was just a series of disappointments. But Sunday's debacle was infuriating. Pittsburgh dominated the time of possession, total yards, registered six sacks, forced two interceptions and the defense only allowed Cincinnati three second-half first down … and they still lost. And it's all because of the head coach.

Here's the thing: I'm usually pretty upbeat during games, even when the chips are down, because I don't want to be that fan – and you know what I'm talking about – who's never happy, even after a win. Their whole existence consists of berating every one of their favorite team's players and only they seem happy when things are going bad. You know, just so they can bust out an "I told you so." Yeah, those people suck.

I make it a point to remember that A) football is a pretty complex game and coaches usually know more than me, and B) what fun is it to be a fan if all you do is complain? I love watching Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward play like Pro Bowlers; and seeing Bryant McFadden and Brett Keisel mature into very solid players. In recent memory, the only two guys who drove me bonkers on a weekly basis were Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington. Sure, I'd take my shots at Lee Mays, but that's because it was just so easy. And to his credit, he had two big games in 2004 – against the Jaguars and Jets – and that merits a mention.

Keeping point A in mind, I have never unleashed such a profanity-laced tirade as I did after McFumbles Colclough muffed the punt. And all my vitriol was focused directly at Cowher. What really set me off was after the Bengals recovered the ball, the camera showed Cowher making the "Cowher Face" like he was shocked Colclough didn't field it cleanly. That makes one of us, Bill.


Like Tunch Ilkin asked during the radio broadcast as Colclough jogged onto the field: "Why?"

Great question. Here was Cowher's explanation during the postgame press conference:

Q:Why change punt returners?

Cowher: Well we'd been doing with Santonio because – he's been catching the balls inside the 10-yard line because I feel good about his hands. I just felt out on the field Ricardo, he just misjudged the ball. Obviously no one feels worse about it than he does. Unfortunately we couldn't recover.

First of all, Cowher should feel worse than Colclough does. I mean, he's the guy that sent him out there. Second, what the hell difference does the field position make? If a player can't catch a punt, he can't catch a punt.

That's like the left fielder who has trouble with fly balls near the wall. Instead of replacing him, the coach just tells him to play 20 feet behind the shortstop. That way, the wall's not an issue. Sure, that solves one problem, but creates a whole slew of other ones.

And in Colclough's case, he's proven, time and again, that he's not a punt returner. In my four training-camp practices I counted no fewer than five Colclough drops. The other returners? Zero. Things got so bad, Cowher actually pulled him off the return team, but not before giving him an earful. But somehow head coach has since blocked out these memories:

Q:Considering all the problems Ricardo's had catching the ball, why put him back there at all?

Cowher: Well, like I said, there weren't many problems in the preseason. It hasn't been maybe the smoothest but I felt good about it. So, again, you can put that one on me as well.

If by "there weren't many problems" Cowher meant, "we had a crapload of problems," then I agree. Otherwise, the coach has lost his marbles. Here are some other questions that should've been asked at the press conference:

"Bill, would you say this is your worst coaching performance, maybe ever?"

"More broadly, outside of the Detroit Lions, could this possibly be one of the all-time worst coaching performances?"

"Is there any truth to the rumor that you got drunk at halftime?"

"Have you ever dropped acid? Specifically, did you drop acid in the last four hours?"

"On what basis can you say anything other than 'Ricardo Colclough is to punt returning what Barrett Brooks is to punt returning?"

"Who should be more embarrassed, you or Colclough? And why?"

"Lost in all of this is special teams coach Kevin Spencer. Do you feel bad for him and his family now that many people will assume he was responsible for putting Colclough back there when you, in fact, admitted it was your decision? Should you warn fans not to throw garbage in his yard, or harass his kids because it wasn't his fault? But it was you who made the bone-headed decision?"

"Why draft Willie Reid with a third-round pick, specifically to return punts, and then deactivate him every week? And if you say it's because the team needs three running backs, why didn't you use Najeh Davenport in the last two games? Isn't special teams a much bigger part of the game than a short-yardage back? Especially now that Willie Parker has shown the ability to run in … um … short-yardage situations?"

Dale or Wex, feel free to use any of these for the Tuesday press conference.

The second most amazing thing to come out Sunday's loss was the sheer unanimity across local news outlets on why the Steelers lost. AOL Fanhouse blogger JJ Cooper has a nice roundup, but let me point out some of my favorites:

  • Dale Lolley gets things started: "… I don't blame Colclough for muffing a punt that the Bengals recovered at the Pittsburgh nine-yard line. You don't blame a lion for attacking a water buffalo. He's just doing what lions do.

    I'm not going to say Willie Reid would have made a difference in this game. But he certainly didn't muff any punts during training camp."

  • Anybody with a brain: 1 Cowher: 0

    Let me say that Willie Reid would've made a difference. And I don't mean he would've taken one to the house, I mean he would've been able to successfully catch a punt. Like my buddy Andy said at the time, "Why not put Hines Ward back there just to fair catch the thing?" I thought maybe Santonio Holmes was hurt and the Steelers didn't have a choice, but after seeing Holmes haul in three passes late in the fourth quarter, that theory – just like the Steelers' chance of winning – went out the window.

  • Ed Bouchette picks up where Dale left off: "Putting Colclough back there to return that punt in that crucial situation in the fourth quarter was astounding, and those near my earshot in the press box were flabbergasted. It was one of the biggest coaching blunders I've seen here in awhile and it cost them a crucial ballgame."
  • Anybody with a brain: 2 Cowher: 0

  • Ron Cook offers a more straightforward slapdown: "Based on stupidity alone, the Steelers deserved to lose. No one had a dumber day than Bill Cowher. His continued nonsensical insistence on using Ricardo Colclough on the punt-return team finally bit him in the behind when Colclough muffed a fourth-quarter punt that handed the game to the Bengals."
  • Do you see a pattern here?

    Anybody with a brain: 3 Cowher: 0

  • Joe Starkey has more: "[Putting Colclough out there] was unconscionable, really. Incomprehensible. It made Cowher's decision to leave Tommy Maddox out there in the second half of last year's Jacksonville game look like a stroke of genius."
  • Anybody with a brain: 4 Cowher: 0

  • The Beaver County Times: "During training camp when the Steelers experimented with replacements for the departed Antwaan Randle El, an exceptional punt returner when he played in Pittsburgh, special teams coach Kevin Spencer admitted that Colclough had a problem catching the football.

    Spencer actually described Colclough's problem as a tendency of 'putting the ball on the ground.'"

  • You think? How would Spencer describe Cowher's problem of making really dumb decisions during critical points in the game?

    Anybody with a brain: 5 Cowher: 0

  • Finally, Starkey had the nerve to ask Joey Porter whether Colclough's muff led to him being visibly upset on the sidelines: "I know you're smarter than that," Porter said. "Don't ask me a question you know the answer to. What did you think I was mad about? You fill in the blank on that one."

    Porter continued: "We're too much of a veteran team to make mistakes like that. You're fighting through a game, that happens, and, of course, you're not happy about it. I don't know anybody that would be happy about that."

  • Anybody with a brain: 5 Guy with dogs that can kill a horse: 1 Cowher: 0

    If there's any good news, it's this: Cowher admitted that Willie Reid will at least get consideration going forward. It's just too bad it took a ball clanging of Colclough's face mask before a change even crossed the coach's mind. Sheesh.

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