Coach Clockenstein

So the owner, the guy who practically built the modern NFL, is barking about an official's call that cost the Steelers the game against the Atlanta Falcons. So once again the coach is let off the hook for another time-management blunder.

I knew Bill Cowher's head wasn't in the game when he got mad over the first-half official's review of Santonio Holmes's catch. Cowher didn't realize, I surmise, that the booth called for the replay instead of the timeout-less Falcons, and upon realization still played it out by menacing the review of a pass Holmes did indeed bobble before pulling in.

Cowher recovered in the second half to make his best decision of the year. He allowed line coach Russ Grimm to yank Kendall Simmons. His last play at right guard was Willie Parker's fumble. Simmons appeared to take his first step right, as if he was supposed to pull, and Justin Babineaux steamed right through the opening and blew up the play. Parker tried to reverse field and coughed it up. That was it for Simmons, who was replaced – probably for the rest of the season – by Chris Kemoeatu.

Now, Kemoeatu didn't blow open holes or get out in front of any screen passes the rest of the way. In fact his best contribution came on the tying 17-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward. Kemoeatu grabbed the 286-pound Babineaux and flung him to his right, where he spilled into Max Starks and the man Starks was blocking. The aerial replay of this "block" showed Kemoeatu bowling with Babineaux and picking up the spare. Not that it had much effect on the play. Or did it? It did help create that big pocket for Charlie Batch. There was room, something Simmons rarely helped with.

So, I say to Cowher, good move, even if you were only overseeing your kingdom. Of course, that's part of your job. The wise head coach allows his assistants to coach while you run over to share jokes with opposing quarterbacks on potential game-winning drives.

Did you ever play with a star who before games would slide over to the other team and talk to their star? It's a disgusting bit of pre-game ego-massaging in my book. Well, the game has evolved to the point where you can do it in the midst of a last-minute drive. You, too, can put yourself on the same level as other stars with a smile and a joke above and beyond the fray – the fray in which the players are spilling blood and guts.

So, anyway, where was this cool dude when it came time for him to do his most important job?

Clock management had been a notorious Cowher problem until last season, but it reared its ugly head again. Cowher had squandered one timeout by ordering a review of an easy touchdown run by Warrick Dunn. Maybe it wasn't such a bad move; perhaps the coach saw something.

He did not, and in a game he was trailing he was now down a timeout.

The second timeout saved the game. Was it genius that Cowher waited to ice the kicker before a 56-yarder with 30 seconds left? I don't know. He was in a frantic first-half rush to call a timeout when the Falcons had 12 men on the field and were trying to call their own timeout, so I'll assume his head was somewhere else again and assume he forgot to call this timeout, too. Either way, good result. The good kick was blown dead.

Down to his last timeout, Cowher blundered. A missed field goal from 52 yards would give the Steelers the ball at the 42. With 25 seconds and one timeout, the Pittsburgh Steelers had an opening to steal a game that they were otherwise giving away. What a way to get out of this mess!

But Cowher burned the last timeout to freeze the kicker, a kicker who'd been on and off the field so many times that another stoppage of play would only provide rest. He was tired -- according to TV analyst Phil Simms -- from his other two long attempts.

Not that I agree with Simms on this, but what was the point of the timeout? If there's no time left and you won't need it, fine, throw it away.

This is where Cowher lost his head again. This is the point in the game where the head coach must be thinking clearly. The Steelers did get the ball and did complete one pass and were in line for a 50-yard kick at the gun that was Jeff Reed's destiny on this kicker's day in the NFL. He'd boomed his previous kickoff, and you could sense that the struggling kicker, who will not admit to slumps, was going to come out of his. But you know the rest of the story: illegal procedure, Nate Washington, flinch, drained clock, mad coach, mad owner.

So, with Rooney running to Cowher's rescue this game will be remembered for an official's incompetence and not Coach Clockenstein's.

Sure, this team should've tackled Vick on third-and-nine, and sure their corners should've gotten around Alge Crumpler's big butt and broken up a pass or two, and sure they could've held onto the ball better, but the Steelers were in their third ferocious road battle against a desperate team, and that team was playing well, as the others have done against the Super Bowl champs. While it's easy to cast blame on the entire team for not responding with ferocity in return, is it asking too much of the head coach to perform his only true task on game day?


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