Cowher has been their enemy as coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1992, but the city is warming back up to him. A Cleveland TV station reported this week that Browns owner Randy Lerner is "enamored" with Cowher. The station of course did not quote Lerner directly for fear of tampering charges, but the story has picked up steam. The Cleveland Plain Dealer is due to expand on it in today's edition.
"I have not heard any of those stories," said Cowher, who for the first time as Steelers coach has less than two years remaining on his contract. Rumors abound that Cowher will retire – at least for a brief period – to his new home outside Raleigh, North Carolina.
With the rumor mill in full churn, would the fans in Cleveland go easier on Cowher this Sunday?
"I doubt it," he said. "I can't foresee anything changing come Sunday; honestly, I really can't. It's a big game. From everyone's standpoint this game has a lot more meaning with the two organizations than it does with any one individual. We represent the enemy coming into the place. We're trying to win a game. It's going to be a very hostile environment."
SPECIAL TEAMS HEALING
Kriewaldt missed last week's game and Harrison has missed the last six games, but they could return in time to defend the most explosive element of the Browns – their return game. Dennis Northcutt leads the NFL with a punt-return average of 14.8. Josh Cribbs is fourth in the NFL with a kickoff-return average of 26.8.
Cribbs, in fact, was a quarterback at Kent State, where Harrison played college football.
"I know him, but it's not like we're close friends or anything like that," said Harrison.
"We've got a tough job ahead of us," said Kriewaldt. "Every week teams have good returners, but these guys are exceptionally good. This week would be a good week for James to come back, that's for sure."
Harrison has made his presence felt in Cleveland. Two years ago, he made his first start there as an emergency replacement for an ejected Joey Porter. Harrison sacked the quarterback on the first series and finished with six tackles. Last year Harrison slammed a fan to the ground after he ran onto the field.
"I think he was shooting for this game," Cowher said. "He's trying to get back for this game because interesting things happen with James when he comes into this game. He's an Ohio guy, Kent State. He's a good football player. He's matured tremendously since he's been here and he's an integral part of this team."
And, he's sorely missed on special teams. The Steelers are 29th in kick-return defense and 16th in net punting.
"He's one of the top special-teamers in the league," Cowher said. "James Harrison's a good football player. If we get him back it'll definitely be a lift."
The only Steelers to miss Thursday's practice were fullback Dan Kreider (hip/questionable) and cornerback Deshea Townsend (ankle/questionable). Willie Reid (foot) has already been ruled out of the game.
Browns running back Reuben Droughns (foot/questionable) missed his second practice this week and is in jeopardy of missing his second game this season. Droughns is wearing a walking boot this week. If he can't play, the Browns will start Jason Wright, who, in his only start, rushed for 31 yards on 15 carries against the Baltimore Ravens.
In the first Browns-Steelers game last season, Droughns rushed for 56 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. In the second game the Steelers held Droughns to 36 yards on 10 carries.
"I've been impressed with Reuben Droughns from the beginning," said Cowher. "Even when he was in Denver, I followed him there. He is a good back. He's got great balance. He's a strong back. I remember last year a couple times he reversed the field. He's not an easy guy to get on the ground and I've got tremendous respect for him as a running back and I think his numbers back that up."
Might Cowher change tactics if Droughns can't play?
"It's all speculation," he said. "People have a way with those injury lists. You have to take it for what it's worth. Some people are honest about it. Some people – I don't want to call them dishonest – but they kind of go by the book and leave themselves options. Questionable is 50-50; you're never wrong if a guy does or doesn't play."