Wilson: Contingency plans

Now that the 2006 season is in the books, the Steelers need to address the coaching situation. Blogger Ryan Wilson wonders why the aliens abducted Bill Cowher and offers some advice on what the team can do to find his replacement if Mulder and Scully can't save him.

First things first: let's revisit something I wrote on May 6:
The 2006 version of this team is virtually identical to the 2005 version except Kemoeatu has been replaced by Ngata and Anderson replaces Chester Taylor. And perhaps more importantly, McNair looks to take over for Boller. But even with McNair, this is virtually the same team that ended the 2005 season by losing to the Browns. This team has the odd distinction of being both old and inexperienced: Old at almost every position; and very little depth behind the starters (hence the inexperience). Baltimore will be lucky to win six games next season. And while that seems all well and good if you're a Steelers fan, it certainly seals Brian Billick's fate, which is a bad thing. I love having the guy around just because he's always sure to give you something to write about
So yeah, I'm enjoying my post-Thanksgiving crow.

Here are two things I take from my comments above: 1) This should serve as a reminder to never, under any circumstances, offer preseason predictions. I come off looking like a bigger idiot than many people already think I am; 2) For the same reasons I thought the Ravens would stink, I thought the Pittsburgh Steelers would be a playoff team: "The 2006 version of this team is virtually identical to the 2005 version."

How is it that two teams, with basically the same players, are going in opposite directions this season? Obviously, injuries and the turnovers related to injuries have a lot to do with it, but that's not a very good excuse for what took place on Sunday against the Ravens. Unless we're willing to entertain the idea that the Steelers collectively had their souls stolen by supernatural means, I don't think there's any amount of rationalizing we can do to explain a 27-0 stomping.

Instead of faulting zombies, maybe the head coach formerly known as fiery should shoulder most of the blame. I know after the game Bill Cowher took responsibility for Pittsburgh's "pitiful" performance, but he made those statements with all the passion and enthusiasm of somebody talking about pocket lint.

I've long been of the opinion that Cowher's future plans in no way affected his ability to coach this team in 2006. But as each week passes and things get improbably worse, Cowher is just standing amid the rubble expressionless, detached and passive. Like he's channeling Art Shell, waiting for the Mother Ship to take him off this godforsaken planet.

Well, he might get his wish in a few weeks. If Cowher wants to do something else with his life, I fully support him. People change jobs every day for any number of reasons and Cowher should be afforded that same opportunity.

My problem, however, is the way this is playing out. First, Cowher's contract isn't extended during the off-season, which on its own is fine, but it's created a mini-media storm that is stronger than ever 12 weeks into the season. Second, in the years Cowher has been in Pittsburgh, I have never seen him so unenthusiastic during games. It'd be one thing if he was Bill Belichick: a pensive, contemplative strategist who eschewed a lot of the rah-rah stuff. But Cowher isn't that type of guy. He's made his living as a player's coach. The rah-rah stuff is what he's best at. Let the coordinators handle the details and let Cowher motivate the troops. I've seen nothing to indicate Cowher is motivated to do anything other than coach five more regular season games, load up the moving truck and head south.

Living in D.C., I get a daily dose of the Joe Gibbs Redskins. A typical Gibbs post-game press conference goes something like this: (In a monotone southern drawl) Well, we lost … again. We made a lot of mistakes. I take full responsibility because I'm the head coach. We played our guts out. There isn't another group of guys I'd want to face tough times with than the group in that locker room. We'll look at the film and try to fix the mistakes.

Sound familiar? And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that fire and brimstone is the cure-all. But for the love of God, at least show me you're not dead. Just give me something – wiggle your finger, blink your eye – anything. As it stands, Cowher's on life support and the team is done. All that's left is the burial.

So what now? How does Pittsburgh turn things around? First of all, maybe somebody in the front office should make a decision on who the coach will be after 2006. If it's Cowher, sign him to an extension; if it's not, start making contingency plans (and since I have absolutely no access or sources, maybe this is already going on behind the scenes).

Conventional wisdom suggests that Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm are the coaches-in-waiting currently on staff. Yeah, we might want to rethink that before getting too far ahead of ourselves. I was a little skeptical when people were calling Whisenhunt an offensive genius after last season's postseason run. Not because he wasn't almost flawless in his play-calling, but I seem to recall having similar conversations about Mike Mularkey a few years earlier. He then took the Bills head coaching job, drove that plane right into a mountain, and now toils in Miami as their offensive coordinator.

We all made fun of Mularkey because on 3rd-and-2 he inexplicably loved those triple-reverse options that lost five yards, but how many times can Whisenhunt call a freakin' screen pass for a loss before he gets the hint. Screen passes are successful because the defense is caught off guard. When you run the same play four, fix, six times a game, it's only surprising when it's not called.

Against the Ravens, Whisenhunt either lost his call sheet, his headset connection to Mark Whipple, or his mind (or all three). How many crushing sacks does Ben Roethlisberger have to take before somebody makes an adjustment? Sure, the blocking was suspect, but when defenders go unblocked – all day long – maybe the game plan should be called into question. I'm only half-kidding when I say this, but Roethlisberger should give serious consideration to pressing charges. Not against Bart Scott or any of the other Ravens' defenders who beat the crap out of him for three hours Sunday, but against Whisenhunt for reckless endangerment. And as long as we're pointing fingers, add Russ Grimm as an accomplice.

I'm not saying Whisenhunt still shouldn't be a candidate for the job should it become available, I just think we need to temper our view of his magical play-calling abilities.

Ditto for Grimm. Although I think of him more like Cowher: a motivator who leaves the game planning to the assistant coaches. (I could be wrong given that I have no idea what Grimm contributes during practice and on game days, but this is just the sense I get.)

If the Steelers choose to go outside the family for the eventual replacement, what might be some of the options? Well, it's hard to know who'll be available if/when the job becomes available, but I'll say this: I know some people would be happy with Pittsburgh going after a college coach, but I think it's an awful idea. Here's what I wrote last January when fans started up their annual Fire Cowher rants:

I know some of Steelers fans dislike Cowher, but whenever you ask them who should be the coach, they usually don't have any answers. (And the next person I hear say "Kirk Ferentz" is getting donkey punched. Seriously. When's the last time a college coach came into the league and tore it up? Anyone? So now, in addition to getting rid of a guy that perennially gets to the playoffs, you're now stuck in rebuilding mode for no real reason. Yep, that makes a lot of sense.)
I think it's safe to assume the Steelers won't make the playoffs this year, but I still say bringing in a college coach creates more problems than it solves. First, there will be an adjustment period to the NFL game. Don't think so? Just ask Butch Davis, Steve Spurrier or Dennis Erickson. (Or better yet, Joe Gibbs. Here's an example of a Hall of Fame coach who, after 13 years away from the game, returned to an NFL that was completely different than the one he left in 1991. And he's still trying to catch up, without much success.)

Then there's the issue of all the new assistant coaches who, if they don't have any NFL coaching experience, will also be adjusting to a totally different game. Unless you're willing to blow up the team and start over, I don't know why you'd want to introduce a new offensive and defensive philosophy with a bunch of new-to-the-NFL coaches (a new special teams philosophy would be welcome, however). And even if you did start from scratch, what guarantee is there that a college coach won't be a complete flop?

I know the same argument can be made about hiring an NFL coach (head coach or assistant coach) but at least there's a track record. You know what you're getting with Jeff Fisher, John Gruden or even Steve Mariucci, but a college coach with a great pedigree? Yes, Jimmy Johnson won a Super Bowl in Dallas after winning a national championship at the University of Miami but he might be the exception (plus, that was before salary cap era). In addition to Spurrier, Davis and Erickson, Pete Carroll, Dave Wannstedt and Al Groh have all struggled in the NFL and the jury is still out on Nick Saban.

And although there's some uncertainty when hiring NFL assistant coaches, history suggests that they're much more competent as head coaches than their college counterparts.

Of course, if a college coach can win more than four games through 12 weeks of the season, then it's already it's already an improvement on the 2006 season.

So the Steelers are finished for the 2006 season, and one of the most important questions going forward is who will coach this team? Cowher refuses to talk about his future but this doesn't mean the front office should just wait around for him to make up his mind. I think Whisenhunt and Grimm should get serious consideration, but I also think Pittsburgh shouldn't limit itself to in-house candidates. That said, I'm against bringing in a college coach because they've largely failed in the NFL and there's no reason to think that would change in this circumstance. Put differently, I'm not ready to admit this team is in rebuilding mode 10 months after winning a Super Bowl with basically the same players.

In a perfect world, Cowher would snap out of his coma, sign an extension and get back to doing what he does best: motivating his players through spit and passion. That's right, folks. Spit and passion; it's that simple.


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