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Steel Waters Run Deep

Cowher holds his team together

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I awoke a few Sundays ago to the amusing bouquet of organic Honduran coffee brewing and the even more amusing news that the Philadelphia Eagles organization had suspended Terrell Owens indefinitely. It made me wonder what took Andy Reid and Jeff Lurie so long. It also made me grateful to have Bill Cowher at the helm of my hometown team ... because TO wouldn't have been on the Steelers roster a moment after he questioned his quarterback's ability and drive.

 

Bill Cowher manages to walk a fine line, in his favorite vernacular, between encouraging players to express themselves and fomenting team unity. More importantly, in his 14 years with the Steelers, Cowher has never lost a team: I've never seen a team quit on him and I've never seen a team divided.

 

But in this, the year of the Terrell Owens media feeding frenzy, and the sordid Love Boat episode featuring the Minnesota Vikings, the North Side is one place where team comes first.

 

After every loss, Bill Cowher seems to be about as popular in Pittsburgh as Michael "Heck of a Job" Brown at Mardi Gras in the Big Easy. Cowher's approval ratings fluctuate more frequently than any president's. Are Steeler fans so fickle as to jump on Bill's bandwagon with every win -- and then back off it with every loss? Apparently so.

 

In 2000, the Steelers were coming off two losing seasons and managed to finish 9-7. That ain't great, but it ain't that bad either. In fact, it may have been Bill Cowher's finest coaching job to date because his team opened the season 0-3, losing to three division rivals. And nothing's more depressing than losing your home opener to the Ravens.

 

With Kordell Stewart just not catching on, the Steelers started the season with a free agent from the Giants at quarterback, the statuesque Kent Graham. And by "statuesque," I don't mean bearing a resemblance to Julie Newmar -- I mean about as mobile as a statue. And about as charismatic.

 

Somehow, Cowher kept the team together, eventually dumping Graham and giving Stewart another shot. They ripped off a string of five wins in a row and ended the season by taking four of their last five. They missed the playoffs, but they stayed together as a team. And I believe that experience led to their 13-3 record in 2001.

 

How has Cowher done it? One part commitment, one part guile, one part loyalty and one part luck. Oh yeah, and bringing in what New England coach Bill Bellichik calls "character guys": players like Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca and Hines Ward, who never give up on a play, let alone a game, a season or a teammate.

 

Even the Steelers' latest free-agent acquisition, wideout Cedric Wilson, was quoted by Gerry Dulac in the Post-Gazette last week as saying, "It's frustrating ... because I want statistics, just like anybody else that's on offense. ... But, at the same time, there's nothing I can do. I guess I could gripe about it." Yet he hasn't griped about it -- or if he has, it certainly hasn't been to the point of distraction.

 

So, as saccharine a concept as team unity seems to be, it works. The Steelers are a group of guys who play as one unit and want to win, for each other as much as for themselves. And I think that's usually the hallmark of a Cowher-coached team. He may not be the best guy in the league at halftime adjustments, but there is no doubt that he has his team ready to play, both emotionally and physically, week after week.

 

In the NFL, just like in the real world, shit rolls downhill. In large part, Cowher's players are a reflection of him: hardworking, intense and committed.

 

Who knows? Maybe even TO would respond well to Cowher's intimate, emotional approach to the game. Maybe ... but I wouldn't want to find out.

 

So the next time the Steelers lose a game, just remember, Terrell Owens could be starting fights from the hot tub in the Steelers locker room; or lunkhead Mike Tice could be coaching.

 

Slow and steady may not win, but it keeps you in the race. At least 9 out of 13 times.

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