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Columnist Ron Cook: Steelers, and Cowher, underachievers

Tuesday, December 08, 1998

By Ron Cook, Post-Gazette Sports Columnist

So how do you like living in St. Louis? It's not much fun, is it? Three games remain in the NFL season and the Steelers have very little chance of making the playoffs. You're crushed. But you know what? You're pretty lucky. It's like this every year for Rams fans. This is your first time during the Bill Cowher Era.


The shame is it doesn't have to be like this.

It's easy to say the loss of so many free agents has caught up to the Steelers, that injuries to Chad Scott, Justin Strzelczyk, Mike Vrabel and Tim Lester pushed them over the edge to mediocrity, that they're just not good enough to win the AFC Central.

It's also wrong.

"We've got so much talent on this team that ..." Carnell Lake was saying, stopping before he said something he would regret.

We'll finish for you, Carnell.

" ... it's a disgrace to have a 7-6 record."

At least to this point, there's only one word to describe the Steelers: Underachievers.

Beginning with Cowher.

We praised him when he won with amazing regularity during his first six seasons. We lobbied for his $2 million-a-year contract extension. We still think he's the right coach for Pittsburgh. (You could be in St. Louis and have Dick Vermeil.)

But Cowher's coaching this season, especially down the stretch, hasn't been worth a nickel.

It's not just his game management, although that's been baffling. In Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, the Steelers gambled with a reverse on a fourth-quarter kickoff return, then turned conservative with their play-calling at the end of regulation by settling for a field goal instead of going for a touchdown. Neither move worked, contributing to the team's third horrendous loss against an inferior opponent.

If the Steelers don't find a miracle and make the playoffs, they'll be able to blame their second-half collapses at Cincinnati, Tennessee and Detroit.

What happened in the 23-9 loss to New England Sunday was even more bizarre. On a day when the Patriots' best defensive player - middle linebacker Ted Johnson - missed virtually the entire game, the Steelers ran the ball only 13 times. It was bad enough that not even one quarterback draw or end run was called for Kordell Stewart. But it was inexcusable that Jerome Bettis had only four carries in the second half of a game that was tight until midway through the fourth quarter.

It wasn't like the Patriots were stuffing Bettis. He averaged 5.5 yards a pop on his eight carries - another ridiculously low number - in the first half.

If I'm Dan Rooney, I have to ask Cowher: "Why are we paying Bettis $3.6 million a year?"

Don't put all the blame on Ray Sherman for the play-calling. If you want to rip him for something, rip him for Stewart's thwarted development. Young quarterbacks are supposed to get better, not worse, aren't they? But as for the play-calling, Cowher has the final say about everything with the Steelers. You don't have to beat up Sherman, anyway. Cowher almost certainly is doing a good job of it. As maniacal as he can be with his assistant coaches, he'll be lucky if poor Sherman can think straight when the Steelers play Sunday at Tampa Bay.

Even more troubling than the strategy against the Patriots was the first indication that Cowher has lost his magical grip on his team. He's been a great coach because he almost always has had the Steelers ready to play a big game, especially at home. Under him, they were 23-4 in regular-season games at home in November and December before Sunday. Yes, they lost at home to San Diego and Denver in AFC championship games - those defeats still hurt - but not because they weren't prepared.

We saw Cowher's touch earlier this season. The Steelers bounced back from a bad loss to Tennessee by blowing out Green Bay on a Monday night. Then, they came back from an even worse loss to the Oilers to blow out Jacksonville. If those two performances didn't convince you they have the talent to win the division, nothing will.

Everybody, including Cowher, thought the Steelers would bounce back from the Detroit loss by whipping New England. The Patriots came in beat up. The Steelers had 10 days to heal and get ready, a gift from the football gods at this point of the season. The home crowd was in its usual frenzied state. The playoffs were at stake.

Absolute shock is the only way to describe the mood in the Steelers' locker room when the game ended. It's the only way to describe Cowher's demeanor. Like the rest of us, he didn't see this defeat coming.

You have to go back to the 1996 playoffs, when the Steelers got lost in the New England fog, to find a big game in which they came out so flat.

That's a poor reflection on The Jaw.

Now, the Steelers are fighting hard with reality, the likelihood that they won't be playing in the playoffs.

"It's hard for this team," Levon Kirkland said. "Ever since my first meeting in Bill Cowher's office, when he told me our goal is to win the championship, we've been in the hunt for the big prize every season."

Not this year.

It's a shame.

A season is a precious thing to waste.

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