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Miller, Brown give Steelers potent kicking combination

Sunday, August 13, 2000

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Josh Miller quit playing golf this year and now spends that extra time making furniture, a more soothing and dangerous hobby. When a slice occurs while you're wielding a circular saw, it can cost you a thumb, not merely a stroke.

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Imagine then, if the neophyte carpenter were to polish his craft the way he perfected his punting with the Steelers. It would necessitate Bill Cowher watching him carve out an armoire, spotting a flaw and then screaming and slobbering into Miller's face for five minutes.

That teaching method worked so well during Miller's first two seasons as a punter with the Steelers, that it inspired him to improve.

"I'd say so," Miller said, "because I wanted to show I could play and get the hell out of here. I said, I'm not happy with this guy yelling at me like this, so I have to play good in order to leave here."

So, what did Miller do after he improved and was days from becoming a restricted free agent in February 1999? He signed a new contract with the Steelers, dismissing the opportunity to make more money elsewhere.

He stayed for the same reason he once wanted to leave, because of Cowher.

"We kind of grew to like one another," Miller said yesterday, sitting on the campus of St. Vincent College, a floppy black Pirates hat on his head.

"Actually, I started kicking better, then I realized, hey, he could also compliment you. He was the first one to high-five me. He kind of digs me as much as I dig him. He was the first one to yell at me, which was OK with me, as long as he was consistent, which he was."

The best compliment Cowher gave his punter came before he re-signed with them 16 months ago.

"Josh," he recalled Cowher telling him, "we seasoned you, we made you tough. I don't want to see you leave here and let some other team catch the good side of you. I feel we had a lot to do with you maturing. As long as I'm coaching, you're going to be my punter."

Kris Brown was perfect against the Cowboys in the preseason opener. (Peter J. Diana, Post-Gazette)

Said Miller, "That made sense to me. The Steelers gave me my chance. I just had to find my rhythm and be comfortable. And it worked out. I'm real happy it did."

It worked out so well that the Steelers can claim to have the best kickers in the NFL.

In fact, while the Steelers were slipping everywhere else on the field last season, Miller and place-kicker Kris Brown were the best duo in the league, statistically.

Miller ranked third in the league with a 45.2-yard gross average and fourth with a 38.1 net. Brown made 25 of 29 field-goal attempts, an .862 percentage that ranked fourth in the league.

The only other team in the top five in each was San Diego with punter Darren Bennett and kicker John Carney. They ranked fifth.

"We could possibly be the best two kickers in the league," Brown said. "That's what Josh and I are going to strive to do. We want to go out every week and be better than other teams' special teams. That's our No. 1 goal."

They have shown every sign this summer that they will succeed at it.

"You'd like to see a little more consistency with the kickoffs," Cowher said, "but you're talking about two young guys, boy they're solid. They're good."

Miller has averaged 47.8 yards on 19 punts and dropped five of them inside the 20. Brown has made 5 of 7 field-goal attempts and received his loudest ovation on the one he missed Thursday night in Three Rivers Stadium.

He kicked a 53-yard field goal into a breeze earlier. In the fourth quarter, he tried one from 54 yards, with Miller holding. The ball seemed to be rising as it banged off the left upright and bounced back. Miller had congratulated Brown on the kick before it struck metal, and, after an initial groan of disappointment, the stadium crowd rose and applauded the effort.

"What a story he's been," Cowher said. "About two weeks ago, he kind of got into a little bit of a funk out here. He missed a few kicks. We gave him a couple days off. It may have been a case of kicking too much, and boy, what a display he put on the other night."

It's the first time Brown has gotten an ovation for missing a kick.

"That was pretty impressive," Miller said. "He should have gotten at least two points for it. It was worth that, it was nice. There was thunder in that foot. It was unbelievable, a great kick, a thunderous kick."

Miller called Brown's combination of power and accuracy Tiger Woods-like, and predicted he will become the best of all-time.

"I think after three years, he'll have the best career stats of anybody. When he's done, when he hangs his cleats up, he'll be the best place-kicker ever.

"If you look at any other kicker's rookie years, you can't compare. If you look at the way he takes care of himself, carries himself. A lot of kickers say you peak when you're 30. That's when you do your best kicking, your best punting. The kid is 23 and he already has that 30-year-old mentality. He's married. He's just grounded and altogether older."

Both kickers swear they have a secret weapon named Mike Schneck, who stands 6 feet and weighs 242 pounds. He snaps the ball to the kickers, which is all he does, but he does it better than anyone, they say.

"I had a guy in the Canadian League named Rod Davis, who threw bullets at my hip," Miller said. "Schneckie does the same thing and also runs like a mediocre deer. He gets down field and covers well. You have to account for him on coverage. You look at film, he beats a lot of our guys down there, so a team has to waste one of their guys on him."

Cowher said Miller came into his own last year. He did so, as he said, by no longer swinging for the fences like Mark McGwire but learning how to punt the ball to spots and learning other finesse parts of the punting game.

So now, instead of living in Cowher's doghouse, Josh Miller is building one.

"I have orders for furniture and stuff," Miller said. "My dog wants a doghouse. My mother-in-law wants, like, a treasure chest. My sister-in-law wants a long tool box.

"That and fishing are my two things. Golf, I don't care to learn anymore. I tasted good in golf and now I can't even come close. But in fishing, I've never had a bad cast, never missed the lake, never sliced a cast, never hooked a cast. I hit the lake every time and I'm happy."

Of the two games, at least Josh Miller got worse at golf and better at punting.

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