Steelers Falter While Cowher's in Limbo
Coach Says His Uncertain Status Isn't Hurting Team
By ALAN ROBINSON
PITTSBURGH (Nov. 3) - Forty Pittsburgh Steelers players have never known an NFL coach other than Bill Cowher .
Those 40 players are beginning to wonder if they will have to learn the methods of another coach next season - and not necessarily in another city.
Halfway through what has been the most disappointing and frustrating of his 15 seasons as the Steelers' coach, Cowher has given no hints about whether he'll return for a 16th season - the last one under his current contract - or retire.
Asked about his status, Cowher said only that it isn't affecting his players' preparation. But he said his situation, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger 's repeated medical problems, are something "you've got to be able to deal with."
"You're in the public eye and we've had a few bad days at the office," he said. "How we deal with it will tell us about who we are as people."
How the Steelers are dealing with it seems to be of some debate.
Steelers players say Cowher's future with the team has no affect on their preparation. But NFL players are as interested in who their boss will be as any employee holding any job, and they are speculating - if only privately to date - who their coach will be in 2007.
"I've always said since the whole thing came up, how does this affect us?" All-Pro guard Alan Faneca said. "It doesn't affect us until if and when it happens. How does this affect us getting ready for Denver for this week?"
Because every player is so closely watched and judged on every game, Faneca said there is no reason a coach's job status should influence the on-field result.
"Every time you step on that field, it goes on your resume," he said. "Whether you're here or you're somewhere else, or if another coach comes in or doesn't come in, whatever scenario you want to do, it's on your resume."
This is only the third time since 1968 - or 38 years ago - there has been uncertainty about a Steelers coach's status so late in the season.
In 1991, Chuck Noll made it clear late in the season he was thinking about retiring after 23 seasons and subsequently did so. In 1999, Cowher's fate was in doubt as the Steelers lost seven of their final eight to finish 6-10, yet it was director of football operations Tom Donahoe who was shoved out.
Steelers owner Dan Rooney later said he did not consider firing Cowher because top-quality coaches are difficult to find. Rooney showed that faith in Cowher again 18 months later when, after the Steelers started 0-3 and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season in 2000, Cowher was given a three-year contract extension. The Steelers have gone 64-32-1 since then, counting the playoffs.
Cowher is 14th in NFL career coaching victories with 155. Only eight coaches have won more games with a single team. Last season, he finally delivered the Super Bowl the Steelers had been so close to winning so many times since his 1992 hiring.
Should Cowher leave, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt seems a strong candidate to succeed him, and assistant head coach Russ Grimm also has interviewed for head coaching jobs.
But since Cowher is only 49 - very young for a coach with his portfolio - questions would arise immediately whether he would coach again, and where.
Cowher's situation also has generated speculation about the recurring penalties the Steelers (2-5) have drawn for infractions such as excessive celebration and unsportsmanlike conduct. The Steelers have the third-fewest penalty yards in the NFL, yet Cowher has never tolerated those type of penalties.
"I think some of these penalties, like the personal fouls, that's playing intense," defensive lineman Chris Hoke said. "Those things aren't about losing discipline. Guys are playing, flying to the ball, and those things are going to happen. Things just aren't going our way right now. ... And when you lose, those things get magnified."