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Steelers punter knows pressure is on to perform

| Saturday, June 14, 2003

Rumor has it Steelers punter Josh Miller and coach Bill Cowher had a pretty good blow up late last season, but Miller maintained this week that you can't always believe in the validity of such things.

"Not really the case," he said. "It wasn't a pretty good blow up. It was a really good blow up. That rumor sold me short a little bit. It was huge.

"But we patched it up, that's what happens. He's the head coach. I'm the player, and I kind of went outside that boundary. I'm lucky to be here."

Miller underwent surgery on his right shoulder Dec. 19 and was placed on the injured reserve list.

He had it out with Cowher at the Steelers' annual Christmas party, as Miller remembers.

Miller still isn't exactly sure what Cowher became so enraged about, other than Miller being unable to punt and the Steelers having to go with Tom Rouen in the playoffs.

"It was over the shoulder," Miller said. "From what I understand, there was misinformation to and from with the doctors, and we weren't on the same page and we had an argument.

"What can you possibly do• He's your boss, and your boss is right."

Such blowups from Cowher used to be relatively commonplace during Miller's first few seasons with the Steelers. Cowher had already gone through Mark Royals and Rohn Stark at the position prior to Miller's arrival in 1996, establishing a reputation for being tough on punters. Miller was no exception and was often on the receiving end of an earful -- or a face full -- of Cowher's wrath when things didn't go precisely as planned.

This time, Miller shouted back, long enough and loud enough that he feared for his Steelers' career.

"For a split second, I did," Miller said. "The next morning, I went into his office and apologized. I said it was my fault and that we shouldn't have had this argument. He said, 'when you leave this room, it's over.'

"A lot of coaches, they hold onto that, and no matter what happens, you can't shake it. But coach Cowher was good enough, and I believe him, to say as far as that incident, it's done."

The two talked again at season's end.

"He said, 'clean slate, forget about everything and punt the ball,' " Miller said.

Miller averaged 41.2 yards per punt in 14 games last season, which was just a shade off the 43.3 average he carried into 2002. His punts-inside-the-20-to-touchbacks ratio (14:5) was also right in line with what it had been through his first six seasons (153:54).

But for Miller, punting had become an exercise in agony of not futility by the time he realized he could no longer avoid the knife.

His shoulder had been injured in a victory over Cleveland on Sept. 29 and had become "arthritic over the years," Miller said, "from lifting (weights), probably wrong."

"I was hurting the team. I had a tear in the shoulder in three places, and it was bone rubbing on bone. All the cartilage, it was like egg white in there.

"It was just upsetting that I couldn't get healthier quicker, that it got worse as quick as it did. (Cowher) was upset that it got as bad as it got.

"I know I drop (the ball) from my left hand, but when you punt (left-footed), your right hand has to do a full circle and I couldn't lift it up. And if it was a high snap or a low snap or a wide snap, I was jamming myself. It was just brutal."

The difference between last winter and this spring is "day and night," Miller said. "It's unbelievable."

It had better be, Miller figures.

Rouen is long gone, but rookie free agent Mike Hayes has been signed to offer competition in training camp. Hayes hasn't punted since 1998, when he averaged 41.7 yards at Akron, but Miller is taking nothing for granted.

"I don't know much about him, but I know if he does well and he's even with me, they're going to go with him," Miller said. "You always have to do better than your competition."

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