Cowher ultimately to blame
Don't try to kid anyone: You are still steamed about the Steelers blowing that AFC title game to the Patriots, aren't you• You won't be able to stand the sight of Bill Cowher, Kordell Stewart and Co. at the Pro Bowl today, will you• It will make you choke, right• And it won't be because the Pro Bowl is a lousy game, will it?
The way I look at it, though, it was just as much the Patriots taking that game as the Steelers blowing it. Talk all you want about terrible special teams. Talk all you want about how Jerome Bettis was misused and that Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala was not used at all. The bottom line is the Steelers much-heralded offensive and defensive lines got their backsides kicked at the line of scrimmage.
One thing the Patriots did to stop the Steelers offense was to widen their defensive ends, thus taking away the perimeter. That forced the wide stuff back inside to linebackers engaged in run blitz. The Patriots also played the proverbial "Cover Two" zone pass defense against Stewart. Stewart is gaining a reputation around the NFL of being pretty good in the passing game against man coverage, but not so good against zone.
Those X's and O's aside, however, the Patriots did it to the Steelers and then to the Rams the next week the old-fashioned way: They handled them physically. A microcosm of their approach was seen on a penalty against Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest near the end of the Super Bowl. You will remember that Rams quarterback Kurt Warner scrambled on that play and fumbled. Tebucky Jones picked up the fumble and ran for an apparent game-clinching touchdown for the Patriots. The play was called back because of the penalty against McGinest, who basically mugged Rams running back Marshall Faulk in the middle of his pass route. McGinest explained later he was just doing what he had been coached to do: be physical, disrupt whatever it was the offense - especially the skill players - wanted to do.
On the other hand, don't get me wrong. This is just not about New England's players kicking the Steelers' tails. I am ultimately pointing the finger at Cowher. His team was not ready for battle. The players took the game for granted, and that is his responsibility. It made it easier for a very focused, intense Patriots team to knock them off.
Former Steelers director of football operations Tom Donahoe tried pointing out the issues of being flat and overconfident to Cowher in some similar situations in the past. It was the beginning of the end of their relationship. Cowher bristled at the suggestions. Now who will Cowher blame• He cannot blame anyone except the guy looking back at him in the mirror.
Donahoe, incidentally, was the one NFL executive who went out on a limb and said the Patriots were a dangerous team and picked them to win. If you ask me, it's Donahoe's Buffalo Bills who might be the most surprising team in the NFL in 2002. If not this fall, then certainly by 2003 will Donahoe and his old buddy Tom Modrak have that club turned into a contender.
I have heard and read that the Cleveland Browns are the NFL's darkhorse team for 2002. They will have to prove that to me. Specifically, they will have to prove they have a running game that is capable of at least being average. Tim Couch may be a good quarterback, and the Browns defense has its upsides. But, the Browns are not going anywhere if they don't muster some sort of ground game.
But, I digress.
The point here is that the Steelers missing out on Super Bowl XXXVI rubs you like sandpaper and will until your dying day. Get used to it. That is the way it's going to be. Stewart isn't going anywhere. While he has shown improvement, he still hasn't proven he can rally a team to victory in the closing stages of a pressure-packed playoff game. Perhaps he will grow into that role. I will certainly not preclude the possibility that the next step in his maturity will be getting over the proverbial playoff hump.
Obviously, Stewart proved untold numbers of people wrong with his mostly stellar play this past season. But his interceptions and Bettis' poor performance against the Patriots are not the main concerns in my mind. I believe the Steelers had the material this season and may still have it come next season to make the Super Bowl. The biggest question in my view is this: Does Cowher have the right stuff to lead his players in pressure playoff situations when they are the heavy favorites•
Stay tuned. Training camp is only about five months away.
Goose Goslin is sports director at KDKA-AM (1020).