Maybe they had it right in Cincinnati after all. Maybe their Bengals would have beaten the Steelers in that January playoff game if Carson Palmer hadn't been hurt. The Bengals clearly were the better team yesterday at Heinz Field with Palmer. As poorly as the Steelers played, it would have been a crime if they had somehow forced overtime and pulled out a win.
Bengals 28, Steelers 20 seemed just about right.
Based on stupidity alone, the Steelers deserved to lose. No one had a dumber day than Bill Cowher. His continued nonsensical insistence on using Ricardo Colclough on the punt return team finally bit him in the behind when Colclough muffed a fourth-quarter punt that handed the game to the Bengals.
But Cowher also had other issues. Apparently, he has created an atmosphere on his team that at, the very least, tacitly condones unforgivable undisciplined football. The Steelers took an excessive celebration penalty and a taunting penalty yesterday. One would have been ridiculous. Two were an outrage.
"That's on me," Cowher growled afterward. "Trust me, that will not happen again."
It shouldn't ever happen.
Verron Haynes wasn't even on the field when Willie Parker scored a third-quarter touchdown that gave the Steelers a 17-14 lead. That didn't stop him from rushing to the end zone to do an orchestrated celebration dance with Parker that resulted in a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff.
Mike Logan's taunting penalty with a little less than three minutes left and the Steelers down by a touchdown and a 2-point conversion was just as foolish. It wasn't enough for him that he threw a crushing block on the Bengals' Brad St. Louis on a punt return that, I'm happy to report, wasn't sabotaged by Colclough because Cowher finally had the good sense to send Santonio Holmes back. Logan had to stand over and taunt St. Louis, who was temporarily knocked senseless, resulting in the Steelers having to start their final drive at the 11.
"Stupid, selfish, both of those," Cowher called the penalties, growling again.
It's nice to know the boss plans on addressing the problem, but, really, what can he do besides holler at Haynes and Logan and send them to bed without supper? He can't exactly threaten to cut the next player who takes a thoughtless penalty. That could create a real bind if it's Hines Ward or Joey Porter who loses his cool.
What Cowher can correct unquestionably is the silly mess that is his punt-return team. Those of us who defended him for allowing Antwaan Randle El to leave as grossly overpaid free agent aren't ready to roll over yet. Let's see a little more what Holmes can do. And how about Willie Reid? Why did the Steelers draft him in the third round in April after they took Holmes in the first round if they're not going to give him a chance to return kicks?
Anybody but Colclough.
Cowher has been alternating Colclough and Holmes, using Holmes on punts that travel near the Steelers' goal line because "I feel good about his hands."
A fumbled punt farther up the field can't get you beat?
It sure did yesterday.
The Steelers appeared to have control of the game with a 17-14 lead when Colclough misjudged a punt at his 18 with eight minutes to go. That was the third of the Steelers' five turnovers, which is about four too many against a quality opponent.
Ben Roethlisberger threw three horrid interceptions, although it's hard to say the outcome would have been different if he had been more accurate, considering how awful his receivers were for the second consecutive game. Do you think the Bengals' Nos. 2 and 3 receivers, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry, are just a little better than the Steelers' Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington?
Houshmandzadeh and Henry had terrific touchdown catches yesterday. Wilson dropped what would have been a first down early in the fourth quarter, and Washington dropped a touchdown pass that would have brought the Steelers within 28-23 with a little more than three minutes left, pending a likely 2-point conversion try.
"It's a game that's going to eat at you for a couple of weeks because there were a lot of self-inflicted [wounds] out there," Cowher said.
Colclough's blunder was the killer.
It would be easier to tolerate if Colclough had ever done anything as return man. He hasn't. That's why Cowher needs to go back to his original plan; he named Reid as his punt returner during the exhibition season only to change his mind after looking at the makeup of his 53-man roster and making Reid inactive for the first three games. Anyone who saw Reid tear up Penn State in the Orange Bowl in January knows what he can do with the ball in his hands.
Of course, there is one good thing that could come from sending Colclough back out for punts Oct. 8 against the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers probably would get called for an excessive celebration penalty.