Ron Cook: Panthers, Steelers pointing fingers

Blame game starting after big losses

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Doesn't Bill Cowher have enough problems? His Steelers lost at home to the Denver Broncos Sunday, their sixth defeat in the past seven games. At 2-6, they are one of the NFL's bigger surprises and biggest jokes.

Now Cowher has to deal with the aftermath of public comments from running back Willie Parker, who questioned his teammates' hunger, suggested they are too full of themselves after winning the Super Bowl last season and said there's no "trust" that each player has the next guy's back?

How about Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt? His team took an awful beating from a mediocre South Florida team over the weekend to fall to 6-3, setting up a huge game at Connecticut Saturday. Win it and Pitt probably goes on to finish 7-5, goes to a bowl and claims major progress in Wannstedt's second season. Lose it and Pitt almost certainly finishes 6-6, deserves to miss out on a bowl trip and can kiss any talk of significant improvement goodbye.

Wannstedt had to take time at practice yesterday to address public grousing by star linebacker H.B. Blades, who questioned his teammates' effort at South Florida, and star cornerback Darrelle Revis, who said they flat out quit?

What's that they say about sinking ships?

The rats come out and go scurrying for cover?

Parker, Blades and Revis were pretty lousy teammates, no matter how good their intentions might have been.

"You'd rather keep it among us," Wannstedt said. "I mean, I love their attitude. These are guys who expect so much and want to perform at a high level and want their teammates to perform at that level. I like what they're saying. I'd just like it more if they said it on the sideline or to the other players, not to [the media]."

Cowher and Wannstedt have been down this path before. Each has been in enough losing situations to know the public finger-pointing -- for lack of a better word -- is human nature in tough times. It can become a divisive issue for any team, turning a bad first half of a season into a season-long nightmare or a bad stretch of games into a season-killer.

"Everybody is looking for answers," Wannstedt said, shrugging.

A good coach is able to keep his team together. He understands his players' frustration but doesn't allow it to become a devastating negative ...

This seems like a good time for a little chemistry test.

Does good chemistry produce a winning team? Or does winning produce good chemistry?

I've never been smart enough to figure that one out.

All I know is chemistry can be blown to bits once a team starts losing.

That's why Wannstedt was so quick to react with his team yesterday and why Cowher figures to address Parker's comments when the Steelers gather again tomorrow at their South Side headquarters. It might be too late to save the Steelers' season, at least as far as the playoffs go. But it's not too late to salvage Pitt's season.

Wannstedt has had a brutal week, and it's only Tuesday. The poor performance against South Florida was bad enough, but junior tight end Darrell Strong made it worse by directing an obscene gesture at the crowd after scoring a late touchdown, embarrassing himself, his teammates, his coach and his university. Wannstedt announced yesterday that Strong won't play against Connecticut.

Good for Wannstedt.

Pitt can't tolerate that kind of behavior if it wants to have a successful program. Wannstedt should suspend Strong for the rest of the season. Who knows? A little tough love might even help Strong to mature as a player and a person.

Harsh discipline has to be better than the approach West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez took with wide receiver Chris Henry after Henry was thrown out of a game at Rutgers in 2004. On his way to the locker room, Henry also made an obscene gesture to the crowd. Rodriguez's absurdly light punishment? Henry sat out the first half of the next game against Temple. It's easy to think Rodriguez didn't do the kid any favors if you know how much trouble Henry has been in since he joined the Cincinnati Bengals.

Now if Wannstedt can just figure a way for Pitt to beat Connecticut ...

It's important for a number of reasons. There's a huge difference between a 7-5 record and a 6-6 record. (Pitt will be a big underdog in its final two games against West Virginia and Louisville.) The last thing Pitt wants to do is finish with a five-game losing streak. A bowl game -- even a minor one -- would help recruiting and enhance the perception of the program. It also would give Pitt another month of practice.

"It's important to get win No. 7," Wannstedt said. "We've just got to get the things corrected that haven't given us a chance to win the last two games. The sacks. The penalties. The turnovers ...

"It's easier said than done, but that's what we've got to do."

Wannstedt needs Blades and Revis to do a little better job of leading the way.

As Wannstedt put it, "We're all in this together."



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