Bob Smizik: Questions outnumber answers
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When a championship team goes unexpectedly and inexplicably bad, which is what the Steelers have done, all kinds of accusations are floated publicly and privately. Some are worthy of examination, others are not.
Audio commentary from Bill Cowher's press conference Tuesday:
Suggestions, for example, that the Steelers rushed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back from a concussion to play Sunday at Oakland are so outrageous that they don't deserve an answer, although the obvious one to anyone with a brain is that the Steelers' medical staff never would jeopardize the health of a player or its reputation by permitting an injured athlete to perform.
But Bill Cowher's job status, that's another matter.
Cowher was asked at his news conference yesterday -- by this reporter -- if the uncertainty surrounding his future was a factor in his performance and/or that of the team.
His answer, predicted in advance by several people who know Cowher well, was one word in length: "No."
Cowher smiled as the question was being asked and while he was answering it, as if the mere suggestion that it might have some merit was preposterous.
The Steelers are a privately owned team, but to the hundreds of thousands who follow them with a deep passion they are a civic institution and belong to them almost as much as the Rooney family. These fans don't have the right to know the game plan Sunday or what Cowher will do with his future, but they do have a right to some answers on questions that are on the minds of many.
Cowher wasn't in an answering mood yesterday. His preferred response was the familiar one-syllable negative.
At one point, he was asked if he gave any thought to substituting backup quarterback Charlie Batch, who has played exceptionally well this season, for Roethlisberger during the stunning upset loss to Oakland. After all, Roethlisberger threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
"No," said Cowher -- who followed the answer with his famous long, hard stare -- to another question that deserved a more thoughtful answer.
He has been at this since 1992, and everyone knows his style. That doesn't make it right. Occasionally, particularly in tough times when the fans are wondering, for example, why Batch wasn't used, a fuller explanation is in order.
Cowher was right in sticking with Roethlisberger. He's the franchise quarterback, and you don't yank such a player with one bad game. Let's not forget, and Cowher correctly didn't, that Roethlisberger has been near-perfect in his two previous games.
Likewise, the earlier question about his job status being a factor in the team's play deserved a more thoughtful answer.
Why shouldn't there be discussion about Cowher's focus? The topic has been out there since he and the team broke off negotiations on a new contract and he announced he was taking his career one season at a time.
It was Chuck Noll, Cowher's predecessor, who famously said, if you're thinking about retiring, you should retire.Why shouldn't there be wondering about how the players are reacting to the possibility they view Cowher as a lame duck?
Cowher wouldn't be the first coach to lose a grip on a team when the players thought he was about to lose power. That's particularly true today with the season, as far as a playoff berth is concerned, close to being over. With the season in such a state and with the coach possibly not returning, it would be the perfect time for players to abdicate their responsibility.
There should have been fire in Cowher's eyes not a smile on his face at the suggestion his job situation is affecting the team. He should have forcefully said his passion for his job and his dedication to it is as strong today as it ever has been. Instead, he left it hanging. He left people wondering.
The belief here is that Cowher is as motivated as ever and that his job status is in no way affecting his performance. If this is his final season with the Steelers, the last thing he should want is to go out on a sour note.
It's hard to say the same thing about the players. Interestingly, one of the team's biggest weaknesses this season has been on special teams, which is the one area where effort might be more important than talent. It's possible, although not highly, that Cowher's status is a factor in this area.
Cowher opened the news conference by taking full blame for the team's record.
"Obviously, there's a lot of disappointment to be sitting here where we are after seven games at 2-5," he said. "First of all, I accept full responsibility for that. It starts with me. Certainly, there is a lot of frustration that's taken place through the course of these games in terms of the different ways we have found to lose 'em. The bottom line is we have lost them, and each of us will have to do more and, again, it starts with me."
Cowher is willing to take full blame. He just doesn't want to explain why.
First Published November 1, 2006 12:00 am