With Cowher, Steelers' loss is Ravens' gain

January 06, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

The fact that the Ravens swept the Pittsburgh Steelers and are on to bigger and better things this season could lead to the perception that Bill Cowher's resignation isn't a big deal for them. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It's a huge deal.

The coach known as The Chin, who announced his resignation yesterday after coaching the Steelers for 15 seasons, got the best of the Ravens much more often than not. He dominated them.

There's no telling what will happen in Pittsburgh now, but the departure of Cowher, one of the NFL's best coaches, means the Ravens have a better shot at becoming the lords of the AFC North.

The Ravens won't miss anything about sharing a division with Cowher.

Wait, they'll miss at least one thing. He was good theater for the fans. Nothing got Baltimore's football faithful more jacked up than a game against Cowher's Steelers. With spittle spewing from his jutting chin on a windswept afternoon, Cowher was the archetypal tough guy you loved to beat.

Although fans on both sides will keep bringing the heat, the annual home-and-home series between the teams is bound to be a little less intense with Cowher gone. That's a shame.

Oh, and there's another way the Ravens will miss Cowher, who went 149-90-1 in regular-season games and reached the playoffs in 10 of his 15 seasons: He and his teams faithfully provided an accurate measuring stick. Opponents such as the Ravens could always get a handle on where they stood when they took on the Steelers.

It happened to the Ravens this season. They were beginning to think they had an elite team as the season progressed, but they knew they were good after they blasted the Steelers on Nov. 26.

Cowher almost always fielded teams that were tough, competitive and in the playoff mix; even in this down season, in which the Steelers finished 8-8, they were still so formidable that Ravens coach Brian Billick repeatedly said the Steelers were the most talented team on the Ravens' schedule.

The Ravens played Cowher's Steelers 23 times starting in 1996, when Art Modell moved the franchise here from Cleveland. The Steelers won 14 of those 23 games, including one in the playoffs in January 2002.

The Ravens also had some success in the rivalry, but really, not that much until this season. They had won just three of their past 10 games against the Steelers before 2006.

Cowher's Steelers finished higher than the Ravens in the standings in seven of the 11 years in which they shared a division. The Steelers won five division titles in that time and the Ravens won two. Each won one Super Bowl. (The Ravens could add a second this season.)

Cowher's successor may well keep things going, but Cowher did it for a long time, and that's an increasingly tough task in a league that conspires to pull winning teams down and push losing teams up. It's become common for NFL teams to "yo-yo" - rise one season and fall the next - but Cowher was a master at fending off the forces of parity and keeping a good thing going. Eight of 11 times in his career, he came back from a winning season to post another winning season.

Think that's easy? Billick, a pretty accomplished coach in his own right, has had four chances to follow up a winning season with another. He has succeeded half the time.

This time of year, when the NFL coaching carousel is in full swing, it becomes clear just how many mediocrities and outright frauds are in the business. Nick Saban may have somehow finagled a $32 million commitment from the University of Alabama, but few people in Miami were sorry to see him leave the Dolphins.

The same certainly could be said about Dennis Green's departure from Arizona or Jim Mora's from Atlanta. Will anyone feel a sense of loss? How could they?

But Cowher's departure from Pittsburgh - now, there is a palpable setback for an organization.

Incredibly, some Steelers fans aren't sad to see him go; until last season, when he led the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory, he had a tendency to lose big playoff games at home, a habit that breeds disaffection. And 15 years is a long time. Sometimes, people just want to see a new act.

But those who are happy to see Cowher go should know that the Ravens and the rest of the citizens of the AFC North are privately toasting his departure and sighing with relief. Cowher was tough on them. For a long time.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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