If you have read this space or listened to me on the radio over the years, you know this is a hot-button topic for me. No doubt, it’ll come up again in the not-to-distant future. So consider this a primer for similar arguments soon.
I say “no doubt” because this topic comes up whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers struggle, and they’re struggling right now. Based on what we’ve seen so far, 2018 is going to be a much tougher season than many of us expected, both on and off the field.
Since Mike Tomlin took over for Bill Cowher before the 2007 season, I have railed against the “this never would have happened if Cowher was here” refrain. The debate invariably crops up from bitter Steelers fans after Tomlin-era losses, particularly ones where on-field discipline is an issue.
Nowadays, whenever a Steelers loss occurs, off-field discipline and behavior are often blamed for bleeding over into on-field performance or “locker-room chemistry.” Frequently, those emails, talk show phone calls or tweets are punctuated with the old stand-by of “this never would have happened if Cowher was here.”
That whole mentality is a fallacy, of course. Because Cowher stuck out his jaw, spat when he yelled and screamed at punters, rookies and refs, he was viewed as a disciplinarian. The reality was that low-leverage players got chewed out, and higher profile players did what they wanted.
You know, kind of like the guy in charge now.
Joey Porter got an unsportsmanlike penalty, Troy Polamalu got a late hit, Hines Ward got a taunting flag — big deal. Josh Miller would flub a punt and “Look ‘aht! Coach ‘Caher’ is gettin’ all fired up, n’at!”
You could say this is a case of distance making the heart grow fonder. I say it’s a matter of age making our brains softer.
Here’s an example of what I mean. This tweet came to me after Antonio Brown’s latest social media dust-up, this time with a former team employee.
That’s because their head coach has no control. #BringBackCowher
— Matthew Aliberti (@KnightNation4) September 17, 2018
Independently, that complaint about Tomlin gains validation seemingly every week. Sadly, sliding in the Cowher comparison resonates as an error with the public less and less every week, too.
People really should understand how inaccurate of an equivalence that is. Consider these distractions, off-field incidents, examples of insubordination or moments where discipline was absent from Steelers players under Cowher’s watch.
• In November 1992 — Cowher’s first year — Eric Green got busted for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
• Before the 1994 AFC Championship game, some Steelers players prepped a Super Bowl rap video then proceeded to lose at home to San Diego.
• In 1996, Byron “Bam” Morris pleaded guilty to felony possession of marijuana.
• In 2000, Richard Huntley and Earl Holmes got involved in a minicamp wooden-stool-swinging brawl in the locker room.
• Plaxico Burress was cited for an open-container violation in Cleveland and public drunkenness in Virginia while he was a Steeler. He also got ejected for fighting James Trapp during a Ravens game, and he skipped a minicamp practice as a Mother’s Day protest.
• Marvel Smith was arrested for using marijuana two weeks before training camp started in 2002.
• Porter got ejected for a pregame fight in Cleveland and tried to fight Ray Lewis outside of the Baltimore team bus in 2003. This after he missed the game with his injury from a gunshot wound.
• Hines Ward held out of training camp in 2005.
Just to name a few.
You see? It did happen “when Cowher was here.” So, if you want to be selective when it comes to criticizing Tomlin, go ahead. Just don’t have selective memory when it comes to comparing him to Cowher. It undermines your argument.
Just like it does when you say “Tomlin only won with Cowher’s players.” I’m sure we’ll get to that one at some point, too.