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The Cold Hard Facts Redux
Just thought this would be fun to look back on a second time...remember, the "scientists" who were convinced the World was flat were just as wrong when the theory was accepted as wehn it was debunked.
Cowher's formula for failure
Cold, Hard Football Facts for September 25, 2005
We were showering the other day behind the CHFF cardboard box headquarters, as we so often do, with a half-empty Poland Springs sports bottle and a jug of Gojo Orange Pumice (yeah, it?s a little rough on the genitals). It?s there, in between the screams of pain, that we do much of our best thinking and we began to ponder one of the big pigskin issues of our time: Why can?t the Steelers win in the playoffs?
It?s an interesting question ? and an infuriating one in Pittsburgh ? and stuck with us long after our weekly 30-second rendevous with cleanliness was complete. After all, the Steelers are exactly the type of team the gridiron classicists would have you believe is poised to win each and every year: they regularly boast a great running game and great defense. Both are requisites for Super Bowl supremacy, say the ?pundits.?
Both factors make Pittsburgh one of the league?s most dominant teams in the regular season year after year. In the 13 seasons of the Bill Cowher Era (1992 to 2004), the Steelers have won eight division titles (?92, ?94, ?95, ?96, ?97, ?01, ?02, ?04), made nine playoff appearances (courtesy of a 1993 wild-card berth), and posted 10 winning seasons. Their number of division titles is unmatched over that period, while only Green Bay has made more playoff appearances (10).
The Packers, of course, have been blessed with Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, who has been at the helm for all 10 of those Packers playoff teams. Cowher has heroically duct-taped together annual powerhouses with a collection of quarterbacks who, until Ben Roethlisberger last season, failed to impress anybody: Bubby Brister, Neil O?Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak and Tommy Maddox have all taken snaps and won games for playoff-bound Pittsburgh teams since 1992.
Despite this substandard quarterbacking ensemble, Cowher has managed a rather impressive 132-77-1 regular-season coaching record (.629) in his career (entering Week Three of the 2005 season). Among active coaches, only Jim Mora (.667), Andy Reid (.663), Joe Gibbs (.653), Mike Sherman (.646) and Mike Martz (.634) have better winning percentages. And among coaches with seven or more years in the league entering this season only the legendary Gibbs compares favorably with Cowher (both entered this season with 13 years of experience as NFL head coaches).
Each season Cowher has pegged his legacy on an offensive formula of run first pass pigskin later ? coupled with a defense that routinely stands among the league?s best. Here?s how Pittsburgh?s Cowher-Era playoff teams rank in rushing, scoring defense and total defense.
Playoff year Record Rush off. rank Scoring D rank Total D rank
1992 11-5 4 2 12
1993 9-7 6 8 3
1994 12-4 1 2 3
1995 11-5 12 9 2
1996 10-6 2 4 3
1997 11-5 1 11 5
2001 13-3 1 3 1
2002 10-5-1 9 16 7
2004 15-1 2 1 1
The continued ability to pound the pigskin and play good defense year after year is nothing less than impressive. Yet this classically perfect pigskin design ? teams that the ?pundits? would say are built for the playoffs ? has proven nothing but a formula for failure.
All nine teams have stumbled upon miserable ends in the postseason. Only the 1995 team made the Super Bowl, where it lost to Dallas, 27-17. Pittsburgh has also lost ? famously now ? four AFC title games at home, two to New England, one to Denver and one to San Diego. Cowher?s Steelers are a collective 8-9 in the playoffs in 13 seasons. For a little perspective, New England has more playoff victories since 2001 (nine) than Pittsburgh has since 1992 (eight).
It?s even worse for the Steelers when we dig inside the numbers: Almost all of Pittsburgh?s playoff success has come against borderline playoff teams. In the Cowher Era postseason, Pittsburgh is:
2-7 against division winners
6-2 against wild-card teams
1-9 against teams that went 11-5 or better in the regular season
7-0 against teams that went 10-6 or 9-7 in the regular season
Under Cowher, the Steelers have NEVER won a playoff game against a team that won its division and had a record of 11-5 or better.
Pittsburgh?s last win over a division champion came back in 1997, when the Steelers squeezed out 7-6 win at home against 10-6 AFC East champ New England. Its only other postseason victory over a division-winning team came against 10-6 AFC East champ Buffalo in 1995. Pittsburgh's three postseason wins since 1997 have come against wild-card teams. Its three postseason losses since 1997 have come against division champions.
Pittsburgh?s lone postseason victory against a team 11-5 or better came back in 1994, when it beat Bill Belichick?s wild-card 11-5 Cleveland team, 29-9, in the divisional round. (For all his postseason failures, Cowher remains the only coach to beat Belichick during the New England coach's NFL-record 10-1 postseason run.)
Still, that victory was 11 years ago. If you can?t beat 11-5 teams, you simply don?t belong in the playoffs. For some more perspective, New England?s nine postseason victories in its recent Super Bowl run include seven victories over teams that went 12-4 or better.
So why are Pittsburgh teams that appear so dominant in the regular season unable to pull it all together in the postseason? We dug into our Gojo jug of gridiron analysis, spit-polished the NFL record books, and uncovered two reasons.
1) A lack of balance
Cowher may enjoy piecing together teams that define the term the ?smashmouth.? It?s certainly a pleasure for football fans to watch. What blood-thirsty, testosterone-fueled football fan doesn?t get a little chubby watching his team physically pound another into the turf? It?s a form of football we learned to admire ? and aspire to ? playing on Pop Warner and high school teams.
Unfortunately, it just doesn?t cut it in the NFL, where the Cold, Hard Football Facts have taught us that proficiency in many areas is more important than dominance in a few. With few exceptions, the Steelers have been proficient offensively only in the running game.
Playoff year Rush yards (rank) Pass yards (rank)
1992 2,156 (4) 3,046 (22)
1993 2003 (6) 3,606 (10)
1994 2,180 (1) 3,247 (22)
1995 1,853 (12) 4,093 (9)
1996 2,299 (2) 2,990 (30)
1997 2,479 (1) 3,215 (23)
2001 2,774 (1) 3,295 (22)
2002 2,120 (9) 4,036 (8)
2004 2,464 (2) 2,970 (28)
Notice something about Pittsburgh?s lowest-ranked rushing team, the one Pittsburgh playoff team over this period that failed to rush for more than 2,000 yards yet did pass for more than 4,000 yards? Sure you do. The 1995 squad is the one Pittsburgh team that?s made the Super Bowl in the Cowher Era.
When the Steelers find themselves up against high-quality defenses in the postseason ? teams that can shut down the running game or at least make it work harder for its yards ? they typically can?t make up for it with a successful passing attack. Put most simply: playoff caliber defenses stack up against the run and Pittsburgh?s passing attack has not been good enough overcome this strategy when it's employed high-quality teams.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts surrounding Pittsburgh?s postseason passing attack have been like a painful colonoscopy inserted into the rectum of Steelers fans using our grainy friend Gojo as a lubricant.
1994 AFC title game ? In a 17-13 loss to San Diego, Pittsburgh?s leading ballcarrier, Barry Foster, picked up just 47 yards on 20 carries. With his top-ranked rushing attack stifled, O?Donnell was forced to pass 54 times. The Pittsburgh offense found its way into the end zone just once and lost, 17-13.
1995 Super Bowl ? In a 27-17 loss to Dallas, Pittsburgh?s top two ballcarriers, Erric Pegram and Bam Morris, were held to just 88 yards on 25 carries. With his twelfth-ranked rushing attack stifled, O?Donnell famously tossed two INTs to wide open defensive back Larry Brown, who set up easy touchdowns for the Dallas offense while earning MVP honors in the process.
1996 divisional playoffs ? In a 28-3 loss to New England, Pittsburgh?s leading ballcarrier, Jerome Bettis, was held to 43 yards on 13 carries. With their second-ranked rushing attack stifled, quarterbacks Tomczak and Stewart combined for a spectacularly unproductive 16 of 39 for 110 yards with two INTs.
1997 AFC title game ? In a 24-21 loss to Denver, Pittsburgh's leading ballcarrier, Bettis, gave the Steelers a potentially winning performance with 105 yards on 23 carries. But against a champion-caliber defense, Stewart completed just 18 of 36 passes for 201 yards with 1 TD and 3 INTs.
2001 AFC title game ? In a 24-17 loss to New England, Pittsburgh?s leading rusher, Bettis, was held to a humiliating 8 yards on 9 carries. With his top-ranked rushing attack stifled, Stewart completed just 24 of 42 passes for 255 yards with 0 TDs and 3 INTs, including one each on Pittsburgh?s final two desperation drives.