Steelers Throwback Thursday: Cowher gets to AFC championship “with Noll’s players”

Steel City Underground takes fans back in time to feature events, special moments, and historical times and players in the world of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation. Join us as we revisit these moments in our “Steelers Throwback Thursday” series.

It’s likely an unpopular topic, but one that keeps repeating throughout social media channels: Mike Tomlin‘s early head coaching success in Pittsburgh being solely due to “Cowher’s players.” The same could be said for Bill Cowher, who got the Pittsburgh Steelers back to the AFC Championship for the first time since 1984, when he took over head coaching duties from Chuck Noll.

While neither statement on Tomlin or Cowher are completely free of bias – or supported by indisputable evidence – sports giant Sports Illustrated once made nearly an identical claim surrounding Cowher essentially riding the coattails of his predecessor in Noll.

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Noll had the privilege of coaching the Steelers in what is arguably the most successful decade in NFL history. The Steelers, in the 1970s, won four Super Bowls with Noll at the helm. A large number of those teams’ players are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame today.

When Noll finished his career in 1991, a young Cowher took over. In 1994 and 1995, Cowher coached the Steelers to the AFC championships. That is fact.

What is left out of all too common misconceptions about what coach found success with his predecessor’s players are periods when the team went cold due to the actual players on the rosters. As Sports Illustrated reported:

“… the magic disappeared in the 1980s, and for years, the Steelers battled just to make the playoffs.”

That, too, is factual. The 1980s were not a kind decade for the Steelers franchise. They saw many of their star players either leave the NFL altogether or go to other teams, leaving a vacuum that had to be filled. Even Noll, a Hall of Fame coach, could do little to correct the course of his team.

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Cowher didn’t immediately turn the team around into Super Bowl champions when he became the guy the franchise expected to lead. Having inherited players that also played under Noll, Cowher did coach the 1992 team to an 11-5-0 record, but lost the divisional round game to the Buffalo Bills, 24-3.

If he’d been judged by the same standards applied to today’s NFL coaches, (where it’s playoff wins and Super Bowl championships, or bust,) Cowher may have become a target for frustrated fans. Might they have cried, “fire Cowher” week-in, week-out?

Luckily, social media was not dictating and spreading the thoughts, feelings, or emotions of people worldwide in 1992 like it does freely today.

Cowher’s Steelers went 9-7 in his second season (1993) and bounced back in 1994 to finish the regular season with a 12-4-0 record before losing a shot at a Super Bowl appearance with a loss in the AFC conference championship game to the, then, San Diego Chargers in a game many thought the Steelers should have won. The final score was 17-13 in the Chargers’ favor.

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The 1975 season was a chance at redemption. Cowher once again coached the Steelers to an 11-5-0 regular season record and Pittsburgh returned to the AFC conference championship to face a blazing hot Indianapolis Colts team that had finished the regular season at just 9-7-0 but beat-out the San Diego Chargers (wildcard round) and Kansas City Chiefs (divisional round) to advance.

There were moments in the AFC championship that were eerily similar to the 1994 game.

Behind, 16-13, Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell was able to hit receiver Ernie Mills for a 37-yard completion to the Indianapolis one-yard line. Bam Morris was able to power his way into the end zone on the subsequent play, giving Pittsburgh the 20-16 lead with just 1:34 left on the game clock.

Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh attempted a “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone that the Steelers were able to prevent. The win sent Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl, for the first time since the 1979 season, where they lost to the Dallas Cowboys (27-17).

Cowher would finally get the Steelers back to a Super Bowl championship following the 2005 regular season. By then, his players were his players, Ben Roethlisberger was the new franchise quarterback, and Noll was firmly in the rear view. The 2006 season was Cowher’s last in Pittsburgh.

It can be said, and evidence to prove the point readily available, that all NFL coaches have won – and lost – with players formerly coached by someone else. That included all three modern head coaches for the Steelers in Noll, Cowher, and Tomlin.

Regardless, Cowher should be given credit for accomplishing what he did in ending Pittsburgh’s AFC championship game appearance drought of ten seasons.

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