Friday, January 12, 2007

Bill Cowher did the unthinkable. He succeeded a legend and left on his own terms after 15 successful seasons. While Cowher didn’t replicate Chuck Noll’s four championships in six years in Pittsburgh — something no other coach has done during the Super Bowl era, he did lead the Steelers to two title games, winning it all last season.

San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer, who gave a 28-year-old Cowher his start as Cleveland’s special teams coach in 1985, noted that the Browns interviewed Cowher for their vacancy in 1991, the year before he was hired in Pittsburgh.

“You wonder how the Browns’ fortunes might have changed had Bill been hired in Cleveland rather than [in] Pittsburgh,” Schottenheimer said. “That the Steelers have had only two coaches since 1969 is a remarkable achievement. Bill certainly stands at the same level as Coach Noll.”

Schottenheimer, who retired from Kansas City after the 1998 season before returning to the sidelines with Washington two years later, understands Cowher’s need to take a break.

“You keep trying to find ways to say the same thing, different ways to get your message across to everybody whether it’s the players, the staff, the organization or the community,” Schottenheimer said. “After being in a place 10, 12, 14 years, it’s hard to find new ways to get that message across. At some point in time I fully expect to see Bill back.”

Cowher’s departure, which had been rumored since his family moved to North Carolina last year, leaves only 10 coaches heading with at least five years experience with their teams and just five in their jobs as far back as 1999. That quintet includes Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher (1994), Denver’s Mike Shanahan (1995) and Baltimore’s Brian Billick, Philadelphia’s Andy Reid and Seattle’s Mike Holmgren (all 1999).

Fisher’s league-long tenure is particularly impressive since he was hired on an interim basis when owner Bud Adams fired coach Jack Pardee in November 1994. Fisher, then a 36-year-old defensive coordinator, is now the dean at 48.

Not a wild weekend — While the Dallas-Seattle finish was wild and the Philadelphia-New York Giants game ended dramatically, the opening playoff weekend didn’t produce an upset for just the third time in the 17 seasons since the playoffs were expanded to 12 teams. The other such years were 2000 and 2003.

What’s more, in only five of the 19 previous seasons since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger did the home teams sweep the opening round (1973, 1974, 1979, 1980 and 1986).

While San Diego (8-0), Baltimore (7-1) and Chicago (6-2) were all strong at home this season, the fourth host this weekend, New Orleans, lost four of its final five in the Superdome and finished 4-4 there after spending 2005 away from the building in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Philadelphia, which lost at New Orleans 27-24 on Oct. 15, was 5-3 on the road this season.

New England, which visits San Diego, was an even more impressive 7-1 away from home. Seattle, which heads back to Chicago where it lost 37-6 on Oct. 1, and Indianapolis, which visits Baltimore, were both 4-4 on the road. The Colts lost their last four away games, last winning on the road Nov. 5 at New England.

Speaking of the Patriots, their nine straight home playoff victories dating to 1996 tied Buffalo (1988-1995) for the second-longest such streak in NFL history. Green Bay won 13 in a row at home from 1939 to 2001.

College to pro a tough transition — Nick Saban’s departure from the Dolphins for Alabama was just the latest example of a successful college coach coming up short in the NFL. For every Jimmy Johnson and Bobby Ross, there are two Steve Spurriers and Frank Kushes. Even Oklahoma legend Bud Wilkinson struck out at the top level. Will Louisville’s Bobby Petrino, hired by Atlanta this week to replace the fired Jim Mora, be more Dick Vermeil or Lou Holtz?

How to say goodbye — The Giants’ Tiki Barber, who’s retiring at the top of his game at 31, didn’t go out with a title or even a playoff victory. However, Barber did rush for a franchise-record 234 yards in his regular season finale and added 137 yards, the most of his seven postseason games, in the wild-card loss to the Eagles.

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