PITTSBURGH (AP) – Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick were the only two NFL coaches last season to win games in February. One of these years, Cowher wants that final victory to come in the Super Bowl, not the Pro Bowl.

Cowher is the most tenured NFL coach, beginning his 14th with his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers – and, it would seem, the one most tethered to a predictable result at the end of the season. Five times in 10 years the Steelers have reached the AFC championship game, all at home, and four times they’ve lost, twice to Belichick’s Patriots since the 2001 season.

“I never like losing, and the losing can gnaw at you and it is tough to deal with,” said Cowher, so discouraged after last season’s 41-27 loss at home to New England he didn’t watch the Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl. “The longer you’re in this, the losses hurt more. The longer you’re here, the higher the expectations that are placed upon you and, when you don’t succeed, it eats at you.”

Forget not winning the big one. The Steelers are perfecting the art of not winning the one before the big one. And Cowher isn’t alone among NFL coaches in feeling the frustration of stringing good season after good season without experiencing that one great one.

Quick quiz: Of these elite-level NFL coaches, who has the best regular-season record and who has the worst: Belichick, Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer, Tony Dungy, Jeff Fisher, Dennis Green?

Answer: First, Cowher. Worst, Belichick.

Of course, in the record that really matters, Belichick is 10-1 and Cowher is 8-9 in the postseason. Some of the others have records worse than Cowher’s; Schottenheimer, Cowher’s one-time mentor, has 177 regular-season victories, the most of any active coach who hasn’t won a Super Bowl, but is 5-12 in the postseason. Eight of his teams have lost their first playoff game.

The aforementioned group has 591 regular-season victories to Belichick’s 89, yet he has three Super Bowl rings as a head coach to their combined zero. And that doesn’t include Eagles coach Andy Reid, whose .667 winning percentage is the best among active coaches (Cowher’s is .628), which has helped him to only one Super Bowl, a loss to New England in February.

Curiously, Cowher, the Braves’ Bobby Cox (16 continuous seasons in Atlanta) and the Utah Jazz’s Jerry Sloan (17 seasons) are the most tenured coaches or managers in pro sports, yet Cox has the lone championship among them.

Cowher cites the determination to lift the Lombardi Trophy as the No. 1 factor that keeps him going in a profession where the burnout and turnover rates are very high, and in a city so spoiled by four Super Bowl titles in six years in the 1970s that even last year’s 15-1 season didn’t fully satisfy it.

Cowher’s players saw that drive during a training camp that, while it wasn’t an all-day boot camp like that operated by new Dolphins coach Nick Saban, was focused, purposeful and centered on a single goal.

“It can get frustrating for him,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “He’s very passionate and he loves football and that’s why he keeps coming back every year. He’s the same old Bill.”

There once was a time when Cowher had the upper hand on the other Bill, winning three division titles to Belichick’s none with Cleveland when the two opposed each other from 1992-95 in the former AFC Central. Back when Cowher arguably had the more talented team, nobody called Belichick a genius or suggested he repeatedly outcoached Cowher.

Now, the goal going into a new season for Cowher – and, too, for Dungy, Schottenheimer, Reid and the others – is to find a way, any way, to get past Belichick, go to the Super Bowl and win it. If there’s a common lesson from last season’s playoffs to be learned among the group, perhaps it’s that passivity isn’t the way to do it.

Cowher, Schottenheimer, Reid and Jets coach Herman Edwards all took the overly cautious approach when faced with important game-management decisions, and all lost. Schottenheimer and Edwards were so conservative with their play-calling when their teams got within range of game-winning field goals they left their kickers with overly long attempts that were missed – in Edwards’ case, twice in a span of several minutes during an overtime loss in Pittsburgh.

Reid declined to go into a hurry-up offense with the Eagles trailing New England late in the Super Bowl, leaving his team no time and no chance to win. And Cowher went for a field goal rather than a touchdown with the Steelers surging back early in the fourth quarter of the AFC title game after trailing 24-3 at the half – such an against-the-book call for a normally adventuresome coach the Heinz Field crowd gasped audibly when kicker Jeff Reed ran onto the field. The Steelers, their momentum stalled not by the Patriots but by the call, were never in the game again.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s not, but Edwards, Cowher and Dungy, whose Colts have lost to New England in the playoffs the last two seasons, all were assistant coaches together in Kanas City under Schottenheimer.

Maybe seeing Belichick win three titles in four years will be enough to make these coaches change their thinking when they next make the playoffs. To get back there, Cowher constantly reminds his players of how quickly good teams can turn bad. Only two years ago, the Steelers went 6-10 after going 13-3 and 10-6 the previous two seasons.

“I’m driven every year,” Cowher said. “But there are no shortcuts. No easy way. You can’t take anything for granted, regardless of who you having coming back or their performances. I told the players, just because you played well last year, don’t think you’re going to get it done by just showing up.”

No, as the Steelers have learned, showing up year after year in the playoffs isn’t a guarantee of winning the Super Bowl, even while being led by a man who trails only Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells and Belichick in playoff wins by active coaches.

“What we have talked about is putting ourselves in the same position – try to create as many home games as we can in the playoffs, try to get into the playoffs, and then it’s a new season,” he said.

That’s the consolation for all these Belichick chasers. It’s a new season, and maybe this is the time some other coach enjoys having confetti dumped on him in February. Maybe Reid. Maybe Cowher. Maybe Dungy. Maybe anybody but Belichick.

“The older you get, the more you agonize over the losses,” Cowher said. “We all know what we’re in this business for.”

AP-ES-08-30-05 1706EDT


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