Sunday’s game will mark the third meeting between head coaches Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden. Cowher owns bragging rights, having won both previous matchups, once when Gruden was with the Raiders as well as a 17-7 victory at Raymond James Stadium in December of 2002.
But neither coach has had the opportunity to do much bragging this year, and the possibility that this will be the final meeting between the two coaches while they are with these particular teams is very real.
While neither Cowher nor Gruden would cave into speculation about their immediate future with either the Steelers or Buccaneers, rumors surrounding their return to the sidelines in 2007 have run rampant this past month.
The latest rumblings had Cowher, who recently purchased a new home in Raleigh, N.C., returning to his alma mater, North Carolina State University, to take over for the recently fired Chuck Amato.
However, in an interview with The Wolfpacker.com this week, Cowher denied the talk, saying, "I'm very flattered and I've heard some of the things that have been coming out, but I'm not a candidate. You can take me off the list."
The days of the Don Shulas and Tom Landrys pacing the sideline of the same city for decades are long gone. Cowher, the longest tenured active coach in the league at 15 years with the Steelers, is joined by the legendary Paul Brown as the only two coaches to lead a team to six consecutive playoff appearances in their first six years. And in 2004, Cowher became only the 11th coach in NFL history to win 120 games with the same organization.
But much like Gruden has been persecuted for his lack of success following a Super Bowl, Cowher has been feeling the heat as well. A firebillcowher.com website even exists. That, for a guy whose .615 career winning percentage is tops in Steelers history? Hard to envision a firechuckknoll.com website ever having been a possibility.
“I have a lot of respect for Pittsburgh, Bill Cowher and that whole organization,” Gruden said. “I lived in Pittsburgh for a year and had a chance to see that program at close range and they got a lot of great players, a lot of great tradition and a great coach.
“It used to be that’s it hard to win a Super Bowl. Now you’re criticized for having a Super Bowl hangover, you know what I mean? They were a wild card team that rampaged through the playoffs and won a world title and now all the sudden people think they got the big head.”
In a conference call with the media on Wednesday, Cowher addressed the rumors concerning his future in Pittsburgh and admitted that they might be affecting his team.
“I do, yeah [think the rumors affect the team],” he said.
“But I know it has not affected me and my approach to this game and in my communication with the football team. I’ve dealt with it no differently. Like you say, it’s all speculation. It’s something I will sit down with at the end of the year and go form there, but we’re in the middle of the year and my focus, again, is on this football team and trying to win this game on Sunday.”
Cowher’s sentiments sound eerily similar to those Gruden made last week after newspaper reports indicated he may be shopping other coaching positions for next season.
Gruden labeled the rumors as “stupidity” said they had “no validity.”
In the two seasons following the Bucs’ Super Bowl victory, Gruden coached the team to 7-9 and 5-11 records. Cowher has produced double-digit win totals in four of his last five seasons, including a 15-5 mark a year ago en route to his first Super Bowl title.
But after a 4-7 start this year, the chances at making the playoffs are all but over for he and his team, and when that happens following the type of success the Steelers had last year, questions of a Super Bowl hangover are inevitable.
“We’re a good football team with a bad record,” Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We’ve got a bull’s-eye on our chest. Some guys have really come after us, and we haven’t played our best football.”
Cowher attributed his team’s woes to the fine line between success and failure. “I don’t think we’re that much worse a team than we were a year ago,” he said. “And I’m sure Tampa Bay will tell you the same thing.
“Sometimes there are certain things that happen through the course of the season where you lose a little bit of momentum and it’s hard to get back. “In this game, as you can see every Sunday, I think anybody can beat anybody, and sometimes you get on a roll and you start to get that momentum and that can carry you a long way.”
Late in November of last season, the Steelers lost three games in a row and that momentum Cowher spoke of was thought to be lost. But as quick as it disappeared, it was regained, and his team won four straight to end the regular season.
As a Wild Card team, Cowher led the Steelers to three road wins over the top seeds in the AFC and ended the run with a victory over Seattle in the season’s final game.
The Bucs didn’t have a single three-game win streak for two years following their 2002 Super Bowl, but won four in a row to begin the 2005 season. They had their ups and downs last year but never surrendered three consecutive games and won the NFC South title. So Cowher’s thoughts on momentum aren’t without merit.
As far as streaks go, Tampa Bay’s best streak came in 1999 when the Tony Dungy coached Bucs went on a six-game tear. They fell to St. Louis in the NFC Championship game that year. The team’s 26-game losing streak over the first two year’s of existence begs not to be remembered.
Gruden has said repeatedly over the course of this season that injuries, defections via free agency and the parody across the league all contribute to a team’s struggles.
One question that continues to resurface as the losses pile up and playoff visions become blurred is, how do you keep a team motivated and continue to get the best effort out of your players?
“I have no fault whatsoever with this team on the practice field or the meeting room,” Gruden said. “We’ve had a lot of adversity. We’ve lost a lot of key players. We’ve played a very tough schedule. I don’t like excuses. I can’t stand making them or talking about them.
“We have to play better and we have to coach better. Until we do, we’re going to get our butt kicked.”
NO LONGER BULLIES Sunday’s meeting will be the eighth between the two teams, with Pittsburgh holding a 6-1 all-time advantage. Those who remember the last meeting, on Monday Night Football in December of 2002, might recall a fiery atmosphere, full of emotion and some pre-game smack talk.
During warm-ups, then Buccaneers linebacker Nate Webster ran through the Steelers pre-game stretch, creating a stir between the two teams. Things began to escalate when Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis gave Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp a shove.
The game was full of hard hits and jawing between snaps, but when all was said and done, Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox had thrown for 236 yards and a touchdown in a 17-7 Pittsburgh win.
The consensus following the game was that the Bucs were whipped physically. Bettis was quoted as saying, “We came out here and bullied them and showed them we were the baddest on the block.”
It’s tough to maintain that swagger that these two teams so often refer to, and on Thursday, Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks was asked to recall the passion of that game and how that may be different four years later.
“You know both of our teams have changed since then,” Brooks said. “Obviously we can relate to a certain degree of what it’s like defending a world title and not having the season you want, but you know when you line up on the football field we’re not going to be thinking of that, we’re going to be trying to win and they’re going to be trying to win also and it’s going to be a competitive game.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY When asked if he would sign a piece of paper saying he could win a Super Bowl now if it meant he had to suffer the “hangover” consequences a year later, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden responded by saying; “How much suffering?” As he raised one eyebrow with a chuckle.
INJURY REPORT Safety Will Allen (ankle) and tight end Alex Smith (ankle) missed practice on Thursday and are listed as questionable. CB Juran Bolden (shin), RB Michael Pittman (hamstring/shoulder), LB Shelton Quarles (knee/ankle), and DT Ellis Wyms (ankle) are also listed as questionable.