Labriola On

Labriola on Cam, Cowher's QB history

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It's time.

• It's time to recognize Cam Heyward, but not in the way that immediately comes to mind.

• Heyward is the player who has been voted to three Pro Bowls and twice to the Associated Press first-team All-Pro team during his nine seasons so far. The guy who has 54 sacks to rank fourth among defensive linemen in franchise history, and remember this is a franchise that employed one of the most famous and feared defensive lines in NFL history, to go along with 117 hits on the quarterback.

• He has 30 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, and more than one blocked field goal. During his nine NFL seasons there have been a total of 144 regular season games, and in only 10 of them did Heyward not play. Nine of those came in 2016 when he tore a pectoral muscle, and the 10th was the regular season finale in 2017 when Coach Mike Tomlin decided to rest his most significant players.

• And make no mistake, Cam Heyward has been and continues to be one of the Steelers most significant players. But now it's time to acknowledge Cam Heyward as one of the Steelers most significant people, and he deserves to be viewed as one of the most significant people in franchise history.

• Here are some "statistics" to support that claim:

• In 2015, Heyward established the Heyward House, a Foundation dedicated to impacting the lives of today's youth, including Southeastern Brain Tumor Foundation, Smyrna Stars Basketball Club, and after school fitness programs.

• He has the Cameron Heyward Birthday Bash, where he hosts an annual party for often forgotten children on their birthdays. He has teamed up with Blessings in a Backpack, which provides backpacks filled with healthy food each weekend of the school year to those at Urban Pathways Charter School.

• Heyward is the driving force behind a T-shirt campaign that promotes cancer awareness, and the "Pittsburgh is Stronger than Cancer" shirts raise money for research and to aid families dealing with the hardships that cancer treatment can create.

• He launched "Craig's Closet" in conjunction with his foundation and Sports Clips to provide suits, shirts, ties and other accessories to young men in the Pittsburgh area who lack the means to own proper attire for key occasions, such as a job interview or even a special family occasion.

• Heyward has led an initiative with local police officers to work together to make an impact in and around Pittsburgh, including a Thanksgiving turkey distribution through the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, where his teammates and police officers come together to distribute the food to local families.

• He is working with the UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and the UPMC Asthma Institute, a disease Heyward battles himself, to help children who are similarly afflicted. Last Christmas Heyward gave all of the patients at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh one of his jerseys to help brighten their days, and he has plans for more involvement there moving forward.

• Three times, Cam Heyward was the Steelers nominee for Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, presented annually by the NFL to recognize a player's volunteer and charity work, as well as his excellence on the field.

• And given all of this, it was no surprise when Heyward stepped forward during this global pandemic and made a plea for people to adhere to the strict recommendations for social distancing. His plea came in the form of a powerful open letter that appeared on ThePlayersTribune.com on April 2, and was titled, "An Open Letter to Pittsburgh."

• Here are some of the highlights of the 1,200 words Heyward wrote: "I want you to take a second and do me a quick favor. If you have grandparents, or your parents are older, pick up your phone right now and dial them up. Ask them how they're doing. Check in. See if they need anything. Just that alone will be a huge help. But after that, remind them in the strongest terms possible that they need to stay home no matter what right now. Make the case. Do your best impression of a trial lawyer. Convince them. I'm here to tell you it can be done — my grandma hasn't been out and about since that afternoon at Target, and she's been fully on board with the stay-at-home recommendations. She's actually been holed up doing puzzles with my grandfather. The second thing you can do is, if you're healthy and can make it happen, tell them that if they need anything, you'll go get it for them yourself. Or you'll track down someone who can. Protect them. Make this your mission."

• And in conclusion: "We're all in this together, Pittsburgh. Let's hunker down. Let's be patient. Let's do this for each other. If I've ever learned anything from all those drives from the airport to downtown, it's that there's always light at the end of the tunnel. Love you, Pittsburgh. Sincerely, Cam."

• It's time Pittsburghers and everyone in Steelers Nation returned that love, and recognized what they have in Cam Heyward.

COWHER ADDS TO THE CHORUS
• Let's start with this: Bill Cowher is a Hall of Fame coach, and it's not difficult to cite reasons why he was elected as part of the Class of 2020.

• His teams made the playoffs in 10 of his 15 seasons on the job, and in those playoff seasons the Steelers advanced to the AFC Championship Game six times and to the Super Bowl twice. His 2005 team became the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl, and in doing so those Steelers defeated the top three seeds in the AFC and then the top seed in the NFC.

• Beyond his impact on the on-the-field product, Cowher re-energized the city, and Steelers football became a big deal again after a period in which the team made the playoffs only four times in the 12 seasons from 1980-91. And not only did Cowher bring playoff football back to Steelers fans, he brought playoff football back to the City of Pittsburgh, because between 1992-2004, the Steelers had 13 playoff games either at Three Rivers Stadium or Heinz Field.

• But no coach is perfect, and that applies to Bill Cowher just as it does to everyone else in the profession.

• This is brought up, because Cowher's current job is as an NFL analyst on CBS, part of that job is to have opinions and be willing to express them, and he was doing his job earlier this week during an appearance on "Boomer and Gio." As reported by CBSsports.com, when Cowher was asked by Boomer Esiason if the Steelers would be a good fit for veteran unrestricted free agent quarterback Jameis Winston, Cowher answered this way:

• "I think it would be a great fit, only from the standpoint that I kinda sense where Pittsburgh is going with this football team," Cowher said. "Its identity has been on the offensive side of the ball, with the Killer Bs, with Ben [Roethlisberger] and [Le'Veon] Bell and [Antonio] Brown. And now, what I think you saw was a little transformation last year was getting back to the way it used to be with a very defensive-minded football team.

• "I think Jameis Winston could be a good fit if he's willing to accept that one year sitting behind Ben, or maybe two years," Cowher continued. "I just think that would be the biggest obstacle to overcome, is for Jameis to just sit there and not think that he has a chance to compete for the job and to take a minimal salary, because that's basically what he's gonna have to take to go to Pittsburgh … So, I just don't know if that fit will happen right now just because of the timing of it."

• As so often is the case with sports talk radio, there is an opinion expressed that takes a particular side of an issue only to be followed with all of the realistic reasons why it won't or can't work. But hey, that's the business, so there's no issue with Cowher saying what he said, or with how he said it.

• No, the point here is that Bill Cowher's track record with quarterback decisions during his 15 years as a head coach doesn't exactly cast him as an expert on issues pertaining to that position.

• Let's start with the 1992 season, which was Cowher's inaugural one with the Steelers. After choosing Neil O'Donnell over Bubby Brister at the end of training camp, the decision bore fruit when the Steelers raced out to a 7-3 record, but then O'Donnell was injured and missed the next game, against the Colts at Three Rivers Stadium.

• Brister got the start and looked like a guy who hadn't played in almost three months, but a run-heavy game plan (39 rushing attempts vs. 22 pass attempts) was good enough for a 30-14 win. O'Donnell came back to start the next two games – wins in Cincinnati and vs. Seattle – but he was injured again against the Seahawks after throwing three interceptions and would miss the final three games of the regular season.

• Brister was awful the following week in Chicago, but so was the rest of the team in a 30-6 loss to the 4-9 Bears, who otherwise were highly motivated by the game being the final home appearance for Mike Singletary. In a 6-3 loss the next week against the Vikings, Brister completed 13-of-22 and didn't turn the ball over, but in the regular season finale Brister played well (18-of-24, 223 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, 112.6 rating) and the 23-13 win over the Browns clinched the top seed in the AFC Playoffs and a bye the following week.

• Even though O'Donnell hadn't played much or well over the previous six weeks, and even though he was far from an established NFL starting quarterback, Cowher chose him to start the Divisional Round Game against the Bills at Three Rivers Stadium. O'Donnell threw two interceptions, was sacked seven times and never found any rhythm in a 24-3 loss, and to this day Tunch Ilkin, a starting tackle and veteran leader on that team, believes the Steelers would've had a better chance with Brister at quarterback.

• Move now to 1996, and after a difficult-to-execute three-way competition for the starting job during the summer among Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller, and Kordell Stewart, Cowher chose Miller as the starter for the opener in Jacksonville. But after Miller overthrew a receiver in the end zone in the first half, Cowher pulled him at halftime in favor of Tomczak, the more veteran option.

• Instead of sticking with the young guy who had won the job and working to make him better as the season progressed, Cowher went with the veteran and the quick fix. Come the end of the season, Tomczak was playing like the low-end journeyman he was and the defending AFC Champion Steelers lost three of their last four regular season games before going to New England and losing in the Divisional Round to the Patriots, 28-3, in which Tomczak was awful (no touchdowns, two interceptions, 35.6 rating) and was benched.

• In 2000, the Steelers got to the fifth round of the draft looking to add a quarterback, and there were three notable names remaining on the board:

• Tennessee's Tee Martin, who had done something the previous season that Peyton Manning had been unable to accomplish: Win a national championship for the Vols. In his final two college seasons, Martin completed 55.6 percent for 4,481 yards, with 31 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and what would have been an 88.2 rating in the NFL.

• West Virginia's Marc Bulger, who grew up in Pittsburgh, and played at West Virginia where he completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 8,153 yards, with 59 touchdowns, 34 interceptions, and what would have been a 92.0 rating in the NFL.

• And Michigan's Tom Brady, who in his final two college seasons completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 4,644 yards, with 30 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, and what would have been a 90.0 rating in the NFL.

• The Steelers ended up picking Martin, and Cowher's reasoning at the time was that Martin was the closest in style of play to Kordell Stewart.

• Maybe that was sound reasoning at the time, but it doesn't explain the decision a couple of seasons later then when Cowher benched Stewart three games into the 2002 season and replaced him with Tommy Maddox, who was the antithesis of Stewart in playing style, who in fact was a lot more like Bulger or Brady, although a turnover machine version.

• That move brought on the era of the Maddox Mistake. To put it into numbers, Maddox played 42 games for the Steelers, and while he threw 42 touchdown passes in those appearances, he also threw 40 interceptions, lost 13 fumbles, and was sacked 82 times. To emphasize, that's 53 turnovers in 42 games. Kinda sounds like Jameis Winston.

• Anyway, the Maddox Mistake was at the root of the outcome of the 2003 season, and that 6-10 record put the Steelers in position to make the 11th overall selection in the 2004 NFL Draft. But if Cowher had been left to his own devices, that pick would've been spent on offensive lineman Shawn Andrews, apparently because the head coach still had confidence in the veteran quarterbacks on the roster – Maddox and Charlie Batch.

• So, congratulate Bill Cowher on his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Love him for winning a Super Bowl, the fifth in franchise history, and for the marvelous job he did with the 2005 Steelers. Respect him for re-energizing the city's love for its football team. Thank him for all of the division titles and playoff appearances and postseason games at Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field during his 15 years as the Steelers' coach. Enjoy him as an NFL analyst on television and radio.

• But when he starts talking about quarterbacks – which one to start, which one to sign, which one to play, which one to bench, which one to draft or not draft – understand this subject is not his forte.

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