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Labriola On

Labriola on patience, Colbert, more Ben

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • It was July 26, 2004, and it stands out to me as quite possibly the definitive example of the patience the Steelers have shown with their head coach when they believe they have a good one.

  • At that time, Bill Cowher was 47 years old and with 12 years at the helm of the Steelers, he owned the lonest tenure with one team of any active coach in the league. After tying the legendary Paul Brown as the only NFL coaches to guide their teams into the playoffs after each of their first six seasons on the job, Cowher’s Steelers were in the doldrums.

  • Following those six straight playoff appearances – in which the Steelers were 5-6 with defeats in two of three AFC Championship Games at Three Rivers Stadium and a loss in Super Bowl XXX – there had followed three straight playoff-less seasons in which the team went a combined 22-26.

  • In 2001, the Steelers rebounded with a 13-3 regular season in which the team won another AFC Central Division title, but it ended with another AFC Championship Game loss at home, this time at newly-opened Heinz Field. Then came 2002, and the start of the ill-fated Tommy Maddox experiment, a two-season waste of time that had the Steelers lose their way on the field before bottoming out in 2003 with a 6-10 record.

  • In 2004, before the start of training camp, on July 26 to be precise, the Steelers signed Cowher to a contract extension. When the announcement of the extension was made, Steelers President Art Rooney II said, “We are excited about extending Bill's contract to continue the stability and success that he has brought to our team over the past 12 years. He is a terrific person in addition to being an excellent football coach."

  • Imagine if there had been social media back then. The Rooneys would’ve been mocked/ripped for keeping Cowher; his record of being one of only six coaches in NFL history to win at least seven division titles during his career would’ve been dismissed as insignificant because of a 1-3 record in AFC Championship Games and an 0-1 record in the Super Bowl.

  • But the Steelers stuck with their conviction, they stuck with their belief that Cowher was the correct man for the job and they put their money where their convictions were. In 2004, Cowher righted the ship, got the team back to playing its style of football, and the team finished 15-1.

  • That season ended with another loss in the AFC Championship Game, another loss in an AFC Championship Game at home, but in 2005 the Steelers became the first No. 6 seed in the playoffs to win a Super Bowl, and they did it by defeating the top three seeds in the AFC Playoffs and then the No. 1 seed from the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks, in Super Bowl XL.

  • This is how the Steelers do business. They pick a man they believe is “a terrific person in addition to being an excellent football coach,” they support him through the efforts of the other arms of their organization, and then they don’t react to fans, nor do they react to setbacks like fans.

  • And so it should’ve come as no surprise that when asked about the job Mike Tomlin did in 2017, Rooney said, “I think when you win 13 games in this league, it is kind of hard to ignore that and say you had this one loss in the playoffs. The fact of the matter as I’ve said before, we played against a good (Jaguars) team, and we turned the ball over in places early that led to scores on their end that we couldn’t overcome. I do not want to over-simplify it, but to me in both of the Jacksonville games, turnovers were probably our biggest issue, and so that is part of Mike’s problem but that’s mostly the guys on the field who have to make sure it doesn’t happen, and (also) some of it was good plays by Jacksonville. There’s a lot that goes into it. Anybody who wants to look at Mike’s track record since he’s been our coach, I think the record speaks for itself.”

  • As for the unsubstantiated report that one of the team’s limited partners had sent him a letter about making a coaching change, Rooney’s response would’ve made his father proud. “I didn’t get that letter yet, so I don’t know if it got lost in the mail, or if it’s coming by Pony Express.”

  • ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, with an assist from ESPN Stats & Info, tweeted recently that “the Steelers are the NFL's only team without a top-10 draft pick since 2001. Twenty-nine NFL teams have had multiple top-10 picks. Pittsburgh selected Plaxico Burress No. 8 overall in 2000.”

  • This speaks to the job Kevin Colbert has done since being hired in 2000. First under the title of Director of Football Operations and then General Manager, Colbert has headed the wing of the organization that evaluates the college talent the Steelers annually mine to build their roster for each and every season.

  • And in virtually each and every season since Colbert was hired, the Steelers have been competitive, at least in terms of making the playoffs. In 18 seasons since 2000, the Steelers won nine division titles and made the playoffs 12 times. They won two Super Bowls and played in a third. They advanced to the conference championship game four times.

  • Unlike a lot of teams, the Steelers are not ruled by the general manager, or the head coach for that matter, and so Colbert cannot be credited for every draft pick the team has made since 2000. But he heads the department that scouts and investigates the pool of college talent each year, and as such he has a significant role in arranging the board from which the Steelers make their picks once the draft actually begins.

  • What does deserve credit is the way Colbert has set his ego aside and worked productively with two head coaches – Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

  • At the 82nd Dapper Dan Dinner and Awards Banquet, Colbert was honored with the Freddie Fu Leadership Award, and it was fitting that he was the recipient. The Steelers are a cooperative outfit in many of the key ways the organization operates, and Kevin Colbert is the leader of a critical arm of that organization.

  • It’s the offseason, and Ben Roethlisberger is in the news. Again. But even though Roethlisberger is a year older, the issue with which his name is being attached contradicts that.

  • One calendar year ago, Steelers Nation was fretting that it had seen the last of Roethlisberger, being that he had said publicly that he wasn’t prepared to commit to another season in the NFL. Today, the conversation is more about a possible contract extension for the Steelers’ soon-to-be 36-year-old franchise quarterback.

  • “Well, it’s good news. I hope we have the problem of trying to figure out how we extend his contract,” said Steelers President Art Rooney II. “We haven’t had a long conversation about it, other than him saying he is interested in playing beyond his (current) contact. That is good news to me. Certainly his play this year makes you feel like he does have a few years left. All of that is great in terms of the contract. We will address that at the right time. The bottom line is we’re excited that’s the way he feels and look forward to continuing to work with him and hopefully get a couple of more rings for him.”

  • With all position players except quarterbacks, the Steelers will consider a possible extension once that player enters the final year of his existing deal. With quarterbacks, the team extends that to the second-to-last year of his existing deal. Roethlisberger currently is signed through the 2019 season, which means the window for a possible extension is now open. That doesn’t mean anything is imminent, but the window is open.

  • “There really isn’t a set formula to it, I think particularly when you’re dealing with somebody who is at this stage of his career,” said Rooney. “I’m not sure we have ever dealt with a quarterback that we were extending at this age. There is no precedent for where we are, and, look, we have a great relationship with Ben. We will talk through things, and the important thing is he wants to be here and he wants to continue beyond the contract, so that’s great.”

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