The 90’s saw the Chuck Noll era end and the Bill Cowher era begin. Like Noll, Cowher was one of the youngest ever be to be hired as a head coach, but that is where any similarity between him and Chuck Noll ended. Compared to the stoic Noll, Cowher was a rah-rah coach and had many interactions with the players during the game. In a nutshell Bill Cowher was more style than substance, but the thing that saved his career was that he had immediate regular season success. He was coach of the year in his first year in 92, as the Steelers went 11-5 and won the division. The Steelers were in the playoffs the first 6 years that Cowher was the coach. He found running backs in Barry Foster and Bam Morris, even though their success was short lived due to injuries for Foster and off the field problems for Morris, they reestablished the Steelers as a powerful running team. Then the Steelers were able to acquire Jerome Bettis from the St. Louis Rams in 1996 and they finally had their Franco Harris running back. In fact, Cowher’s coaching career would have had an idyllic start if not for one thing, complete and utter playoff failure. They made the playoffs 6 straight years and had a record of 5-6. They lost 3 home playoff games. In Noll’s 23 years the Steelers lost 1 home playoff game. Even their Super Bowl loss was strange. They completely outplayed the Dallas Cowboys, but Neil O’ Donnell threw 2 of the most inexplicable interceptions in Super Bowl history, which sealed a 27-17 victory for the Cowboys. The decade ended with 2 consecutive losing seasons and the Cowher era was beginning to crumble, but the Rooney’s stuck with Cowher. It resulted in the 2nd greatest decade in Steeler history.
Record For The Decade: 93 Wins 67 Losses
Best Year: 1994 12-4 1995 11-5 Lost Super Bowl.
Worst Year: 1999 6-10
Why The Steelers Won More Games Than They Loss: The change to Bill Cowher as the coach seemed to energize the team and the results were immediate. The defense came alive under Cowher and had some of their best years in franchise history. They were able to establish their running game and control football games.
Significant Games: The opening game of the 1996 season seemed to sum up the Bill Cowher years in Pittsburgh. Neil O Donnell was gone for free agency and the starting quarterback job was a battle between Jim Miller, a quarterback who had been plagued with various injuries early in his career and Mike Tomczak, who had some decent years with the Chicago Bears. It was announced that Jim Miller had won the starting job and would be the starting QB against the Jacksonville Jaquars on opening day. The game was in Jacksonville. Jacksonville was only in their 2nd year of existence. The game was a disaster for the Steelers. Jim Miller did not have a good game, but he did not throw any interceptions. Late in the 3rd quarter he was replaced by Tomczak and never really played again. He threw about 10 passes the rest of the year. Tomczak did alright but never really impressed, but Miller never got another chance the rest of the season. This is why I call the Cowher years in Pittsburgh weird. Despite his success he seemed to have his judgement clouded by emotional issues on the team. He always gave you the impression that he wanted the players to be his buddies and if he felt a player crossed him, he would never let him back in the inner circle of the team. I felt this game and the rest of season really summed up the Bill Cowher era.
The Decades Best Player: This was an easy one as Rod Woodson played on the Steelers from 90 to 96. He was one of the best defensive backs in the history of the NFL and his play helped bring the defense back in Pittsburgh. He played the position with such grace and style he was a pleasure to watch through the mid 90’s.
This decade ended on a down note as the Steelers had their worst year under Cowher at 5-11. The team seemed headed for a downward spiral and the earlier playoff frustrations seem to be magnified as it looked like the Steelers might not make the playoffs for a while. The turnaround would be much quicker than anybody expected. Then in 2004, the Steelers would get their 2nd franchise quarterback, and all would be well.