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Steelers Dan Rooney Had Mike Holmgren At The Top Of His Candidate List But What He Did Next Allowed Bill Cowher To Get The Job

ABC Sports

Steelers Dan Rooney Had Mike Holmgren At The Top Of His Candidate List But What He Did Next Allowed Bill Cowher To Get The Job

When Chuck Noll retired as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers after the 1991 season, there was a lot of speculation about who would replace him.  Dan Rooney went through an exhaustive process before selecting Bill Cowher, but one of the earliest candidates that Rooney spoke with was Mike Holmgren.

Rooney had principled criteria when it came to hiring a head coach, including making the decision more than just about football and that there was a difference between wanting to be an NFL coach and being the Steelers head coach.  When Rooney talked with Holmgren, he asked him a question along the lines of, “If I offered you the job right now, would you take it?”  When Holmgren answered, “I want to go to Green Bay and hear what the Packers have to offer,” Rooney knew he wasn’t the man for the Steelers job.

Steelers Mike Holmgren Brett Favre Packers

Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre walk off the field after a win over the Detroit Lion in 1995. | File / Press-Gazette Media

The results of Super Bowl XL were a perfect example of why Cowher was the better man for the job than Holmgren.  For years following the game, Holmgren complained about how the officials, starting with a rally at Qwest Field after the team returned from the game in Detroit, Holmgren told the Seattle Seahawks fans:

“We knew it was going to be tough going up against the Steelers. I didn’t know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts, as well.”

The reality is that Holmgren overlooked his own accountability not just with his own coaching decisions, but in how he managed the emotions of his own team.  This could be clearly seen in the four calls that were the most heavily disputed, because of the critical times they occurred in the game.

 

Darrell Jackson’s Offensive Pass Interference

In the first half, the Seahawks were in control of the majority of the pace of the game, but were unable to put points on the board.  Late in the first quarter, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck connected with Darrell Jackson for an apparent 16-yard TD pass.  Jackson was flagged for a rare offensive pass interference penalty after he pushed off against Steelers free safety Chris Hope.

Jackson starts to push off Hope. Courtesy: ABC Sports

Jackson’s full push off draws offensive pass interference. Courtesy: ABC Sports

While the extension of Jackson’s arm and subsequent push off of Hope could not be any more obvious, the root of the complaining came from the mouth of broadcaster John Madden, who sniped off:

“When you think of push offs, that’s not the kind that you think about really. But he did it right in front of the official.”

Seahawks fans still complain about it being a late flag, but the official had zero hesitation with the call and just initially whiffed on throwing the flag.  While offensive pass interference is a rare call, the penalty on Jackson was obvious, despite the biased opinion of Madden, who went to his grave griping over the Immaculate Reception.

Holmgren conveniently leaves out that it was still first down with great field position, something that the #1 scoring offense in the NFL should have been able to overcome.  Except they didn’t as the Steelers defense held them to negative 3 yards on the next three plays and limited the Seahawks to just a field goal.

 

Ben Roethlisberger Touchdown Run

Ben Roethlisberger did not play his best game in Super Bowl XL as the young quarterback struggled to settle down and the Steelers offense did not register a first down until the 2nd quarter.  But there were some moments of shining for Roethlisberger, including a brilliant conversion on 3rd and 26 to Hines Ward.

The Steelers were having some success running the ball behind Jerome Bettis and Roethlisberger, so it made sense Ken Whisenhunt dialed in the same play that sealed the win over the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship.  With Bettis as the decoy and lead blocker on the play, Roethlisberger looked to have a clear path to the endzone.

Roethlisberger dove in and scored, but it was made close when Seattle MLB D.D. Lewis collided with Roethlisberger as he was about to clearly cross the goal line.  A block by Steelers center Jeff Hartings knocked Lewis down and prevented him from making the play.

Roethlisberger looks to break the plane for TD. Courtesy: ABC Sports

Tip of ball over the End Zone close up. Courtesy: ABC Sports

As the moment the ball crosses over the white line of the endzone, it is a touchdown.  The call was made on the field as a TD and held up by replay.  Even if was overturned, the Steelers had the ball on the one inch-line behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL with Bettis and were going to go for it.

This play was one that stayed in the head of Holmgren as the Seahawks ensuing drive was botched by bad clock management, allowing 25 seconds of game clock to be blown, leaving the Seahawks to attempt a 54-yard FG which they missed.  Holmgren was approached by Suzy Kolber for his opinion as the team was running into the locker room at the half and Holmgren expressed that he “didn’t think Roethlisberger scored.”

Once again, Holmgren took no accountability for his team’s poor clock management with an attempt to score before the half, instead focusing on what he felt wronged by.  Two plays into the 2nd half, an Alan Faneca block would open up a hole for Willie Parker to sprint untouched for a 75-yard TD run.

 

Sean Locklear Holding Call on Clark Haggans

The Steelers were on the verge of breaking the game wide open in the 4th quarter when Roethlisberger made the worst pass of his career, an interception that let the Seahawks back into the game.  With the score 14-10 in the 4th quarter, the Seahawks got the momentum back and looked to have made a huge play when Hasselbeck connected on an 18-yard pass to Jerramy Stevens to the Steelers 1-yard line.

It came back on a holding call against Seahawks OT Sean Locklear against OLB Clark Haggans.  Once again, John Madden’s opinion was highly influential in the minds of the casual viewer as his comments on the replay once again showed his bias:

“I didn’t see holding, have to be able to jam up in there.”

Haggans turns corner on Locklear. Courtesy: ABC Sports

Locklear has handful of Haggans jersey to draw holding. Courtesy: ABC Sports

Locklear’s grab of the jersey impeded the brilliant effort and incredible timing of Haggans on the play, as Locklear was badly beaten on the play and the grabbing of Haggans resulted in the OLB being taken to the ground instead of the clear shot he would have blasted Hasselbeck with before he even got the ball out of his hand.

Once again, Madden’s bias was evident on this call, but was strangely silent when Haggans was held by Locklear in precisely the same fashion in the first half to stall a drive because it still resulted in Haggans getting the sack.

Locklear holding Haggans in 1st quarter looks same as in 4th quarter. Courtesy: ABC Sports

In subsequent years, Seahawks fans have claimed Haggans was actually offsides on the play.  This is more urban legend than fact, as that belief is more confirmation bias than fact.  Haggans had a Troy Polamalu like jump on the play as he timed the center snap perfectly and was, in fact, NOT offsides.

Haggans timing the snap. Courtesy: ABC Sports

The NFL confirmed that all three plays were ruled correctly.  There was a bad penalty on Hasselbeck for a low block against Deshea Townsend, when in fact he was making a textbook tackle on Ike Taylor – after he threw a back-breaking interception.  But that penalty hardly cost the Seahawks the game.

 

How Cowher handled adversity

Earlier in the playoffs, the Steelers went into Indianapolis to play the #1 seed in the AFC, the 14-2 Indianapolis Colts.  During the course of that game, Polamalu made what would have been a game-ending interception on Peyton Manning with 5:12 in the 4th quarter.

Troy Polamalu “intercepts” Peyton Manning. Courtesy: CBS Sports

Out of desperation, Colts head coach Tony Dungy threw a challenge flag and despite it being completely evident that Polamalu intercepted the ball, Cowher was initially confused as the officials told Cowher that Dungy was claiming that Polamalu never had control of the ball.  But Cowher was also ahead of the game, as he recognized they were taking too long to look at the replay and it was likely they would overturn it.  Instead of letting his emotions get the better of him, Cowher focused entirely on what he could control:  his own players.

Bill Cowher, per Heart and Steel:

They kept looking at the tape, and now I was the one feeling like Peter Finch. This was infuriating. Here we were five minutes from the AFC Championship Game, and the officials were trying to take the ball away from us at midfield. I knew they were misinterpreting the rule, and I could do nothing about it.

“Just keep playing,” I said to as many players as I could. “Keep playing. Don’t get yourself caught up in it.”

To all the world, it was an interception. After rolling on the ground with the ball secured, Polamalu did knee it out of his hand as he was getting up. But even though he recovered the ball, referee Peter Morelli reversed the call to incomplete.

While the Colts were able to convert and score following that play, the Steelers defense was not shaken or rattled.  Instead, they rallied to maintain their focus and stop the Colts on two consecutive drives where it easily could have went the other way.

Joey Porter, per Polamalu: The Inspirational Story of Pittsburgh Steelers Safety Troy Polamalu – Jim Wexell:

Coach Cowher knew they were going to overturn it. He had a feeling that they were going to rob us and he was doing what good coaches do: calming us down because he knew I would lose my **** if they took that ball away from us.

Troy Polamalu, per Polamalu: The Inspirational Story of Pittsburgh Steelers Safety Troy Polamalu – Jim Wexell:

He was trying to coach ahead. He was doing his job. You always have to prepare yourself for the worst situation. He did that. But I was thinking, “What are you talking about? There’s no doubt about it.” But when he said that, it pretty much told me they’re probably going to overturn this.

The Steelers went on to defeat the Colts 21-18 in a game that should never have even been that close and is more remembered for the Bettis fumble, Roethlisberger tackle and four men saying “he missed it” at the same time when Mike Vanderjadt shanked field goal.

The following week vs. the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers had a 17-3 lead with only 0:19 left in the first half.  Bettis blasted up the middle for a 12-yard TD run, but the score was called back on an illegal formation on Ward.  No one in the Steelers huddle had their head down or complained to the officials.  On the ensuing play, Roethlisberger threw a perfect pass over the outstretched hands of the Broncos secondary to hit Ward in the back of the endzone anyhow and the Steelers still went into halftime with a commanding 24-3 lead.

When the news of Spygate broke and the evidence that the New England Patriots cheated the Steelers in two AFC Championship Games, Cowher did not complain nor did he blame the losses on the Patriots stealing of the Steelers signals.  Holmgren went on to become President of the Cleveland Browns, where he complained about unfairness when he was unable to pull off a trade for Robert Griffin III in 2012.

Despite similar career accolades, the head coach that has been recognized for the Hall of Fame is Bill Cowher, not Mike Holmgren.  Perhaps there is something about how to handle adversity that is recognized in their attitudes. And perhaps Dan Rooney knew what he was talking about when he recognized Holmgren was not the man for the job.

#SteelerNation

PMP; CSM; CSPO and host of the PMI-TB Agile Podcast. A lifelong Steelers fan, I had the chance of a lifetime when I was able to celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with the team. I love talking everything Steelers from the old days to the new and look forward to working with the team to grow this platform to be the premier Steelers site.

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