Was Cowher or Noll better?
An excruciating analysis

The last thing we would want to do is cause any tension between Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll. (That's assuming they would actually read this site.)

We're going to say it: Quite frankly, we love Chuck. Growing up as little kids in the '70s, we idolized his players. Chuck always accepted his enormous success humbly, without gloating.

It sends chills down our spine whenever there's a tribute for Chuck, as was the case last season against Seattle.

We've only had the pleasure of "knowing" Bill Cowher in our adult lives, in which our fascination with football is much more "mature." (In other words, we don't throw things at the TV set when they lose at the Jets, we only curse loudly.) And so we've probably absorbed many more of his faults than we did with Chuck.

On every scale, both are undeniably great coaches. Tenure, winning percentage, division titles, conference championships.

But which one was better?

Cowher went 149-90 in 15 years, plus 12-9 in playoffs, good for 61.9 overall winning percentage in 15 years. Noll went 193-148-1, plus 16-8 in playoffs, for a 59.3 overall percentage in 23 years.

Noll's teams played in 7 AFC title games, winning 4. Cowher's teams played in 6 AFC title games, winning 2.

If we were to call it here, we'd give it to Noll, on the superior playoff record.

But we're not done yet.

In any sport, there is a law of diminishing returns with coaches. (And with players, too, but on a different scale.)

Generally, coaches are most successful in their earliest years with a team. After a while, for whatever reason, the effect seems to wear off. Maybe he runs out of speeches, or buttons to push, or the players become too complacent. This is especially true in baseball, but is true in other sports as well.

Noll and Cowher both transcended this problem. They just got better and better. Now, did their players? Yes and no.

Noll's best players were acquired before 1975. There is a huge dropoff from that point on. Still, he put what was likely his best team on the field in 1978, his 10th season (although sometimes we think 1975 was the best Steelers team).

Cowher had a long stream of good players, some of whom he inherited from Chuck. Once he acquired his best player, Ben Roethlisberger, he suddenly put his best team on the field, in his 13th year, and then won a Super Bowl in his 14th.

We know that draft decisions, and free agency/trades, are determined by ownership budgets and personnel people as much as coaches. There is no question that Chuck benefitted from better players than Bill Cowher had. Chuck had quite possibly the greatest collection of players ever on one team at one time.

Chuck kept all of his great ones. Cowher lost several of his to a low-budget free agency approach, at least until 2001 (and perhaps afterwards, if you believe they truly wanted to keep Plaxico). He lost three excellent offensive tackles, two of whom were older but still fine players. He lost an All-Pro at the top of his game in Chad Brown, a HOFer with mileage left in Rod Woodson, and another longtime star also with mileage left, Kevin Greene. He lost the league's best outside linebacker, Greg Lloyd, to a knee injury that essentially wiped him out, and a workhorse running back in his prime, for a half season in 1993, a guy who never came close to his earlier form.

Chuck incredibly suffered virtually no catastrophic injuries or losses in his glory years. Most of the guys on the 1974 team were stars on the 1979 team.

Both coaches had faults, of course. Cowher's fault was his lack of emphasis on the QB position and his infatuation with Kordell Stewart. Teams quarterbacked by Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak and Tommy Maddox are not going to win Super Bowls. Teams quarterbacked by Terry Bradshaw will. The things that Cowher could do with a defense and a running game went for naught from 1998-2003 under a series of poor quarterbacks.

Chuck's fault was much different. Chuck did not believe that 300-pound linemen could succeed in the NFL. This observation was correct in the 1970s; wrong in the 1980s, and tragically out of date in the 1990s. Chuck in 1992 would ultimately turn over to Cowher a pair of starting tackles at 260 pounds, a nose tackle who went about 260, and a 6-0 starting guard.

Cowher's critics tend to harp on his home AFC Championship Game losses. Indeed, these were disturbing at the time and seemed like upsets. In fact, they weren't.

In 1997, a team led by Kordell Stewart lost by 3 points to a team led by John Elway. Also on that Denver offense were HOFer-caliber players Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe and Gary Zimmerman. The pair of wide receivers, Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith, were exceptional, slightly below HOFer level. If you believe their offense actually could be stopped, check out how many points they scored from 1996-1998.

That Denver team accomplished the extraordinary feat of back-to-back Super Bowl wins. Their victory over a Kordell Stewart squad was not because of poor Pittsburgh coaching.

There were losses to the New England Patriots in 2001 and 2004. The 2001 game was winnable. But the Patriots were the better team. They were beginning a string of three titles in four years. A week later they completely outplayed the invincible Rams.

The 2001 defeat only seemed like a huge upset at the time because no one realized how good the Patriots were.

If there is a choke argument to be made against Cowher, it would be 1994. But a closer look suggests San Diego was probably better. Stan Humphries was a better quarterback that year than Neil O'Donnell, who was actually benched midseason. Natrone Means, at that stage of their careers, was superior to the combination of a spent Barry Foster and Bam Morris. Defensively, the Steelers were slightly better, with Woodson, Lloyd and Kevin Greene all in their prime, but Seau was also in his prime and San Diego had a tough front four. It's clear this game was a toss-up, and the Steelers lost only because O'Donnell couldn't get a few yards at home at the end of the game.

Chuck, in fact, also lost a home playoff game to San Diego that was considered an upset. By 1982, everyone realized the Super Bowl aura was gone anyway, and no one held it against him.

This argument turns at the midpoint of Chuck's career. Had Chuck retired after XIV, his standing would be unassailable.

But he didn't.

And what we saw in the 1980s and '90s was a coach gradually falling farther and farther out of step with the league. Not recognizing that college players were being trained and scouted to extremes, that the edge that once could be gained from superior NFL scouting and coaching was shrinking, and that much bigger players were taking over the game.

His 1980s teams might have overachieved in a few spots, but consider that he actually beat San Francisco on the road in 1984 and upset Denver in the playoffs, and yet the team only went 9-7. The 1989 team was a popular squad, but lucky as well, given an easy schedule that allowed them to back into the playoffs, where they did actually overachieve.

He didn't want to quit in 1991. Fortunately, Dan Rooney had seen enough. And perhaps the best argument for Bill Cowher is what he did with the players in 1992 that Chuck had mostly left on the bench in 1991: O'Donnell, Foster and Graham.

Both coaches were legendary greats. Both were exceptional at coaching pro players on winning football, specifically blocking, tackling and avoiding penalties. Cowher, though, was the decided overachiever. He took three different quarterbacks to two AFC title games apiece. He nearly sneaked out a Super Bowl victory against a clearly superior team that was one of history's best. He put together quite possibly the greatest regular season in NFL history with a rookie quarterback. He won the Super Bowl with a team that was 7-5. He had a unique ability to get in the face of 300-pound players and tell them what to do, and they responded to him like few players have for any coach. And for that, he was underrated for his technical smarts -- his teams routinely were among the league's best at avoiding penalties.

If we had to choose one coach, for all time, it would be Bill Cowher over Chuck Noll.

We can only hope Mike Tomlin reaches the level of either one.

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