The Pittsburgh Steelers were actually not a very good team when Bill Cowher took over the head coaching job in 1992. In his final years, Chuck Noll’s teams more often finished below .500 than at or above. They were beyond even the twilight of their dynasty run of the 1970s.
“When I came from Chuck, they had only been to the playoffs one time the previous seven years”, Cowher told Ben Roethlisberger during his recent appearance on his former quarterback’s Footbahlin podcast. And that’s a fact. From 1985 through 1991, the Steelers only made the playoffs once, in 1989.
“It was a little bit of a team in transition. There was a lot of, offense didn’t like the defense, defense was number one, offense was not very good, didn’t have a quarterback”, he added. “They didn’t have free agency back then, there was Plan B, so players were not getting paid. A lot of players didn’t want to be there”.
Plan B was a precursor to modern free agency, a short-lived era between 1989 and 1992, instituted in response to an anti-trust lawsuit. Under Plan B, teams were permitted to protect 37 players out of what were then 47-man rosters from becoming free agents. A team signing those players would, as had been the case since 1977, garner compensation from their new team to their old team. Their old team also had the right of first refusal. The 10 players who were not protected would be treated as today’s unrestricted free agents are.
That’s somewhat of a detour, but it speaks to the era in the league, and in Pittsburgh specifically in this case. The idea that many players wanted to leave is significant, as though they were aboard a sinking ship and wanted off.
“It was not the best of places, but it was my hometown team, and I was young”, Cowher recalled. “So I just hired Dick LeBeau, who was off the street, he didn’t have a job. Marvin Lewis, I took him out of Pitt. Marvin Lewis and I played high school football against each other”.
His initial staff also included the likes of Dom Capers and Ron Erhardt as his coordinators, with Bill Davis as an assistant coach, who is still in the game today. And to his credit, he took the Steelers to the playoffs in his first year, going 11-5.
Indeed, the Steelers made six consecutive playoff appearances, which is the second-longest streak in franchise history behind Chuck Noll’s eight-year run from 1972 through 1979 that encompassed four Super Bowl victories.
Of course, Cowher would not win his one and only Super Bowl until 2005. He did take the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in 1995, only to lose to the Dallas Cowboys. And that team, it would be fair to say, benefited from free agency with the likes of Kevin Greene.