That term 'winning in December' - we'll hear it a lot over the course of the next several weeks, and we did so last Sunday when Mike Tomlin said in his initial post-game press conference: "This is December. We'll take the W."
Of course, December is just another month filled with a slate of games - no different really than the other months that don't contain teams' one BYE week per year. Winning in December means nothing if you haven't done your fair share of winning in the months leading up to it. But playoff races and Wild Card spots of course heat up and then conclude in December. And as we saw last year when the New York Giants closed the season on a very high note then stormed through the NFC bracket before mowing down the Patriots in the final minutes of the Super Bowl, playing well in December carries more significance than playing well early in the year.
We saw what happened last year when we stumbled to the finish line after starting strong. Many thought we would take a similar trajectory in 2008 after starting out similarly strong before losing a winnable game to the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field, our second such late meltdown in just a few weeks time. But we've righted the ship and won four in a row, including most recently two straight against the reigning AFC champion Patriots and the previously streaking Dallas Cowboys.
We overcame the early season injury bug that sidelined Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, Willie Parker, Bryant McFadden, Deshea Townsend, et al and have found a nice rotation on both sides of the ball at every roster position. And so we entered the final month of the season last Sunday in much better position to contend for bigger goals than just an AFC North crown this year. It wasn't pretty - regardless of what Mike Tomlin said - but we started out December 2008 1-0. It was huge for our security in the playoff standings moving forward, as we head to the road the next two weeks against two hard hitting, physical and talented teams in Baltimore and Tennessee. The schedule's tough, but I certainly like our chances to improve upon our 2-3 December record from a year ago.
That's quite the backdrop to the premise of the post - a look at Bill Cowher's record in the month of December as the head coach of the Steelers. Why? I don't know. Why not? It's a rather random exercise, but I am curious to see how Cowher maybe evolved over the years as he maybe got a better feel for how to manage and pace a football roster leading up to a stretch run late in the year.
Let's take a look:
|Year||December Record||Playoff Result|
|1992||2-2||AFC Divisional Round|
|1993||2-2||Wild Card Round|
|1994||3-1||AFC Championship Round|
|1996||1-3||AFC Divisional Round|
|1997||2-1||AFC Championship Round|
|2001||4-1||AFC Championship Round|
|2002||4-1||AFC Divisional Round|
|2004||5-0||AFC Championship Round|
|2005||4-1||Super Bowl Champions|
1) I mean, I didn't forget, but it's always interesting to remember that we missed the playoffs for three straight years from 1998-2000. Considering that some 'fans' have called for Tomlin and his staff's heads already while they are winning in their first two years, it's hard to fathom exactly what type of vitriol might have been espoused by impatient folks a decade ago.
2) Could be entirely coincidental, but it does appear that Cowher learned as his career progressed how to do everything possible to help the team peak at the right time. Starting in 2001, the first year the team made the playoffs after three years of futility, Cowher's teams went 23-6 over the course of the next six years, with just one down year (2003) really. 2006 was of course disappointing, but a myriad odd circumstances led to a cripplingly slow start that we still almost overcame with a late season run. One more win and we would have been 9-7 - and believe me, I was doing the site then and went through all the possible scenarios - we held the tiebreaker over the Chiefs, who snuck in at the 23rd hour by nature of a total meltdown by Denver at San Francisco I believe.
Anyway, Cowher was a bit stubborn in some regards, but I think he was always talented at knowing how to pace his teams, particularly once he got a little job security under his belt with some success early in his career. By the time his tenure concluded in 2006, the organization was wholly used to how he managed the team, from training camp in Latrobe to the final snap of the playoffs. When Mike Tomlin was done with his first training camp in August of 2007, veteran Steelers players commented publically about being overtaxed, and how different the daily grind was compared to Coach Cowher Camps.
And like Cowher, Tomlin will adjust too. We have seen that already in 2008, with Tomlin toning down the intensity at Latrobe, letting his unique super star on defense, Troy Polamalu, do his own thing coniditioning wise this summer, and with more frequent rotations of bodies on both special teams and on defense, regardless of who is or who is not on that week's injury list. The hope of course is we avoid the late season flameout that we experienced last year and continue to play at a high level each and every week from here on out.
Part of whether or not that happens is luck. If we stay healthy, our chances will be just fine to win at least half, and hopefully more, of our December schedule this year. 1 down, three to go. And the first two have the potential to derail a whole season's worth of adaptation and planning that helped the team enter the final fourth of the season in great shape to not only be competitive each week, but to also keep improving as the stakes continue to mount each winter week that passes.