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An unsung Cowher-Era hero could cure what ails aching Steelers

Steelers Nation hailed Joey Porter's return. But even a heller like Porter is powerless to stop the injuries that have cursed Pittsburgh of late. But there is another, unsung hero, from the Cowher era who might be able to do the trick....

Maurkice Pouncey's ACL tear was the first of many Steelers 2013 injuries. Bad luck or something else?
Maurkice Pouncey's ACL tear was the first of many Steelers 2013 injuries. Bad luck or something else?
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Joey Porter's return as a defensive assistant captured the "Big News" prize on the South Side last. As Neal Coolong argues, Porter - he who once called out Ray Lewis on the Ravens team bus - provides some yin for a defensive staff that's heavy on yang.

Steelers Nation rightly cheers Porter's return. This defense could use some hell raising. But something else has ailed the Steelers roster of late - injury - which none of Porter's fire and brimstone can cure. But the return of the Cowher era hero, this one unsung to the extreme, might do the trick. And his story can be found in the very bowels of the Cowher-Tomlin transition.

Bill Cowher may have failed to thank or even mention any of his assistants in his farewell press conference, but their names dominated the news thereafter.

You know them by heart. Ken Wishenurst, Russ Grimm, and Dick LeBeau. The names of the others, Spencer, Whipple, Perry, you recognize just as readily. But another name remained also absent from Cowher's heartfelt adieu that the braintrust on the South Side would do well to remember.

Stumbling Upon an Unsung Steelers Hero

Sometimes the true story isn't in the headlines or the press clippings, but rather in the footnotes. And this is one of them.

After Cowher departed, Ken Wishenhurst and Russ Grimm's names quickly rose above the fold, as Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II vetted both men in addition to Chan Gailey, another Cowher alumni. On January 22, 2007 the Rooney's opted for Mike Tomlin and a new direction and haven't looked back.

The fate of Cowher's remaining assistant was the next question? Tomlin answered The Biggie immediately, confirming Dick LeBeau's retention, sharing that all of Cowher's assistants came recommended, but LeBeau came "highly recommended."

  • Then things got interesting.

Bruce Arians got his promotion to offensive coordinator, a move that provided Steelers blogs and bar rooms a perpetual conversation piece. Although Grimm and Kevin Spencer followed Wishenhurst to Pittsburgh West, Tomlin kept much of the staff intact.

Extremely early on word leaked (if memory serves via an Ed Bouchette a chat) that Mark Whipple would not stay on. He didn't and Ken Anderson did just fine in his place. Darren Perry appeared to stick on, as Tomlin took him Senior Bowl in Mobile. Yet upon his return he resigned after meeting with Tomlin explaining "We both just decided to go in a different direction."

Except it wasn't.

Mike Tomlin had one more change to make.

A day after the PG article ran, Strength and Conditioning coach Chet Fuhrman was told that the Steelers were "going in a different direction," ending his 15 year stint with the Steelers. Shortly thereafter Tomlin hired Garrett Giemont, a former colleague from Tampa Bay, as his Conditioning Coordinator.

Even given Steelers Nation's voracious need for news, both items merited stubs instead of minor stories. They relayed Fuhrman's 2005 Strength Coach Award and his status as the sole assistant to serve for Cowher's entire tenure, and reported Giemont's ties to Tomlin.

Zero argument with those editorial decisions.

  • We know what happened next.

The Steelers won 3 AFC North Division Titles, won Super Bowl XLIII and lost a heart breaker in Super Bowl XLV.

Were it not for what followed, "Chet Fuhrman" would be relegated to just another name in the Steelers Media Guide's "All Time Assistants" page.

But the Steelers have struggled since departing Dallas in defeat. We know the causes. The ghosts of the 2008 draft and 2006 draft have haunted them. The offensive coordinator and his relationship, or lack thereof, with Ben Roethlisberger has been at issue. Salary cap economics have forced the Steelers to play Dollar Ball, NFL style. In 2013 the mix of age and inexperience became a cocktail that exploded in Dick LeBeau's hands.

But injuries have also been a constant. Musical chairs on the offensive line has been the norm. Stars like Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, and LaMarr Woodley have been rendered ineffective for large portions of seasons. The same can be said for lesser contributors such as Rashard Mendenhall, Emmanuel Sanders and Matt Spaeth.

  • Steelers Nation has fiercely debated whether this is simply bad luck or something else is at work.

Our own PaVaSteeler did detailed research and came up with fascinating conclusions. Full disclosure here, yours truly isn't quite capable of fully understanding let alone reproducing PaVaSteelers meticulous statistical analysis. Yet his work is certainly to be trusted, and highly recommended reading.

His ultimate conclusion is that during the Tomlin Era, the Steelers injury woes have been about average. And with injuries on the rise league wide, that should about end the story.

But it doesn't.

First, injury data is extremely difficult to find. And as a consequence the data available to PaVaSteeler only covered the Tomlin era. That again would seemingly leave Steelers Nation at a dead end.

But again it doesn't.

And we know it doesn't thanks to 34 words in a 1,280 word article penned by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the spring of 2008 detailing Troy Polamalu's work with Marv Marinovich. After discussing Polamalu's training regime, Bouchette consulted Chet Fuhrman to get a feel for how the Steelers viewed Marinovich's unorthodox techniques. And in doing so, he offered a very illuminating snippet:

Chet Fuhrman was the Steelers' strength and conditioning coach all 15 years under coach Bill Cowher, a period in which the team had the fewest starters lost to injuries of any in the NFL. [Emphasis added.]

There you have it. If the injury issues that have plagued the Steelers of late cannot be said to be worse than the rest of the league, then Ed Bouchette's revelation vindicates Steelers Nation's instinct that things were once better.

Fairness is important here.

  • Garrett Giemont should serve as no scapegoat. Injuries form an unfortunate part of the fabric of life in the NFL.

Maurkice Pouncey's ACL would have been just as torn by David DeCastro's ill aimed cut block had Fuhrman been standing on the sideline instead.

And the Steelers suffered their share of opening day injury horrors in Fuhrman's time. Opening day 1995 saw the Steelers lose Neil O'Donnell and Hall of Famer Rod Woodson. A year later, Greg Lloyd suffered a career altering injury. Later that year, a groin injury rendered Jerome Bettis ineffective vs. New England for the disaster that was Fog Bowl II. Injuries also hobbled Bettis for the 2001 playoffs.

But Bouchette's insight about Fuhrman is far from trivial.

Of NFL Injuries, Averages, and Marginal Value

Fuhrman served with the Steelers for 15 seasons. While Bouchette did not cite any sources, we can be certain that a veteran NFL beat reporter did not conjure that fact out of thin air. 15 years provides very long and rich data set. Abnormal highs and irregular lows get normed out. And on balance, the Steelers were healthier than the rest of the NFL during that time.

  • Cowher and Fuhrman's arrival also coincided with the arrival of the NFL's free agency and salary cap.

While playmakers remain important, success in the salary cap era hinges on maximizing marginal value out of your last salary cap dollar. In practical terms this means that you give yourself an advantage by being better at roster spots 40-53 than others. But health also plays a role. Players, and their subsequent salary cap dollars, can't add value when on IR or in street clothes.

That might seem cold and calculating, but it is nonetheless true. The Steelers regular season record during Cowher's tenure was better than anyone else's in the NFL. Talent and coaching were the most important factors, but so was the Steelers health relative to the NFL.

Numerous studies have documented the league-wide rise injuries. No strength and conditioning coach can make the Steelers immune. But finding one who can help them come out slightly ahead could pay dividends in the W-L column.

When asked about the Steelers injury issues at the end of the 2012 season, Mike Tomlin vowed to "Leave no lose stone unturned" when it came to seeking a solution. If Wikipedia is to be believed Furhman served as Athletic Director for the Avonworth School district in 2009 and then as strength and conditioning coach for Marty Schottenhiemer's UFL Virgina Destroyers in 2011.

Who knows what he's doing now?

He might be happily retired with no interest in returning to the NFL. But the evidence is clear. Mike Tomlin must at least give him the chance.