Antonio Brown will never play for Bill Cowher, who retired as the Steelers‘ head coach four years before Brown’s rookie season in Pittsburgh. But if he was still coaching, and if he had Brown on his team, Cowher knows how he would handle the situation.
Cowher, a current NFL analyst for CBS Sports who served 15 seasons as Pittsburgh’s head coach, was recently asked about Brown, who continues to be at the center of the NFL news cycle after forcing his way out of Pittsburgh this offseason. Over the past two weeks alone, Brown has been dominating the headlines with stories about his mysterious absences from Raiders camp, his frostbitten feet to his if he would not be allowed to use his old Steelers helmet (Brown lost his appeal and will return to the Raiders this week).
“I think we know too much [about Brown],” Cowher said during an interview with CBS Sports HQ. “I think too much was made out of [his trade from Pittsburgh]. I think every time he does something … he’s a guy that likes the attention.
“Really, I think when you talk about his play on the field, he’s a very good receiver,” Cowher continued. “And I think in today’s transparent world, social media, he likes to see his name in the media, he likes the attention. I just think if you’re coaching a guy like that, you kinda just hope he doesn’t become a distraction from the standpoint of saying something to the opponents. If he’s on your team, let him do his thing as long as he’s out there and producing as he’s getting paid to do.”
Cowher didn’t hesitate with his answer when asked why the receiver position seems to be the one that creates the most self-centered football players.
“Fantasy football,” Cowher said. “I think fantasy football has made that position and has created a kind of selfishness and a way for us to judge players. It’s hard for them not to look at that … I think, when you talk about a team sport yet we’re talking about individuals wanting to have specific numbers. I think fantasy football has made that position a lot more, I would say, divisive for a team from the standpoint of they’re looked upon a little bit differently than offensive linemen or defensive linemen or any other player besides quarterbacks … running backs, obviously because they get touches. So I just think fantasy football has created more of an individual sport when it really is a team sport.”
Cowher — who coached during the more formative years of fantasy football — had the luxury of coaching Hines Ward, an unselfish receiver who put team success over his own individual success. While Ward did retire as Pittsburgh’s career leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns, he did not compile the same type of numbers that other receivers of his era — Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison — compiled on their way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a distinction that Ward has yet to receive.
Ward did, however, retire with two Super Bowl rings and was named the MVP of Super Bowl XL. Owens, Moss, and Harrison combined to win one Super Bowl between them and were never named the MVP of a Super Bowl.
Does Cowher see any elite receivers in today’s game that share Ward’s mindset?
“I think there are [some],” Cowher said. “I think they’re out there. Listen, look at the role Larry Fitzgerald has dwarfed into from the time that he was originally the guy you threw the ball up to and he became now the Hines Ward when Bruce Arians was in Arizona. What made Hines a special receiver was the fact that he did it all. He blocked, he played the slot, he made plays down the field. He was there every week, never missed games. And he brought a degree of toughness and an element to our football team that really exemplified what we were about. We asked receivers to block, just like we asked running backs to block as well. There are only so many balls to go around, so there was philosophy in place. We were a team that threw the ball early but we ran the ball late because we had a lead.
“Sometimes, [Ward’s] numbers were not what they could have been because that just wasn’t our offense,” Cowher continued. “So that’s why, when you go back to the numbers, the fantasy football, I know when I was coaching, I was probably not the best team to pick in terms of offensive football for fantasy players, because we were more interested in winning games than having big numbers. And I think not only did Hines buy into that, but he also exemplified that.”
Another player Cowher discussed was Ben Roethlisberger, who won a Super Bowl with Cowher in 2005, Big Ben’s second NFL season. Cowher, who will return to Pittsburgh on Sept. 29 for his induction into the Steelers’ Hall of Honor, is expecting a big season from Big Ben in 2019.
“I think he looks pretty good,” Cowher said of Roethlisberger, who is embarking on his 16th NFL season. “When you see him in training camp, I think he looks like he’s in shape. His biggest thing is not to try to do too much. Because it’s very natural to want to show that ‘Hey, we can still win without Antonio Brown and without Le’Veon Bell. And I can still spread the ball around.’ Just be careful you don’t try to do too much. I think that would be the biggest thing for him. I still think he can make all the throws, he can still get around, move around, and he still has a great feel for the game.”
While he will continue to follow his former team, Cowher said that he is also going to keep his eye on what he believes will be a “very intriguing” division race in the AFC North.
“You talk about (new Cincinnati Bengals coach) Zac Taylor, kind of this newness about him and what he’s going to do with that football team,” Cowher said. “They’ve got some skill.
“Obviously, the expectation up in Cleveland with Baker Mayfield. Now under the radar, the Pittsburgh Steelers, no more drama with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. And (Baltimore Ravens quarterback) Lamar Jackson going into his second year. The AFC North, in general, is going to have a lot of intrigue.”