The Pittsburgh Steelers were the NFL's best team this season in large part because every time one of their players got hurt, someone else stepped in and did the job.
Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger won all 13 of his starts after Tommy Maddox injured his elbow in Week 2. Jerome Bettis produced six 100-yard rushing performances in six starts at tailback while Duce Staley nursed an ailing hamstring. The Steelers lost nothing with Larry Foote starting at linebacker for Kendrell Bell or with Willie Williams replacing Chad Scott at cornerback. They didn't miss a step when wide receiver Plaxico Burress hurt his hamstring and Antwaan Randle El filled in.
So Coach Bill Cowher barely will know how to handle all the prosperity -- and healthy players -- this week. Barring any new injuries or setbacks during the week, the Steelers likely will have every player on their 53-man roster available to play Saturday against the New York Jets in an AFC semifinal at Heinz Field.
"We had a lot of energy, and it was nice to have all the bodies out there,'' Cowher said during his news briefing after Tuesday's practice. "I think it's the first time probably all year that we haven't had anybody miss practice. So as I told [the players] this morning, it's going to make for some tough game-day decisions and de-activations. But . . . it's a one-game season, and we have to do what we have to do to put the best players out there to give us the best chance to win this week.''
There is no decision for Cowher to make at quarterback. Roethlisberger is ready to return to the lineup after missing the Steelers' win at Buffalo in the regular-season finale because of the bruised rib cartilage that he suffered the previous week against the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers' first-round playoff bye means that Roethlisberger will have had nearly three weeks between games to heal.
Cowher does have an interesting decision to make at tailback, however. Staley became the starter, pushing Bettis to a backup role, after signing with the Steelers as a free agent in the offseason. Cowher has gone back to Staley as the starter whenever Staley has been healthy this season. But the decision apparently won't be automatic this time.
Bettis, not Staley, finished the season as the club's leading rusher. Bettis, not Staley, was the offensive centerpiece when the Steelers beat the Jets, 17-6, in their regular-season meeting on Dec. 12 at Heinz Field, throwing for one touchdown on a trick play and running for another in the fourth quarter to break open a tight game. And Staley has not been the same player since getting hurt. He has run for only 123 yards on 41 carries in the three games he's played since Halloween. In his final five games before being injured, he had four 100-yard rushing performances.
Cowher said that Staley "looked good'' during Tuesday's practice but refused to tip his hand about Saturday's starter at the position, saying it's possible he won't even make a public declaration before the game. Bettis sat out the Bills game because of a sprained ankle but split time with Staley during Tuesday's practice.
"I don't know if I'll even announce anything,'' Cowher said. "They both are going to play this week, and we'll see how we are at the end of the week.''
Townsend practiced Tuesday after missing the regular season finale because of a broken hand and probably will start Saturday at the cornerback spot opposite Williams. Williams replaced Scott as the starter at left cornerback when Scott suffered a torn quadriceps tendon in October. Scott returned for the Bills game and started in place of Townsend at right cornerback but now, with Townsend back, probably will be the nickel cornerback against the Jets.
The Steelers had a league-best record of 15-1 during the regular season and take a 14-game winning streak into the playoffs. They were 8-0 at home. They seem perfectly constructed for postseason football, with a punishing defense and an offense that will try to control a game with the run but also can produce some big plays with the pass when needed. All of that, they know, ensures them of absolutely nothing, though.
"We have put ourselves in a good position, but we recognize now that we are involved with one-game seasons and that's how we are looking at it,'' said Cowher, who is attempting to secure what would be his second Super Bowl appearance in 13 seasons as Pittsburgh's head coach. " . . . There are no guarantees.''
Pennington's Shoulder Improving
Both quarterbacks struggled mightily during the regular-season meeting between the Jets and Steelers last month. Roethlisberger and the Jets' Chad Pennington each finished the game with a passer rating of 33.6. Neither threw a touchdown pass.
Pennington threw three interceptions that day in his second game back in the Jets' lineup after missing three games because of a shoulder injury. The soundness of Pennington's shoulder has remained an issue since then, as he mostly has struggled with his downfield throws. Defenses increasingly have focused on taking the short passing game away from Pennington, daring him to win games with longer throws if he can.
Pennington finally looked capable of doing that last weekend, when he threw for 279 yards in the Jets' overtime triumph at San Diego in a first-round AFC playoff game. It was his highest passing-yardage total in a game since returning from his injury, and his highest in his three career postseason starts.
Jets Coach Herman Edwards said in a conference call Tuesday that Pennington is "much healthier'' than he was the last time his team faced the Steelers, and added: "He's got his rhythm back. He's starting to throw the ball and not think so much, and I think that helped him. I think, obviously, that last game he played was probably one of his better games, probably the best game he's played in playoff competition.''
The Jets were one of the few teams that made Roethlisberger look like a rookie this season. Roethlisberger threw two interceptions and completed only nine of 19 passes for 144 yards in the December meeting. But he did make the big play when it mattered, connecting with wide receiver Lee Mays for a 46-yard gain on a third-and-four play with about five minutes left to set up Bettis's 12-yard touchdown romp that sealed the outcome . . .
The Jets committed 12 penalties, all in the first half, in the December game. . . .
Edwards said he will rely on defensive end John Abraham's input into the decision about whether Abraham will play in Pittsburgh.
Abraham missed the final four games of the regular season and the Jets' playoff contest in San Diego because of a sprained knee ligament. The Jets initially had expected him to play in pass-rushing situations against the Chargers, but those plans were put on hold after Abraham tried to practice last week. Abraham, who had 9 1/2 sacks during the regular season, is in a difficult position because he is eligible for unrestricted free agency in the spring and the Jets have not signed him to a contract extension, as they did with fellow would-be free agents Pennington and defensive end Shaun Ellis.
"I think John will do the right thing,'' Edwards said. "I always put it back on the players, and I think the players will do the right thing. And if they're team guys, they'll always do what's right for the team. Sometimes what's right for the team is not playing if you're not healthy. I know a lot of players that want to play and they say, 'I'm going to play.' And then, all of a sudden, two or three snaps into the game, they're out. Now you've lost a player and you've lost a spot [on the game-day roster]. Now you're short a guy. So I think the players are always going to do, I just believe [with] the guys that I've always been around, what's right for the football team.'' . . .
Edwards apologized to his players Tuesday for his sideline confrontation with his running backs coach, Bishop Harris, during the San Diego game. . . .
Ellis issued a guarantee after the Jets' regular-season loss at Heinz Field that if they returned to Pittsburgh in the playoffs, they'd win. He told reporters Tuesday that he wasn't backing off that guarantee. . . .
The Jets will be playing their third road game in 14 days, having finished the regular season at St. Louis.
Holmgren Says He's Staying Put
Mike Holmgren said during a news conference Tuesday that he is staying as coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Holmgren has been linked to the San Francisco 49ers' coaching vacancy. But he has two seasons remaining on his contract in Seattle, and was told during a meeting Monday with team president Bob Whitsitt that he's welcome to stay.
But the decision to remain was not automatic, Holmgren said, after the Seahawks' tumultuous season that ended with last weekend's 27-20 defeat to the St. Louis Rams in a first-round NFC playoff game.
"When we were going through that at home . . . what we said was, 'Listen, we can't make a decision now because, after a tough loss, you feel like going and jumping off a bridge,' '' Holmgren said. "Really, you say, 'I don't want to do this; it's too hard,' because you put so much into it. I've been at this a while, and Kathy has been my wife for 33 years. So we said, 'Look it, the season is over. We'll take a couple days, let it settle a little bit, see where we are, and then hopefully make an intelligent decision.' I don't want to coach any place else. I want to coach here, and I really love our team. I love our guys. But to say it didn't cross my mind just to ride off in the sunset, I'd be lying to you.
"When it calmed down, we had the discussion. As long as they let me keep doing it, I'm raring to go. I've got to kind of re-enter, as my wife says, the real world here. I'm going to take off this week and go someplace for a week.''
The Seahawks won the NFC West title but remained winless in the playoffs since December 1984. They're 0-3 under Holmgren in postseason play. And, even with the division title, it was a highly disappointing season for the Seahawks. They had Super Bowl aspirations and started with three dominating victories, but were inconsistent thereafter.
Holmgren said the low points for him were a wild Monday night loss to the Dallas Cowboys in December, and the controversies involving tailback Shaun Alexander and wide receiver Koren Robinson that followed a win over the Atlanta Falcons in the regular season finale. The Seahawks beat the Falcons in dramatic fashion to wrap up the division crown, but the focus afterward was on Alexander blaming Holmgren's play-calling for costing him the NFL rushing title and Robinson missing a game for disciplinary reasons for the sixth time in a seven-game span.
"I had a low point after the Monday night game, I will tell you that,'' Holmgren said Tuesday. "Now, that was not player-related. It was such an important game for us and such a great night, and the crowd was so awesome. Then when we lost it, that was tough for me.
" . . . I really wanted to see the biggest headline [after the final regular-season game] being, 'Seahawks Division Champions 2004,' instead of the headline that was on there. That would have been okay with me. Put the other one on there somewhere, but don't make it the biggest one. That bothered me a lot. A lot. And, more than actually what happened, it was just the response to what happened. We're trying like crazy to bring a championship to this city . . . and sometimes, it just seems like I can't get everyone to hop on the boat, you know.''
It's possible that there won't be any more head-coaching changes league-wide than the three that already have taken place, a low total by recent NFL standards. There were seven last winter.
But Holmgren and Denver's Mike Shanahan are conducting business as usual even after their first-round playoff losses that seemed to put their job security in greater jeopardy. The Cowboys' Bill Parcells and Kansas City's Dick Vermeil are giving no indications that they're planning to walk away. The New Orleans Saints told Jim Haslett that they're retaining him, and the Oakland Raiders haven't ousted Norv Turner at this point. The Minnesota Vikings exercised their option for next season in the contract of Coach Mike Tice, who solidified his status with a first-round playoff victory in Green Bay. The Rams' Mike Martz probably ensured his return with his win in Seattle.
49ers Keeping Busy
The 49ers have scheduled a head-coaching interview with Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Nolan for Thursday, and they've been granted permission to interview Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
They'll become the fourth and fifth candidates to interview for the job. New York Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis is to interview today. John York, the 49ers co-owner, interviewed New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel on Saturday and huddled with Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger on Tuesday.
The 49ers are conducting this week's interviews in St. Louis. The club's assistant to the general manager, Paraag Marathe, and assistant director of football administration, Terry Tumey, have joined York in the meetings with candidates. York ousted Terry Donahue as the team's general manager and fired Dennis Erickson as its coach after a 2-14 season. . . .
Miami could be close to hiring Houston defensive line coach Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator. Grantham worked for new Dolphins coach Nick Saban at Michigan State. He would replace Jim Bates, who declined to remain with Miami as defensive coordinator after serving as the Dolphins' interim coach for the final seven games of the season. Bates and Nolan interviewed for Cleveland's head-coaching job in separate sessions Tuesday.
Crennel interviewed for the Browns' job Friday, and could have one or two head-coaching offers next week if the Patriots lose to the Indianapolis Colts this weekend in an AFC semifinal. He appears to be the favorite for the Cleveland job, and might be the front-runner in San Francisco as well if York can't get USC Coach Pete Carroll or Holmgren. Under league rules, Crennel cannot have a second interview with either team or accept a job before the Patriots' season concludes. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick could be left replacing both of his top coaching lieutenants. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis already has accepted the head-coaching job at Notre Dame.