When Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher thinks he can win a football game without throwing the ball, he authorizes only a few passes, sometimes hardly any at all. That's the way coaches tended to play the game in 1916 and 1926, and it's the way Cowher loves to play it in 2006. So that's how and why the Steelers, en route to a 21-10 win, dulled up Super Bowl XL Sunday.
Caveman Bill has the resources to pass magnificently --- with some of the best passing personnel in the AFC, a passing conference. But instead, he kept running a lot, punting a lot, and waiting for the breaks, which the Seattle Seahawks handed over repeatedly.
He couldn't have known he'd get all those breaks --- holding penalties, offside penalties, fumbles, drops, and the like.
But he had seen the Seahawk tapes. He knew his team was much better than the Seahawks. He knew he was going to win.
Thus, he asked himself, why pass? Why take a chance on fluke interceptions? Why not sit back in your cave and wait for what's going to come anyway if you do nothing?
Beyond all doubt, the thought of entertaining the season's largest crowd --- mostly business types with $600 for a seat plus a tie to a Pittsburgh corporation --- wasn't a factor in his decision, which ruined the game for millions.
To be sure, he'd rather not be known as old-fashioned. But his priority is winning the way he's sure he can win. And so Caveman Bill --- the league's most deeply ingrained conservative --- won conservatively from a pro club that wouldn't have been in this Super Bowl if there were even one team of AFC caliber in the NFC.
When Ben Comes Out Passing He's Big Ben
THE STEELERS in their middle pair of four playoff games --- against the Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning and then the Denver Broncos --- had shown that they can be a dominating passing team. The difference in those games was that the Steelers told quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to come out of the locker room throwing the ball.
As a result, Pittsburgh handily defeated two good passing teams after opening up halftime leads aggregating a combined 38-6. Aggressive passing does things like that to talented opponents when the aggressive passer is as gifted as Big Ben.
In the Steelers' first playoff game, Roethlisberger had also passed efficiently to eliminate a passing team with the best new quarterback in the league, Carson Palmer. But that time they only won when Palmer left on a stretcher after taking a late hit from a Pittsburgh defensive lineman, Kimo von Oelhoffen, who is sometimes known as von Delhoffen.
Caveman Bill Hard on His Own Tean
COWHER IN HIS fourth playoff game this winter got a delayed Christmas present, a winnable Super Bowl. After three playoff matches that had him missing sleep worrying about all the passes his team would have to throw, he got his kind of championship game, one in which he needn't throw much.
Lost on him, obviously, was how hard this was on the others on his side. Making his people do it the safe way --- safe for their coach --- was the hard way for them. Trying to run the ball, they didn't even make a first down in the first quarter against the least formidable opponent they'd seen since long ago, somewhere in the regular season.
Lacking permission to pass, they went from three-and-out to three-and-out, spoiling the biggest event of the year.
He is Hardest on Roethlisberger
THIS CAVEMAN strategy proved hardest of all on Roethlisberger. It made Big Ben look like a rookie or worse. It made him look as if he really were an inept passer --- just as, last winter, Cowher's conservative playoff strategy put an end to the Big One's rookie season.
The most difficult time to throw the ball in an NFL game is on third down after two failed running plays have informed the defense that you're not going to run again. When Roethlisberger gets loose, he can sometimes do it. But in Detroit, Cowher never let him get loose.
The most effective way a concerned, knowledgeable coach helps his passer loosen up is by giving him short, easy passes in the first quarter, often on first down, the easiest throwing down. That lifts the quarterback's confidence level and works him up athletically to what is a very difficult skill level. If Cowher knows about that, which is doubtful, he didn't show it in Detroit, in the highest-pressure game of the year.
From the start, if Cowher had him passing at all, Roethlisberger was asked to throw to Steelers downfield in a region infested with defensive backs. And in the upshot, Roethlisberger, admittedly tight as the game started, threw high, low or wild. Then Cowher, unmindful that he was himself to blame, said, ``We have to settle our quarterback down.''
So This Was the Steelers' Worst Game
ONE WAY to look at the 40th Super Bowl, in a series that began long ago in Los Angeles, is to note that the Steelers were so much the better team that when they played their worst game in many months, they couldn't even give it away.
The snake-bitten Seattle Seahawks simply wouldn't take it. Even after moving inside the Pittsburgh 10-yard line on a 97-yard drive --- which would have put them ahead in the fourth quarter --- the Seahawks wouldn't take it.
There they made a typical Seahawk blunder, typical of a day when they were ill-prepared by their coaches. This one was a holding penalty --- in the wide open, where the well-disciplined Steelers are rarely caught --- leading to an interception. And an instant later, the Seahawks, instead of being in charge, were irretrievably out of the game, 21-10.
Pittsburgh Wins Predictably with Trick Play
THE STEELER PLAY that won it, getting rid of the Seahawks once for all, was a routine example of the kind of trick play that no other NFL team executes so well or calls so opportunely. This one was a pass from one Steeler wide receiver to another --- from Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward.
Randle El, on a reverse, faked both run and pass on that play --- as if he were out on a halfback run-or-pass, football's most difficult play to stop --- then threw it like a quarterback, which he was in college, at Indiana.
Although the Steelers didn't play their game in Detroit, the Randle El pass was one of three plays that showed their immense talent advantage over the Seahawks. It's likely that there aren't three athletes on any NFC team who could have made those plays.
To begin with, Roethlisberger lofted a long cross-field pass to Hines Ward at the Seattle three-yard line --- on an incredible third-and-28 rollout play --- which required Big Ben to keep looking at his feet instead of at Ward. Careful not to cross the scrimmage line, he stepped back and let the ball fly at the last possible instant. The play sustained a 59-yard drive, the Steelers' only drive of a 7-3 first half. If no other quarterback has the skill and cool audacity to throw such a pass, no other passer is athletic enough to have scored on Roethlisberger's subsequent one-yard, diving rollout.
Pittsburgh's' second big play came on the Steelers' only effective drive of the second half, and the quickest. On first down after the second-half kickoff, they threw, a rarity for them in Detroit, throwing incomplete. On second and 10, a passing down, they lined up in a spread-out passing formation, then slipped a handoff to tailback Willie Parker, the NFL's fastest man, who raced 75 yards up the middle to score their second touchdown in what was now a 14-3 game.
It was as easy as it looked and as it sounds because the formation used to get the Parker touchdown is the best one in football, the best for either running or passing. If the Steelers had used it as their basic formation, and passed as often as they ran, they'd have produced 40 or 50 points every Sunday this season and stomped on Seattle.
The formation has three wide receivers and a tight end --- or four receivers altogether along the line of scrimmage at all times --- plus one running back. To meet the many passing threats, Seattle had to take out a big linebacker and add a fifth defensive back a smaller athlete. At the same time, Pittsburgh, as it always does in this formation, went without the encumbrance of a blocking back to get in Parker's way. Hence, with Parker's first step, he had clear sailing ahead to the faraway goal line.
Third and chronologically last, Randle El's perfectly placed pass to Ward for a 43-yard touchdown scored Pittsburgh's final seven points and put a 21-10 game out of reach of a team like Seattle, which lacks the quick-strike talent to effectively retaliate.
Steeler Edge Visible in Talent, Not Statistics
Many sports fans in their pre-game assessments had given Seattle a chance. Many had even picked Seattle. But that was because they were paying attention to the statistics run up by the two teams this season against opponents of drastically different quality.
The Seahawks played in the mediocre NFC, the Steelers in the powerful AFC, which has seven or eight teams that might have been favored over Seattle. Among them are New England, Indianapolis, Denver, Cincinnati, Kansas City, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and possibly Jacksonville.
Statisticians have noted that apples and oranges can't be compared. Nor, statistically, can football teams be compared when their statistics are generated in very different schedules. Thus, the Steelers' advantage couldn't be seen in the statistics --- in the bare numbers --- but only through an appreciation of their great advantage in talent.
The Steelers are so good --- stocked with runners and blockers, with passers and receivers, with run-stuffers and blitzers --- that they could overcome their coach's reversion to prehistoric football. Caveman Bill couldn't lose, though he tried.
Bob Oates is at email@example.com Previous columns: latimes.com/oates