"It seemed that a ball-control offense made the most sense," Cowher said two days before the Houston game. "When I hired Ron, I knew what I was getting."
He was getting the Giants' offense. At the Steelers' practice last Friday, Parcel Is. who was working Sunday's game as an analyst for NBC, watched an offense that he and Erhardt had created. "We ran the ball in '86, our first Super Bowl year, but we did it differently," Parcells said. The big play that year was the toss to Joe Morris, a small back who would run behind agile linemen who could get out and lead. "Then teams started scheming us with complicated defenses," Parcells said. "We couldn't get our running attack blocked. We had to simplify it."
So Parcells drafted bigger linemen, hog types, and let them bang straight ahead. He gave the ball to O.J. Anderson, a bigger back than Morris, a guy who could smack into a hole and complete a run with a burst. Parcells also loaded his offense with two, sometimes three, tight ends. After Parcells retired in May 1991, Erhardt was phased out of the operation by Handley, so he was only too happy to bring the whole package to Pittsburgh.
The concept wouldn't work without a defense that could keep the Steelers out of shoot-outs or a steady run of games in which they would have to play catch-up. In its season opener Pittsburgh beat Houston 29-24 by intercepting five of Moon's passes. On Sunday the Steelers held the Oilers to 283 yards—Houston's lowest total of the season.
Pittsburgh's offensive linemen, trap blockers during Noll's tenure, had to bulk up for the straight-ahead game. And, of course, a keynote tailback was essential. Foster, who was the 19th running back drafted in 1990, had shown flashes, but he missed almost half of last season with an ankle injury. When he got another shot this year, he started putting big numbers on the board. After he rushed for 190 yards against the New York Jets in Week 2, someone asked him what his goal was for 1992. "Oh, let's say about 800 yards," said Foster. But his 118 yards on 31 carries against Houston gave him six 100-plus games for the year ( Franco Harris's Steeler record is seven), and he leads all AFC rushers, with 865 yards.
"Everyone on the team knew what he could do," says Pittsburgh tackle John Jackson. "He runs hard and he runs low. Guys miss him if they try to tackle him high, and if they go low, they'll take some real punishment."
"I was upset when I wasn't playing in the past," Foster says. "I didn't think I'd ever become the featured back. I don't have blazing speed, and I'm not your stereotype halfback. What I can do; though, is run hard and finish a run hard, and those are things that can't be coached. You have to have them in your heart."
Maybe those are the things that first caught the eye of Cowher, who was never a star in the NFL but was usually the first man down under kickoffs. Born and raised 15 minutes from Three Rivers Stadium, Cowher and his smack-'em-in-the-gut style have exceeded everyone's wildest hopes for a team that was 7-9 last year.
"When we won our first three games," says Cowher, "my wife, Kaye, and I would go out shopping, and everyone wanted to congratulate us and pat us on the back. Then we lost two, and people would see me coming and look the other way. Then we beat the Bengals and Chiefs, and everyone was friendly again. I feel as if I've been through three seasons."
With many more to come.