Since he retired as Steelers head coach in January of 2005, people have been very interested to see when Bill Cowher would return to the NFL.  Year after year his name comes up on the list of candidates to potentially take coaching vacancies.  As the 2009 season crosses its mid-point and heads towards the playoffs, it’s obvious that some teams are going to want to replace their head coach, and again the Super Bowl winning coach who has a record of 161-99-1 (including playoff games) has his name thrown about as one of the top choices.  The Buffalo Bills fired Dick Jauron here in mid-November, and after interviewing Mike Shanahan to discuss potentially taking over the team next year (since no coach the caliber of Shanahan or Cowher is going to takeover mid-season).  I’ve already heard reports on the radio that the Bills are going to approach Cowher as well, and I hope the Buffalo fans aren’t getting their hopes up, because Bill’s not taking the reigns of the Bills.

With the talk of high profile, Super Bowl winning coaches who could potentially get back into the league next year – Shanahan, Cowher, Gruden, Dungy, Billick, Holmgren – speculation is wide-spread regarding where the coaches will end up.  Gruden has taken his name out of the running by signing a multi-year extension to do Monday Night Football.  Dungy is expected to remain off the sidelines as he continues to serve his own non-NFL interests while spending some time as an on-air analyst.  When asked, Cowher indicates that he’s not sure whether he’s ready to come back next year or not.

I maintain that his interest level is tied to the availability of a coaching job in Carolina.

Bill Cowher left Pittsburgh because he wanted to spend more time with his family – who had relocated to North Carolina.  Although he travels to do his Sunday analyst work for CBS, but his roots are now firmly in Raleigh.

John Fox has done a great job in Carolina.  He took over as head coach in 2002 after the Panthers went 1-15 the year before, and during his second year in the job, Fox lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl.  In the five full seasons since then, the Panthers have only had a winning season twice (11-5 in 2005 which included a trip to the NFC Championship game, 12-4 in 2008 which saw the Cardinals beat them in the first round of the playoffs).  The other seasons included two finishes of 7-9 and one finish of 8-8.  Make no mistake about it, John Fox should be coaching somewhere in the NFL.  Buffalo, Seattle, San Diego, Cleveland, Tennessee, Oakland, Tampa Bay would all be lucky to have him.  But with Bill Cowher making Raleigh his home and saying publicly that he doesn’t want to be away from his family, it’s obvious that the Panthers would be his top choice, the Panthers need to cut ties with John Fox after this season and bring in Cowher.  There’s absolutely no reason for them to hold onto Fox when a guy of Cowher’s stature is ready, willing and able to take over their team.

After all, that’s what Cowher is waiting for.  He wants to be there, and given the lackluster start the Panthers have put together thus far in 2009, it’s unlikely they’re going to finish much better than 8-8 with the Jets, Patriots, Giants, Saints and Vikings still on their schedule.  They’ll be lucky to finish 7-9.

If the Panthers don’t do something this off-season to bring Cowher into their organization, he could be lost to them forever.  Just a few short hours up I-95, the Washington Redskins are most likely going to replace Jim Zorn as soon as the season is over (if not before), and you can guarantee that Bill Cowher would be near the very top of the list of candidates to bring in to helm the Burgundy and Gold.  Dallas and a few other teams might also bring a truck load of money to try to coax Cowher to their team, but none of them are going to be as close to Raleigh as DC (Tennessee seems close, but the drive is twice as long, and Atlanta has a good thing going).  If Carolina doesn’t pull the trigger this off-season, Cowher might decide to go elsewhere, and considering the number of (current and former) NFL head coaches who had previously worked for Cowher (7), the Panthers could be missing out on a future heir apparent of Cowher’s who would end up in a place like Washington or Dallas if the Panthers don’t get rid of Fox and bring Bill onto the team where he obviously wants to be.