The Steelers Digest, like the Tribune-Review, and the Post Gazette finished out the decade with lists ranking the Steelers top games of the last decade. By now most fans have understandably enjoyed, digested and forgotten those lists.
One simple fact prevents me, however, from moving on:
- All of the lists missed something.
Included of course were games such as the final victory against the (should be rival) Redskins at Three Rivers Stadium, the paper champions victory over Tampa Bay in 2001, the 2008 Comeback against the Cowboys, and the 2009 shoot out against Green Bay.
No argument there.
- But there is one game that has been consistently overlooked.
It is the Steelers 24-13 road victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the year 2000.
Why should a victory from Bill Cowher’s third consecutive non-playoff season be counted among the Pittsburgh’s greatest games of the decade?
Look back at the context, and you’ll find one very compelling reason.
The Dark Days of the Steelers 1998 Season
1998 marked Bill Cowher’s first losing campaign. Trouble signs abounded in uninspiring victories over Chicago and Baltimore, and ugly losses to Cincinnati, Miami, and Tennessee. Kordell Stewart’s sudden unwillingness to throw, let alone his inability to complete a pass of longer the 15 yards was troublesome.
But, as Cowher explained afterward, “we were 7-5 and in the thick of the division race.” It is true, and 7-5 included impressive victories over contenders like Green Bay and Jacksonville.
- But then came Phil Luckett and the Thanksgiving Day coin toss in a game that should have NEVER gone to OT.
The Steelers lost their next 5 games with Kordell crying in the rain, the Steelers refusing to accept gift wrapping on a victory that the New England Patriots begged them to take, and getting swept by Cincinnati for the first time since 1990.
- All of this paled compared to one bitter truth.
The Steelers quit on Cowher.
The Darker Days of Steelers 1999 Season
The Steelers did not panic after 1998. Responding to press forecasting hard times, Tom Donahoe cheerfully declared something like, “I don’t think we’re as far off from being contenders again as you seem to think. No offense, but I love proving you wrong.”
This was the same Tom Donahoe who a year earlier wrote off Rod Woodson’s entireties to rejoin the Steelers with the “we’re not in the Salvation Army” remark.
The 1999 Steelers started 5-3, but had beaten no one and had dropped painful losses to Jacksonville and Seattle. On his worst day, Woodson, it was clear, the better of any man in Pittsburgh’s 1999 secondary.
But it was good to be 5-3, until the embarrassing home loss to the expansion Browns. The Steelers would lose 6 of their next 7.
- Worse, the team yet again quit on Cowher.
In the season finale loss to Tennessee, with Levon Kirkland getting out muscled by Neil O’Donnell, and Bobby Shaw flashing a Superman T-Shirt after a garbage time touchdown, the Steelers resembled more a circus act than a football team.
The Year 2000 – The Steelers Begin a New Decade
The fallout from the 1999 season is well documented. Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe who had begun the decade working so well together, now could hardly occupy the same room.
- Dan Rooney made a choice, Donahoe was out, and Kevin Colbert was in.
Doubts about Cowher, however, persisted. Many in the press figured he’d be gone by mid-season.
And for a while, it looked like Cowher was on course to prove the pundits right.
The Steelers opened the 21st century by getting their teeth kicked in 16-0 by the Baltimore Ravens – at Three Rivers Stadium.
Getting shut out at home by a division rival is never pleasant, but perhaps the most damming element of the loss occurred after the game had ended.
Reflecting on a late game drive that saw the Steelers march to the goal line only to have Kordell Stewart fumble the snap to negate Pittsburgh’s sole scoring opportunity, Rod Woodson said this: “We can’t give up a drive that goes the length late in the game against a good team.”
- Woodson, like the rest of the NFL, no longer regarded the Steelers as a good team. Who could argue?
Things only got worse.
Week 2 took the Steelers to Cleveland, where the Steelers blew a fourth quarter lead, on the heels of secondary breakdowns that made Tim Couch look worthy of his first overall draft status.
Still, the Steelers almost tied it late, but a sack suffered by Kent Graham prevented the Steelers from getting their field goal unit into the game and time expired.
Once projected to start the season 1-5, the Steelers looked destined for 0-6, as next up were the defending AFC Champion Tennessee Titans.
Everyone expected a route, but the Steelers went toe to toe, claiming the lead late in the 4th on a 5 yard Jerome Bettis touchdown. Things only appeared to improve for the Steelers, as Jason Gildon slammed Neil O’Donnell to the turf seemingly dooming the Titan’s rally.
- Three Rivers Stadium erupted.
But a bloodied Neil O’Donnell yielded the field to Steve McNair. And as Steel Curtain Rising chronicled the day he died, McNair only needed 2 runs and three throws to pull the Titans ahead and secure victory.
Crushed, Cowher appeared on the verge of tears. The oxygen had been sucked out of the 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers. And there were 13 games left to go.
Going Down to Jacksonville with Their Backs
Just when things couldn’t get worse they did. Late Friday afternoon word spread that Steelers starting quarterback Kent Graham had been injured in practice and unable to play that Sunday.
That meant that Kordell Stewart, the man whom so many had heaped so much blame upon for the disasters of 1998 and 1999, would start.
- The Jacksonville Jaguars entered 2000 as Super Bowl favorites.
- And the Steelers had never won in Jacksonville…
The first series served as a microcosm for all that had plagued them in the previous two seasons.
What followed established the precedent for the rest of the decade.
The Steelers got the opening kick off, which promptly led to a three and out and the first blocked punt of Josh Miller’s career. Jacksonville took over at first and goal at Pittsburgh’s four…
…and the Steelers defense refused to yield, forcing Jacksonville to settle for a field goal.
That was the last time the Jaguars led or threatened to lead the game.
The Steelers had posted larger margins of victory than they did that day against Jacksonville, but it is safe to say they’d never laid into the Jaguars with more ferocity.
Led by Jerome Bettis, Kordell Stewart, and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala the Steelers rushed for 209 yards. They held All-Pro Jacksonville Jaguars Jimmy Smith to two catches for 20 yards catching.
The defense dominated, limiting the Jaguars to a then season-low 26 yards rushing, and they tossed Mark Brunell around like a rag doll, sacking him seven times.
Those numbers impress. But one only look at who made them to understand their significance:
- Second year corner Deshea Townshend led the Steelers with six tackles, including a sack.
- Aaron Smith surprised coaches by winning a starting job during training camp, and this was the day that he began opening eyes around the NFL with a two sack performance.
- Joey Porter also got his first sack as a starter.
The 2000 Steelers went down to Jacksonville as the NFL’s afterthought, and emerged as a team that once again could be counted on to up end a contender.
The Steelers rallied behind their coach and sent the NFL a message in the process:
- Count us out when our backs are up against a wall at your peril.
And that is why the Steelers road victory in 2000 against the Jacksonville Jaguars should have earned a place on any “Top Ten Games of the Decade” ranking.
The game set the tone for the decade for the Steelers.
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