Steelers Nation Matured with Bill Cowher as He Validated Mom’s Wisdom

Today, Bill Cowher enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame 29 years after becoming Steelers coach in January 1992.

“Passionate” “Inspiring” “Intense” “Daring” “Emotional” “Intimidating” “Fiery” “Boisterous” “Balanced” are all excellent words that describe Bill Cowher. Yet most Steelers fans could have applied these adjectives to The Chin before he’d even coached a half season’s worth of games.

Bill Cowher coached the Steelers for 16 years. As we observed in the intro to “The Cowher Years” the series, the world changed tremendously during his time. And it is through change that we learn the most.

To write long-form pieces about long-ago football seasons is to relive them and to re-experience all of the change wrought by them.

  • So what did Steelers Nation learn and what did it gain from Bill Cowher’s time in Pittsburgh?

The answer? Maturity.

Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Bill Cowher Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Gene Puskar, AP via Daily Record

Vindicating Faith

Generation X occupies a curious spot within Steelers Nation. Unlike the our Depression Era grandparents and our War Baby/Boomer parents, we never experienced the perpetual losing SOS (Same Old Steelers.)

  • But unlike the millennials, we did live through the 80’s, when the Steelers muddled through mediocrity.

Yet, as children of the ’70’s we had been young enough to actually believe that “We Are the Champions” really was written for Steelers. And this instilled in us an unshakable faith that someday, I daresay, the Steel Curtain would Rise Again.

Chalk some of that up to naiveté of youth, says the writer who scoffed at winning “The Aikman Derby” because, “The Steelers don’t need to draft Troy Aikman. We have Bubby Brister!

But the 1989 Steelers breathed new life into those hopes. And if 1990 disappointed, the logic behind Bob Labriola’s favorable position-by-position post-season comparison between the Steelers and the surprise Super Bowl Champion Giants was sound.

The Steelers had the pieces needed to be champions. Chuck Noll felt so himself, but admitted to his wife during the 1991 season that he couldn’t coach them up to that level.

And in writing about the early Cowher years, it occurred to me that during the early 1990’s, Steelers Nation experienced what it was like in the 70’s when the team was on the rise. Winning was novel. Winning was fun. And it was pure.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

I’ll never forget answering the door 2 days after Christmas at my grandma’s house in Baldwin, moments after the 1992 Steelers closed with a win over the Browns. I greeted a teenage paper boy sporting a Steelers hat, Steelers jacket and Steelers T-shirt and huge simile tattooed across his face. I’d been to Pittsburgh scores of times through the 80’s, but I hadn’t seen that enthusiasm since the late 70’s.

  • But with Bill Cowher, there was a difference.

Not only were the Steelers finally playing the Championship Caliber football that they could have and should have been playing before, but they were playing the Championship Caliber football that we fans felt we deserved to see them play.

That feeling reached its peak when Yancey Thigpen took out his Terrible Towel in the end zone 1994 AFC playoff win the Browns.

A generation of Steelers fans felt like we were were finally claiming our birthright!

It was a magical moment.

Loss of Entitlement, If Not Innocence

As we know too well, a week later Alfred Pupunu broke the magic spell that Thigpen’s Terrible Towel twirl had cast. That loss, ugly as it was, fostered a transition in how Steelers Nation perceived its beloved team.

The Steelers of the 70’s might not have been the Greek gods that NFL Films portrays them as, but they were modern day Epic heroes, Goliaths, if you will. In contrast, the Steelers of the 1990’s, ever struggling against the salary cap, played the role of Davids.

  • And that perception was grounded in a bit of reality.

The Steelers Digest once ran covers of Rod Woodson dressed as Superman and another of Greg Lloyd posing with a Darth Vader helmet. Both motifs were appropriate.

Jack Lambert, Jack Lambert Sports Illustrated Cover

Photo Credit: Tony Tomsic, Sports Illustrated

But I’ll simply observe, with my heart full of love for Number 26 and Number 95, that Jack Lambert never needed costume department props to stage his iconic photo.

  • The “David” role suited the Steelers and Steelers Nation well.

But it also confronted some hard realities. In Super Bowl XXX team “David” came far closer to slaying team “Goliath” than anyone expected. But when David’s sling is quarterback Neil O’Donnell and Goliath has Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman as his sword, Goliath is going to win most of time, especially if David’s sling fires at the wrong team, twice.

“Steelers Way” Not Immune from Hubris

Let’s be honest. The “David” complex led to a bit of self-righteousness on the part of Steelers Nation. Who didn’t snicker when Tom Donahoe waived off Eric Green and Woodson’s requests to return with his “Salvation Army” comment? I know I did.

Well, they defied gravity until they couldn’t. The Cowher-Donahoe dispute proved that, even if the Steelers do run one of the better, more people-friendly organizations in the NFL, they are not immune from the poisons of petty personnel disputes and ego clashes.

Validating a Mother’s Wisdom

The fact that the Steelers were able to return to contender status so fast after the dark days of 1998 and 1999, attests to how well the organization was run. Yet, before the 21st century was even a half decade old, the Steelers had played two more AFC Championship games in Pittsburgh and lost both of them.

Players who could have, and should have helped bring One for the Thumb back to Pittsburgh, guys like Mark Bruener, Dermontti Dawson and Carnell Lake gave way to players like Heath Miller, Alan Faneca and Troy Polamalu, and yet the Super Bowl remained distant. To repeat:

  • To write long-form pieces about long-ago football seasons is to relive them.

With passing article in the Cowher Years series, the feelings generated by those inopportune interceptions, blocked kicks, free agent departures, blown calls and those lost AFC Championships grew more acute.

And it reminded me of something my mother told me in 1980 when I was a 3rd grader complaining that the Steelers weren’t going to win the Super Bowl. Here is her response:

Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cowher, Super Bowl XL

Ben Roethlisberger and Bill Cowher in the final moments of Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Mark Humphrey, AP via The Athletic.

“If the Steelers won the Super Bowl every year, it wouldn’t be special.”

Mom was right, as she (almost) always is. By the mid 00s, instead of expecting a Super Bowl, many Steelers fans feared they’d never see one. Of course Dan Rooney steered Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher into drafting Ben Roethlisberger.

  • And while Big Ben didn’t deliver in his first season, he did in his second.

Bill Cowher could finally make good on his promise to Dan Rooney. He brought home the 5th Lombardi.

And when it finally happened, one Steelers scribe had the maturity to appreciate just how special it was.

Thank you Bill. May your bust in Canton shine forever!

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2006 Pittsburgh Steelers: Super Bowl Hangover, The Chin Hangs It Up

The Steelers entered the 2006 offseason riding high after bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy in 26 years, thanks to a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. It was certainly a magical run along the way, one that saw the 2005 Steelers become the first team in NFL history to claim a Super Bowl title after winning three playoff games on the road. Head coach Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, finally captured the championship that had so frustratingly eluded him for 14 years.

The question was: Could Bill Cowher do it again?

 

Santonio Holmes, Steelers vs Bengals

Santonio Holmes in the Steelers 2006. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman, Getty Images, via Bleacher Report

Saying Goodbye and Saying Hello

Speaking of magical, running back Jerome Bettis, the popular veteran nicknamed “The Bus,” won his only Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit before taking the stage and announcing to the world that he would be riding off into the sunset following a legendary 13-year career.

In other matters of roster turnover, the team decided to cut backup quarterback Tommy Maddox and veteran cornerback Willie Williams, who was also a member of their Super Bowl XXX team.

In terms of free-agent losses, being Super Bowl champions and all, the Steelers naturally lost some key players who had put themselves on the map at just the right time, including safety Chris Hope, defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen and receiver and Super Bowl XL hero, Antwaan Randle El.

The only free-agent pickup of note was the signing of Ryan Clark, who was brought in to replace the departing Hope at free safety.

As far as the 2006 NFL Draft, the Steelers, who were depleted at receiver after losing both Plaxico Burress and Randle El to free agency in back-to-back offseasons, traded their first, third and fourth-round picks to the New York Giants in order to move up seven spots to select Santonio Holmes, a big-play receiver from Ohio State University.

Other than Holmes, the only member of the eight-player draft class who would ultimately go on to be a major contributor in the future was offensive lineman Willie Colon, a fourth-round pick from Hofstra.

Steelers Get Head Start on Super Bowl Hang Over

The atmosphere in Pittsburgh in the months after the Super Bowl felt festive, as the city, fans and players seemed to celebrate the One For The Thumb as if they had been waiting, well, 26 years for such a release. Fans came out in droves in the days after Super Bowl XL to watch and participate in a parade that was a long-time coming. Even the reserved Troy Polamalu made headlines by crowd surfing during the festivities, as folks ate up every last second of this joyous occasion.

The party never seemed to stop that offseason, and many players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and even kicker Jeff Reed weren’t shy about hitting the town and reveling in this appreciation and adulation the fans had for them after ending the championship drought.

The partying came to an abrupt halt on June 12, however, when Roethlisberger was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident near Pittsburgh’s Armstrong Tunnels, Roethlisberger was hit by a vehicle that failed to yield to him and reportedly suffered a severed artery inside his mouth and nearly bled to death. In addition to the near-fatal nature of his accident, Roethlisberger also suffered a broken jaw and nose and would have to have reconstructive surgery to repair the damage.

Roethlisberger wasn’t wearing a helmet during the accident, something that was legal in Pennsylvania, and was the subject of criticism by fans and even those in the media, including legendary Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger certainly wasn’t 100 percent by training camp that summer, but he was on track to start Week 1 when he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy right before the start of the regular season.

Steelers Struggle, Start 2-6

Veteran Charlie Batch would get the start in the annual Thursday Night NFL Kickoff on September 7, as the Steelers opened up their season against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field. After a nip-and-tuck affair through three-and-a-half quarters, Batch, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 209 yards, connected with tight end Heath Miller for an 87-yard touchdown catch and run to give Pittsburgh a 21-17 lead with 6:11 remaining in regulation.

Troy Polamalu, Chris Chambers, Steelers vs Dolphins

Troy Polamalu logs the first of 2 4th quarter interceptions. Photo Credit: Taiwan News

The Steelers killed an attempted Miami comeback with two interceptions. First Troy Polamalu stole a pass intended for Chris Chambers. Next, Linebacker Joey Porter sealed the deal moments later when he intercepted a pass from Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper and returned in 42 yards for a touchdown. Pittsburgh won, 28-17, as Batch turned in perhaps his greatest performance as a Steeler, throwing three touchdowns and zero interceptions on the night.

The defending-champion Steelers were 1-0 and would have their franchise quarterback back 10 days later for a Monday night affair in Jacksonville.

  • It was a dreadful performance by Roethlisberger and the offense, as Pittsburgh fell to the Jaguars, 9-0.

If there were any fears about a Super Bowl hangover, they were heightened the following week, thanks to a 28-20 loss at home to the Bengals. The Steelers led, 17-14, late in the game, but a fumbled punt by Ricardo Colclough led to a go-ahead touchdown by Cincinnati. Moments later, reserve running back Verron Haynes fumbled, and the Bengals quickly turned that into yet another touchdown.

Following an early bye, Pittsburgh looked listless and lifeless during a 23-13 road loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

  • Just four games into their first title defense in 26 years, the Steelers appeared to be more NFL doormat than they did NFL champion.

The Steelers seemed to have the ultimate statement game a week later, thanks to a 45-7 thrashing of the Chiefs at Heinz Field. Unfortunately, the Steelers made an even bigger statement about who they were by losing the next three games — including a heartbreaking overtime road loss to the Falcons, a matchup that was mired in controversy due to an apparent missed call by the officials when Pittsburgh looked poised to win at the end of regulation; and an embarrassing 20-13 loss in Oakland to a lowly Raiders team on a day in which Roethlisberger, who was concussed the previous week in Atlanta, threw four interceptions, including two that were returned for scores.

  • The Steelers were 2-6 after eight games and looked almost helplessly out of the playoff race.

With the Ravens well out in front in the AFC North, Pittsburgh’s only shot was as a wildcard entrant, that is, of course, if the team could ever get on a roll and start winning some games.

Steelers Rally to close 6-2, but Fall Short of Playoffs

The Steelers did play much better in the second half of the season and won six of their last eight games. Sadly, the only two losses were beatdowns at the hands of the Ravens, who captured the division title with a 13-3 record and helped to eliminate their division rivals from playoff contention in the process.

The Steelers managed to glean a little satisfaction out of their dreadful season by knocking off Cincinnati in overtime in the final regular-season game, a result that ultimately cost the Bengals a wildcard berth.

The Steelers finished the year with an 8-8 record and would have to sit at home and watch someone else go on a magical postseason run en route to a Super Bowl title.

The 2006 campaign was arguably the worst one of Roethlisberger’s career, as he threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 75.4.

One of the few bright spots of the season was running back Willie Parker, who rushed for 1,494 yards and was voted team MVP.

The defense was respectable enough but certainly not its usual dominant self, as the unit tallied just 39 quarterback sacks, was often undisciplined and could do little to overcome the 37 turnovers by the offense.

Cowher Retires, Begins “Life’s Work”

Immediately after the Steelers’ overtime victory in Cincinnati to close out the year, speculation began about Cowher’s future with the team. Would he retire or resign?

We would get that answer soon enough, of course, as Cowher resigned after 15 years as the head coach of the professional football team he grew up cheering for.

Cowher’s final season in Pittsburgh didn’t end like he wanted it to, of course, but fortunately for him, he was able to accomplish the one thing he promised to do when he was hired by Dan Rooney way back in 1992: give the Steelers organization and its fans that elusive One For The Thumb.

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Steelers 2006 Season Record and Summary

The Steelers entered the 2006 offseason riding high after bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy in 26 years, thanks to a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. It was certainly a magical run along the way, one that saw Pittsburgh become the first team in NFL history to claim a Super Bowl title after winning three playoff games on the road. Head coach Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, finally captured the championship that had so frustratingly eluded him for 14 years.

The question was: Could Bill Cowher do it again?

 

Santonio Holmes, Steelers vs Bengals

Santonio Holmes in the Steelers 2006. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman, Getty Images, via Bleacher Report

Saying Goodbye and Saying Hello

Speaking of magical, running back Jerome Bettis, the popular veteran nicknamed “The Bus,” won his only Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit before taking the stage and announcing to the world that he would be riding off into the sunset following a legendary 13-year career.

In other matters of roster turnover, the team decided to cut backup quarterback Tommy Maddox and veteran cornerback Willie Williams, who was also a member of their Super Bowl XXX team.

In terms of free-agent losses, being Super Bowl champions and all, the Steelers naturally lost some key players who had put themselves on the map at just the right time, including safety Chris Hope, defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen and receiver and Super Bowl XL hero, Antwaan Randle El.

The only free-agent pickup of note was the signing of Ryan Clark, who was brought in to replace the departing Hope at free safety.

As far as the 2006 NFL Draft, the Steelers, who were depleted at receiver after losing both Plaxico Burress and Randle El to free agency in back-to-back offseasons, traded their first, third and fourth-round picks to the New York Giants in order to move up seven spots to select Santonio Holmes, a big-play receiver from Ohio State University. Other than Holmes, the only member of the eight-player draft class who would ultimately go on to be a major contributor in the future was offensive lineman Willie Colon, a fourth-round pick from Hofstra.

Steelers Get Head Start on Super Bowl Hang Over

The atmosphere in Pittsburgh in the months after the Super Bowl felt festive, as the city, fans and players seemed to celebrate the One For The Thumb as if they had been waiting, well, 26 years for such a release. Fans came out in droves in the days after Super Bowl XL to watch and participate in a parade that was a long-time coming.

Even the reserved Troy Polamalu made headlines by crowd surfing during the festivities, as folks ate up every last second of this joyous occasion. The party never seemed to stop that offseason, and many players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Hines Ward and even kicker Jeff Reed weren’t shy about hitting the town and reveling in this appreciation and adulation the fans had for them after ending the championship drought.

The partying came to an abrupt halt on June 12, however, when Roethlisberger was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident near the Armstrong Tunnels in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Roethlisberger was hit by a vehicle that failed to yield to him and reportedly suffered a severed artery inside his mouth and nearly bled to death. In addition to the near-fatal nature of his accident, Roethlisberger also suffered a broken jaw and nose and would have to have reconstructive surgery to repair the damage. Roethlisberger wasn’t wearing a helmet during the accident, something that was legal in Pennsylvania, and was the subject of criticism by fans and even those in the media, including legendary Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.

Roethlisberger certainly wasn’t 100 percent by training camp that summer, but he was on track to start Week 1 when he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy right before the start of the regular season.

Steelers Struggle, Start 2-6

Veteran Charlie Batch would get the start in the annual Thursday Night NFL Kickoff on September 7, as the Steelers opened up their season against the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field. After a nip-and-tuck affair through three-and-a-half quarters, Batch, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 209 yards, connected with tight end Heath Miller for an 87-yard touchdown catch and run to give Pittsburgh a 21-17 lead with 6:11 remaining in regulation.

Troy Polamalu, Chris Chambers, Steelers vs Dolphins

Troy Polamalu logs the first of 2 4th quarter interceptions. Photo Credit: Taiwan News

The Steelers killed an attempted Miami comeback with two interceptions. First Troy Polamalu stole a pass intended for Chris Chambers. Next, Linebacker Joey Porter sealed the deal moments later when he intercepted a pass from Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper and returned in 42 yards for a touchdown. Pittsburgh won, 28-17, as Batch turned in perhaps his greatest performance as a Steeler, throwing three touchdowns and zero interceptions on the night.

The defending-champion Steelers were 1-0 and would have their franchise quarterback back 10 days later for a Monday night affair in Jacksonville.

  • It was a dreadful performance by Roethlisberger and the offense, as Pittsburgh fell to the Jaguars, 9-0.

If there were any fears about a Super Bowl hangover, they were heightened the following week, thanks to a 28-20 loss at home to the Bengals. The Steelers led, 17-14, late in the game, but a fumbled punt by Ricardo Colclough led to a go-ahead touchdown by Cincinnati. Moments later, reserve running back Verron Haynes fumbled, and the Bengals quickly turned that into yet another touchdown.

Following an early bye, Pittsburgh looked listless and lifeless during a 23-13 road loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

  • Just four games into their first title defense in 26 years, the Steelers appeared to be more NFL doormat than they did NFL champion.

The Steelers seemed to have the ultimate statement game a week later, thanks to a 45-7 thrashing of the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Unfortunately, the Steelers made an even bigger statement about who they were by losing the next three games — including a heartbreaking overtime road loss to the Falcons, a matchup that was mired in controversy due to an apparent missed call by the officials when Pittsburgh looked poised to win at the end of regulation; and an embarrassing 20-13 loss in Oakland to a lowly Raiders team on a day in which Roethlisberger, who was concussed the previous week in Atlanta, threw four interceptions, including two that were returned for scores.

  • The Steelers were 2-6 after eight games and looked almost helplessly out of the playoff race.

With the Ravens well out in front in the AFC North, Pittsburgh’s only shot was as a wildcard entrant, that is, of course, if the team could ever get on a roll and start winning some games.

Steelers Rally to close 6-2, but Fall Short of Playoffs

The Steelers did play much better in the second half of the season and won six of their last eight games. Sadly, the only two losses were beatdowns at the hands of the Ravens, who captured the division title with a 13-3 record and helped to eliminate their division rivals from playoff contention in the process.

The Steelers managed to glean a little satisfaction out of their dreadful season by knocking off Cincinnati in overtime in the final regular-season game, a result that ultimately cost the Bengals a wildcard berth.

The Steelers finished the year with an 8-8 record and would have to sit at home and watch someone else go on a magical postseason run en route to a Super Bowl title.

The 2006 campaign was arguably the worst one of Roethlisberger’s career, as he threw 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 75.4.

One of the few bright spots of the season was running back Willie Parker, who rushed for 1,494 yards and was voted team MVP.

The defense was respectable enough but certainly not its usual dominant self, as the unit tallied just 39 quarterback sacks, was often undisciplined and could do little to overcome the 37 turnovers by the offense.

Cowher Retires, Begins “Life’s Work”

Immediately after the Steelers’ overtime victory in Cincinnati to close out the year, speculation began about Cowher’s future with the team. Would he retire or resign?

We would get that answer soon enough, of course, as Cowher resigned after 15 years as the head coach of the professional football team he grew up cheering for.

Cowher’s final season in Pittsburgh didn’t end like he wanted it to, of course, but fortunately for him, he was able to accomplish the one thing he promised to do when he was hired by Dan Rooney way back in 1992: give the Steelers organization and its fans that elusive One For The Thumb.

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2005 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher Finally Hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy

We can be a better football team, I can be a better quarterback and not win 15 games…. We can still win a Super Bowl and not win 15 games.” – Ben Roethlisberger August 2005

We would have no way of knowing it at the time, but Ben Roethlisberger was wise beyond his years. You could describe the Steelers 2004 season in many ways, but “Unplanned” might be the most accurate. After a 6-10, 2003 campaign, nothing was expected of the 2004 Steelers. And that was before they lost their starting quarterback.

Rookie Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 15 straight wins, until finally falling to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. To Bill Cowher the challenge was to keep maintain “that same look in our eye” now that expectations were high.

Expectations were high. In July none other than Art Rooney II declared “I think for the people who have been around for a while now, I think we all feel like it’s time. We’ve been close and we have to take that last step.”
In other words, “Win the Super Bowl” was the Steelers plan. Ironically, their ability to do that would hinge on their ability to improvise when things did not go as planned.

Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Super Bowl XL, Steelers vs Seahawks, One for the Thumb, Lombardi Trophy

Bill Cowher hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Retooled for a Run

By summer of 2005 the annual exoduses of free agents from Pittsburgh were fading from memory.

Sure the Steelers had lost free agent offensive lineman Oliver Ross and Keydrick Vincent, but Max Starks and Kendall Simmons were essentially upgrades. Chad Scott had gone too, but Ike Taylor was more than ready.

No one was sure, but Randle El was a proven player.

The Steelers also welcomed tight end Heath Miller, their first round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. Most importantly, Jerome Bettis decided to return for one final shot at Super Bowl instead of retiring

Championship Closeness Combines with Unexpected Developments

When the Steelers arrived at St. Vincents Jerome Bettis passed out “Super Bowl XL Detroit: The Bus Stops” T-shirts. But all eyes were on Hines Ward’s hold out. Ward had a year on his contract. Dan Rooney did not negotiate with hold outs. He hadn’t made an exception for Franco Harris. Ward would be no different.

Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Steelers vs Bengals

Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward in the playoff win against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Tony Tribble, AP via Al.com

But Dan Rooney felt this team had “…the closeness that brings championships” and didn’t want a money squabble poisoning camaraderie. With Jerome Bettis’s help, Rooney talked Hines Ward into reporting and delivered on his promise to treat him fairly.

Ward’s return was welcome in football terms too, because yellow flags flashed around both the Steelers running game and passing game during the 2005 preseason. The plan had been for Duce Staley to serve as the bell cow with Jerome Bettis as his backup.

  • But both Staley and Bettis had health issues during training camp. So Bill Cowher turned to Willie Parker, 2004’s preseason wonder.

Ben Roethlisberger had surprisingly struggled during the 2005 preseason, posting a 32.8 passer rating prompting Bill Cowher to confesses “I like this group of guys, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

Was Willie Parker a legit starting running back? Would Roethlisberger prove to be a one-year-wonder? The Steelers were about to find out.

Season Opens as Planned, But NFL = “Not For Long….”

The 2005 Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans to open the season. Willie Parker ran for 160 yards and 111 yards respectively, while Ben Roethlisberger had an average passer rating of 149.05. The Steelers would be alright with Ben and Willie.

The New England Patriots returned to Pittsburgh on week 3 left as victors yet again, after a 23-21 contest. Next the Steelers traveled to San Diego and defeated the Chargers, but it took a last second Jeff Reed field goal to get them there.

Worse yet, Ben Roethlisberger tweaked his knee during the game.

The Ups and Downs of Understudies

Outsiders have long questions the Steelers practice of keeping 3 quarterbacks but October 2005 would vindicate the franchise’s philosophy.

The Steelers would lose their next game as Tommy Maddox struggled all day, until finally throwing a pick six to Rashean Mathis in overtime.

Big Ben returned, and Pittsburgh rebounded for 2 more wins, but in the 2nd victory over the Ravens, but hetweaked his knee again. Worse yet, both Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis were down with injuries.

And the Steelers were traveling to Lambeau Field, one of the NFL’s most difficult venues to play in.

Troy Polamalu, Brett Favre, Steelers vs Packers

Troy Polamalu strip sacks Brett Favre. Photo Credit: John Biever, SI.com

Fortunately, Bill Cowher had flexibility at backup quarterback and started Charlie Batch started instead. He also had Duce Staley in his bullpen at running back.

  • Neither Duce nor Batch made any fantasy football owners happy that day.
  • Pittsburgh’s best“offensive” play was Troy Polamalu’s 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

But that play, combined with just enough plays by Batch and Staley, put the Steelers over the top.

A week later, Charlie Batch did make a lot of plays in quarterbacking the Steelers to a 17-7 halftime lead, but unfortunately going into halftime he broke his finger during a QB sneak for a touchdown. Tommy Maddox struggled again, but midway through the 3rd quarter Ken Whisenhunt improvised by going to his bag of tricks, as Antwaan Randle El tossed a 51-yard touchdown pass on a fake reverse to Hines Ward that all but iced the game.

Unfortunately, no such magic was on tap a week later as Maddox continued to struggle costing the Steelers an overtime loss, this time to the Ravens.

Challenged, Bill Cowher Challenges as Never Before

Ben Roethlisberger returned for a key Monday Night Football matchup against the 2005 undefeated Indianapolis Colts. While the Steelers kept it closer than the score indicates, the Colts won, 26-7.

That was perhaps to be expected. Ben Roethlisberger has typically struggled his first game back after an injury, and this was one of the games that set this trend. But the following week the Steelers came up short 38-31 to the Bengals, leaving Pittsburgh at 7-5 with a three-game distant second in the AFC North.
Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Bengals

  • A Post-Gazette photo caption went so far as to suggest that Jerome Bettis questioned his decision to return.

With his back to the wall, Bill Cowher called full pads for practice, something that was unheard of in mid-December. He did something equally meaningful in the meeting room. Cowher had always kept a white board filled with stats, facts and figures that he’d chart progress by updating throughout the season.

Cowher erased the board clean.

As Jerome Bettis explained to Ed Bouchette:

I had been there for 10 years and it’s something he did for a long time. It was always there. We come into the team meeting room and he erased all of it. We’re like, ‘Whoa, the season’s not over. We have four games left.’ And all he said was ‘Chicago. This is it. We’re not looking at all of it, just one game: Chicago.’

With 4 games left in the regular season, Bill Cowher had installed a playoff mindset in his team.
Cowher’s gambit worked.

The next week a 9-4 Chicago Bears team came to Heinz Field, and with Jerome Bettis leading the way in the snow, the Steelers dispatched the Bears 18-6. Next, the Steelers knocked off the Vikings on the road, then clobbered the Browns 41-0 in Cleveland.

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.

Even though the Steelers still needed to win – and needed help going into the final game of the season, Bob Labriola concluded, “The playoffs are coming, and so are the Steelers.”

So there was no panic on the Pittsburgh sidelines as the Lions went up 14-7 in the final week of the season. The Steelers responded with 3 Jerome Bettis touchdowns and stopped a Lion’s comeback attempt with another touchdown to win 35-21.

The Steelers got the help they needed and were in the playoffs, but as the last seed in the AFC. No last seeded team had ever won a Super Bowl.

Wild Card Game: From Columbus to Cincinnati

This suited Bill Cowher perfectly. Bill Cowher was a motivator, yet his repertoire of stories was limited. Veterans could often finish his speeches for him. .

When the playoffs arrived , Bill Cowher shocked his veterans by reminding them that people had told Christopher Columbus that he would sail off of the edge of the earth. Columbus persisted, discovering the New World.

As Bettis recounted to Ed Bouchette, “’My point is, don’t let history dictate your future, let your future make history.’”

  • History remembers the Steelers Wild Card win over the Bengals as a 31-17 blowout.

What it forgets is that, even after Kimo von Oelhoffen inadvertently knocked Carson Plamer from the game, Cincinnati managed to build up a 17-7 2nd quarter lead. The Steelers made it 17-14 before half time, but in the third quarter the Bengals marched directly toto the Steelers 15.

There punter Kyle Larson tried to run bumbled field goal attempt, fumbled and lost 20 yards in the process. As Mike Pruista of the Tribune-Review observed, at this point Cincinnati’s playoff inexperience grabbed them by the throat and never let go.

By the time Ben Roethlisberger was connecting with Cedrick Wilson on a flea flicker to go up 28-17, the Pittsburgh was playing with Cincinnati.

Divisional Playoffs When Imperfection Fights Perfection Imperfection… Wins?

The only thing missing from the legend of Steelers-Colts 2005 AFC Divisional is narration by the late John Facenda.

The 2005 Colts had been perfect, only losing because they rested starters. The tragic suicide of Tony Dungy’s son had the rest of the league pulling for them. The 2005 Steelers, in contrast, had been anything but perfect.

  • Yet, for the first 3 quarters the Steelers had been absolutely perfect in this game.

Then The Fates decided to make it interesting:

Troy Polamalu, Steelers vs. Colts, 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs

Troy Polamalu’s should have been interception. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Tory Polamalu had a game-sealing interception overturned, which to Colts used to narrow the score to 21-18. Two series later, Joey Porter and James Farrior sacked Peyton Manning on 4th and 6, giving the Steelers the ball on the Colt’s 2. Gary Brackett ended Jerome Bettis’ touchdown attempt with a fumble, and only Ben Roethlisberger’s shoe string tackle saved the day.

  • What everyone remembers after that was Mike Vanderjet’s missed 46-yard field goal.

But Steelers rookie Bryant McFadden authored the critical play on that series. Peyton Manning found Reggie Wayne in the end zone and delivered the ball perfectly. McFadden squared his shoulders, and deflected the pass in what was the best play of his 7 year NFL career.

Perfection fought with imperfection in Indianapolis, and it was an unheralded rookie who swing the balance to the Steelers, sending them to the AFC Championship.

AFC Championship – “Take Me Home!”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

By the time he traveled to Denver on January 22nd 2006, Bill Cowher had coached in 5 AFC Championships with Jerome Bettis playing in three of those. All of those had been at Three Rivers Stadium or Heinz Field. Cowher had lost 5 of 6 and Bettis all three.

  • If playing at home wasn’t the problem, perhaps getting away from Pittsburgh was part of the solution.

Jerome Bettis grew up in Detroit and he’d never won a championship. The night before the game, he implored his teammates: “Take me home! Take me home.”
The Broncos never had a chance.

Sure, rookie wide receiver Nate Washington turned into a defensive back to make a heads up play to stop a would have been game-changing interception. But that’s precisely the point. Championship teams find ways to make those plays.

When all was said and done, Joey Porter logged a sack, backup lineman Brett Keisel made 2, Larry Foote had an interception, and the Steelers completely neutered the Broncos “Zone Rushing” attack.

On offense, Cedric Wilson, Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis all found the end zone, while Jeff Reed kicked 2 field goals. By the time Ben Roethlisberger rushed for the final score, it really was an insurance touchdown.

  • But the most telling moment of the game came on the sideline.

As Bill Cowher faced Dan and Art Rooney II, shaking hands, his left-hand index finger was raised to form the numeral 1 and he was clearly mouthing, “We’ve still got 1 more game to play!”

Super Bowl XL – the Steelers Make Their Own Fate

You can win Super Bowls several ways. You can dominate out of the gate as the Steelers did to the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. Two fantastic franchises can go toe-to-toe with the best one eking out a win as the Steelers and the Cowboys did in Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII. You can make up for inferior talent by outfoxing your opened with better coaching as the Giants did in Super Bowl XXV.

Every coach plans to dominate, probably expects to go toe-to-toe and likely falls back on outfoxing his opponent. But of none of those work one other option remains:

  • Create your own opportunities.

And that’s the route the Steelers took in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers were heavy favorites in Super Bowl XL, but their offense was stuck in 2nd gear for most of the first half. In fact, Seattle held a 3-0 lead for most of the first 30 minutes.

So the Steelers did what they’d done so well all year long – improvise.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger was nervous and not playing well. After trying, and failing to connect with Hines Ward through the air, Ben Roethlisberger handed it to him in a reverse. Ward picked up 18 yards. The Steelers didn’t score on that drive, but on the next one they darted around the backfield buying time as Ward made a 37 yard catch that brought the Steelers to the Seahawks 3.

  • When two Jerome Betis runs didn’t get it done, Roethlisberger ran it in himself.

Save the whining Seahawks fans. Sure, the replay is hardly “indisputable,” but the referee who was standing right there had a far better view than the camera angle and he called it a touchdown.

Ken Whisenhunt I
If the Steelers offense had been stalled in the first half, their play calling had forced the Seahawks to adjust their formations, just as Pittsburgh’s coaches expected, as recounted by Alan Faneca in Jim Wexell’s:

“‘Oh, man it worked.” Yes, it did:

That wasn’t “just” a 75 yard run for a touchdown, it was an remains the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.

Kudos to Ken Whisenhunt.

Ike Taylor
Ben Roethlsiberger would turn over the ball on the Steelers next possession with Kelly Herndon returning it 76 yards. The Seahawks took 4 plays to score. Four series later, Seattle was at it again, driving to Pittsburgh’s 27 yard line, threating to score.

Ike Taylor was a great cornerback who couldn’t hold on to the ball. He had 17 interceptions, regular season and playoffs combined, in his entire 12-year career. Dwayne Woodruff also played 12 years and had 37 in the regular season alone.

  • Matt Hasselbeck thought he had Darrell Jackson open at the five.

Ike Taylor thought better of it, intercepted the ball and returned it 24 yards. Ike didn’t pick off too many passes in his career. But he sure made this one count.

Ken Whisenhunt II
The Steelers got the ball at midfield. A mix and match of runs and short passes earned a first down. Then Ken Whisenhunt went for the knockout punch. Ben Roethlisberger handed to Willie Parker. Parker tossed it to Antwaan Randle El. Randle El kept running his reverse. Ben Roethlisberger threw a block. Hines Ward got open. Randle El released.

The Steelers went up 21-10

Hines Ward, Super Bowl XL, Steelers Super Bowl XL, Antwaan Randle El Hines Ward Super Bowl XL

Hines Ward seals the win in Super Bowl XL. Photo Credit: Bill Frakes, Sports Illustrated

Dicky LeBeau
Seattle still had time. They got the ball back. They advanced to midfield. The Steelers held them, forcing a third down with 8 yards to go. Matt Hasselbeck dropped back to pass. Deshea Townsend came out of nowhere sacking Hasselbeck and forcing a punt.

  • Dick LeBeau’s blitz was a new one, one he’d improvised and installed the night before.

The Steelers fed the ball to Jerome Bettis 7 times on their next 8 plays. Seattle got the ball back but it was too little too late – they turned over on downs.

  • With 3 seconds separating the Steelers from One for the Thumb, Ben Roethlisberger took a final knee.

Minutes later Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher took tie dais together. Bettis declared “The Bus stops here.”

Bill Cowher finally did what he returned to Pittsburgh to do: He handed Dan Rooney his 5th Lombardi Trophy.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were champions again.

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2004 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins (Need we say more?)

As Bill Cowher prepared for his 13th season as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he did so coming off one of the most disappointing campaigns in recent memory. When you consider the fact that the Steelers looked like legit Super Bowl contenders in both 2001 and 2002, the way things unfolded in 2003 could only be described as a disappointment.

The Steelers headed into the 2003 season thinking they had finally found the quarterback to put them over the top. Tommy Maddox, a journeyman, who re-started his NFL career after stints in both the XFL and Arena Football League, was thrust into the starting lineup early in the ’02 campaign and led a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the Steel City since the Blonde Bomber had been parked in the hanger.

The 2002 Steelers narrowly missed making it to the AFC title game for a second-straight year. Unfortunately, the 2003 campaign unraveled rather quickly, and once it did, there was no stop to it. When all was said and done, the Steelers finished 6-10 and looked about as far away from being contenders as they had in 1999 when they finished with the same mark.

In the Steelers Digest, no less than Bob Labriola himself reminded the Steelers faithful not to expect any “quick fixes.” 

Such was the mindset as the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 2004.

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward

Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward. Photo Credit: Michael J. LeBrecht II, 1Deuce3 Photography via SI.com

Off Season: Suprises Moves in Coaching, Free Agency & the 2004 NFL Draft

In coaching moves during the 2004 offseason, Dick LeBeau, who had been the team’s defensive coordinator in the mid-’90s, returned in the same role following the firing of Tim Lewis.

In terms of free-agent news, there wasn’t a ton of anticipation for anything huge, at least early on. However, some veterans were given the ax, including cornerback Dewayne Washington and outside linebacker Jason Gildon, who departed as the team’s all-time sack leader with 77. Washington and Gildon were cap casualties.

Maybe those cuts were made to pave the way for the signing of veteran running back Duce Staley, who inked a five-year, $14 million deal on March 9, 2004, a development that aroused the passions of a fan base that needed something to be excited about.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Redskins, Jerome Bettis Redskins

Jerome Bettis rushes for 100 yards vs Redskins in 2004. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Despite a history of injuries, Staley, 29, was brought in to not only replace the recently-departed Amos Zereoue on the running back depth chart but also continue the team’s apparent desire to supplant veteran Jerome Bettis as the bell cow back.

In rather bizarre free-agent news, Pittsburgh released veteran punter Josh Miller, who often had a frosty relationship with Cowher, and signed Chris Gardocki to a five-year, $6.5 million contract.

  • As for the 2004 NFL Draft, the Steelers would have the 11th pick.

There was speculation that the team was interested in nabbing a quarterback, something the organization hadn’t used a first-round pick on since 1980 (Mark Malone).

NC State’s Philip Rivers and Miami of Ohio’s Ben Roethlisberger were the two most likely targets, with the former, who played his college ball at Bill Cowher’s alma mater, gaining a lot of traction as the draft approached. Ben Roethlisberger had been tied to Pittsburgh for many months heading into the draft; with Rivers going off the board three spots after Eli Manning was taken number one, it became a question as to whether or not Pittsburgh would pull the trigger if Roethlisberger was still there at 11. Would Roethlisberger slide all the way down to the Steelers, or would another team take him?

  • No other team drafted a quarterback before Pittsburgh’s turn.

According to Dan Rooney, the late, great former team chairman, the Steelers were seriously considering taking Arkansas guard Shawn Andrews. Fortunately for everyone involved, Rooney, an influential figure if there ever was one, stepped in and persuaded Cowher and general manager Kevin Colbert to go with Roethlisberger.

  • The rest, as they say, is history.

Nobody would know that at the time, of course, and as the 2004 campaign approached, Roethlisberger seemed destined to spend his rookie year as the third-string quarterback behind Tommy Maddox, who retained his starting job from the year before, and veteran backup Charlie Batch

  • Charlie Batch would get injured in training camp, offering the first sign that this plan might go awry. 

Still, as the summer ended and focus shifted to the regular season, Steelers Digest edtior Bob Labriola assured readers that while Ben Roethlisberger was the team’s future, 2004 was all about Tommy Maddox….

An Opening Day Win, While Bettis “Just Scores Touchdowns”

The Steelers began their season with a Week-1 showdown with the Oakland Raiders at Heinz Field.

The Steelers won, 24-21, on a Jeff Reed field goal with seconds remaining. But perhaps what that game is known for more than anything was the bizarre box score numbers put up by Jerome Bettis, who was made the goal line and short-yardage back by Cowher, perhaps as a way to give his popular running back an important role in the offense.

Jerome Bettis wasn’t popular on this day, however, as he was booed repeatedly when he was inserted into the lineup in place of Staley in goal-line situations. Staley would go on to finish with 91 yards on 24 carries and zero touchdowns. As for Bettis, he gained just one yard on five carries but scored three touchdowns.

While Jerome Bettis would shoulder a critical load for the offense before the end of the 2004 season, his role of “Designated touchdown scorer” continued throughout September and October, and fans didn’t quite know what to make of it and it is one the seasons more unorthodox side stories.

Week 2 in Baltimore: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Chad Williams

Chad Williams sacks Ben Roethlisberger in his first NFL game. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, Getty Images, via SteelersWire.

The Steelers Week-2 loss to the Ravens at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, a 30-13 drubbing, would have been just another road beatdown, if not for the fact that Roethlisberger made his professional debut late in the third quarter following an arm injury suffered by Maddox.

  • Ben Roethlisberger would get his NFL introduction earlier than he or anyone else expected.

Roethlisberger completed 12 of 20 passes for two touchdowns–his first career touchdown pass was a three-yard strike to Antwaan Randle El — and two interceptions, one of which was returned 51 yards for a score by cornerback Chris McAlister.

Tommy Maddox’s injury would force him to miss several weeks. In the meantime, Roethlisberger made his first start the following game in a Week-3 road matchup against the Dolphins. When news broke that the rookie quarterback would make his first start, veteran guard Alan Faneca made headlines by sarcastically telling reporters that he was “excited” that the offense would be in the hands of a rookie passer. The game in Miami, originally scheduled for 1 p.m. EST on a Sunday afternoon, was ultimately delayed over seven hours thanks to Hurricane Jeanne. Roethlisberger completed 12 of 22 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and one interception, as the Steelers won a defensive battle in the rain, 13-3.

Pittsburgh was 2-1 and now appeared content to ride with its rookie quarterback. Just how far could he take him?

Roethlisberger Leads Steelers to 15 Straight Wins

The Steelers won their next three games — including a last-second road victory over the Cowboys — and sat at 5-1. Were they the real deal? That question was quickly answered, thanks to back-to-back blowout victories at Heinz Field over the Patriots and Eagles, respectively.

James Farrior, Steelers vs Eagles, Troy Polamalu, Clark Haggans

James Farrior intercepts Donavan McNabb. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

New England, the defending Super Bowl champion, came to town on Halloween night riding a record 21-game winning streak; the Patriots left with no candy, following a 34-20 beatdown that wasn’t nearly that close, as Pittsburgh jumped out to a 21-3 first-quarter lead.

One week later, Philadelphia, like the Patriots, a team that strolled into Heinz Field with zero losses, suffered its first one, thanks to a 27-3 thrashing. Jerome Bettis would get the start in place of an injured Staley; The Bus showed that he still had something left in the tank, as he rushed for 149 yards on 33 carries.

The Steelers were 7-1 at the halfway mark and appeared to find just the right formula for success that included a game-managing rookie quarterback with a penchant for the occasional big play; a running game that returned to prominence after finishing 31st the season before; and a dominant defense, led by safety Troy Polamalu, who would go on to make his first of eight Pro Bowls for his career, and inside linebacker James Farrior, who would be a bona fide Defensive Player of the Year candidate by season’s end.

The Steelers continued to win week in and week out and eventually captured the AFC North crown and the number one seed in the conference. In Week 17, Pittsburgh headed to Buffalo with nothing to play for. The Bills needed to win in order to make the playoffs, while the Steelers sat several key starters, including Roethlisberger and Bettis.

Tommy Maddox got the start and completed 12 of 24 passes for 120 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Running back Willie Parker, a 2004 undrafted free agent from North Carolina, rushed for 102 yards on 19 carries, while outside linebacker James Harrison, a 2002 undrafted free agent from Kent State who finally found a permanent home after bouncing around the league and even NFL Europe, returned a fumble 18 yards for a score.

The Steelers won, 29-24, denying Buffalo a ticket to the postseason in the process.

Steelers Win Regular Season “Team of Destiny” Honors. Again.

The Steelers became the first AFC squad to finish 15-1. Roethlisberger passed for 2,621 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during his rookie season and finished 13-0 as a starter. Jerome Bettis paced a ground game that ranked first with 2,464 yards. Despite only starting six games, Bettis was the team’s leading rusher with 941 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Duce Staley tallied a healthy 830 yards before succumbing to yet another injury bug.

Pundits had been pleading with the Steelers to permanently park The Bus since at least 2002, if not sooner. As it turns out, Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert where wise to keep their own counsel.

  • The Steelers headed into the playoffs looking like a “Team of Destiny.”

But both Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation at large had seen the movie Team of Destiny many, many times before only to walk away disappointed. Would Ben Roethlisberger be the difference maker in 2004? 

Steelers Ground Jets in Playoffs. Barely

The fifth-seeded Jets arrived at Heinz Field for a divisional-round matchup on January 15, 2005. The home team got off to a hot start and took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter. Unfortunately, the visitors scored 17 unanswered points with the help of a Santana Moss 75-yard punt return and an 86-yard pick-six by Reggie Tongue.

The Steelers trailed, 17-10, and looked all but dead following a fumble by Bettis deep in Jets territory early in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh would get another chance, thankfully, and tied the game on a four-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to receiver Hines Ward with 6:04 remaining.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dan Kreider, Steelers vs Jets

Behind Alan Faneca’s blocking Jerome Bettis runs over the Jets. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The Jets subsequently drove 68 yards and were in position to take the lead just before the two-minute warning.

However, kicker Doug Brien missed from 47 yards out, and the young Roethlisberger now had a chance to engineer his first game-winning postseason drive. But just one play after Brien’s miss, Roethlisberger was intercepted by cornerback David Barrett, who returned the pick 24 yards to the Pittsburgh 37 with 1:46 left in regulation. Moments later, Brien had yet another chance to send the Jets to the AFC title game but again missed — this time from 43 yards away–and the contest went into overtime.

The Jets won the overtime coin toss but were ultimately forced to punt. With Jerome Bettis out of the lineup with a cramp issue, the Steelers mostly hopped on Duce Staley’s back on a 13-play drive that culminated in a 33-yard game-winning field goal by Reed to send Pittsburgh to the penultimate round of the postseason.

Ben Roethlisberger struggled mightily in his postseason debut, and the Steelers were lucky to escape with a win.

Steelers Suffer 2nd AFC Championship Loss to Patriots

To the surprise of no one, the Patriots would be the opponent for an AFC Championship showdown at Heinz Field. Would the Steelers dominate as they did months earlier on Halloween?

The quick answer: no.

Tom Brady was hot, Roethlisberger was not, and New England jumped out to a stunning 24-3 halftime lead, a score that was topped off by safety Rodney Harrison, who returned a Roethlisberger interception 87 yards for a touchdown just before the two-minute warning.

Rodney Harrison, Steelers vs Patriots, Marvel Smith

Rodney Harrison takes it to the house. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images, via BTSC

The Steelers rallied a bit in the second half, but it was too little, too late, as Pittsburgh fell, 41-27. It was the second time in four seasons that the Steelers lost at home to New England with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

  • The next day, Bettis addressed his teammates in the locker room about his future.

Moments later, an emotional Hines Ward addressed the media regarding the possibility that his teammate and friend may have played his last game in Pittsburgh.

In the end, the 2004 campaign was yet another one in which a Bill Cowher-coached team came up short at home with the AFC title on the line. There was hope for the future, however, in the form of the big, athletic rookie quarterback nicknamed Big Ben.

Bill Cowher often said that there was a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. That was never more true for the Crafton native than the time his boss persuaded him to draft the quarterback that would ultimately help shape his coaching legacy.

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2003 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Final Chapter of a Strange Era

Coming off back-to-back playoff runs that ended short of the crown, both Steelers Nation and the Steelers organization entered 2003 re-energized. Bill Cowher had weathered a turbulent three-year period from 1998-2000 and rebuilt his team into the same bona fide contender it had been in the early-to-late-’90s.

  • But of course the goal is to be a champion, not a contender.

Hope that the Steelers could finally do that in 2003 had been given new life thanks to Tommy Maddox. Maddox had come out out of nowhere to help rescue a 2002 Steelers season that was quickly imploding. “Tommy Gun” was the toast of the town for his guts, his bravado and his ability to lead a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t really been seen in Pittsburgh since Terry Bradshaw’s time.

With Kordell Stewart‘s departure in the offseason, there was no doubt who the Steelers starting signal-caller would be in 2003.

The Steelers had thrown that lot in with Maddox, and the season would rise and fall with his success.

Tommy Maddox, Ed Hartwell, Steelers vs Ravens

Ed Hartwell brings Tommy Maddox down. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

Critical Seeds Planted During the 2003 Off Season

Other than Stewart, there weren’t any notable departures. Outside of adding tight end Jay Riemersma, you could say the same for free-agent acquisitions, as Pittsburgh would be entering the ’03 campaign with the roster that won back-to-back division titles mostly intact.

Troy Polamalu draft

Troy Polamalu. Photo Credit: WTAE.com

The 2003 NFL Draft was noteworthy for the fact that the Steelers, in a rare move for the organization, took a huge gamble and traded up 11 spots from 27 in order to select USC safety Troy Polamalu with the 16th pick. Polamalu appeared to be the prototypical strong safety for the Steelers 3/4 zone-blitz defense, so trading up seemed like a calculated risk worth taking.

Because Pittsburgh had to give up a few picks in the trade with the Chiefs–in addition to the Steelers’ first-round pick, Kansas City also received a 2003 third and sixth-round pick–the 2003 draft class consisted of just five players, with other notable members being outside linebacker Alonzo Jackson (second round, Florida State) and cornerback Ike Taylor (fourth round, Louisiana-Lafayette).

In training camp news, Amos Zereoue, in a development that seemed to be inevitable based on the previous season, beat out the very popular Jerome Bettis in a battle for the starting running back spot. It was certainly a great opportunity for Zereoue, a third-round pick out of West Virginia in 1999, and perhaps signified the beginning of the end for the 31-year old Bettis, who had been battling injuries the previous few seasons.

Tragedy nearly struck the organization at the tail-end of training camp, when outside linebacker Joey Porter was shot outside a Denver nightclub while in town to watch his alma mater, Colorado State, take on rival Colorado in an early-season college matchup. Fortunately, Porter wasn’t critically wounded, as the bullet entered his buttock and lodged in his thigh. Porter’s recovery time was brief, and he actually appeared in 14 games in ’03.

Steelers Open 2003 with “Ominous” Win

With the Porter incident behind them, the Steelers opened up the season with an impressive 34-15 victory over the division-rival Ravens at Heinz Field. Tommy Maddox passed for 260 yards and three touchdowns on the day –including two to receiver Hines Ward — as the offense, specifically the passing attack, appeared to pick right up where it left off the previous season.

  • 2003 marked the first opening day win for the Steelers since the 1999 season.

Both the 1999 and 1998 seasons had opened with wins but ended with ugly implosions. Could and opening day win be an ominous sign? 

After splitting their next two games on the road — including a 41-20 loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium that was a little closer than the final score indicated and a win over the Cincinnati Bengals — the Steelers were sitting at 2-1.

With both victories coming against AFC North foes, Pittsburgh looked poised to win its third-straight division title.

Injuries and Miscalculations Doom 2003 Steelers

Then the wheels fell off.

The Steelers lost their next five games to fall to 2-6 at the halfway mark of the season. Perhaps the most noteworthy losses during this streak were the two that started it — back-to-back blowout home defeats at the hands of the Titans and Browns, respectively.

Andre Davis, Chad Scott, Steelers vs Browns 2003

Andre Davis scores a touchdown as Chad Scott is too late. Photo Credit: Gene Puskar, AP, Via USA Today

The offense wasn’t clicking. The defense was failing. This included the rookie Troy Polamalu, who certainly wasn’t the phenom he would one day become, as he struggled to grasp the Steelers’ very complicated zone-blitz scheme.

As for Amos Zereoue and his starting opportunity, it was an epic fail; he started just six games and rushed for a total of 433 yards. Bettis won back his starting job by season’s end and tallied 811 yards, while also eclipsing the 12,000-yard mark for his legendary career.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the Steelers’ failures in ’03 had to do with a sudden love affair with the passing game.

While Tommy Maddox wasn’t necessarily horrible in his first full year as a starter–he passed for 3,414 yards while throwing 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions — he clearly wasn’t capable of carrying an offense, especially one that would go on to finish 31st in rushing — a result that seemed inexplicable for a Cowher coached team.

Jerome Bettis, Nick Ferguson, Steelers vs Broncos

Nick Ferguson forces a Jerome Bettis fumble. Photo Credit: Michael Martin, Getty Images, via the Denver Post.

  • This result was inexplicable even if you factor in the injuries decimated the offensive line. 

A neck injury cost left tackle Marvel Smith most of the season. During training camp Kendall Simmons experienced a sudden weight loss and was diagnosed with diabetes which disrupted his ability to play. Things got so bad that by mid season, Bill Cowher had to move Alan Faneca from guard to tackle for a few games, and in a few other contests Faneca was rotating between the two positions depending on which down it was. 

But even if injuries made the Steelers offensive line into a liability, the team simply lacked a commitment to the run, as evidenced by Mike Mularkey’s decision to call 38 pass plays on the in near blizzard like conditions in a road game against the New York Jets — which the Steelers lost 6 to 0.

A False Shot at the Playoffs and a False Prophecy

Even as the Steelers languished near the bottom of the AFC North, there was hope. Hope because the AFC North was one of the NFL’s worst divisions that year. After a thrilling 13-6 road victory over the Browns on November 23,  The Steelers sat at 4-7 and were just two games behind the Ravens, with a Week 17 matchup between the two rivals still on the horizon.

Curtis Martin, Ike Taylor, Steelers vs Jets

Ike Taylor tries to tackle Curtis Martin. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images and JetsFactor.com

  • In other words, believe it or not, the Steelers still had a shot at the playoffs. 

Unfortunately, those hopes were quickly dashed thanks to losses in two of the next three games — including a last-second defeat against the Bengals at Heinz Field the following week and the fore-mentioned infamous 6-0 loss to the Jets at Giants Stadium on December 14.

The Steelers and Ravens still met on Sunday Night Football to close the season. And although neither team had anything to play for, both teams fought as if a playoff berth were on the line. In fact, Bill Cowher opened the 2nd half by calling a fake punt, which tied the score, and then the Steelers went ahead late in the fourth.

  • The Ravens tied the game with a 46 yard field goal and then one it in over time with another 47.

The Steelers would ultimately finish third in the division with a 6-10 record, as Baltimore captured the North with a 10-6 mark.

For Bill Cowher, it was his fourth playoff-less season in six years and the second time his teams finished 6-10 since 1999. In many ways, the 2003 campaign felt like the final chapter of a wacky, unstable and topsy turvy era that began with the five-game losing streak that closed out the 1998 season.

Indeed, in the pages of the Steelers Digest Bob Labriola cautioned fans to look at 2003’s disappointments the way one would view someone with a weight problem — who didn’t gain that weight over night, nor would they lose it overnight.

Sure, the 6-10 finish earned Pittsburgh the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, but its not the Steelers were only one player away from re-opening their Super Bowl window, were they? 

Yes, the Steelers 2003 season felt like an end to an era. That feeling turned out to be true. 

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2002 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Rise Of Tommy Gun

Coming off one of the most successful regular seasons in recent memory, coupled with yet another disappointing home loss in the AFC title game — this time, to the eventual Super Bowl-winning New England PatriotsBill Cowher and the Steelers entered the 2002 campaign in the old familiar position of trying to take it one or two steps further and finally capture the Super Bowl title that had proven to be so elusive during the 1990s.

  • Cowher and company had been down that road before.

Yet during the 2002 season the path that Bill Cowher would lead the Steelers on would take twists and turns that few, if any, could have anticipated.

Tommy Maddox, Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Steelers vs Browns

Tommy Maddox drops back in the 2002 Steelers playoff game against the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Heinz Field Helps Bring Stability to the 2002 Off Season

Free agent exoduses out of Pittsburgh had been a huge part of the Steelers story in the 1990s. Dan Rooney and Steelers management argued taht the team simply lacked the finances without a new stadium. Fans simply called the Rooney’s “cheap.”

  • However, when Heinz Field opened in 2001, the Rooneys kept their word and invested those new revenues into the roster. 

In fact, the only notable departures of the Steelers 2002 offseason were receiver Troy Edwards, who was traded to the Rams after three rather disappointing seasons for 13th overall pick of the 1999 NFL Draft; and kicker Kris Brown, another member of the 1999 draft class, who mysteriously lost his touch after the Steelers moved to Heinz Field in 2001.

Earl Holmes, a linebacker taken by the Steelers during the 1996 NFL Draft also departed. But it was his departure that paved the way for one of the most important free agency signings in franchise history.

James Farrior, Steelers vs Browns

James Farrior in the Steelers September 2002 overtime win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers had wanted to retain Holmes and made him a generous offer. But when Holmes decided to shop that offer, Dan Rooney was not happy and told Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher to “Sign the other guy.”  That other guy was James Farrior, a former first-round pick of the Jets, who would switch from outside linebacker to inside linebacker and is easily one of the franchise’s best free agency signings.

Other free agent pick ups included kicker Todd Peterson, receiver Terance Mathis and quarterback Charlie Batch, a Pittsburgh native, were some of the most notable signings.

The 2002 NFL Draft was a rather successful one for the Steelers, even if it wouldn’t prove to be totally fruitful for a few more years. Some members did make immediate impacts, however. First-round pick, Kendall Simmons, a guard from LSU, started 14 games, while second-round pick, Antwaan Randle El, a receiver who played quarterback at Indiana, was a major contributor right away on offense, with 47 receptions.

Randle El even completed seven of eight passes when called upon to play quarterback in specialty packages. Randle El was also a dynamic return specialist, averaging nearly seven yards per punt return and returning a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in a game against the Bengals on October 13.

To reiterate, the 2002 Steelers were mostly the same team from the previous season and one looking to get over the hump. In order to do so, they would need quarterback Kordell Stewart, an embattled player who had a bit of a career resurgence in 2001, to up his game a little more after struggling mightily in the title game loss to New England.

Fortunately for Stewart, he would have help in the form of a receiving corps that included Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, along with a ground attack led by veteran running back, Jerome Bettis, and fourth-year man, Amos Zereoue. As for the defense, it was expected to be its usual dominant self, following an ’01 campaign where it finished first in total yards and registered 55 sacks.

Steelers “Dread the Spread” as 2002 Season Starts

Unfortunately, things couldn’t have started off worse for the Steelers, Stewart and even the defense.

Pittsburgh opened its ’02 campaign with a blowout road loss to the defending champions, a Patriots team that christened its new home, Gillette Stadium, with a 30-14 victory. Stewart struggled, sure, but so did a defense that had no answers for Tom Brady and New England’s passing attack.

In the second-to-last game of the 2001 season, an overtime road loss to the Bengals, former Steelers defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau and former Steelers wide recievers coach Bob Bartowski successfully exploited their old team’s zone-blitz defense — one that he helped to develop–by spreading it out and utilizing quick passes.

The Patriots used this blueprint to frustrate Pittsburgh’s defense all night long. The following week, in the team’s home-opener vs. the Raiders on Sunday Night Football, quarterback Rich Gannon took it a step further by completing 43 of 64 passes for 403 yards in a 27-17 victory. While Stewart wasn’t totally horrible in this game, he did turn the ball over twice — including an interception and a fumble.

  • All-in-all, Pittsburgh committed five turnovers on the night, as the team dropped to 0-2.

With the Steelers already heading into their bye, they now had two weeks to stew in their nightmarish start.

The Tommy Gun Era Begins

How would Stewart and the team respond when the Browns came to Heinz Field in Week 4? Much the same — at least for Stewart. While the defense managed to have its best game to date, Stewart struggled to get much of anything going, and the team trailed, 13-6, late in the fourth quarter.

It was at this point that Cowher decided to insert Tommy Maddox, a veteran signed to be the backup the year before, into the starting lineup. Maddox immediately ignited the offense and produced the game-tying touchdown on a 10-yard strike to Burress with 2:05 remaining. The game ultimately went into overtime, where Peterson gave the Steelers their first win with a 31-yard field goal. In under a quarter of action, Maddox completed 11 of 13 passes for 122 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Cowher decided to go with Maddox, the former first-round pick by the Broncos who was getting another chance in the NFL after re-starting his football career in the XFL and Arena Football League, as his starter the following week and never looked back. Unfortunately, the defense struggled again in a 32-29 loss to the Saints, and Pittsburgh sat at 1-3 after four games.

Thankfully, the newly-christened AFC North Division was a rather mediocre one, and the Steelers still had a chance to get back into the race, which they did thanks to a four-game winning streak — including three victories over divisional rivals.

Terry Bradshaw Heinz Field

Terry Bradshaw embraced at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

After feuding with his old coach, Chuck Noll, as well as the fans of Pittsburgh for nearly two decades following his retirement, quarterback Terry Bradshaw was honored at halftime of a 28-10 victory over the Colts on Monday Night Football. The folks in attendance at Heinz Field gave Bradshaw a standing ovation and let him know that they loved and appreciated him more than he ever realized.

It was a fitting night to honor Bradshaw, because Tommy Maddox, aka “Tommy Gun” helped to change the offense’s identity and led a passing attack the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Pittsburgh since perhaps the Blond Bomber’s heyday of the late-’70s.

One week after a surreal 34-34 home tie against the Falcons in a game in which Pittsburgh led, 34-17, in the fourth quarter, Maddox was seriously injured in a 31-23 loss to the Titans at Adelphia Coliseum. Maddox was temporarily paralyzed following a hit and had to be taken to a nearby hospital.

Tommy Maddox, Steelers vs Titans

Tommy Maddox suffers a spinal contusion in 2002. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

Thankfully for Maddox, the injury turned out to be a spinal contusion; he would be okay and would ultimately miss just two games.

  • In the meantime, the Steelers stood at 5-4-1, and their season was clearly at a crossroads.

The Steelers would have to turn back to Kordell Stewart, the quarterback the fans had completely divorced themselves from emotionally, to get their season back on track. Muddying the waters, even more, were the struggles of Peterson, who had only connected on 12 of 21 field goals through 10 games and was cut after missing two attempts against the Titans. The Steelers had to hold kicking tryouts right in the middle of a season that looked to be spiraling out of control.

  • Jeff Reed, an unknown who played his college ball at North Carolina, won the job and was the Steelers new kicker.

Kordell Stewart quietly guided the Steelers to two late-season victories over the Bengals and Jaguars, respectively (Reed, in just his second game, kicked a 50-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter that provided the winning points in the win over Jacksonville), and had them sitting at 7-4-1 for Maddox’s return to the lineup in a home date vs. the expansion Houston Texans on December 8. In a surreal turn of events the Steelers outgained Houston on the day, 422-47, but lost, 24-6, thanks to three turnovers by Maddox — including a fumble and two interceptions–that were returned for scores.

The Steelers rebounded from what could have been a devastating December home loss and won their last three regular-season games to capture the first  AFC North title with a 10-5-1 record.

Maddox passed for 2,836 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions after being inserted into the lineup, numbers that helped earn him the nickname, Tommy Gun.

Plaxico Burress, Steelers vs Browns

Plaxico Burress scores the game trying touchdown in the Steelers OT win over the Browns. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Hines Ward became the first receiver in franchise history to catch 100 passes when he reeled in 112 for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns. Plaxcio Burress added 1,325 receiving yards on 78 catches, as Pittsburgh finished eighth in the league in passing.

Despite taking a backseat to the passing attack, Pittsburgh’s ground game still managed to produce, finishing ninth in the league with 2,120 yards. Amos Zereoue actually paced the rushing attack with 762 yards, while Jerome Bettis added 666.

  • The defense rebounded from that horrific start, finishing seventh in total yards and recording another 50 sacks.

The defense did struggle on third down all season long, however –something that would haunt it in the playoffs–and finished 27th in that category.

The Steelers didn’t capture the first or even the second seed. Instead, they would begin their postseason journey on Wildcard Weekend as the third seed in a matchup against Cleveland at Heinz Field.

Wild Card: Steelers Browns Fight in Barn Burner at Heinz Field

Things looked bleak for most of the game, as the sixth-seeded Browns opened up a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter and led, 33-21, late into the final period. With Heinz Field mostly empty, however, Maddox led an historic comeback.

Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Steelers vs Browns

Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala scores the game winning touchdown. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Not long after finding Hines Ward for a five-yard touchdown pass with 3:06 remaining, Maddox and the offense were back on the field, as Cleveland failed to pick up a first down that would have iced the game. With just 54 seconds left in the game, reserve running back, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, scored from three yards out to give Pittsburgh a 34-33 lead. Randle El then hit tight end Jerame Tuman for the two-point conversion to make it 36-33. The Browns desperately tried to drive down the field to get in position for a game-tying field goal but ultimately ran out of time.

Divisoinal Playoffs: “…And the Oscar Goes to Joe Needley

Six days later, it was onto Tennessee to take on a Titans squad that had given Pittsburgh fits over the years.

This was mainly due to quarterback Steve McNair, a man who was a bit of a precursor to Brady, in that he had a knack for making Pittsburgh’s defense look foolish.

Sure enough, the defense struggled, so did Maddox, as Tennessee jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. The Steelers fought back, however, and scored 20 unanswered points and finally took the lead early in the third quarter on a 31-yard touchdown run by Amos Zereoue.

It was a back-and-forth affair from there, with Pittsburgh taking a 31-28 lead on a 40-yard field goal by Reed midway through the final period.

After the Titans soon tied the score on a field goal by Joe Nedney, it looked like the Steelers were in prime position to complete another comeback when an unnecessary roughness penalty set them up at the Tennessee 40 yard line with less than two minutes left in regulation. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh couldn’t advance another inch and ultimately needed a Nedney missed field goal from 48 yards out to send the game into overtime.

Dwyane Washington, Joe Nedney, Steelers vs Titans

Dwayne Washington in the act of “roughing the kicker.” Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

  • The Titans won the toss and never relinquished possession.

After driving deep into Pittsburgh territory, the Titans sent Nedney out to end things from 31 yards away. He missed. Only problem was, cornerback Dewayne Washington was called for running into the kicker. The call was questionable, but Nedney got another chance from five yards closer. He didn’t miss this one, and the Steelers fell, 34-31.

  • It was an emotional end to one of the most up-and-down seasons of Bill Cowher’s coaching career.

Despite its soul-crushing conclusion, however, the Steelers ’02 campaign will always be remembered as the year a journeyman quarterback came out of nowhere to save a season that may have otherwise ended long before the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2001 Season: Contenders Again as Playoff Drought Ends

You know that whole “He won with Cowher’s players” thing people like to use to diss Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin when discussing his team’s Super Bowl XLIII victory following the 2008 season?

  • I doubt many of those Steelers fans thought they’d ever show that kind of reverence for Bill Cowher in early 2001.

Not after three tumultuous seasons that saw his squad miss the playoffs every year between 1998-2000. Bill Cowher was right smack-dab in the middle of a reality-check after a six-year start to his career as the Steelers coach. That six year stretch saw his very talented and playoff-bound squads came oh so close to getting over the Super Bowl hump, only to come up short at the end each time.

Even if the franchise’s 5th Lombardi remained elusive, the playoffs had almost almost automatic for Pittsburgh. Then suddenly they weren’t. As the Steelers said goodbye to Three Rivers Stadium and opened Heinz Field, what “New normal” would 2001 bring?

Hines Ward, Steeles vs Ravens, 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs, first playoff game Heinz Field

Hines Ward flexes his muscles in the playoffs against the Ravens. The Steelers were back!. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Ignoring the Skeptics, Dan Rooney Doubles Down on Bill Cowher

The late-’90s were an ugly time in Steelers’ history.

Thanks to one-too-many free-agent defections, Pittsburgh went from a perennial contender to a level just above doormat status. The Steelers dropped 18 of 24 games during a span that lasted from late-’98 through early-2000.

The “My buddy’s the cop” rumors about his personal life were disturbing and cruel. Nor was Bill Cowher was immune, as rumors of  an extra-marital affair circulated in 1999. Add that as a backdrop to the power struggle between Cowher and Tom Donahoe and by the end of the 1999 season the Steelers were an organization in disarray. 

  • Dan Rooney backed Bill Cowher, but that didn’t mean the fans and media agreed.

In fact, many questioned how the organization could give Cowher a contract extension following the Steelers 2000 season one that saw the Steelers miss the postseason for a third-straight year.

  • But it was a sound decision by the Steelers.

Even though the organization was struggling during those years, the roster was slowly being rebuilt and replenished. During these lean times, future core players like Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Deshea Townsend, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith and Marvel Smith were being drafted and developed.

History was made on February 11, 2001, when Three Rivers Stadium, the host of both professional football and baseball since 1970, was imploded to make way for Heinz Field and PNC Park, two state-of-the-art facilities that would be the new digs for the Steelers and Pirates, respectively.

Chuck Noll was never shy about the role that having Three Rivers Stadium played in turning the franchise’s fortunes around, could Heinz Field have the same effort for is successor?

Colbert Influence Deepens During 2001 Off Season

Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh native hired replace Tom Donahoe, inked a deal with veteran guard, Jeff Hartings, who came to Pittsburgh after five seasons with the Lions. Hartings may have been a guard by trade, but he was brought to Pittsburgh to take the place of Dermontti Dawson, the legendary center, who retired after an injury-riddled 2000 campaign.

Jeff Hartings, Kordell Stewart

Jeff Hartings and Kordell Stewart at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The Steelers went into the 2001 NFL Draft needing a Joel Steed-type to be the nose tackle of their 3-4 defense. They found just that and more in Casey Hampton, the man his teammates would affectionately nickname “Big Snack.” Hampton would make an immediate impact, same with Pittsburgh’s second-round pick, Kendrell Bell, an inside linebacker, who would go on to be named the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Veteran running back, Jerome Bettis signed a second contract extension stay in Pittsburgh his sixth season.

The Steelers also locked up Hines Ward with a contract extension, after Ward had finally established himself as a starting receiver alongside Plaxico Burress, the team’s number one pick a year earlier.

Make no mistake, though, the Steelers’ chances of being contenders again in 2001 hinged on the talents of Kordell Stewart, the beleaguered and embattled quarterback, a man that had been through the wringer the previous few seasons; he was yanked in and out of the starting lineup, saddled with two offensive coordinators who didn’t know what to do with him, and even banished to the receivers room at one point.

Thankfully, something clicked for Stewart when he won back the starting job midway through the 2000 season and nearly guided Pittsburgh to the playoffs after an 0-3 start. Mike Mularkey, the team’s tight ends coach the previous five years, was promoted to offensive coordinator in ’01 and would ultimately prove to be Stewart’s greatest offensive ally since the days of Chan Gailey.

Steelers 2001 Season Starts Ugly – In More Ways that One

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the start of their 2001 campaign would be ugly in more ways than one.

Just days after a listless 21-3 Week-1 road loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, tragedy struck the nation on September 11, 2001, when thousands of Americans lost their lives in a series of terrorist attacks that took place in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pa., a small town just 80 miles from Pittsburgh, where a hijacked commercial airliner crashed into the ground, killing everyone on board.

Obviously, football — any kind of pastime, really — was the last thing on anyone’s mind, as the country tried to find its bearings, process what happened and heal.

  • With that in mind, the NFL postponed its ’01 campaign for three weeks.
Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Bengals

The Steelers defeated the Bengals in their first game at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Tom Pidgeon, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

The Steelers’ season finally resumed on September 30, with a 20-3 victory over the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Steelers made their regular-season debut at Heinz Field the following week and ushered in their new home with a 16-7 victory over Cincinnati.

  • Pittsburgh would continue to roll from there, winning 11 of its next 12 games.

The only loss during that stretch was a home defeat at the hands of the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens, a game in which struggling kicker, Kris Brown, missed four field goals — including one at the end of regulation that would have sent the game into overtime.

The Steelers got their revenge many weeks later with a 26-21 road victory over the Ravens on Sunday Night Football. Not only did Pittsburgh exact revenge over its division rival, it clinched its 15th and final AFC Central crown (the division was rechristined the AFC North the following season after realignment).

Despite an upset road loss to the Bengals two weeks later, the Steelers clinched the number one seed and would go on to finish with a 13-3 record — their best regular season record since 1978.

2001 Banner Year for Stewart, Bettis, Ward and Steelers Defense

Kordell Stewart finished the regular season with 3,109 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also contributed with his legs to the tune of 537 rushing yards and five touchdowns. For his efforts, Stewart was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year and was voted team MVP.

2001 was the year Hines Ward became a star and the leader of the wide-outs, as he caught 94 passes for 1,003 yards and four touchdowns. Plaxico Burress added 66 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns, elevating this receiving duo to one of the most potent in the NFL.

It was another productive year for Jerome Bettis, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth-straight year (1,072), even though he missed the final five games with a groin injury.

  • With The Bus leading the way, the Steelers  ground attack finished first in the NFL with 2,774 yards.

As for the defense, it was lights out. It was dominant. It was Super Bowl-ready. The unit finished first in yards allowed and was the most stout against the run. With 12 sacks, outside linebacker Jason Gildon led a pass-rush that would tally a whopping 55 sacks on the season.

The Steelers headed into the postseason with the look of a team that was ready to get over the hump and capture the franchise’s fifth Lombardi trophy. Could Stewart, Bettis, Ward and a retooled defense accomplish what O’Donnell, Foster, Thigpen and Blitzburgh had tried and failed to do a half decade earlier? It was time to find out.

Steelers Roast Ravens in 1st Playoff Game at Heinz Field

First up for Pittsburgh was an AFC Central rematch, as the Ravens came to town for a divisional round  in Heinz Field’s first ever playoff game. There was a bit of fear that Baltimore, a team that proved to be a fierce road warrior a year earlier on the way to a Super Bowl title, would march into town with its swaggar turned up at full blast after a resounding road victory over the Dolphins on Wildcard Weekend.

Hines Ward, Rod Woodson, Jerame Tuman, Steelers vs Ravens, First playoff game Heinz Field

Jerame Tuman gives Rod Woodson a warm “welcome” back to Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers got some disturbing news right out of gate when it was reported that Bettis would have to miss the game due to complications from a pain-killling injection to help him manage his nagging groin issue.

Thankfully, Amos Zereoue, a third-round pick out of West Virginia in the 1999 NFL Draft, was up to the task, rushing for 63 yards on 24 carries.

  • Zereoue scored two one-yard touchdowns to help Pittsburgh jump out to a 17-0 first-half lead.

Jermaine Lewis gave the home folks a reason for concern when he returned a Josh Miller punt 88 yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter to make the score 20-10. Fortunately, Kordell Stewart and Plaxico Burress quickly put those fears to rest when they connected on a 32-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to basically put the game out of reach.

Special Teams Scuttle Steelers as Tom Brady Era Begins 

It was on to the AFC title game for the first time in four seasons and a home matchup against an upstart Patriots team led by some coach named Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by some guy named Tom Brady, who was starting in place of the veteran Drew Bledsoe after he suffered an early-season injury and never got back in the lineup.

The Steelers were favored by 10 points, and nobody outside of New England gave the visitors much of a chance. That may seem funny now, but Bill Cowher owned Bill Belichick when the latter was coach of the Browns in the early 1990’s.

  • But there’s a reason why we play game.
Troy Brown, Steelers vs Patriots, 2001 AFC Championship Game

Troy Brown smokes the Steelers for a 55 yard 1st quarter touchdown punt return. Photo Credit: SBnation.com

Special teams had been a thorn in the Steelers’ side dating back to the 2000 season, and that thorn would feel quite painful late in the first quarter when Troy Brown returned a Josh Miller punt 55 yards for a score. Making matters worse was the fact that Miller was re-kicking thanks to an illegal procedure penalty on receiver Troy Edwards that nullified the previous one.

Tom Brady got injured late in the second quarter, but the Patriots didn’t miss a beat as Bledsoe entered the game helped to further stun the home crowd with an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Patten to put Pittsburgh in a 14-3 hole at the half.

Things got even worse early in the third quarter when Kris Brown’s 34-yard field goal was blocked by Brandon Mitchell and returned for a touchdown by Troy Brown to make it 21-3.

Pittsburgh mounted a furious comeback and cut the lead to four thanks to touchdowns by Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue, respectively.

Unfortunately, the Steelers would get no closer, as Stewart threw interceptions on successive drives with the team trailing by seven late in the fourth quarter.

  • It was the third home loss in the AFC title game for Bill Cowher, and the second where his team was a huge favorite.

While the loss was deeply deeply disappointing end to a promising 2001 campaign, it was clear that Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert had rebuilt a roster that would be able to compete for a Super Bowl title for many for years to come.

After a three-year stretch of chaos and uncertainty, Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers were contenders again.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2000 Season: Setting the Tone for the 2nd Super Bowl Era

Change swept the Steelers as the 21st century began. Dan Rooney didn’t do knee-jerk reactions, but after twin losing seasons in 1998 and 1999 Tom Donahoe was out, and Bill Cowher was in.

Art Rooney II, Dan’s son, assumed a more prominent role in the running the team. Equally important was the choice of Kevin Colbert as Donahoe’s replacement, and Rooney’s clarification that Cowher and Colbert stood at an equal level on the org chart.

At the time, however, reporters were more interested in mocking Rooney for conducting a national search only to pick the candidate who happened to be another North Catholic alum.

  • Kevin Colbert has vindicate Rooney’s wisdom time and time again.

But in the winter and spring of 2000, some of Colbert’s personnel choices seemed curious, to say the least.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

Jerome Bettis leads the 2000 Steelers to first win in Jacksonville. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Colbert Effect

If it were possible to hold a tournament to determine low-keyiness, Kevin Colbert would draw a very good seed. Yet, he made an immediate impact on the Steelers.

Kevin Colbert

Kevin Colbert in 2000. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Kordell Stewart had regressed further in 1999, but the Steelers initial MO going into free agency was to resign Mike Tomczak. Instead, Colbert steered them towards Kent Graham, someone who could ostensibly push Stewart for the starting job.

People expected the Steelers to use the 8th pick overall to draft Chad Pennington, the top quarterback in the draft; Colbert and Cowher instead drafted Plaxico Burress. He also signed Brent Alexander, cut guard Brendan Stai and replaced him with Rich Tylski.

Joel Steed whose faltering knees fueled defensive declines in late 1998 and 1999, retired, replaced by Kimo von Oelhoffen. All of these free agent signings were seen as decidedly unsexy.

The Steelers had moved into their new digs on the South Side, no longer practicing at Three Rivers Stadium. What’s more, the Steelers went 3-2 in the 2000 preseason, which if nothing else, looked and felt better than their 1-3 mark just one summer before.

  • So as August settled into September, much had changed in Pittsburgh.

But would change result in anything new?

Down But Not Defeated – Steelers Start 2000 0-3

The Steelers opened the 2000 season by hosting the Baltimore Ravens for their final visit to Three Rivers Stadium. The Ravens returned their hospitality by subjecting the Steelers to their first home shutout since the 1989 Steelers got blanked by the Chicago Bears.

The final score read 16-0, but honestly, the game was never close. The Ravens dominated. The only time the Steelers threatened to score late in the 4th quarter, Bill Cowher pulled Kent Graham in favor of Kordell Stewart at the goal line, who managed to fumble a snap on 3rd and 1.

Kent Graham, Courtney Brown, Steelers vs Browns

Courtney Brown sacks Kent Graham. Photo Credit: Jami Yanak, AP, via Cleveland.com

After the game, Bill Cowher reminded his team that they’d only lost one round of a 16-round fight, but Shannon Sharpe’s comments about “turmoil” inside the Steelers’ locker room stole the headlines.

It fell to Rod Woodson to land what felt like the knockout blow. When reflecting on the Steelers lone, 4th-quarter visit to the Red Zone, he insisted that the Ravens couldn’t let that happen “against a good team.”

After the game Lee Flowers told Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette, “This is starting to be the same thing every week. You might as well keep the same quotes from last year, man.”

Things got worse. The Steelers next traveled to Cleveland and blew a chance to tie the game at the tail end when Kent Graham took a sack, preventing the field goal unit from setting up.

  • Losing is a lonely man’s game in the NFL.

So it’s understandable that no one noticed during the two hours and 56 minutes of football they played after opening day blow out to the Ravens, the Steelers were actually doing some things well.

  • Run blocking was improving.
  • Jerome Bettis was proving the doubters to be wrong.
  • Some semblance of a vertical passing game had returned.

And the defense, some ugly 4th-quarter touchdowns notwithstanding, looked much better, even if its pass rush lacked. And in week 3 against the defending AFC Champion Tennessee Titans, the Steelers seemed to find their pass rush.

After taking a 20-16 lead midway through the 4th quarter the Steelers had the Titans on the ropes. With just over 3 minutes left to play, Jason Gildon slammed Neil O’Donnell to the turf for a 5-yard loss on 2nd down. A bloodied O’Donnell limped from the field.

  • The Steelers were not only going to get an upset win, but also exact revenge on Neil O’Donnell!

Not. So. Fast. Steve McNair came in and with 3 passes and 1 run put the Titans ahead for good. The Steelers had started 0-3 and now had lost 17 of their last 23 games at Three Rivers Stadium. Bill Cowher was on the verge of tears. To the outside eye, this looked, and felt, like the kind of defeat that breaks a team’s will.

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Late in the day on the Friday before their next game, the word was that Kent Graham had broken a finger in practice and wouldn’t play. Kordell Stewart would start on the road against the AFC favorite Jacksonville Jaguars.

And everyone knew what Kordell starting meant….

Steelers 2000 Road Trip to Jacksonville – A Hinge of Fate

No one expected anything of the Steelers that Sunday. So it hardly came as a surprise when they won the toss and went three and out. Josh Miller suffering the first blocked punt of his career only added to the comedy of errors. The Jaguars had the ball on Pittsburgh’s 4 with not even 4 minutes elapsed.

Then something unexpected happened. The Steelers held, forcing the Jaguars to settle for a field goal.

  • It was the last time the Jaguars would lead the entire day.

It didn’t matter that Kordell Stewart would toss an interception on his next possession – the Steelers defense held. Before the 1st quarter was over, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala rumbled into the end zone for a lead.

The Steelers defense neutered Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith, while pummeling Mark Brunell, sacking him seven times, as players like like Aaron Smith, Desha Townsend and Joey Porter introduced themselves to the NFL.

With their backs against the wall, Bill Cowher’s 0-3 Steelers had entered a stadium they’d never won in before and dominated the presumptive AFC favorite! Was there substance behind those 2000 Steelers, or was the Jacksonville game only a walking example of the “On Any Given Sunday” phenomenon?

Digging Out from 0-3

The 2000 Steelers followed with four straight victories. Kordell Stewart remained the starter as the Steelers knocked off the undefeated New York Jets. By the time Pittsburgh defeated the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens at home, the Steelers had:

  • Recorded back-to-back shutouts of AFC Central rivals at Three Rivers Stadium
  • Re-established Kordell Stewart as their starting quarterback
  • Forced opposing teams to pull their starting quarterback 3 times
  • Started their third fullback Dan Kreider, who’d go on to start 66 more games
  • Logged 5 games without giving up a non-garbage time touchdown
  • Begun to watch Hines Ward, and not Plaxico Burress nor Troy Edwards separate himself at wide out

Indeed, it was Hines Ward’s ability to come up with a 45 yard-3rd quarter touchdown catch that was the difference maker against the Ravens, dealing Baltimore its final loss of their Super Bowl season.

As he closed his news conference, Bill Cowher asked reporters to assure Shannon Sharpe that everything was “Fine” in the Steelers locker room.

Mark Bruener, Steelers vs Bengals

Mark Bruener gets grabbed by Adrian Ross. Photo Credit: Tom Pidgeon, via FanSided/Allsport

Growing Pains

The win over the Ravens had given the 2000 Steelers a 5-3 record and 2nd place in the AFC Central. The Tennessee Titans, the division leaders, were their next opponent. Could the Steelers knock off the division leaders and win 5 straight?

  • No. The Titans prevailed 9-6.

After the game, Bill Cowher confided that his players were more disappointed after this loss than the earlier ones, because they expected to win. That was a taken as a good sign, but good signs would be in short supply for the next 10 quarters of football.

The Steelers gave up a 4th quarter lead and then lost in overtime to the Eagles at home. Then dropped a 34 to 24 decision to the Jaguars in a game where Fred Taylor ran for 234 yards.

  • A week later, they traveled to Cincinnati to play the 2-9 Bengals.

The Bengals went toe-to-toe with the Steelers. This game had the all too familiar feel of similar games in 1998 and 1999, where the Steelers had let a lesser team hang around long enough to find a way to win.

For much of the first half at Paul Brown Stadium, those earlier four straight wins started to look like tease victories.

Kordell Sparks Resurgence

Late in the 2nd quarter something clicked for Kordell Stewart and remained “on” until at least the 2001 AFC Championship. He played with confidence, threw with authority, and made good decisions.

His go-ahead touchdown to Mark Bruener sparked the defense, who re-discovered their aggressiveness. The Steelers won that week, setting up a final Three Rivers Stadium show down with the AFC leading Raiders.

  • If this Steelers-Raiders contest lacked the star power of the ‘70’s, it compensated with intensity.

Kordell Stewart got the Steelers off to a strong start by connecting with Bobby Shaw for a touchdown. But he got injured and left the game. Kent Graham only threw 3 passes, but managed to get sacked 3 times while throwing a pick six.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

The Raiders took a 17 to 7 lead into half time; when announcers pronounced Kordell Stewart as “doubtful” for the second half, all appeared to be over. When the 2nd half started, Kordell was seen talking with Tee Martin. Might Cowher be making a change?

  • Cowher did change quarterbacks – Kordell reentered the game.

Kordell led a comeback for the ages. He not only threw the ball with authority, he took off and ran, leading two touchdown drives in the process. He connected with Mark Bruener, who willed himself into the end zone, and Kordell then ran for another touchdown.

The defense did its part by keeping the Raiders out of the end zone. Even though the officials tried to give Oakland an extra down, the Steelers held on for the win.

The next week, piss poor special teams, foreshadowing events to come, would deal a sharp blow to Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes in a loss to the Giants.

Undaunted, the Steelers closed their home season with a rousing 24-3 pasting of the Washington Redskins in the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. The game featured Dieon Sanders shying away from tackling a roaring Jerome Bettis, the Steelers forcing Jeff George from the game, and Myron Cope telling off Daniel Snyder on the open air.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Going into their Christmas Eve season finale, the Steelers needed to beat the San Diego Chargers, needed the Ravens to beat the Jets, and the Vikings to beat the Colts. The Ravens smashed the Jets, and the Vikings, while starting strong against the Colts, lost Daunte Culpeper.

His replacement was none other than Bubby Brister, who in an ironic twist of fate, could only manage to set the Vikings up for 1 Gary Anderson field goal in nearly 3 quarters of play. The Vikings lost, and the 2000 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7.

Eight years after he left Pittsburgh and in his final NFL game, Bubby Brister had again kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.

Setting the Tone for the Decade, Second Super Bowl Era

As the year without even a trip to the playoffs, the 2000 season was probably the most consequential non-playoff season for the Steelers.

Even if he never led the team to a championship, Kordell Stewart’s rebound validated the Steelers decision not to reach for a quarterback in the draft. Jerome Bettis dispelled any doubts that the Bus still had plenty of tread on his tires and gas in the tank. The offensive line was back. So was the defense.

While no one noticed outside of Pittsburgh, Aaron Smith, Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Marvel Smith, Desha Townsend were emerging as Super Bowl caliber players and leaders.

There’s a reason why an entire sub-section earlier in this article is dedicated to one steamy afternoon in Jacksonville and titled “Hinge of Fate.” That’s because a 0-3 team went into hostile territory and trashed a conference-favorite. In doing so they set the tone for not just the season, but the entire decade:

Back the Pittsburgh Steelers into a corner at your peril.

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1999 Pittsburgh Steelers: Cowher Donahoe Feud, Tears Team Apart, Comes to a Head

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened 1999 in unfamiliar territory:  Instead of playing in the post season, they were watching from home. You can criticize the Steelers brain trust of Bill Cowher, Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney for many of their 1999 off season decisions.

  • But there is one thing they refused to do following the first losing season of the Cowher era: Panic.

Kordell Stewart struggled mightily in 1998. So the Steelers response of firing Ray Sherman and replacing him with Kevin Gilbride was expected. Giving Stewart a 5-year extension that would pay him 27 million more dollars was decidedly unexpected. Yet that’s just what the Steelers did.

Kordell Stewart had hardly been the only one at fault during the up-and down 7-4 start and the ensuing game season-ending meltdown. The offensive line, secondary, and wide receiver had been weak spots.

So the Steelers let Carnell Lake go, a mainstay in the defensive backfield since 1989, and replaced him with Travis Davis. Former first round wide receiver Charles Johnson was allowed to walk, too. They also brought in not one, but two tackles, Wayne Gandy and Anthony Brown.

  • And, with the 13th pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, the Steelers took wide receiver Troy Edwards.

Today, we know that Troy Edwards was a bust, but the pick was popular at the time. But there’s a backstory behind the pick.

As Troy Edwards’ name was being sent to the podium, the Steelers were on the phone with Jevon Kearse. This factoid only emerged in 2016, but today it tells us something very important about how and why the Steelers 1999 season unfolded the way it did.

Kordell Stewart, Phil Daniels, Wayne Gandy, Steelers vs Seahawks

Philip Daniel sacks Kordell Stewart on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Archie Carpenter, UPI

1st Browns Game Bookend: The Caffeine Laced Sugar High

The Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL after a 3-year hiatus on September 12th 1999 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The city of Cleveland was ecstatic. The Browns were back!

Richard Huntley, Steelers vs Browns

Richard Huntley runs over the Browns. Literally. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The celebration ended quickly.

The Steelers amassed a 20 to 0 zero half time lead, which became a 27 to 0 3rd quarter lead after the first two series. Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak and then Pete Gonzalez. Jerome Bettis gave way to Richard Huntley and then Amos Zereoue. The Steelers won 43 to 0, registering their first shutout in two years.

ESPN commentator Joe Theismann went so far as to compare the 1999 Steelers offense to the 1995 edition which had taken them to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The new Browns were an expansion team, so a Steelers’ victory was expected.

But Pittsburgh made it look easy, incredibly easy. Was the 1998’s 0-5 implosion  just a mirage?

2nd Browns Game Bookend:  The Bottom Falls Out

Three Rivers Stadium welcomed the Browns for the first time in 3 years in week 9 of the 1999 season. The Steelers were on a 3 game winning streak. Cleveland came to Pittsburgh seeking its first win.

  • The Browns opened with a touchdown drive.

During the entire first half, the Steelers could only muster a meager Kris Brown field goal in response. But at least the Browns hadn’t sniffed another score. Kris Brown booted another field goal to start the first half. Then, with victory in their grasp, the Steelers made two critical errors:

  • Richard Huntley scored a touchdown midway through the 3rd quarter.
  • Yet Bill Cowher opted to go for two and the Steelers failed.

So instead of 13 to 7, the Steelers led 12 to 7.

Still, the Steelers kicked another field goal to start the 4th quarter, making it 15 to 7. That made the lost point inconsequential. Didn’t it?

With about 7 minutes left, the Steelers forced a Browns punt and simply had to kill the clock. Yet after Jerome Bettis gained 6 yards, Kordell Stewart misfired to Mark Bruener. Then he tried a bubble screen to Troy Edwards.

Phil Dawson, Steelers vs Browns

Phil Dawson kicks the game winner in 1999. Photo Credit: Browns.com

  • But John Thierry blew by Wayne Gandy and intercepted Stewart’s pass.

The Browns scored a touchdown 3 plays later, but their 2 point conversion failed. This time the Steelers tried pounding the ball, calling 7 straight running plays but were forced to punt at the 2-minute warning. The Browns milked all but 2 seconds off of the clock before kicking the game winning field goal.

The Steelers had opened the season by welcoming the Browns back to the NFL by wiping the floor with them. Nine weeks later they were wiping egg off of their faces after giving the Browns their first win since 1995.

After the game, team leader Levon Kirkland confessed, “I’m not going to say it’s the most embarrassing loss, because you never know what’s going to come up next.”

The worst part of it all? Kirkland was right.

In Between the Browns Bookends: Torment and Tease

So what happened in between those Browns bookend games? The Steelers followed their opening day romp over the Browns with a lackluster win over a middling Ravens team. The Steelers returned to Three Rivers Stadium to suffer a 5-interception blowout loss to the Seahawks, followed by 17-3 home loss to the Jaguars that saw free agent tackle Wayne Gandy give up sacks on back-to-back drives that resulted in safeties.

Doug Flutie, Jeremy Staat, Steelers vs Bills

Jeremy Staat closes in on Doug Flutie. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

  • The Steelers followed that with a 24-21 loss to the Bills

After the game Bill Cowher commented that Kordell Stewart could have benefited from seeing Doug Flutie in action. This was ironic, because Stewart’s success in 1997 helped pave the way for Flutie’s NFL return.

For as bleak as things looked during those three losses, the Steelers rebounded with three straight wins. Their win on Monday Night Football against the defending NFC Champion Falcons ended with not one, but two “Who wants it more?” 4th quarter goal line stands.

Pittsburgh followed that with a 27-6 road win over the San Francisco 49ers and by all appearances, the Steelers had done what so many previous Bill Cowher teams had done before them: Right themselves after stumbling early.

Wrong. The Steelers had only set themselves up for a bigger fall.

Worst 8 Game Stretch Since 1969

The 1999 Steelers fulfilled Levon Kirkland’s worst fears by losing 7 of their next 8 games and in the process looked worse than any Steelers team had looked since 1969. Chuck Noll’s 1986 and 1988 teams had finished 6-10 and 5-11, but at least both of those squads were playing their best football by season’s end.

But The 1999 Steelers found new ways to get worse as fall faded into winter.

Qadry Ismail, Steelers vs Ravens, Dwyane Washington

Quadry Ismail scorches Steelers. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

The bottom fell out of the defense. On the road against the Titans, Chris Sanders hauled in a 46- yard reception as Travis Davis and Scott Shields essentially “watched.” Two weeks later Qadry Ismail came to Pittsburgh and scorched the Steelers secondary for 258-yard, 3-touchdown game.

During a loss to a terrible Bengals team Bill Cowher benched Kordell Stewart. Fans cheered as Mike Tomczak took the field, but the results were the same.

The Steelers did secure a post-Christmas win over the Carolina Panthers. But that win came by way of Shar Pourdanesh replacing the inept Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad who’d been alternating at right tackle, and some mid game snow that inspired Jerome Bettis to a 100-yard game.

Chad Scott, Steelers vs Panthers, Fred Lane

Chad Scott stuffs Fred Lane for a 3 yard loss. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The season ended with a sloppy 47-36 loss to a Tennessee Titans backup squad that featured Bobby Shaw flashing a Superman shirt in front of cameras following a garbage-time touchdown, yet another safety and Levon Kirkland getting muscled out of bounds by Neil O’Donnell following an interception. Worse yet, although the Steelers started at the Titans 5-yard line and ran 6 plays, they still failed to score.

For the record, the 1999 Steelers final record was 6-10, but this was by far the worst Steelers squad since Chuck Noll’s 1-13 1969 team.

Cowher-Donahoe Feud Comes to a Head

The 1999 Steelers finished 6-10, and looked a lot worse than their 7-9 1998 predecessors in doing so. But the difference wasn’t driven by talent: The 1999 team was rotting at its core.

The feud between head coach Bill Cowher and Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe that had been simmering for years was consuming the team. Donahoe’s “flat” comment following Fog Bowl II first exposed the tensions between the two men but by 1999, things had become unmanageable.

Dan Rooney, Dan Rooney decisions, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Tom Modark, Steelers 1992 Draft

Tom Donahoe, Tom Modark, Dan Rooney and Bill Cowher in the Steelers 1992 draft room. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The fact that the front office and head coach weren’t even on the same page regarding the first round draft reveals just how deep the dysfunction sank.

  • Things regressed as the season wore on.

In the week leading up to the Bengals loss, 3 separate national stories reported that Bill Cowher was planning to leave the team. Tom Donahoe had strong relations with the press, and could have swatted it down with an off-the-record denial.

Steel Curtain Rising has zero evidence to suggest that he declined an opportunity to do so. But after the Steelers laid an egg against the Bengals, Donahoe was on the record and his tongue was particularly sharp as he quipped, “Let me say this, I think we’re more talented than Cleveland and Cincinnati.”

A few days later, Cowher insisted that he was staying, and retorted, “I know what my responsibilities are to this football team and what I’m here to do. That’s to coach a football team, to coach the players I have.”

Late in the season as losses cascaded into bigger, uglier losses, Lee Flowers called out his teammates for “loafing.”

  • Flowers was right. The circus atmosphere of the season finale proved it.

Normally, when players quit on a losing team, it is an indictment of the head coach. But by 1999, this wasn’t a “normal” Steelers team. In his self-titled autobiography, Dan Rooney reveals that Bill Cowher barred Donahoe from attending coaching meetings because he thought he was a “spy.”

Cowher’s instincts were correct. After the season it was revealed that Tom Donahoe had been privately bashing Cowher to the press.

  • Front office-coaching tension is normal and, in the right dosage, healthy.

But even the most brilliant football minds can’t function successfully if they can’t cooperate. The Pittsburgh Steelers are anything but immune. Art Rooney, Jr. led the greatest scouting team pro football has or ever will see. Chuck Noll was one of the greatest coaches in the game.

  • Yet, by the mid-80’s the two men couldn’t function together.
  • By 1999 Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe had reached the same juncture.

Dan Rooney again had a decision to make. And once again, Dan backed his coach over the front office and fired Tom Donahoe.

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