1997 Pittsburgh Steelers: Defying Gravity with Cowher and Kordell

Gravity is the universe’s inescapable force. In football gravity has always taken the forms of age, injury and the NFL draft. With 1992’s Freeman McNeil verdict, gravity gained a new form to its NFL repertory: Free Agency.

  • Free agency was supposed to destroy the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers, stuck in a small, shrinking rustbelt market and locked into an unfavorable lease in an old utility stadium, could never compete with the likes of Jerry Jones and Edward DeBartlo.

  • And besides, as any fan would have told you in the 1990’s, Dan Rooney was cheap.

And so it was that every spring saw a free agent exodus out of Pittsburgh. It wasn’t backups and/or secondary starters that left, but first round picks, long time starters, perennial Pro Bowlers, a starting Super Bowl quarterback, future Hall of Famers and, in one off season, 2/3rds of the starting defensive line.

  • All of those losses came before 1997.

That spring the Steelers lost two starting-caliber wide receivers, a starting defensive end, and their TOP THREE cornerbacks. Did we mention that one of those corners was franchise icon Rod Woodson? Departures also extended to the coaches, as Dick LeBeau returned to the Cincinnati Bengals.

And by the way, the Steelers had just handed the reigns of the offense to Kordell Stewart, giving them their third new starting quarterback in 3 years.

1997 would be the season when gravity finally sucked the Pittsburgh Steelers down. Or would it….?

Bill Cowher, Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Broncos

Bill Cowher and Kordell Stewart in the 1997 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: AP, via the Tribune-Review

Steelers Affirm Core Cowher Belief

In Heart and Steel, Bill Cowher declares that the 1997 Steelers were his best team. That may not be the case, but the 1997 team certainly proved one of Cowher’s core beliefs: Teams define themselves during the season’s first 4 to 6 weeks.

To that end, the Dallas Cowboys came to Pittsburgh and put 37 unanswered points on the board until Kordell Stewart and Mark Bruener hooked up for a face-saving, garbage-time touchdown. Commentators rushed to take this as confirmation of the impending disaster foreshadowed in Fog Bowl II during the ’96 playoffs.

Really, opening day embarrassments were par for the course in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers stuck to the script by bouncing back with a convincing win against Washington in week 2.

A week later, the Steelers traveled to Jacksonville. They got embarrassed in the first half, clawed their way back into position to win at the buzzer, only to lose on a blocked field goal. The rollar coaster continued the next week against the Ravens at Memorial Stadium as Kordell Stewart would throw 3 interceptions in the first half.

  • Throwing 3 picks is never pretty, but each interception was uglier than the one before.

But Kordell Stewart shook it all off by throwing 3 touchdown passes and rushing 74 yards for another one in the 2nd half, as the Steelers pulled out a 42-34 win. The victory evened the 1997 Steelers record to 2-2, but more importantly, it established an identity: This team got right back up whenever it got knocked down.

Greg Lloyd, Steelers vs Ravens,

Greg Lloyd in his only trip to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: RVR Photos, USA TODAY Sports

Thriving on the Edge

As the first month of the season illustrated, gravity had the power to suck the 1997 Steelers to the edge. But in 1997, that was perfect for Pittsburgh, because the 1997 Steelers weren’t just a team that lived on the edge, it thrived on it. Consider:

  • The 1997 Steelers played in overtime 3 times during the year, winning each time
  • Their win over the 3-13 Indianapolis Colts came down to a missed field goal
  • Twice in overtime situations, Bill Cowher opted to ride The Bus to the end zone, rather than kick a field goal
  • When the Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in late November, they responded with 3 straight wins

Greg Lloyd’s loss, in many ways, epitomized the 1997 season.

Greg Lloyd had been a dominate player and a fan favorite for the Steelers since the late 1980s. He’d lost his 1996 season to injury, and suffered a slow start to 1997. But he’d registered a sack in each of the three games leading up to the Eagles game in late November. But just when Greg Lloyd was recovering his playmaking form, he suffered a staph infection on the turf of Veterans Stadium.

But the team took the loss in stride. Former 7th round pick Carlos Emmons stepped into the starting role and while he wasn’t a superstar, he held his own. And so it was across the depth chart.

Neither free agent Cortney Hawkins nor rookie Will Blackwell were quite as good as Ernie Mills and Andre Hastings had been, but both authored strong seasons on smaller contracts. The same can be said for defensive end Nolan Harrison.

At cornerback, Chad Scott had a pretty strong rookie year, and Bill Cowher liked “the look in his eye.” After Scott, things got tricky at cornerback, but that helped keep the team on the edge, which is exactly where they needed to be.

In that vein, the NFL schedule makers actually did the 1997 Steelers a favor by scheduling four of their final five games on the road.

Comebacks Against Broncos, Patriots Highlight ’97 Regular Season

Letting Rod Woodson go as a free agent is one of the worst personnel decisions in Steelers history – and this from a franchise that cut Johnny Unitas. What makes that decision even dumber is the fact that they tried to replace him with Donnell Woolford.

  • Wolford struggled along as a starter for 12 weeks during the 1997 regular season.
  • The Steelers then went 1-1 on the first two road games of their season ending.

But week 15 brought the Denver Broncos to Three Rivers Stadium and Wolford had no hope of containing John Elway, who’d been burning offenses with Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.

  • So Bill Cowher did what he’d done in 1995 – he moved Carnell Lake to cornerback and started Myron Bell at safety.

For the first time in memory, the Steelers held closed practices and when Bill Cowher was asked where Carnell Lake would play, his response was “defense.”

Not that it seemed to matter at first, as Kordell Stewart started off erratically missing open receivers while John Elway abused W0olford, then relegated to slot corner, to open a 21 to 7 lead in the first 20 minutes. But Stewart rallied throwing two touchdown strikes to Yancey Thigpen to tie at the half, and he then followed with two more runs for touchdowns in the second half.

Yancey Thigpen, Ray Crockett, Steelers vs Broncos

Yancey Thigpen advances on Ray Crockett. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • Jerome Bettis took over the game in the 2nd half, rumbling for 125 yards on 25 carries.

The defense limited Denver to 3 points, and Myron Bell and Carnell Lake helped scuttle the Broncos’ comeback attempts with an interception and a sack.

In the season’s penultimate contest, the Steelers traveled to New England to take on Pete Carroll’s Patriots. This was about as even as a match up as you can find in the NFL. But for most of the evening, the Patriots were getting the better of the Steelers.

  • Holding an 8-point lead with one play before the 2-minute warning, the Patriots only needed to covert a 3rd and 7 for victory.

Drew Bledsoe dropped back to pass. In a Textbook-Zone Blitz move, Kevin Henry slid back into coverage. Bledsoe fired a pass to his left, never seeing Henry who intercepted the ball and took it 37 yards down field.

With two minutes remaining and no time outs, the Steelers ran 6 plays, including one on 4th and 7. With less than 40 seconds left, Kordell Stewart hit Mark Bruener for a touchdown, making it 20-19. Next Kordell connected with Yancey Thigpen for the 2-point conversion, tying the game.

The Steelers won the toss, as Courtney Hawkins and Mark Bruener made critical catches to bring the Steelers to the Patriots 13-yard line where Norm Johnson split the uprights.

The win improved the Steelers’ record to 12-5 and allowed Bill Cowher to rest his starters heading into the playoffs

1997 Playoffs – The Chess Match and the AFC Championship that Got Away

The 1997 Steelers record earned them a first-round bye in the playoffs, but that didn’t save them from a rematch against the New England Patriots. This time the Patriots had to travel to Three Rivers Stadium which is good because the Steelers needed every advantage they could get.

  • Fantasy Football owners moan about games like this, but the truth is it was a textbook defensive chess match.
Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

Mike Vrabel strip-sacks Drew Beldsoe to seal the win in he ’97 AFC playoffs. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

The Steelers drew blood on their first possession, as Kordell Stewart ran for a 40-yard touchdown. The Patriots tacked on an Adam Vinatieri field goal in the 2nd and another in the 4th. And that was it for the scoring.

The game was so tight that Bill Cowher opted to go for it on 4th and goal at the one with less than 2 minutes playing instead of kicking a field goal. The Patriots stopped them, but rookie Mike Vrabel stripped Drew Bledsoe of the ball 8 plays later, sealing the win and bringing Denver back to Three Rivers Stadium for an AFC Championship rematch.

The Steelers jumped to a 14-10 lead early in the 2nd quarter and with just under 5 minutes remaining before half time, consolidated their lead, having moved to Denver’s 35 with a 3rd and 2 to convert.

  • Rather than ram the ball through with Jerome Bettis, Chan Gailey opted to pass
  • Rather than take a safe throw, Kordell Stewart looked to the end zone
  • Rather than throw it away Kordell tried to force it into double coverage by Steve Atwater and Ray Crockett

Yancey Thipgen never had a chance as Crockett intercepted. The Broncos capitalized going up 17-14 inside the 2-minute warning. The Steelers then went 3 and out, burning 68 seconds off of the clock, leaving Denver with 43 to score. John Elway only needed 30 of those to find Ed McCaffrey.

John Elway, Nolan Harrison, Steelers vs Broncos

John Elway torched the Steelers in the 1997 AFC Championship. Photo Credit: Brian Bahr, Getty Images

  • In less than 5 minutes the Denver Broncos had transformed a 14-10 deficit to a 24-14 lead.

Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis opened the second half by marching down the field, executing a methodical clock-consuming drive. This is exactly what the Steelers needed to do to take control of the game. Yet on 2nd and 5 Chan Gailey again opted to pass, and again Kordell Stewart made the wrong decision, hitting Allen Aldridge instead of Charles Johnson.

The Steelers defense forced 4 straight punts, including one on a drive that came following a lost fumble. Kordell Stewart rallied Pittsburgh late in the 4th quarter, connecting with Charles Johnson with 2:46 left.

  • If the defense could force another punt, Pittsburgh had a chance.

Alas, the defense that had kept the Steelers Super Bowl hopes alive during the second half could not stop John Elway from killing the clock. The Denver Broncos won 24-21 and went on to the Super Bowl, ending the Steelers 1997 season.

  • Conference championship losses are disappointing by definition.

One person who wasn’t down was Bill Cowher, who told his team, “We’ll be back.” Who could argue?

In just 2 years the Steelers had replaced at least 12 starters from their Super Bowl XXX squad, and all that separated them from another Super Bowl appearance were a first-year starting quarterback’s growing pains.

The 1997 Pittsburgh Steelers had proven that they could defy gravity.

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1995 Pittsburgh Steelers: Return to Super Bowl, but Trophy “Two Interceptions Too Far”

The 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl hopes crashed 3 yards short of the goal in the AFC Championship  loss to the San Diego Chargers. Heartbreaking though it was, it did lead to the “3 More Yards” off season rallying cry.

  • Alas, the Steelers didn’t start 1995 3 yards short of the Super Bowl, however.

Quite the contrary. In 1995, Bill Cowher would need the Steelers to harness every ounce of energy within the franchise to find those final 3 yards.

Steelers Colts AFC Championship, Aaron Bailey, Randy Fuller, Jim Harbaugh Hail Mary AFC Championship

Randy Fuller bats a pass away from Aaron Bailey. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

1995 Off Season – Tempting Fate

When a franchise falls a hair short of the Super Bowl, its instinct is generally to keep the same team intact. Yet, the Steelers did the opposite in 1995.

Neil O'Donnell, Barry FosterBarry Foster and Eric Green had powered the offense in the Cowher Era, earning a third of the yards and scoring 40% of the touchdowns. The Steelers let Eric Green walk in free agency and sent Barry Foster to Carolina for a song.

  • Yes, their production dipped in 1994, but the moves carried enormous risk.

Pittsburgh replaced Green with Mark Bruener, a first round tight end who “Had no plans to hold a Super Bowl rap video.” Bam Morris’ emergence in 1994 and the arrival of free agent Erric Pegram in 1995 gave the Steelers the comfort they needed to trade the talented, but testy Barry Foster. On defense, the Steelers let Tim McKyer and Gerald Williams depart via the expansion draft, figuring they had enough depth to make up the difference.

These were calculated risks and in May 1995, it looked like the Steelers had lost their gamble when starting cornerback Deon Figures took a stray bullet in the knee while driving through Los Angeles.

  • However, Figures recovered quickly enough to play on opening day.

It seemed that the Steelers had tempted Fate and escaped. As they would soon learn, Fate was in fact a temptress, and one who did not appreciate being scorned.

Season Starts – Fate’s Vengeance Carries a Stiff Price

The Steelers opened the 1995 season in Pittsburgh on Sunday September 3rd with Three Rivers Stadium awash in brilliant sunshine. All was well as the Steelers sat on a 3-0 lead with 1:19 remaining in the 1st quarter as the Lions tried to convert a 3rd and 7.

  • Scott Mitchell passed to Barry Sanders in the flat.
  • Rod Woodson pivoted to make the tackle.

No one remembers now or cared then that Sanders converted the 3rd down because Rod Woodson tore his ACL on the play. Fourteen plays later, Neil O’Donnell converted a third down with a throw to Ernie Mills, then was seen holding his hand after handing off to Bam Morris.

Mike Tomczak was warming up after the TV time out as announcers informed that Neil O’Donnell had broken his hand.

The 1995 season was barley a quarter old, and the Steelers had lost their Hall of Fame cornerback and the starting quarterback. Fate’s vengeance carried a stiff price.

“3 More Yards” Is the Problem, Not the Solution

Although, Pittsburgh rallied to win on opening day on a last second Norm Johnson field goal, the Steelers would play some of their worst football of the Cowher era over the next six weeks.

Sure, Andre Hastings, Carnell Lake, Willie Williams, and Alvoid Mays all made splash plays on special teams and defense to score critical touchdowns that supplied the Steelers with 2 more wins.

Willie Williams, Myron Bell,

Willie Williams and Myron Bell. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • But those performances were exceptions, and not the rule.

While they were in route to a 3-4 start, the Boston Globe’s William McDonough argued that Pittsburgh was hopeless without their four best players from the previous year. The legendary columnist was wrong.

  • Oh, talent deficiencies were hurting hurt the Steelers.

Bam Morris struggled to crack the 3 yards a carry mark and hadn’t sniffed a 100-yard game. Bill Cowher benched Mike Tomcazk twice in favor of Jim Miller, but Miller didn’t give The Chin any reason to stick with him.

But talent really wasn’t the core issue bedeviling the 1995 Steelers as revealed by a simple fact: Their two worst losses came following O’Donnell’s return, first to the expansion Jaguars and second to Bengals.

The problem? Pittsburgh’s was playing with the attitude of a team that actually thought it only needed 3 yards to reach the Super Bowl:

  • Tackles were sloppy
  • Routine passes got dropped
  • Games were lost with balls thrown into traffic while receivers roamed uncovered in the end zone

Focus seemed to be everywhere except on the fundamentals. After 7 games the Steelers were 3-4.

9 Changes for a 9 Game Season

The lasting images of the Steelers Thursday Night Football loss to the Bengals were Alvoid Mays getting tortured and torched by Jeff Blake and Bill Cowher screaming on the sidelines. From a distance, The Chin appeared to be losing control.

Appearances deceive. Bill Cowher was actually asserting control.

Bill Cowher declared it a 9-game season and, as if to prove a point, he made 9 lineup changes:

  • At left tackle Justin Strzelczyk replaced injured John Jackson
  • Rookie Brendan Stai took Strzelczyk’s place starting at right guard
  • John Williams, returned to health, replaced Steve Avery at fullback
  • Bam Morris got benched, replaced by Erric Pegram
  • Jerry Olsavsky stepped in for Chad Brown, who’d suffered a high ankle sprain
  • Brentson Buckner slid over to replace the suspended Joel Steed, and Kevin Henry took his place
  • Myron Bell became the new starter at strong safety

Making 8 lineup changes in one week in the NFL is dramatic. But Bill Cowher’s 9th change bordered on revolutionary: Carnell Lake, who played linebacker at UCLA and started strong safety since 1989, move over to cornerback. This was a bold move, as Lake had never played cornerback, outside of a few series during the 1991 preseason (don’t believe me? Check the August 1991 Steelers Digest editions).

Change came in the locker room. The Steelers held a players-only meeting, banning pagers (Google it) and cellphones from meetings and practices with Greg Lloyd promising to smash the next one he saw.

  • All of this was public knowledge. But Bill Cowher had another change up his sleeve that he was saving for the field.

And this was as electrifying as it was innovative.

“Slash” Is Born!

The following week the Steelers attacked the Jacksonville Jaguars with laser like focus, going up 21-0 at the half and closing with a 24-7 win. The win was impressive and needed. But the real lesson was tucked  into the end of the 1st quarter, when on 3rd and 2, the 4th string quarterback entered the game under center and ran for 16 yards.

Kordell Stewart, Kordell Stewart Slash, Steelers vs Jaguars

Kordell Stewart lines of up his first NFL carry. “Slash” was about to be born. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • It seemed like a gimmick. Instead, it signaled a revolutionary change for the Steelers offense.

But before starting the revolution, the Steelers needed to travel to Chicago, and play a 6-2 Bears team that had been one of the NFL’s best. It wasn’t easy. The Steelers fought the Bears for every blade of grass in a contest that saw the lead change 11 times.

In the end, the Steelers tied the game late in the 4th quarter, snuffed out a Bears comeback attempt with a Willie Williams interception, lost the toss in overtime, forced a punt but kicked a field goal to win it.

  • Against the Bears, Kordell Stewart had run once for two yards and caught another pass for 27.

Although both of those converted 3rd downs, Kordell’s contributions remained largely in the background.

That changed the following week on Monday Night Football, when Kordell Stewart stood under center at the goal line, scrambled from one end of the backfield to the next before connecting with Ernie Mills for his first NFL touchdown pass.

“Slash” was born.

While Neil O’Donnell remained entrenched as the starter, Kordell Stewart’s ability to run, throw and catch gave Pittsburgh’s offense a dynamic weapon that opposing defenses could not cope with. Lest anyone doubt how potent Pittsburgh’s offense became with Slash take a look here (tweet courtesy of Steel City Star):

This wasn’t just a 71-yard touchdown pass, it was the go-ahead score in a game that saw the Steelers start the 2nd half down 13 to 31. The offense evolved in other ways, as Kordell would sometimes join Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings to form an empty set formation which was rare in the NFL in those days, and unheard of in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers stacked wins. Some, like the 20-17 road win over the Browns, were more workman like than others. But most importantly, the Steelers took it in stride, with the implicit understanding that each win was simply a necessary stepping stone toward the playoffs.

Lessons of ’94 Serve Steelers Well in 1995 Playoffs

When the 1994 playoffs arrived, both the Steelers and Steelers Nation regarded the Divisional and AFC Championship games as formalities. The San Diego Chargers had disabused Pittsburgh of such fantasies.

The divisional round brought the Buffalo Bills to Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a steady, 23 to 7 half time lead. They tacked on another field goal to make it 26 to 7. But then the Bills, alternating between Alex Van Pelt and Jim Kelly, scored a second and then a third touchdown.

  • Yet there was no panic on the Steelers sidelines when the Bills made it 21-26 with 12 minutes left to play.
Levon Kirkland, Steelers vs Bills, 1995 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Myron Bell, Darren Perry

Levon Kirkland intercepts Jim Kelly. Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger, Getty Images, via Heavy.com

The Steelers responded with an 11-play drive that burned 5 minutes off the clock and ended with a Bam Morris touchdown. Jerry Olsavsky and Levon Kirkland ended the next two Bills drives with interceptions, allowing Bam Morris to score an insurance touchdown for a 40 to 21 win.

Instead of the euphoria that had engulfed Three Rivers Stadium a year earlier, Greg Lloyd held up 2 fingers, for two more games, as he entered the tunnel, confirming that the Steelers were taking nothing for granted.

  • As the next week would prove, that attitude would serve the entire team well.

Like the Chargers a year before them, the 1995 Indianapolis Colts weren’t supposed to have made it this far. But they upset the AFC favorite Kansas City Chiefs and their demeanor made clear that the Colts arrived in Pittsburgh with every intention of doing the same to the Steelers.

  • The two teams slogged it out in a defensive chess match that lasted three quarters.

Going into the 4th quarter the Steelers held a 13 to 9 lead, having scored the only touchdown in the first half. With about 8 minutes left, Jim Harbaugh hit Floyd Turner for a 47-yard touchdown and a 16 to 13 lead.

  • Steelers Nation uttered a collective, “Here we go again.”

What followed was perhaps the most intense 8 minutes of the decade. Every man on each team, left it all on the field. With just over 3 minutes to play, the Colts had a 3rd and one. A first down would likely allow them to kill the clock. Willie Williams responded; rushing from the opposite side he covered the entire width of the field making an improbable tackle of Lamont Warren for no gain.

You can see Willie William’s tackle here courtesy of Steel City Star (it is number 4, coming @ the 1:26 mark):

Williams’ tackle forced the Colts to punt. Here’s what followed:

  • The Steelers got the ball back but struggled, being forced to convert a 4th and three.
  • Then Neil O’Donnell hit Ernie Mills for a 37-yard hookup that put Pittsburgh at Indy’s 1.
  • Bam Morris ran for no gain. Indy took a time out.
  • Bam Morris ran again, this time scoring, giving the Steelers a 20 to 16 lead.

The Colts had a minute 34 and were far from finished. Jim Harbaugh converted 3rd and 4th downs as he moved the Colts to the Steelers 29 with time for one throw. He heaved it towards the end zone. It found Aaron Bailey through a crowd and landed on his lap.

Bailey closed on the ball for a second, but Randy Fuller knocked it away.

Time expired and the Steelers were heading to Super Bowl XXX.

Super Bowl XXX – Two Interceptions Too Far

The Dallas Cowboys were undeniably the dominate team of the early 1990’s. The only thing keeping them from winning more Super Bowls was Jerry Jones’ ego and insistence on Barry Switzer over Jimmy Johnson.

Rod Woodson, Michael Irvin, Steelers vs Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX

Rod Woodson beats Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: @Sports Pics, via Behind the Steel Curtain

  • It says here that Vegas odds makers were right to favor Dallas in this game.

But was 17 points too much?

For the first 26 minutes of the game, that margin seemed about right. The Steelers played with stage fright and quite frankly, were lucky to hold the Cowboys to 13 points. But late in the 2nd quarter, Tory Aikman tried to hook up with Michael Irvin on third down only to have Rod Woodson knock the ball away.

Woodson’s presence alone was a medical miracle, let alone a play such as that against a fellow Hall of Famer.

The Steelers went to work and clawed their way down the field. The first half closed with Neil O’Donnell connecting with Yancey Thigpen for a touchdown. The Steelers were down 13 to 7 but had put themselves back into the game by halftime.

…Unfortunately, Neil O’Donnell almost took them back out of the game when early in the 3rd quarter he threw directly to Larry Brown who returned the ball 30 yards, setting up an easy Cowboys touchdown.

The Steelers refused to fade or fold.

They opened the 4th quarter with a Norm Johnson field goal, followed by a surprise-on-sides kick that Deon Figures recovered. Pittsburgh was not only going to continue to play, it was playing to win.

Larry Brown, John L. Williams, Steelers vs Cowboys, Larry Brown interception Super Bowl XXX, Larry Brown pick six Super Bowl XXX

Larry Brown en route to end zone in Super Bowl XXX. Photo Credit: Al Belo, Getty Images via surgexsportsblitz.com

O’Donnell quickly moved the team down the field, and in just 3 minutes, Bam Morris was in the end zone, making it a 20 to 17 game. The Steelers forced the Cowboys to punt on a drive that featured their only sack of the game, an 8-yard drop by Levon Kirkland.

  • The Steelers got the ball back.

To this day, people argue whether Andre Hastings ran the wrong route or not, but what is clear is that Neil O’Donnell again threw it directly to Larry Brown. And again Larry Brown returned into the Steelers Red Zone. And again, Emmitt Smith did what he did so well – score touchdowns.

  • The final score read Cowboys 27 Steelers 17.

Bill Cowher’s Steelers opened the season by losing their best player. By midseason they were facing an abyss. The effort of the 1995 Steelers in turning the season around is worthy of story and song.

But at the end of the day, the truth is that Pittsburgh had glimpsed the Mountain Top, but it was two interceptions too far.

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1994 Pittsburgh Steelers: Over Confidence Is Cowher’s Achilles Heel

Despite having been painfully unready for Prime Time in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 1994 as AFC favorites. Perhaps that’s because Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe reacted swiftly to 1993’s disappointment.

An overtime playoff loss ended the 1993 Steelers season thanks to a blocked punt and an inability to convert third downs. Bill Cowher summarily fired special teams coach John Guy and also dismissed defensive line coach Steve Furness and wide receivers coach Bob Harrison.

  • To replace them, Bill Cowher hired Bobby April, John Mitchell and Chan Gailey.

Roster changes followed. Starting wide receiver and defensive ends Jeff Graham, Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans were shown the door via free agency. Fan favorite fullback Merril Hoge signed with Chicago. Todd Kalis replaced a troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • Then, as they do now, Steelers fans clamored for splash free agency signings.

Fans craved Darryl Johnson and Alvin Harper who visited Pittsburgh. The Steelers signed Ray Seals and John L. Williams instead. Dan Rooney also made the Steelers regular season contract blackout policy permanent, hoping to eliminate contract distractions that had plagued 1993.

Barry Foster, seconds after Dennis Gibson batted away the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Boltbeat.com

Reverse Omen: Steelers Opening Day Ass Kicking Signals Good Things…

As they had in 1993, the 1994 Steelers opened with a potential Super Bowl preview. This time the honor of whipping Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf with the Steelers faces fell to the Dallas Cowboys.

  • Charles Haley sacked Neil O’Donnell 4 times, with Cowboy defenders adding 5 more
  • Michael Irvin torched Rod Woodson for 8 catches and 139 yards
  • Emmitt Smith steamrolled the Steelers, rushing for 171 yards
  • The Cowboy defense bottled Barry Foster to 44 yards
Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

The final score read 26-9, but it might as well have been 51-0, leading Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik to opine:

There are 15 games to go. The Steelers will get better. But they are not likely to ever get as good as the media projected them to be.

True to his style, Smizik made many dubious assertions, but who could dispute his conclusion? But in hindsight, it was actually a good thing…

…The 1994 Dallas debacle confirmed a Cowher Era trend. When the Steelers struggled on opening day under Cowher, they bounced back for strong seasons. Opening day wins foreshadowed less rosier outcomes.

The Steelers bounced back big in week two against the Browns, notching their first win in Cleveland since 1989. As Steeler Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded, the logic of divisional tie breakers dictated that if the Steelers were to start 1-1, it was far better to beat Cleveland than Dallas.

1994 Steelers Field: Very, VERY Good Defense

You can’t label the 1994 Steelers defense as “Great” because they didn’t add a Lombardi. But let’s be clear: The 1994 Steelers defense was damn good.

Rod Woodson and Kevin Greene were authoring Hall of Fame careers. Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake were hitting their primes. Chad Brown was coming into his own, and Levon Kirkland was covering receivers downfield the way no 300 pounder had a right to.

Ray Seals, Joel Steed, Gerald Williams/Brentson Buckner weren’t Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith but, for the first time since the 70’s, the Steelers defensive line was an asset.

  • Blitzburgh had been born.

The 1994 Steelers set a franchise record of 55 sacks which stood until 2017. They only allow opponents to break the 20-point mark 5 times and only yielded 14.6 points per game.

This is exactly what Pittsburgh needed because the 1994 Steelers offense struggled early and often.

Growing Pains: Evolving the Offense Beyond Forcing it to Foster and Green

Steelers offensive philosophy early in the Cowher era had been: “Feed the ball to Foster.” But Barry Foster’s mid-1993 injury had left the Steelers offense rudderless. Leroy Thompson had attitude issues and simply wasn’t good enough. The coaches refused to rush Merril Hoge. Neil O’Donnell compensated by forcing the ball to Eric Green. The strategy failed.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe retooled in earnest.

They replaced Thompson with Bam Morris. The Steelers demoted Dwight Stone, drafted Charles Johnson and enhanced Ernie Mills’ role. New wide receivers coach Chan Gailey noticed that 3 of 10 catches made by an obscure wide-receiver had gone for touchdowns. The player was Gailey gave Yancey Thigpen more opportunities.

  • The Steelers had improved their offense, on paper.

But improvement went MIA during the season’s first twelve weeks as the Steelers struggled to score, averaging just 17.6 points per game, or three points more than the defense was averaging against opponents.

  • By week 10 the Steelers had endured nail-biter after nail-biter to reach 7-3.

Things changed when Bill Cowher benched Neil O’Donnell and started Mike Tomczak.

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

The record clearly reflects that Neil O’Donnell had sprained an ankle. But it still felt Cowher’s decision was motivated by more than injury. Whether by design or by happenstance, sitting O’Donnell for two games sparked Pittsburgh’s offense.

In quarterbacking wins against Miami and Oakland, Mike Tomczak shifted the focus of the Steelers passing attack from Eric Green to the wide receivers. In the season’s first ten weeks, Eric Green had either been the leading receiver or tied a wide receiver for the lead 7 times. After week 10, Green only led in one game.

  • Bill Cowher made another critical decision going into December.

Prior to that point, Charles Johnson and Andre Hastings had started in quarters 1 and 3, while Yancey Thigpen and Ernie Mills started in quarters 2 and 4. Cowher scrapped the rotation in week 13. With Thigpen and Mills starting, the Steelers offense wasn’t the greatest show on turf, but its average points per game jumped from 17.6 to 23.3!

Steelers End Regular Season with Pre-Playoff Dress Rehearsal

The 1994 Steelers combination of suffocating defense and a workman-like offense gave Pittsburgh an 11-3 record heading into the final two weeks, with a show down against Cleveland and a trip to San Diego waiting.

  • The Browns brought a 10-4 record and AFC Central title hopes to Pittsburgh.

The Browns never had a chance. The score read 17-7, but Cleveland never even remotely threatened to put the outcome in doubt. Beating the Browns secured both the AFC Central as well as playoff home- field advantage.

So Bill Cowher rested his starters for the final game against the Chargers, which went down to the wire but saw San Diego squeak out a last second win. No one worried, because San Diego had barely made the playoffs. Besides, everyone knew the Chargers were going nowhere. Didn’t they?

1994 Steelers Thump Browns in Playoffs

The high-water mark of the Steelers-Brown rivalry came on January 7, 1995. With all due respect, the 21st century Steelers-Ravens rivalry has nothing on the Steelers-Browns 20th century predecessor! The two teams shared a hatred for each other that was as hard wired into their cities as it was their rosters.

  • The atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium was so electric that the Steelers couldn’t properly introduce their starters.

Pregame, Bill Cowher spoke, relishing playing this game in the snow. Bill Belichick boldly declared he’d run Leroy Hoard between the tackles and dare the Steelers to stop him.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel. Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Steelers scored on their first three possessions, while the Browns dropped their first two passes. Late in the first half, with the Steelers leading 17-3 Cleveland made a show of contesting the game when Eric Turner recovered an Ernie Mills fumble. Tim McKyer responded with an interception that he returned to the Cleveland 6. Three plays later Yancey Thigpen celebrated a touchdown by waving a Terrible Towel in the end zone.

  • Three Rivers Stadium erupted.

For the record, Vinny Testaverde only threw two interceptions and the Steelers only sacked him twice, but by the time Carnell Lake dropped him for a safety late in the 4th, Vinny looked like he was just ready to go home. Barry Foster, John L. Williams and Bam Morris racked up 238 rushing yards on the NFL’s stiffest run defense.

Bill Belichick plan to impose his will via Leroy Hoard up the middle had yielded 8 yards on three carries.

  • One can only wonder why no one was calling Bill Belichick a genius then.

After the game Bill Cowher declared: “I thought that the first half was the best half of football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

The Chin was right. And at that point in the Cowher era, such a conclusion was cause for concern.

3 Yards Short….

During 1994 Bill Cowher’s Steelers appeared to have matured. Their offense had taken time to find its legs, and the team hadn’t authored any dramatic “statement” wins such as the ’93 Steelers win over the Bills.

But, outside of the opening day loss to Dallas the 1994 Steelers hadn’t suffered any catastrophic breakdowns.

  • The Steelers, it seemed, had learned to handle success.

Yet that changed the Wednesday before the 1994 AFC Championship, when the Steelers openly discussed rehearsal plans to film a Super Bowl rap video.

Outside of Pittsburgh the story read as if this had been some secret which leaked prior to the game, but Ed Bouchette wrote a feature-length story in the Post-Gazette on the Super Bowl Rap video plans, including quotes from key players and production details. Even though the internet was in its infancy and social media was a decade off, and even though Bill Cowher erupted at his team (although he may have known about the plans in advance) the damage was done.

  • The Steelers looking past the San Diego Chargers was the lede to the AFC Championship.

Unlike the week before, the weather in Pittsburgh was an unseasonable 59 degrees. The Steelers scored on its first possession on a pass to John L. Williams, and then the teams traded punts for the next 20 minutes. San Diego kicked for three, late in the first half. The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 12, but a holding penalty pushed them back, and they settled for a Gary Anderson field goal and a 10-3 lead going into the locker room.

  • At half time, NBC commentator Joe Gibbs warned that “San Diego might steal this game from them….”

San Diego didn’t wait long to being its “Robbery.” The Steelers advanced to the San Diego 6 on their first procession of the second half, yet had to settle for another field goal. Disaster struck the Steelers on the next series.

The Chargers sold a play action pass perfectly. So perfect that the entire Steelers defense bought it.

  • 43 yards later Alfred Pupunu was running untouched into the end zone to tie the score.
Alfred Pupunu, Steelers vs Chargers, 1994 AFC Championship Game

Alfred Pupunu burns the entire Steelers defense in the AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Charlie Neuman, San Diego Union-Tribune

The teams traded punts for the next 5 series. Then, with just over 5 minutes left, Tim McKyer blew his assignment and Tony Martin took it 43 yards to the house.

With 5 minutes left it was all on Neil O’Donnell’s shoulders, as San Diego had neutered Pittsburgh’s running game all day. O’Donnell went to work from his own 17 with Ben Roethlisberger-like precision.

He brought the Steelers to the 9 before throwing an incomplete pass. Barry Foster lost a yard on 1st down. O’Donnell missed Eric Green on 2nd. ON third O’Donnell hit John L. Williams, who made it to San Diego’s three.

The Steelers called time out. On the sidelines Neil O’Donnell stood with Ron Ernhart and Bill Cowher, who cracked a joke. It was 4th and goal for the Super Bowl.

  • Neil O’Donnell fired at Barry Foster.
  • Foster got his hands on the ball.
  • But Dennis Gibson drilled the ball away.

That was it. It was over.

The 1994 Steelers had fallen 3 yards short of the Super Bowl. Once again, over confidence had proven to be Bill Cowher’s Achilles heel.

Thanks for visiting. To access our full series on Bill Cowher click here (and scroll up or down).

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Stop the James Washington Limas Sweed Comparisons. Steelers Rookie Wide Outs Often Start Slow

Steelers wide receiver James Washington has had a disappointing year thus far but comparisons to Limas Sweed must stop.

Full disclosure: If you frequent this site, you know that I called out James Washington after the loss to the Broncos and said that his play was making activating Eli Rogers an attractive option. And when Eli Rogers returned to practice, I augured that the Steelers offense currently lacks a legit number 3 wide receiver.

  • I stand by those criticisms.
James Washington, James Washington Drop, Steelers vs Jaguars

James Washington drops a pass. Photo Credit: AP, via ProFootballTalk.com

But if it is true that James Washington’s rookie campaign pales in contrast to JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s efforts just one year ago, then it’s even more true that JuJu’s rookie performance was an exception.

  • Even a cursory look at history reveals Steelers wide receivers tend to struggle as rookies.

Pittsburgh 247’s Jim Wexell took aim at the Limas Sweed comparison, and after conceding that both were from Texas, both 2nd round picks, and both having grown up on farms, he offered this insight:

Through the same points in their 2010 rookie seasons, Antonio Brown had two catches in 21 targets; Emmanuel Sanders had 13 catches in 23 targets.

Compared to Antonio Brown, James Washington is killing it with his 8 catches on 25 targets! But in that light he’s no different than other rookie Steelers wide receivers who started slowly.

Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers Tend to Start Slowly

As a rookie, Hines Ward had 15 catches on 33 targets. While targeting numbers aren’t available, Lynn Swann had 11 catches and John Stallworth had 16. Combine those numbers and they hardly project to one Hall of Fame career, let alone two.

But Yancey Thigpen, while not a rookie, had all of one catch during his first season in Pittsburgh and only 9 more his next (although 3 of those were for touchdowns.) Ernie Mills had two catches as a rookie. Both went on to author fine careers as Steelers.

Sure, at this point James Washington is best known for plays he hasn’t made as a rookie, but so was Plaxico Burress. And there’s an important difference there. In diving unnecessarily to catch Ben Roethlisberger‘s throw, James Washington was simply trying too hard. By spiking the ball in the open field when he wasn’t down, Plaxico Burress was simply being dumb.

  • There’s one other thing to keep in mind: Strong rookie seasons, while promising, guarantee nothing.

Troy Edwards caught 61 passes as a rookie and scored 5 touchdowns. He started 1 game and caught 37 passes in two more seasons in Pittsburgh, and never matched his rookie campaign in 4 more seasons in the NFL.

Saying that James Washington’s rookie season has disappointed this far is simply observing the truth, but writing him off as a bust is foolishness in its purest form.

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Pittsburgh Steelers History vs Chicago Bears

The Pittsburgh Steelers history vs the Chicago Bears is long and rather tortured for Pittsburgh, dating back to 1934, with the Steel City suffering a 7-21-1 record against Windy City. The founders of both franchises, Art Rooney Sr. and George Halas are both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While the lopsidedness of the Steelers history vs. the Bears might be due to Pittsburgh’s ineptness during the pre-Chuck Noll era, Pittsburgh’s record in Chicago remains a woeful 1-12.

This chronicle of Steelers history vs the Bears only goes back 31 years that have seen Pittsburgh square off against Chicago 8 times. Indeed, a see-saw dynamic characterizes recent Steelers-Bears history, with the Steelers seem to celebrate glorious victories or agonizing defeats, with very little in between.

Either scroll down or click on the links below to relive key moments in the Pittsburgh Steelers history vs. the Chicago Bears:

Steelers history vs bears, Steelers vs. bears, Antonio Brown, Charles Tillman

Antonio Brown catches a touchdown in front of Charles Tillman of the Bears. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

1986 – Ditka Takes the Wind over the Ball in OT

November 30, 1986 @ Solider Field
Chicago 13, Pittsburgh 10

The 4-8 Steelers gave the defending Super Bowl Champion Bears a run for their money, even though they did not score an offensive touchdown. But that was good enough to force overtime when…

Iron Mike elected to kickoff, trusting in the wind and his defense. The Bear’s defense vindicated their coach, forcing a punt and setting up Kevin Butler’s winning kick.

  • Fun Fact: The Steelers only touchdown came in the third quarter on a fake field goal from Harry Newsome to tight end Preston Gothard.

1989 – Steelers Suffer Third Shut Out of Season

November 11, 1989 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Chicago 20, Pittsburgh 0

Aliquippa native Mike Dikta gave himself a hell of a home coming during the only game he coached at Three Rivers Stadium. His Bears netted 6 turnovers, wracked up 203 rushing yards, and held Pittsburgh to 54 rushing yards during their 20-0 shut out.

1992 – Cowher’s Achilles Heel or Mike Singletary’s Final Game in Chicago?

December 13, 1992 @ Solider Field
Chicago 30, Pittsburgh 6

Rookie head coach Bill Cowher‘s 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers had taken the NFL by storm. They traveled to Chicago with a 10-3 record and a chance to clinch their first AFC Central Title since 1984. Cowher Power had rejuvenated the Steelers.

  • The sky was the limit. Or was it?

The Cowher’s Steelers fell flat on their faces. And then the Bears stomped all over them, to the tune of 30-6. Barry Foster ran 12 times for 25 yards. The Bears sacked Bubby Brister 5 times and picked him off twice. Worst of all, Pittsburgh looked lethargic and unfocused.

NBC commentator Bill Parcells attributed the result to the emotional surge occasioned by Mike Singletary’s final game in Chicago, sharing something to the effect, “I was in the Bear’s locker room prior to the game, and this was a team clearly ready to play.”

  • Cowher’s Admission: During Cowher’s early tenure, over confidence was his Steeler’s chronic Achilles heel. Cowher would perhaps dispute this general observation, but a number of years later he admitted that the 1992 game against the Bears was one of the few times the team had not been mentally prepared to play.
Greg Lloyd, Rashan Salaam, Pittsburgh Steelers history vs Chicago Bears, Steelers vs Bears

Greg Lloyd closes in on the Bears Rashan Salaam in the Steelers 1995 over the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

1995 – Steelers Streak to the Super Bowl, Vol. I – Super Bowl XXX

November 5th, 1995
Pittsburgh 37, Chicago 34

The 1995 Steelers started 3-4, and looked ugly doing it. After a particularly egregious loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Bill Cowher declared it was now a “9 game season.” Having beaten the Jaguars in week 8, they traveled to Chicago to take on the 6-2 Bears.

  • This was one of the most exciting games the Steelers have every played.

The lead changed 5 times and the score was tied 3 times as the Steelers and Bears fought back and forth in this titanic struggle.

Hope faded for the Steelers when Barry Minter returned an interception to put the Bears up 34 to 27 late in the fourth. But Neil O’Donnell rebounded, taking the Steelers the length of the field capping off the drive with a 11 yard strike to Ernie Mills to tie it up just inside the two minute warning.

Cowher seemed ready to gamble it all when he sent in the 2 point conversion unit, forcing the Bears to burn their final time out. The Steelers kicked the extra point instead, and Willie Williams picked off Eric Kramer in OT, to set up Norm Johnson’s game winning field goal.

  • Cowher’s Quote: When asked if such a dramatic victory might have been a character building exercise for his recently struggling Steelers, Cowher’s response was concise and correct – “Games like this do not build character, they display it.”

That character carried the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl XXX

1998 – Steelers Start season 2-0, But…

September 13, 1998 @ Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh 17, Bears 12

The 1997 Steelers had finished 11-5 and only two Kordell Stewart goal line interceptions away from the Super Bowl. They’d beaten the Ravens 20-13 the week before, but had not looked good doing it.

The Steelers defeated the Bears 17-12 on the strength of Jerome Bettis 131 years rushing.

  • Cause for concern: Kordell Stewart went 17-30-1-1. Not bad numbers, but he only threw for 137 yards and was only 4-4 rushing. Whether it was because Ray Sherman didn’t know what he was doing, or a lack confidence, but this was the beginning of a tentative and timid Stewart, as opposed to the swashbuckling Slash that Steelers fans had seen before.

2005 – Steelers Streak to the Super Bowl, Vol. II Super Bowl XL

December 11, 2005 @ Heinz Field
Pittsburgh 21, Chicago 9

The Bears were coming off an 8 game winning streak. Despite their 7-5 record, the Steelers were coming off a 3 game losing streak, and looking at the possibility of needing to run the table to make the playoffs. The Steelers were up to the task, as the Bus led the march that ended with One for the Thumb in Super Bowl XL.

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

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss

The Steelers totally dominated the Bears in the snow at Heinz Field. Jerome Bettis ripped off 101 yards as he plowed through Brian Urlacher and the Bears defense. Willie Parker was close behind him with 68 yards. Ben Roethlisberger hit seven different receivers, as the Steelers out gained the Bears by almost 100 yards, and dominated time of possession to the tune of 37:19 to 22:41

  • Bettis Final 100 Yard Game: This was Bettis’ 50th 100 yard game with the Steelers, a team record. It was also to be the Bus’ final 100 yard effort, and he gained all but one of them in the second half. He also scored 2 TD’s for the 16th time in his career, which brought him to 4th on the Steelers all-time scoring list.

2009 – Super Bowl Champion Steelers Slip, Signal Things to Come…

September 20th, 2009 @ Solider Field
Chicago 17, Pittsburgh 14

The defending Super Bowl Champions had won their opener doing what they had done during the previous season – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But this trip to Solider Field showed that things would not be so easy for the 2009 Steelers.

The Steelers got on the board quickly with a clockwork like opening drive engineered by Ben Roethlisberger. But Roethlisberger threw an interception and he was off after that, overthrowing and underthrowing receivers and throwing balls that were either too low or two high. Ben Roethlisberger had help however,

Despite that, the Steelers hung in and appeared to be set to repeat history – pull out a win at the last moment.

Unfortunately Jeff Reed missed a long field goal, giving Chicago a victory. Unlike their ’08 brethren, this was to be the first of many last minute losses for the ’09 Steelers….

2013 – Bears Pass Rush Overwhelms Steelers en Route to 0-3 Start

September 22, 2013 @ Heinz Field
Chicago 40, Bears 23

Sometimes single tweet says it all. That’s the case with this Dale Lolley gem that still resonates long after the Steelers 2013 loss to Chicago:

  • That might seem like a harsh exaggeration, but rest assured my fellow citizens of Steelers Nation, it is not.

The 2013 Steelers entered the game at 0-2, yet both of those games had some extenuating circumstances (such as losing 3 starters in their opener to the Tennessee Titans.) But this was the height of the Mike Adams experiment on offensive line and, truth be told, the jury was still very much out on Marcus Gilbert at that point.

Ben Roethlisberger barley had time to breath, let along throw that night, as the Steelers signal’s turnovers directly led to two Bear’s touchdowns. Chicago jumped to a 27-3 lead, until a Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown hookup evened the score to 27-10 at the half.

  • The Steelers opened the 2nd half by 13 unanswered points to bring it to 27-23 by the beginning of the 4th quarter.

Alas, a Jay Cutler scramble on 3rd and 10 gave Chicago new life, and set up a score. The Steelers tired to match, but a Roethlsiberger fumble was returned to Pittsburgh’s six yard line and the Steelers started 2013 0-3.

 

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Gary Anderson’s Overtime Field Goal in 1989 @ Astrodome Still a Touchstone in Tough Times

In the movie Invincible, Vince Papale‘s dad, who, like his son, was going through some tough times in his life, mentioned the 1948 NFL Championship Game between the Eagles and Cardinals. Running back Steve Van Buren scored the only touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter to clinch a 7-0 victory for Philadelphia. Vince’s father, a long-time blue-collar worker, said that touchdown served as a touchstone that got him through 30 years at the local factory.

  • After six Super Bowl titles and countless other postseason victories over the past 44 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers fans have given their own nation-wide legion of fans their own touchstones.

For some Steelers fans of course, winning the Super Bowl this year and bringing home the seventh Lombardi is the only thing that matters. It’s the only thing that mattered last year, the year before that, and every other year since the franchise became the standard-bearer for championship success back in the 1970s. Playoff victories, let along mere playoff appearances, simply don’t cut it.

As a life-long Steelers fan, I’m here to tell you that, for me, personally, you can get a ton of traction out of your favorite football team simply making the playoffs. Take last year, for example. After a Week 16 loss to the lowly Ravens, Pittsburgh was on the outside, looking in at January football. The Jets controlled their own playoff destiny, while the Steelers had to not only take care of business in Cleveland, but rely on a Bills‘ team whose offseason destination included golf courses and resorts having enough motivation to knock off a division rival.

  • Lo and behold, while the Steelers were dispatching of the Browns, Rex Ryan’s charges knocked off his old team, and Pittsburgh’s postseason ticket was punched.

I called at least two family members to celebrate because it truly felt like the Steelers accomplished something special.

Twenty years ago this past January, the Steelers fell to the heavily-favored Cowboys, 27-17, in Super Bowl XXX. Going into the game as a two-touchdown underdog, one would think Steelers fans might feel pride in the team’s effort. However, after falling behind 13-0 in the first half, Pittsburgh dominated the action the rest of the way and had America’s Team on the ropes. Only problem was, Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell forever cemented his legacy as one of the biggest goats in Pittsburgh sports history by throwing two second half interceptions that led directly  to 14 points for Dallas.

  • To this day, when you mention the O’Donnell interceptions Steelers, fans bemoan the outcome and what could have been.

However, for me, I’ll always have fond memories of the Steelers run to the Super Bowl, after starting out the 1995 campaign 3-4 and looking totally outclassed at home by both the Vikings and Bengals in two of those four losses. That Bill Cowher inspired rebound gave me a quartet of “Steelers never forget” moments:

  • the 49-31 triumph in Cincinnati after the team fell behind 31-13 in the second half.
  • Neil O’Donnell hitting Ernie Mills for 37 yards down the right sideline to the one-yard line in the waning moments of the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium causing  my two uncles embrace in our living room.
  • Colts’ quarterback Jim Harbaugh‘s Hail Mary pass falling to the turf in the end zone as time ran out
  • the euphoria that Sunday night when it finally sunk in that my Steelers, the team I had been watching for 15 years, was actually going to the Super Bowl.

I’ll never forget the celebratory feeling I had over the course of the next two weeks, as I took in everything about Super Bowl XXX and all things Pittsburgh and Dallas.

Was Super Bowl XXX’s ending sour? Yes. But sometimes, as Chuck Noll would likely remind us, it’s about the journey and not just the destination.

  • As a kid in the 1980s, I had very little memory of the 1970s. Therefore, those four Super Bowls and the heroes that brought them to Pittsburgh seemed almost mythical to me.
  • Thanks to NFL Films, I received a nice little education on the previous decade, and all those legends who dominated the football landscape every Sunday afternoon. But the reality for me in the ’80s was mediocre talent and mediocre records.
  • So, when I look back on Super Bowl XXX, I don’t get depressed or feel like ‘O Donnell cheated me out of a title. I cherish that time, because I never thought I’d actually witness my favorite football team play on the game’s biggest stage in-front of a world-wide audience.

And that brings me to the magical playoff-run of 1989 Steelers, when they rebounded from starts of 0-2 and 4-6 start to finish at 9-7 and make the postseason as a wildcard team. A lot of dominoes fell in Pittsburgh’s favor on Christmas Eve in Week 16, as several teams lost, while Pittsburgh defeated the lowly Buccaneers.

  • But there was one final domino that needed to fall on Christmas night: The Vikings had to knock off the Bengals on Monday Night Football.

After falling behind 19-0,  the Bengals, the defending AFC champions, had crawled back to within 22-21 and looked poised to indirectly ruin Pittsburgh’s holiday. But believe it or not, some guy named Brent Novoselsky eased  everyone’s fears when he pulled in a one-yard touchdown pass from Wade Wilson in the closing moments to make it 29-21 and clinch a postseason berth for not only the Vikings, but the Steelers, as well.

I can still see Dwayne Woodruff, Pittsburgh’s veteran cornerback, who the ABC network had been corresponding with throughout the game from a remote location, throwing his hands up in victory, after Novoselsky’s score. Speaking of hands, I can still feel the nervous tingle in mine as I watched the end of that Vikings/Bengals match-up that night.

  • Unfortunately, my Steelers playoff-clinching celebration took a bit of a backseat to family unrest during the remainder of my high school Christmas break.

For a 17-year old with no where to escape the drama, my only release was dreaming about Pittsburgh’s wildcard match-up with the hated Oilers in the Astrodome on December 31, 1989.

Gary anderson, steelers, oilers, astrodome, 1989, wild card, playoffs

Gary Anderson splitting the uprights @ the Houston Astrodome; Photo credit: Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

You can read the specifics of the Steelers upset victory at the Astrodome here, but after legendary kicker Gary Anderson nailed a 50-yard field goal in overtime to give the Steelers a 26-23 victory, all the tension and drama I had been feeling that week was suddenly washed away.

  • As I walked around my neighborhood that night, thoughts of family strife were non-existent.

Here we are, some 27 years later, and I still have fond memories of that season and that single moment when I jumped out of my living room chair after Gary Anderson‘s over time field goal sailed through the uprights.

Gary Anderson’s overtime game winner in 1989 at the Astrodome didn’t secure a championship for the Steelers, but it instantly turned a bad time in my life into one that I still cherish to this day.

 

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