“You should expect to win on Sunday.” – Billy Cowher prior to the 1992 season.
In the blink of an eye in 1992 Bill Cowher catapulted the Pittsburgh Steelers from an NFL afterthought to a contender. His secret? Cowher believed in his roster when no one else did. More importantly, Bill Cowher convinced his players to believe in themselves and to “expect to win on Sunday.”
Confidence is critical to championships, yet the story of the 1993 Steelers shows that Cowher’s players took his words a little too closely to heart.
Zen Arrives in Pittsburgh with the 1993 Steelers Yin and Yang
The 1993 Steelers either played Super Bowl Championship-caliber football or football worthy of a team contending for draft position. There were no in betweens.
Hyped as a possible Super Bowl preview, the Steelers opened at home against the San Francisco 49ers, and Pittsburgh promptly lost. The 24 to 13 final was never as close as the score suggests. But Mike Tomczak played most of the game for Neil O’Donnell who was fighting tendonitis, so no one sounded the alarm.
- No such excuses existed a week later however when the lowly Los Angeles Rams delivered Steelers their first shutout since 1989.
The Steelers rebounded by winning its next two games, and then authored what appeared to be statements victories over San Diego and New Orleans.
The Steelers defense dominated the San Diego Chargers so thoroughly that future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene declared: “This is like the WWF or something.” Even though the final score read 16-3, San Diego never had a chance.
Next New Orleans brought a 5-0 record to Pittsburgh, but left only making 3 first downs in the first 3 quarters. Rod Woodson played a career game that day, waiting just 90 seconds to take Wade Wilson’s opening pass 63 yard for a touchdown. He then intercepted Wilson two series later. The Steelers sacked Wade Wilson 5 times, held him to 6 of 23 passing.
In keeping with the season’s character, the Steelers traveled to the cursed confines of Cleveland Stadium and dominated in every statistical category possible, only to lose due to an inability to stop Eric Metcalf on not one, but two punt returns.
On Monday November 15th, 1993 the reigning AFC Alpha Male, the Buffalo Bills brought their 7-1 record to Three Rivers Stadium. One play tells the story (video courtesy of Steel City Star):
By far, my most requested video for Steelers-Bills week….
Gary Jones wrecks Don Beebe on MNF 1993.pic.twitter.com/619HroIGmF
— Steel City Star (@steelcitystar) December 11, 2020
Gary Jones’ hit on Don Beebe, which would be illegal today, and it only marks the tip of the iceberg. The Steelers defense also knocked Jim Kelly out of the game with a concussion and broke Andre Reed’s wrist in a 23-0 shutout.
The Monday Night Football ass-kicking the Steelers delivered to the Bills seemingly signaled the passing of the torch for AFC dominance.
Instead, the win proved Bill Cowher’s young Steelers couldn’t handle success. Six days later the Broncos smashed the Steelers 37 to 14 in Denver. Unfortunately, the manic-depressive character of the 1993 Steelers wasn’t the only problem Pittsburgh faced.
Losing Foster Orphans 1993 Steelers Offense
For reasons unknown, Chuck Noll had played Foster sparingly despite his elite talent. Bill Cowher did the opposite. In 1992 Bill Cowher had unleashed Barry Foster as the focal point of the Steelers offense, and Foster delivered, smashing Franco Harris’ single season rushing record.
When in doubt, he fed Foster the ball. The formula of “Get Foster his 100 and get a win” while fallible, worked well.
Unfortunately, Foster had torn ligaments in his left ankle during the Bills’ game and was done for the season. As he’d done against New Orleans, back up Leroy Thompson stepped up to the plate and rushed for 100 yards.
- Those were the only and final 100 yard games of Thompson’s career.
Thompson was a quality backup, but the starting role was too big for him. Worse yet, for long stretches, coaches would seem to “forget” that Merril Hoge ran the ball very well.
In Washington, WMAL’s Ken Beatrice reminded Steelers fans, “Leroy Thompson isn’t going to make anyone forget he’s not Barry Foster.” Yet Thompson was vocal about trying to do just that, signaling another problem….
Enter the Locker Room Lawyers
In the third week of September 1993 the Steelers did something they haven’t done since: they signed Rod Woodson and Barry Foster to new contracts during the season.
- Locking up their best offensive and defensive player made sense.
But the rest of the Steelers locker room wanted theirs too.
Starting defensive ends like Donald Evans and Kenny Davidson vocally criticized management, with tight end Adrian Cooper even suggested his contract situation impacted his performance. Even players like Hoge, whose work ethic remained beyond question, admitted that contract squabbles were a distraction. The Steelers broke off all contract negotiations during the middle of the season, but the damage had been done.
Buddy Ryan, Waiting in the Weeds
Buddy Ryan had arrived as the Houston Oilers defensive coordinator in 1993 and that posed a problem for Pittsburgh. While few noted it in the Steel City, during the 1980’s Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles defense had enjoyed a pretty good run of success against Bill Parcell’s offenses. And those offenses had been coached by Ron Erhardt who was now coaching the Steelers offense….
After entering 1993 as division favorites, the Oilers started 1-4. By the time the Steelers first faced them on Sunday Night Football after Thanksgiving, the Oilers had clawed back to 6-4.
- The Steelers-Oilers series would decide the AFC Central and for one night, the Houston Astrodome was again the House of Pain.
Houston defenders sacked Neil O’Donnell and Mike Tomczak 6 times, with Pittsburgh coaches pulling O’Donnell, admitting that they feared injury. They were wise, as one melee saw Michael Barrow rip off Tomczak’s helmet, put him in a headlock and punch him with relish.
In a play that painfully symbolizes the season, a pass hit Jeff Graham’s hands, bounced off his face mask, and then went through his hands again, all while he was untouched in the end zone. The final score read 23-3 Oilers. The Steeler response was, “We’ll see you 3 weeks.”
In the intervening two weeks the Steelers notched narrow, escape-variety victories against the Patriots and the Dolphins. (Note, Merril Hoge logged 16 carries in those wins – coincidence? I think not.)
Perhaps Gary Anderson’s deep opening kickoff was Pittsburgh’s highlight in the Three Rivers Stadium rematch with Houston. Garbage time glory provided window dressing to 26-17 contest where the Oilers simply spanked the Steelers.
Again, the Oilers sacked O’Donnell and Tomczak 6 times, while O’Donnell threw a pick six. The Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in a game that had seen him deliver Gary Brown a full force hit that failed to even slow the one-season wonder.
Buddy Ryan bragged, “I thought Pittsburgh would play more physical than they did. All the talk they do, they just don’t walk the walk.”
Greg Lloyd Wills 1993 Steelers to Playoffs
The next week, a wounded, flu-stricken Steelers team played Seattle on the day after Christmas where, a running back named Jon Vaughn, who’d never done anything before or since, ran for 138 yards.
Going into the season finale, an 8-7 Steelers team needed a win over Bill Belichick’s 7-8, playing for pride, the Cleveland Browns held Pittsburgh to 9-3 at half time.
- Greg Lloyd exploded at halftime, challenging the offense to do its part.
He led by example, forcing two fumbles and racing down field for an open-field tackle – all on a bum hamstring. With Lloyd leading the way, the Steelers shut out the Browns in the 2nd half scoring 13 unanswered points. The 1993 Steelers finished 9-7 and got the help they needed.
Pittsburgh was headed to the playoffs!
1993 Playoffs: Coming Up Short in Kansas City
The Steelers traveled to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the 1993 AFC Wild Card in a fever-pitched back-and-forth battle. Thing started badly for Pittsburgh when cornerback D.J. Johnson got ejected during the first series, but the Steelers struck first on a Neil O’Donnell to Adrian Cooper touchdown.
From there, the lead would change five times, with the game’s pivotal moment coming after Neil O’Donnell’s go-ahead touchdown to Eric Green late in the 4th quarter. The Steelers defense stoned the Chiefs to force a 3 and out, giving Pittsburgh a chance to kill the clock inside the 2 minute warning.
- Unfortunately, Chief’s defense turned the tables, forcing a punt after just 3 plays.
Keith Cash, a player Bill Cowher had cut in training camp, blocked Mark Royal’s punt and the Chief’s returned it to Pittsburgh’s nine-yard line. Two plays later Joe Montana connected with Tim Barnett to tie the score.
The Steelers offense suffered another three and out, and Pittsburgh braced as a Nick Lowery field goal sailed wide right. After trading punts in overtime, Joe Montana hit Keith Cash to bring Kansas City to the Steelers 32-yard line. Six plays later Nick Lowery was kicking the game winning field goal.
After their Monday Night shut out of the Bills the Pittsburgh had gone 3-4 and now Bill Cowher was 0-2 in the playoffs. The 1993 season and proven that Bill Cowher’s Pittsburgh Steelers simply weren’t ready for Prime Time.
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