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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1998 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Black & Gold Crashes Down to Earth

The 1997 Steelers finished a handful of plays away from winning the AFC Championship. The silver lining was that they had proven they could defy gravity. Pittsburgh had replaced over a dozen Super Bowl XXX starters and  come within a whisker of making Super Bowl XXXII.

  • And they’d done it with Kordell Stewart, a first year starting quarterback.

Sure, Kordell’s twin end zone interceptions had flipped momentum in Denver’s favor. But those were just growing pains. Weren’t they?

The Steelers lost left tackle John Jackson and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen in free agency. Jackson had been a mainstay since Chuck Noll’s time and Thigpen was a playmaking wide out. But big name free agents left Pittsburgh throughout the 1990’s, and the Steelers kept winning.

  • Why would 1998 be any different?

In fact, when two “defectors” Rod Woodson and Eric Green, got cut by their new teams and asked to return to Pittsburgh, Tom Donahoe quipped, “We’re not the Salvation Army.”

  • Steelers Nation snickered.

So did most of the rest of the NFL as one preseason publication (Street and Smiths?) projected Pittsburgh as the NFL’s 3rd best. Sure, cornerback Chad Scott had torn an ACL during OTAs ending his season in May, but the Steelers would compensate. They always did. Right?

By the summer of 1998 everyone just assumed that “The Steelers Way” meant automatically fielding a contender.

The 1998 season would challenge a lot of assumptions about the Steelers.

Greg Jefferies & Robert Porcher bring Jerome Bettis down. Photo Credit: Julian Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press

Preseason Danger Sign: Premium Draft Picks Not Panning Out

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe hid their “secret” for surviving annual free agent exoduses in plain sight: Anticipate departures and draft accordingly. The duo’s first two picks in the 1992 NFL Draft were Leon Searcy and Levon Kirkland. When Tunch Ilkin and Hardy Nickerson left as free agents in the spring of 1993, Searcy and Kirkland took their places.

Levon Kirkland, Frank Reich, Steelers vs Lions

Levon Kirkland closes in on Frank Reich. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • The plan functioned to near perfection through the mid-1990’s.

But it was Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who sensed that something was amiss as preseason ended. He could have focused on the Steelers looking less than stellar that summer. But he didn’t.

  • Instead he focused on two critical position battles at offensive line and wide receiver.

The Steelers had drafted Will Blackwell in 1997 to replace Yancey Thigpen, yet Blackwell couldn’t beat out Courtney Hawkins, who’d been brought to in ’97 Pittsburgh as a 3rd wide receiver. At least that contest had a winner.

At right tackle, Bill Cowher had staged a battle between Jamain Stephens and Paul Wiggins. When neither man stepped up, he injected Chris Conrad into the competition. Conrad failed to grab the opportunity, forcing Cowher to move Will Wolford to left tackle, shifting Justin Strzelczyk from guard to right tackle and starting Roger Duffy in his place while rookie Alan Faneca got ready to start.

  • Stephens, Blackwell, Wiggins, and Conrad represented 1st, 2nd and two 3rd round picks from the ’96, ’97 and ’98 drafts.

None of them were ready to start. Factor in the ACL tear that cornerback Chad Scott, 1997’s first round pick, had suffered during OTAs ending his season in May.

This was not in the plan…..

Veteran Leadership Sorley Lacking for the Steelers

Looking back, the first month of the Steelers 1998 season offered several touchstones that signaled disaster:

  • There were the two lackluster wins over the Ravens and Bears to start the season
  • In week 3 the Dolphins dealt the franchise suffered its first shutout loss in 5 years
  • Kordell Stewart suddenly  looked tentative and was unable, or unwilling, to throw deep

All troubling trends, to be sure, but they were just symptoms of a root problem that was on display in a week 5 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.

Carl Pickens, Dwayne Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

Carl Pickens burns Steelers Dwyane Washington. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

The Steelers had fought a back-and-forth game, with Kordell Stewart leading a comeback just inside the 2 minute warning, only to see the Bengals comeback to win with no time outs. The play that everyone remembers was Neil O’Donnell faking a spike with 2 minutes left and instead hitting Carl Pickens for the go ahead touchdown.

  • The play stung to be sure, but the more telling play come a minute earlier.

The Bengals had started their drive at their own 7. After a few plays, the Steelers defense had the Bengals at 4th and 12 from their own 15, only to see Neil O’Donnell complete a 50 yard pass to Carl Pickens.

The scene screamed for a Greg Lloyd or Rod Woodson to rally the troops – Cincinnati still had 50 yards to go in under a minute and the clock was ticking.

But Lloyd was in Carolina and Woodson in Baltimore, and instead of steeling themselves to make the stop, Pittsburgh’s defenders stood pouting, with their hands on their hips. Given that attitude it is no surprise that that O’Donnell could steal the game by fooling them so easily.

Steelers Tantalize Fans with “Tease Wins” at Midseason

By capitulating to Cincinnati at the final gun the 1998 Steelers had accomplished a rare feat during the Cowher era: They lost a close game. To that point, Bill Cowher’s teams had been blown out and embarrassed plenty of times, but they’d almost always found ways to win the close ones.

  • Although, that was about to change, the 1998 Steelers would not go gently into this good night.

Far from it. Over next the six weeks the 1998 Steelers would tantalize their fans with a series of tease wins. The month of October would see the Steelers drop two decisions to the Tennessee Oilers in the span of 3 weeks.

  • But those losses were staggered by Steelers wins on Monday Night Football over the Chiefs and Packers.
Courtney Hawkins, Steelers vs Packers

Courtney Hawkins advances against the Packers on MNF. Photo Credit: Rick Stewart, Allsport

Both victories came over contenders. Both wins were convincing. Jerome Bettis ran for 100 yards in both games. Kordell Stewart played competent, if unspectacular football. Rookie Hines Ward even completed a pass to Stewart in the Chiefs win.

  • The 2nd loss to the Oilers set up a AFC Central show down at Three Rivers Stadium with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Steelers were ready. Dwayne Washington opened and closed the game with 58 and 74 yard pick sixes. In between, Norm Johnson booted 3 field goals and Mark Bruener scored a touchdown to deliver a convincing, 30 to 15 win over the division leader.

The 1998 Steelers were now 7-4 and heading into a short week and a trip to Detroit for what looked to be a little more than a Thanksgiving layup against a 4-7 Lions team. To boot, Detroit was Jerome Bettis’ hometown and his mother welcomed the team with a Thanksgiving dinner.

What could go wrong?

Thanksgiving Coin Toss Exposes 1998 Steelers as Turkeys

Thanksgiving 1998 is a day that will live in infamy within Steelers Nation.

After a sloppy 4 quarters of football, the Steelers had blown a 13-3 lead only have Norm Johnson kick a last second field goal to force overtime. Jerome Bettis and Carnell Lake took the field. The Bus called “tails.” The coin landed on tails.

  • Phil Luckett awarded the ball to the Lions.

Even the Lions captain Robert Porcher stood dumbfounded. But if this was one of the most egregious examples of an officiating error impacting the outcome of a game, Dan Rooney called it straight when he declared that it never should have come to overtime. The 1998 Detroit Lions were bad team. The Steelers had botched multiple opportunities to put them away.

But just as the Thanksgiving game never should have gone to overtime, a bad coin toss never should have unraveled the entire Steelers 1998 season.

But it did.

Steelers Close 1998 with Total Implosion

The 1998 Steelers didn’t field a championship caliber roster, but they certainly had a playoff caliber team. You’d never know it after watching the final 5 weeks of the season.

A week after the Thanksgiving debacle, the Patriots came to Pittsburgh. The Steelers defense responded to New England going up 23-9 early in the 4th quarter with a 46 yard Earl Holmes interception return that took Pittsburgh to the Patriots 22, with 4 minutes and change remaining. Here’s what followed:

  • Kordell Stewart threw 7 passes, yet couldn’t find the end zone.
  • The Steelers defense forced a 3 and out.
  • Kordell took the Steelers to the 10 yard line, then he threw an interception.

The Patriots had tried to give the Steelers the game, but Pittsburgh refused to accept their gift.

A week later Bill Cowher lost control. Early in the 3rd quarter during a deluge in Tampa, Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart in favor of Mike Tomczak. Kordell Stewart protested, getting in his coach’s face. Next, Kordell was seen crying on the bench.

Back on the field, Mike Tomczak was busying fumbling the ball on his third play in the game, and then he throwing an interception on his second pass. Meanwhile, hurricane force rains continued to pour.

  • Stephen King couldn’t have scripted a more horrific scene had he tried.

A beleaguered Bill Cowher reinserted Kordell Stewart. To no one’s surprise, Kordell failed to rally the team. The downward spiral continued. Steelers fans scapegoated Kordell Stewart. That was both ugly and unfair. He had plenty of help.

Offensive Coordinator Ray Sherman was in over his head. Beyond having no idea of what to do with Kordell Stewart his play calling was so predictable that on 3rd and 7, patrons of Baltimore’s Purple Goose Saloon would call out, “Weak side pitch to Fred McAfee.” Invariably at the snap, McAfee would get a pitch, run to the weak side, and make it about 6 yards before getting clobbered.

  • The defense, which had carried the team, collapsed.
  • But worse of all, the Steelers quit on Cowher.
Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

Certainly, not players like Levon Kirkland, Dermontti Dawson and Jerome Bettis. But they were exceptions. The Post Gazette’s Ron Cook went as far as to call out Carnell Lake for “playing so poorly with such little passion down the stretch.”

By the time they reached their 1998 season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh was playing for pride.

  • They’d already been eliminated from the playoffs.
  • Bill Cowher had stripped Ray Sherman of play calling duties.
  • The Jaguars playoff position was set
  • Tom Coughlin started third string quarterback Jonathan Quinn.

Each of those factors flowed in Pittsburgh’s favor. But they were formalities. The Steelers lost 21-3. Bill Cowher suffered his first losing season as the 1998 Steelers finished 7-9.

And Pittsburgh, learned the hard lesson that in the NFL gravity could only be defied for so long.

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1996 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Bus Arrives in the Steel City!

I want to retire here, Coach.” “I want you to retire here because this is your bleepin’ city, and you’re my bleepin’ guy!” – Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on the sidelines of Three Rivers Stadium, fall 1996

The Steelers entered the 1996 offseason on the heels of their greatest campaign since the glory days of the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls in six seasons. While Bill Cowher had led Pittsburgh to its first Super Bowl in 16 years, however, the Steelers 1995 season ultimately ended in disappointment thanks to a 27-17 loss to the juggernaut Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

Rebounding from a Super Bowl loss is never easy, but the 1996 Steelers had some unusual challenges to master.

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Rams, Leslie O'Neal, Jon Witman

Jerome Bettis steamroll the Rams. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Free Agent Exodus from Pittsburgh Continues – With a Twist

As is often the case in the salary cap era, the Steelers would see significant roster turnover during the ’96 offseason. Some notable departures included starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who left for the Jets as a free agent; outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who inked a deal with the expansion Carolina Panthers; and right tackle Leon Searcy who signed with the rival Jacksonville Jaguars.

Greene’s shoes would be filled by Jason Gildon, a third-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. Jim Miller, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan State in ’94, would ultimately beat out veteran Mike Tomczak and youngster Kordell Stewart in training camp and be named the starting quarterback for the start of the ’96 season.

Another departure was unexpected; I’m talking about promising young running back, Bam Morris, who was cut after pleading guilty to a felony charge for marijuana possession.

While the Steelers still had Erric Pegram, they would need to find a replacement and that’s where history was made.

The Bus Arrives in Pittsburgh

You might remember the 1996 NFL Draft as the one where the Steelers selected offensive tackle Jamain Stephens in the first round… if you immediately went into a coma the moment Stephens’ name was called.

However, if you’re like most Steelers fans, you probably recall the ’96 draft as the one in which Pittsburgh sent a second-round pick to the Rams in exchange for some guy nicknamed The Battering Ram. That was Jerome Bettis moniker when he was a rookie phenom in Los Angeles. However, Bettis had already fallen out of favor with his Rich Brooks by the time the Rams moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season, which was basically a lost one for the third-year back from Notre Dame.

There were questions about Bettis’s dedication, attitude and work ethic. Fortunately for the Steelers, the Rams were intent on drafting Nebraska running back, Lawrence Phillips, a young man who had already been in trouble for far worse things than a lack of dedication — including physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend while at Nebraska.

Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe did their due diligence and ultimately traded a 2nd round pick and 4th round pick for the Rams 3rd round pick and Jerome Bettis

Opening Day Disaster Strikes the Steelers. Again. 

So how would the Steelers follow up their 1995 AFC Championship season?

  • Would they suffer a Super Bowl hangover, an affliction that often affects the previous year’s Lombardi runner-ups?
  • Would they take it one step further and finally grab that One for the Thumb?

If you simply went by the first game of the season, a 24-9 road loss to an expansion Jaguars team that had already proven to be a thorn in the Steelers’ side a year earlier, you may have thought the ’96 season would be a long one.

Not only was Jim Miller bad in his starting debut; he was so bad, Bill Cowher replaced him at halftime with Mike Tomczak — a move that would prove to be permanent. Things got worse for the Steelers. Their most fierce pass-rusher and the soul of their defense — legendary outside linebacker Greg Lloyd — was lost for the year with a torn patella tendon.

Uncertainty at quarterback. Both Quiver and Quake, the two main cogs in the Steelers Blitzburgh defenses of 1994 and 1995, were now absent. Jerome Bettis’ debut amounted to 57 yards on 14 carries. The Steelers suffered so many injuries at linebacker that coaches talked about moving to a 4-3.

  • It seemed like the Steelers ’96 campaign was quickly spiraling out of control.

The last three opening day games had been total disasters, with thing getting progressively worse for Pittsburgh. Yet, the Steelers bounced back each time. Could they do it again?

The Bus Roars and the Steelers Rumble

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Jerome Bettis rushes in the Steelers 17-7 win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Fortunately the Steelers were ready to do it again. They righted the ship and won nine of their next 11 games.

Jerome Bettis quickly proved to be the ideal running back for Bill Cowher, the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh. His size, running style and body type was the perfect formula for Cowher’s Smashmouth philosophy. Bettis himself recognized this, proclaiming that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “like running down hill.”

  • Jerome Bettis returned to his Pro Bowl form by rushing for 1,431 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns.

Bettis was such a sensation, Myron Cope, the late, great former radio analyst, aptly named him “The Bus,” a nickname that would stick with him forever. If there were questions about Bettis’s character, they were erased well before the ’96 season was over. Perhaps the most notable victory during Pittsburgh’s 9-3 start was a 42-6 thrashing of the Rams, Bettis’s former team, on November 3 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers jumped out to a 14-0 lead on two touchdowns by Bettis — including a tough three-yard score and a 50-yard touchdown where the big guy outran the entire Rams’ defense.

  • Bettis wasn’t the only star for the Steelers season, however.

Rod Woodson, who was lost in Week 1 of the ’95 campaign with a torn ACL, returned to his Pro Bowl and All-Pro form in ’96. But perhaps the biggest surprise was the contributions of Chad Brown, an inside linebacker by trade, who was forced to slide over to outside linebacker to replace the injured Greg Lloyd. Not only did Chad Brown, a second-round pick in 1993, fill Lloyd’s shoes, he sprinted in them to the tune of 13 sacks. Those numbers coupled with Jason Gildon’s seven sacks made the absences of both Lloyd and Greene much more palatable.

  • Thankfully, Mike Tomczak was up to the task of managing the Steelers’ offense efficiently.

He wasn’t great by any stretch, but he was just the kind of veteran presence a conservative young coach like Cowher could heavily lean on. Stewart, the young quarterback who was lovingly dubbed “Slash” for his ability to fill many different roles — including passer, receiver, runner and even occasional punter — returned to serve as same all-around weapon that he was during his 1995 rookie campaign.

Maybe it was because the novelty had worn off, maybe it was because he was feeling the pressure, but the “Slash” phenomenon simply didn’t feel as magical.

  • You could say the same for the 1996 Steelers as a whole.

They did win the old AFC Central again — by one game over the upstart and playoff-bound Jaguars — but were denied a bye thanks to a 1-3 slump to close out the regular season.

Patriots Puncture “Flat” Steelers in ’96 Playoffs 

The 10-6 Steelers entered the postseason as the number three seed, and who would their opponents be on Wild Card Weekend? The same Cinderella Colts team that narrowly lost a thriller in the AFC title game at Three Rivers the season before. After falling behind 14-13 at the half, thanks in part to a pick-six thrown by Tomczak, the Steelers dominated the final two periods, scoring 29 unanswered points in a 42-14 victory that allowed the home folks to breathe much easier this time around.

  • Victory came at a price however, as Jerome Bettis injured his groin during this game

The Steelers would miss Jerome Bettis a week later in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at New England. This was one of those games when something just wasn’t right. Fog engulfed old Foxboro Stadium leading to the name Fog Bowl II

Mike Tomczak had started and won Fog Bowl I while at Chicago, but both Tomczak and the entire team played the entire game as if they were in some sort of a fog. Tom Donahoe would describe the performance as “flat” providing the first public glimpse a rift between Cowher and Donahoe. 

The Steelers fell behind 21-0 in the first half. In the second half, Bill Cowher inserted Kordell Stewart, as he’d done in the season finale against Carolina and then again against the Colts in the playoffs.

Rod Woodson, Terry Glenn, Steelers vs Patriots, Fog Bowl II

Rod Woodson can’t stop Terry Glenn in his final game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.com

In both cases Kordell had sparked the Steelers offense, alas he could not summon the magic a third time, as the Steelers only managed a field goal in the third quarter.

The Steelers defense was little better, while it held the Patriots offense in check for much of the 2nd half, it failed to make any game-changing plays. 

  • Ultimately, the 1996 Steelers season would end with them to Parcells Patriots 28-3. 

While the Steelers 1996 campaign never quite carried the mystique as the previous two seasons that ultimately ended in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, Bill Cowher deserves credit for managing the loss of his starting quarterback, losing his best defensive player on opening day, seeing his starting running back get arrested, and dealing with additional unrest at the quarterback position all the while keeping his team on track as a Super Bowl contender.

Impressive as those accomplishments are, they over overshadowed by something far more important:  

  • The arrival of Jerome Bettis “The Bus” in Pittsburgh.

Early in 1996 it was clear that Jerome Bettis was the franchise running back that Pittsburgh had tried and failed to find when drafting the likes of Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley. By the end of the season it was evident that that Jerome Bettis was a “face of the franchise” type of transformational in the mold of Franco Harris.

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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.

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1993 Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Cowher’s Boys Not Ready for Prime Time

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.

Mark Royals, Keith Cash, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs 1993 AFC Wild Card

Former Steeler Keith Cash gets revenge, blocking Mark Royal’s punt in the playoffs. Photo Credit: John Sleezer, Kansas City Star

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.

Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humphries in 1993. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

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):

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.

Leroy Thompson, Dermontti Dawson, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers Bills MNF 1993

Leroy Thompson runs for over 100 yards vs the Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

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.)

Gary Brown, Levon Kirkland, Warren Moon, Steelers vs Oilers, Steelers Oilers 1993 Pittsburgh

Gary Brown runs over Steelers. Photo Credit: Rick Stewart, Getty Images, via Houston Sports

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.

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

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A “Thank You” to the Late Patricia Rooney, 30 Years in the Making

When news broke in late January of Patricia Rooney’s passing, my first thought, I confess, was “Oh, no, what am I going to write about?”

Patricia Rooney is of course the wife of the late Steelers Chairman, Dan Rooney and the mother of Steelers President of Art Rooney II.

As the sister of Mary Reagn, who served as Art Rooney Sr.’s secretary for over 40 years, Patricia Rooney saw it all. From the chronic losing, to the Super Steelers of the 70’s, the muddling mediocrity of the 80s, the rise of Cowher Power in the 1990s, to the arrival of Ben Roethlisberger in the 00’s, the 2nd Super Bowl era, and the struggle and rebuild for a 3rd ring.

  • And yet, through it all, Patricia Rooney remained a very private person.

Patricia Rooney, Patricia Rooney Obituary, Patricia Rooney Steelers

Patricia Rooney. Photo Credit: Niagara Falls Review

Read enough books about the Steelers, and you’ll get to know plenty of people who’ve played critical, yet almost invisible roles in shaping the destiny of the franchise. Think of people like Fran Fogarty, Joe Gordon, Ed Kiley, Buff Boston, Bill Nunn Jr. and Dan Ferens.

  • Yet, outside of Dan Rooney’s self-titled auto-biography, you find very little about Patricia Rooney.

In Gary Pomerantz’s seminal volume Their Life’s Work, Patricia Rooney’s name is only listed on 4 pages in the Index. Ed Kiley gets 3, while Agnus Greene, wife of Joe Greene, gets 12. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, who has worked the Steelers beat since 1995, relates that his first interaction with Patricia Rooney probably came at Dan Rooney’s wake in 2017.

  • Yes, Patricia Rooney was a private person.

While raising 9 children with her husband Dan, she also found time to teach English at Robert Morris University, was active in the America for Ireland Fund, and helped found the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

  • It is fitting then, that a literary metaphor conveys her role with the Steelers.

JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series has captured the imagination of both boys and girls and men and women of successive generations. My wife is hardly a fantasy buff, but our first date was to see the Fellowship of the Ring, and as I described to our nephew/Godson, when giving him his first copy of the series, “”The experience was appropriately magical.”

Yet, as critics have noted, “In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, women are infrequently seen and even more seldom heard.” That’s true. But the critic who penned that could have also continued “…but their influence is felt throughout the narrative.”

  • And so it was with Patricia Rooney and the Steelers.

One only need glance at the outpouring of support for her on social media. The “usual suspects” such as Ryan Clark, T.J. Watt, Brett Keisel, Bill Cowher and Ike Taylor offered condolences via Twitter.

But so did the likes of Terence Garvin, who barely got 15 seconds of fame with the Steelers. But Chad Browns’s tweet brought it home better than anyone else’s, as he shared:

Brown’s story suggests that those type of silent, yet palpable gestures were a signature of Patricia Rooney. In fact, I’m sure they are, because his story prompted me to remember one of my own.

It was an early fall evening. The year was either 1990. The scene was the campus of Loyola Maryland, on the service road between Wynnewood Towers and the Garden (aka the Garbage) Café.

Bubby Brister

Bubby Brister cerca 1988. Photo Credit: Brian Smale, SI Vault.com

There someone walked toward the main campus with a white T-Shirt with the word “Steelers” stenciled on the front. On the eve of the 1989 Steelers storybook season, I’d seen Bubby Brister wearing this shirt in a full-page photo in Sports Illustrated’s story,”Soaring into the 90’s.”

  • And I HAD to have that shirt.

Except I couldn’t find it. By 1990, the Steelers status as a “national” team had faded, and outside Pittsburgh quality apparel was sparse. Ordering on-line was still a half a decade away. So I asked him:

“Where did you get that shirt?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me.”
“Who…?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me. I don’t think they sell them to public.”

The guy’s name was Justin, and if I’m not mistaken, Justin was from a prominent Pittsburgh family. And those shirts were hard to find. I didn’t get mine until I made a pilgrimage to Station Square while in Pittsburgh on a Christmas visit years later.

It would be poetic to describe how a deep friendship between Justin and myself blossomed from this brief interaction. But poetry and accuracy don’t align here. Justin and I shared the same major, chatted about the Steelers occasionally, gossiped about classmates but “friendly” best describes our relationship.

But Justin was friends with another Loyola Steelers fan named Mike. And after leaving Loyola, Mike and I did become close friends. And at some point, Mike and I realized that Justin was a mutual acquaintance. Justin had a very distinctive way of speaking, and always seemed to be at least half an era behind when it came to remembering the names of Steelers players.

That quirk of his provided levity that offset difficult moments during games in the 1990’s, as one of us would imitate Justin’s voice saying, “John Stallworth was wide open, how could Joe Gililam miss him?” when really it had been Yancey Thigpen and Kordell Stewart. (And lest you think that Justin’s memory lapses were rooted in racial insensitivity, Mike Tomczak certainly would have become “Cliff Stoudt” and I imagine that to this day Justin still refers to Tommy Maddox as “that USFL quarterback.”)

30 Years Later: Thank You Mrs. Rooney

My friendship with Mike went far beyond and dove much deeper than quipping about our mutual friend Justin. But those quips did bring us occasional amusement.

Amusement that we very well might never have enjoyed, had Patricia Rooney not given Justin a T-Shirt.

Thank you Mrs. Rooney.

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Can the Steelers Dress Joshua Dobbs vs Browns? Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

The Steelers 2020 season finale against the Browns contained an unexpected wrinkle: Joshua Dobbs.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach decided early to “Air Mail” players to the playoffs, including Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Terrell Edmunds and Maurkice Pouncey. That meant that Mason Rudolph would start.

  • Mason Rudolph indeed started and played very well.

Joshua Dobbs, Jacob Philips, Steelers vs Browns

Joshua Dobbs throws a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But his understudy Joshua Dobbs also saw action, rushing the ball several times and completing a number of passes (OK, they were shovel passes.) This was a wrinkle that no one was expecting, and given that the Steelers offense is desperate to do anything to breathe life into its running game, deploying Dobbs was a welcome sign.

  • When asked if this could continue in the playoffs, Mike Tomlin deadpanned: “It’s a possibility.”

Yet most pundits wrote this off as head coach bluster designed to give opposing defensive coordinators a little something extra to think about. The reasoning is that Mason Rudolph clearly earned his stripes as Ben Roethlisberger’s number 2 going into the playoffs. Ergo, there’s no way the Steelers would give Joshua Dobbs a helmet over Mason Rudolph.

  • And of course, everyone KNOWS, there’s no way the Steelers would have 3 quarterbacks active on game day.

This is one case where the conventional wisdom is probably right. But it doesn’t have to be. Keeping 3 quarterbacks active isn’t the radical notion that it sounds like. In fact it used to be reasonably common. In fact, keeping three quarterbacks dressed and on the active roster was a critical component of the Steelers first serious attempt at 1 for The Thumb.

3 Quarterbacks, the 1995 Steelers and Slash

Dressing 3 quarterbacks was a fundamental and intentional part of the 1995 Steelers offensive strategy. It started rather unintentionally on opening day when injuries to both Neil O’Donnell and later Mike Tomczak forced Jim Miller into the game for one play (where he threw a long pass that was the equivalent of an interception.)

It was one of the rare times when 3 Steelers quarterbacks threw passes in the same game, and it was the only time that phenomenon occurred in that season.

And while Mike Tomczak wasn’t getting a lot of love, Kordell Stewart was enjoy the heyday of the “Slash Era.” At the time NFL game day rosters limited teams to 45 members, plus an emergency 3rd string quarterback.

Whether Jim Miller continued to suit up as the team’s emergency 3rd stringer while Kordell Stewart was a wide receiver is a question best left to NFL archivists. It doesn’t really matter, because today teams are allowed to dress 46 active players.

The game has certainly changed since 1995. Each team’s personnel needs with regards to injuries, substitutions and situational packages is unique. But if the 1995 Steelers could find a way to dress 4 or 5 wide outs, 2 quarterbacks and a “Slash” then it would see that the 2020 Steelers could find a way to dress Roethlisberger, Rudolph and Dobbs.

For what its worth, and for those of you boning up on your Steelers 3rd string quarterback trivia, the last time times 3 Steelers quarterbacks threw passes in the same game came against the Browns, most recently in the 2008 season finale and prior to that in the 1999 season opener.

If the Steelers do defy the odds and dress Joshua Dobbs alongside the other two quarterbacks, let’s hope that there’s no cause for QB number 2 to throw a pass outside of garbage time.

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Steelers 2020 Offensive Line Draft Needs: Time to Focus on Foundation for Future

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and by default offense. But 2nd most important position on offense is the line.

A good offensive line can compensate for deficiencies at the skill positions and even, for a limited time, allow a mediocre quarterback to elevate his play. (See Mike Tomczak during the middle of 1996. Yeah, I’m that old.)

While it’s true that the Steelers did win Super Bowl XLIII and appear in Super Bowl XLV in spite of suspect offensive line play, there’s no question that outstanding offensive line play was a cornerstone to the Steelers return to contender status during their four year playoff run from 2014 to 2017.

As core of the line is now over 30, how important is it for the Steelers to reload in the 2020 NFL Draft?

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line in action vs the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

Times are a changing. With a few tweaks here and there, the Steelers starting lineup on offensive line has been stable since about 2014. That’s an eternity in the NFL.

  • While the Steelers will field many familiar faces in 2020, this season begins a period of transition for the unit.

Maurkice Pouncey returns as a starter. Maurkice Pouncey’s is a perennial Pro Bowler and 2019 was no exception even if his low snaps are a bit of a concern. David DeCastro will return on Pouency’s right side, while Alejandro Villanueva will return at left tackle.

After that things get murky. Matt Felier will start on the line, but it isn’t clear whether that will be a right tackle or at left guard. Newly signed free agent Stefen Wisniewski could be an option at guard, which would likely mean that Felier will remain at right tackle.

However, both Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor could both be in the mix at right tackle. While Zach Banner played as the swing tackle in 2019, the Steelers started Chukwuma Okorafor at tackle against the Rams, just as they’d started him against the Broncos in 2018.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

The addition of Stefen Wisniewski important flexibility at offensive line, and depending on how roster battles pan out, could give the Steelers two starter-capable offensive lineman on the bench.

Which is good, because they don’t have a lot of other developmental prospects in the pipeline.
Derwin Gray, their 2019 7th round pick returns and is listed as a tackle but has experience at guard, and J.C. Hassenauer who did an apprenticeship with Gray on the practice squad will return to fight for roster spots in 2020.

The Steelers 2020 Offensive Draft Needs

The Steelers play at offensive line slipped in 2020. The run blocking was suspect early in the season, and while that did improve a bit, the pass blocking was lacking for much of the year.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As D.I. Davis has suggested on Steel City Insider, the fact that instead of Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were calling out the pass protections at the line of scrimmage could have a lot to do with that.

  • But so could the unit’s age.

Ramon Foster was 33 and has begun his “Life’s work.” Maurkice Pouncey will be 31. Alejandro Villanueva will be 32. David DeCastro will be crack the big 3-0 this year.

Assuming that either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor starts at right tackle, the average age of the Steelers offensive line should drop, but their three best starters are still another year into their race with Father Time.

  • Quality offensive lineman don’t grow on trees.

The offensive line that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL “got old” together, and it took several years to rebuild. Barring injury, the Steelers are fortunate in that they don’t have to try to draft offensive lineman who will need to play immediately in 2020.

But you need to start 5 lineman, and you need quality backups. So the Steelers offensive line needs going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Steelers 2019 Thanksgiving Honors: Kevin Colbert

Thanksgiving 2019 has arrived and so has the time to award our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors is a tradition born on this site 10 years ago. It was 2009 and the Steelers were trapped in a 5 game losing streak that doomed their chances of defending as Super Bowl Champions. However, after a shaky start, Rashard Mendenhall played exceptionally well and had given Steelers fans reason to give thanks.

In the years since Steelers Thanksgiving Honors have typically gone to a young “Up and Comer” although there have been exceptions such as 2015 when we gave thanks for the backups and a year later we honored Ben Roethlisberger.

In 2019 we’re opting for the road less taken again, and giving our 2019 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors to Kevin Colbert.

Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert at a Super Bowl Parade. Photo Credit: SI

Kevin Colbert’s Time in Pittsburgh: From Controversy to Consistency to Championships

People forget but controversy shrouded Dan Rooney’s decision to hire Kevin Colbert in February 2000.

The Cowher-Donahoe feud had come to a head a month earlier, and Dan Rooney had sided with his head coach. The move shocked observers both inside and outside Pittsburgh. Many (including yours truly) thought Dan Rooney had backed the wrong horse.

  • His selection of Kevin Colbert failed to immediately impress.

Dan Rooney passed over Jerry Angelo of Tampa Bay, who’d spent the 1990’s helping resurrect a perpetually morbid franchise and Terry Bradway of the Kansas City Chiefs, who’d been a model of consistency through throughout the 1990s.

As one Pittsburgh journalist whose article isn’t available on Google Newspaper archives quipped, Dan Rooney had flown in the best and the brightest from around the league, and ended up hiring the guy from North Catholic. (Dan Rooney and his brothers, as well as Tom Donahoe were North Catholic graduates.)

But defying the conventional wisdom turned out to be the wise move, as it was with some many of the key decisions Dan Rooney made while running the Steelers.

  • Kevin Colbert made an immediate impact on the Steelers approach to the draft, free agency and “street free agency.”

The Steelers primary goal entering free agency in 2000 was to resign Mike Tomczak. Within days of Kevin Colbert’s arrival, the Steelers opened negotiations with Kent Graham. Kent Graham of course didn’t pan out, but he did have more “upside” than Tomczak, who never threw another NFL pass. Kevin Colbert signed Brent Alexander and Rich Tylski, neither qualifies as a legend but both immediately boosted the secondary and offensive line.

Inheriting the Steelers best draft position since 1989, many expected the Steelers to use the 8th overall pick on Chad Pennington. Kevin Colbert opted to pick Plaxico Burress who proved to be far more worthy of the 8th overall pick than did Pennington.

Finally, Colbert signed street free agent Larry Tharpe. Who you ask? Good question. Tharpe played football in 1999. But when injuries to Marvel Smith, Shar Pourdanesh forced Tharpe to start in the Steelers road game against Jacksonville in 2000, it was clear that Tharpe was better than either Anthony Brown or Chris Conrad, the men who’d alternated as starters at right tackle in 1999.

  • While all of these moves came early in 2000 off season, they would set the stage for what was to come.

This will be the 20th Thanksgiving Steelers fans will celebrate since Kevin Colbert arrived as Director of Football Operations in Pittsburgh.

  • And in those 19 years and counting, the Pittsburgh Steelers have finished with a losing season just once.

That’s an incredible record, unmatched anywhere in the NFL other than New England. While Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants have equaled Kevin Colbert’s Lombardi count, Colbert has kept Pittsburgh far more consistent than his counterparts in New York.

Why where the Steelers of the ‘90’s contenders while the Steelers of the 00’s were Champions in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII?

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, 2018 Draft, press conference

Mike Tomin and Kevin Colbert 2018 pre draft press conference

Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the difference lies in Kevin Colbert’s spectacular record with first round draft picks and his uncanny ability to mine gems such as Fast Willie Parker and James Harrison from the Undrafted Rookie Free Agent pool.

  • Perhaps what makes Kevin Colbert so worthy of Thanksgiving honor is the fact that Kevin Colbert has done it with humility. He doesn’t toot his own horn.

He was willing to let Bill Cowher enjoy the spotlight, and has never aired his disagreements with either Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin in public. Indeed, when asked about the importance of sixth Super Bowl, Colbert declined to take any credit for himself, and simply said that the sixth Super Bowl meant there were now six Super Bowls for the Steelers as an organization, and no longer 4 for the Chuck Noll era and 1 for the Cowher era.

  • Kevin Colbert is in the final year of his contract with the Steelers.

While he hasn’t ruled out returning in 2020, he’s made it clear both publicly and privately that his status is now year-to-year. Whether this is final season or he’ll be back for a few more, Kevin Colbert has given Steelers Nation reasons to be thankful for the last 20 years, and for that we honor him.

Click here to see past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Winners.

Happy Thanksgiving

If you’re reading this, then it means that football and the Pittsburgh Steelers are important to you.

But for however important the Steelers are, our sincere hope is that all of you reading this have plenty of non-football related reasons to be thankful, as you gather friends and family to give thanks on this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation!

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