Gravity is the universe’s inescapable force. In football gravity has always taken the forms of age, injury and the NFL draft. With 1992’s Freeman McNeil verdict, gravity gained a new form to its NFL repertory: Free Agency.
- Free agency was supposed to destroy the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers, stuck in a small, shrinking rustbelt market and locked into an unfavorable lease in an old utility stadium, could never compete with the likes of Jerry Jones and Edward DeBartlo.
- And besides, as any fan would have told you in the 1990’s, Dan Rooney was cheap.
And so it was that every spring saw a free agent exodus out of Pittsburgh. It wasn’t backups and/or secondary starters that left, but first round picks, long time starters, perennial Pro Bowlers, a starting Super Bowl quarterback, future Hall of Famers and, in one off season, 2/3rds of the starting defensive line.
- All of those losses came before 1997.
That spring the Steelers lost two starting-caliber wide receivers, a starting defensive end, and their TOP THREE cornerbacks. Did we mention that one of those corners was franchise icon Rod Woodson? Departures also extended to the coaches, as Dick LeBeau returned to the Cincinnati Bengals.
And by the way, the Steelers had just handed the reigns of the offense to Kordell Stewart, giving them their third new starting quarterback in 3 years.
1997 would be the season when gravity finally sucked the Pittsburgh Steelers down. Or would it….?
Steelers Affirm Core Cowher Belief
In Heart and Steel, Bill Cowher declares that the 1997 Steelers were his best team. That may not be the case, but the 1997 team certainly proved one of Cowher’s core beliefs: Teams define themselves during the season’s first 4 to 6 weeks.
To that end, the Dallas Cowboys came to Pittsburgh and put 37 unanswered points on the board until Kordell Stewart and Mark Bruener hooked up for a face-saving, garbage-time touchdown. Commentators rushed to take this as confirmation of the impending disaster foreshadowed in Fog Bowl II during the ’96 playoffs.
Really, opening day embarrassments were par for the course in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers stuck to the script by bouncing back with a convincing win against Washington in week 2.
A week later, the Steelers traveled to Jacksonville. They got embarrassed in the first half, clawed their way back into position to win at the buzzer, only to lose on a blocked field goal. The rollar coaster continued the next week against the Ravens at Memorial Stadium as Kordell Stewart would throw 3 interceptions in the first half.
- Throwing 3 picks is never pretty, but each interception was uglier than the one before.
But Kordell Stewart shook it all off by throwing 3 touchdown passes and rushing 74 yards for another one in the 2nd half, as the Steelers pulled out a 42-34 win. The victory evened the 1997 Steelers record to 2-2, but more importantly, it established an identity: This team got right back up whenever it got knocked down.
Thriving on the Edge
As the first month of the season illustrated, gravity had the power to suck the 1997 Steelers to the edge. But in 1997, that was perfect for Pittsburgh, because the 1997 Steelers weren’t just a team that lived on the edge, it thrived on it. Consider:
- The 1997 Steelers played in overtime 3 times during the year, winning each time
- Their win over the 3-13 Indianapolis Colts came down to a missed field goal
- Twice in overtime situations, Bill Cowher opted to ride The Bus to the end zone, rather than kick a field goal
- When the Steelers lost Greg Lloyd in late November, they responded with 3 straight wins
Greg Lloyd’s loss, in many ways, epitomized the 1997 season.
Greg Lloyd had been a dominate player and a fan favorite for the Steelers since the late 1980s. He’d lost his 1996 season to injury, and suffered a slow start to 1997. But he’d registered a sack in each of the three games leading up to the Eagles game in late November. But just when Greg Lloyd was recovering his playmaking form, he suffered a staph infection on the turf of Veterans Stadium.
But the team took the loss in stride. Former 7th round pick Carlos Emmons stepped into the starting role and while he wasn’t a superstar, he held his own. And so it was across the depth chart.
Neither free agent Cortney Hawkins nor rookie Will Blackwell were quite as good as Ernie Mills and Andre Hastings had been, but both authored strong seasons on smaller contracts. The same can be said for defensive end Nolan Harrison.
At cornerback, Chad Scott had a pretty strong rookie year, and Bill Cowher liked “the look in his eye.” After Scott, things got tricky at cornerback, but that helped keep the team on the edge, which is exactly where they needed to be.
In that vein, the NFL schedule makers actually did the 1997 Steelers a favor by scheduling four of their final five games on the road.
Comebacks Against Broncos, Patriots Highlight ’97 Regular Season
Letting Rod Woodson go as a free agent is one of the worst personnel decisions in Steelers history – and this from a franchise that cut Johnny Unitas. What makes that decision even dumber is the fact that they tried to replace him with Donnell Woolford.
- Wolford struggled along as a starter for 12 weeks during the 1997 regular season.
- The Steelers then went 1-1 on the first two road games of their season ending.
But week 15 brought the Denver Broncos to Three Rivers Stadium and Wolford had no hope of containing John Elway, who’d been burning offenses with Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.
- So Bill Cowher did what he’d done in 1995 – he moved Carnell Lake to cornerback and started Myron Bell at safety.
For the first time in memory, the Steelers held closed practices and when Bill Cowher was asked where Carnell Lake would play, his response was “defense.”
Not that it seemed to matter at first, as Kordell Stewart started off erratically missing open receivers while John Elway abused W0olford, then relegated to slot corner, to open a 21 to 7 lead in the first 20 minutes. But Stewart rallied throwing two touchdown strikes to Yancey Thigpen to tie at the half, and he then followed with two more runs for touchdowns in the second half.
- Jerome Bettis took over the game in the 2nd half, rumbling for 125 yards on 25 carries.
The defense limited Denver to 3 points, and Myron Bell and Carnell Lake helped scuttle the Broncos’ comeback attempts with an interception and a sack.
In the season’s penultimate contest, the Steelers traveled to New England to take on Pete Carroll’s Patriots. This was about as even as a match up as you can find in the NFL. But for most of the evening, the Patriots were getting the better of the Steelers.
- Holding an 8-point lead with one play before the 2-minute warning, the Patriots only needed to covert a 3rd and 7 for victory.
Drew Bledsoe dropped back to pass. In a Textbook-Zone Blitz move, Kevin Henry slid back into coverage. Bledsoe fired a pass to his left, never seeing Henry who intercepted the ball and took it 37 yards down field.
With two minutes remaining and no time outs, the Steelers ran 6 plays, including one on 4th and 7. With less than 40 seconds left, Kordell Stewart hit Mark Bruener for a touchdown, making it 20-19. Next Kordell connected with Yancey Thigpen for the 2-point conversion, tying the game.
The Steelers won the toss, as Courtney Hawkins and Mark Bruener made critical catches to bring the Steelers to the Patriots 13-yard line where Norm Johnson split the uprights.
The win improved the Steelers’ record to 12-5 and allowed Bill Cowher to rest his starters heading into the playoffs
1997 Playoffs – The Chess Match and the AFC Championship that Got Away
The 1997 Steelers record earned them a first-round bye in the playoffs, but that didn’t save them from a rematch against the New England Patriots. This time the Patriots had to travel to Three Rivers Stadium which is good because the Steelers needed every advantage they could get.
- Fantasy Football owners moan about games like this, but the truth is it was a textbook defensive chess match.
The Steelers drew blood on their first possession, as Kordell Stewart ran for a 40-yard touchdown. The Patriots tacked on an Adam Vinatieri field goal in the 2nd and another in the 4th. And that was it for the scoring.
The game was so tight that Bill Cowher opted to go for it on 4th and goal at the one with less than 2 minutes playing instead of kicking a field goal. The Patriots stopped them, but rookie Mike Vrabel stripped Drew Bledsoe of the ball 8 plays later, sealing the win and bringing Denver back to Three Rivers Stadium for an AFC Championship rematch.
- The 1997 AFC Championship was literally “…The one that got away” for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers jumped to a 14-10 lead early in the 2nd quarter and with just under 5 minutes remaining before half time, consolidated their lead, having moved to Denver’s 35 with a 3rd and 2 to convert.
- Rather than ram the ball through with Jerome Bettis, Chan Gailey opted to pass
- Rather than take a safe throw, Kordell Stewart looked to the end zone
- Rather than throw it away Kordell tried to force it into double coverage by Steve Atwater and Ray Crockett
Yancey Thipgen never had a chance as Crockett intercepted. The Broncos capitalized going up 17-14 inside the 2-minute warning. The Steelers then went 3 and out, burning 68 seconds off of the clock, leaving Denver with 43 to score. John Elway only needed 30 of those to find Ed McCaffrey.
- In less than 5 minutes the Denver Broncos had transformed a 14-10 deficit to a 24-14 lead.
Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis opened the second half by marching down the field, executing a methodical clock-consuming drive. This is exactly what the Steelers needed to do to take control of the game. Yet on 2nd and 5 Chan Gailey again opted to pass, and again Kordell Stewart made the wrong decision, hitting Allen Aldridge instead of Charles Johnson.
The Steelers defense forced 4 straight punts, including one on a drive that came following a lost fumble. Kordell Stewart rallied Pittsburgh late in the 4th quarter, connecting with Charles Johnson with 2:46 left.
- If the defense could force another punt, Pittsburgh had a chance.
Alas, the defense that had kept the Steelers Super Bowl hopes alive during the second half could not stop John Elway from killing the clock. The Denver Broncos won 24-21 and went on to the Super Bowl, ending the Steelers 1997 season.
- Conference championship losses are disappointing by definition.
One person who wasn’t down was Bill Cowher, who told his team, “We’ll be back.” Who could argue?
In just 2 years the Steelers had replaced at least 12 starters from their Super Bowl XXX squad, and all that separated them from another Super Bowl appearance were a first-year starting quarterback’s growing pains.
The 1997 Pittsburgh Steelers had proven that they could defy gravity.