Pittsburgh Steelers 2001 Season: Contenders Again as Playoff Drought Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignoring the Skeptics, Dan Rooney Doubles Down on Bill Cowher

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

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

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

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

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

  • But it was a sound decision by the Steelers.

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

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

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

Colbert Influence Deepens During 2001 Off Season

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

Jeff Hartings, Kordell Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers 2001 Season Starts Ugly – In More Ways that One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers Roast Ravens in 1st Playoff Game at Heinz Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Teams Scuttle Steelers as Tom Brady Era Begins 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars

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

The Colbert Effect

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

Kevin Colbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

But would change result in anything new?

Down But Not Defeated – Steelers Start 2000 0-3

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

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

Kent Graham, Courtney Brown, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everyone knew what Kordell starting meant….

Steelers 2000 Road Trip to Jacksonville – A Hinge of Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digging Out from 0-3

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

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

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

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

Mark Bruener, Steelers vs Bengals

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

Growing Pains

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

  • No. The Titans prevailed 9-6.

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

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

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

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

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

Kordell Sparks Resurgence

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

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

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

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

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

  • Cowher did change quarterbacks – Kordell reentered the game.

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

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

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

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

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

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

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

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

Setting the Tone for the Decade, Second Super Bowl Era

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

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

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

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

Back the Pittsburgh Steelers into a corner at your peril.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1st Browns Game Bookend: The Caffeine Laced Sugar High

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

Richard Huntley, Steelers vs Browns

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

  • The celebration ended quickly.

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

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

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

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

2nd Browns Game Bookend:  The Bottom Falls Out

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

  • The Browns opened with a touchdown drive.

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Dawson, Steelers vs Browns

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

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

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

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

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

The worst part of it all? Kirkland was right.

In Between the Browns Bookends: Torment and Tease

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

Doug Flutie, Jeremy Staat, Steelers vs Bills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worst 8 Game Stretch Since 1969

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

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

Qadry Ismail, Steelers vs Ravens, Dwyane Washington

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

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

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

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

Chad Scott, Steelers vs Panthers, Fred Lane

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

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

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

Cowher-Donahoe Feud Comes to a Head

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

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

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

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

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

  • Things regressed as the season wore on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1997 Pittsburgh Steelers: Defying Gravity with Cowher and Kordell

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

  • Free agency was supposed to destroy the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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

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

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

  • All of those losses came before 1997.

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

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

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

Bill Cowher, Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Broncos

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

Steelers Affirm Core Cowher Belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Lloyd, Steelers vs Ravens,

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

Thriving on the Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comebacks Against Broncos, Patriots Highlight ’97 Regular Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yancey Thigpen, Ray Crockett, Steelers vs Broncos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Fantasy Football owners moan about games like this, but the truth is it was a textbook defensive chess match.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Elway, Nolan Harrison, Steelers vs Broncos

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Conference championship losses are disappointing by definition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1995 Off Season – Tempting Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season Starts – Fate’s Vengeance Carries a Stiff Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie Williams, Myron Bell,

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

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

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

  • Oh, talent deficiencies were hurting hurt the Steelers.

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

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

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

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

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

9 Changes for a 9 Game Season

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

Appearances deceive. Bill Cowher was actually asserting control.

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

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

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

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

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

And this was as electrifying as it was innovative.

“Slash” Is Born!

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

Kordell Stewart, Kordell Stewart Slash, Steelers vs Jaguars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Slash” was born.

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

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

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

Lessons of ’94 Serve Steelers Well in 1995 Playoffs

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

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

  • Yet there was no panic on the Steelers sidelines when the Bills made it 21-26 with 12 minutes left to play.

Levon Kirkland, Steelers vs Bills, 1995 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Myron Bell, Darren Perry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl XXX – Two Interceptions Too Far

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

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

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

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

But was 17 points too much?

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

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

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

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

The Steelers refused to fade or fold.

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

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

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

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

  • The Steelers got the ball back.

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

  • The final score read Cowboys 27 Steelers 17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

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

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

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

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

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

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

1994 Steelers Field: Very, VERY Good Defense

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

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

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

  • Blitzburgh had been born.

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

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

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

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

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe retooled in earnest.

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

  • The Steelers had improved their offense, on paper.

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

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

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

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

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

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

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

  • Bill Cowher made another critical decision going into December.

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

Steelers End Regular Season with Pre-Playoff Dress Rehearsal

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

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

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

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

1994 Steelers Thump Browns in Playoffs

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

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

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

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel. Photo Credit: Pinterest

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

  • Three Rivers Stadium erupted.

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

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

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

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

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

3 Yards Short….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 43 yards later Alfred Pupunu was running untouched into the end zone to tie the score.

Alfred Pupunu, Steelers vs Chargers, 1994 AFC Championship Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was it. It was over.

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

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Introduction: Bill Cowher’s Steelers Coaching Career, A Season-by-Season Retrospective

Our goal this year is to put a fifth trophy in the case outside in the hall.

Bill Cowher launched his tenure as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach with those words at Three Rivers Stadium on January 21st, 1992.

  • Things were different in 1992.

Around the world, the Commonwealth of Independent States had just “replaced” the Soviet Union. The World Trade Center formed an indelible mark on the Manhattan skyline, or so we thought. Bell Atlantic sold bricks with antennas and ran ads encouraging customers to use their “car phones” outside the car.

In the NFL, five days stood between Joe Gibbs and his third Super Bowl, which seemingly cemented Washington’s status as a dominate franchise. A year into his “retirement,” Bill Parcells worked as an NBC commentator. The “Run ‘N Shoot” offense supposedly signaled the future of football.

In Pittsburgh, The Press and Post-Gazette circulated. The Carrick Village Dairy operated as the neighborhood greasy spoon, and at least one patron was getting his 3 squares a day there. Everyday. Further down Brownsville Road, Ravita’s butcher shop still booked numbers and sold fresh meats on the side.

And down at 300 Stadium Circle, someone other than Chuck Noll held the title of “Pittsburgh Steelers head coach” for the first time since 1969.

Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh Steelers

January 21st, 1992, Bill Cowher introduced as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach

Bill Cowher dropped a gauntlet with his opening declaration. Pittsburgh had only made the playoffs once in 7 years and hadn’t held “contender” status since the Houston Oilers ended the Super Steelers run on dreary early December evening in 1980.

  • All new head coaches espouse optimism, but Bill Cowher conveyed his with a difference: The Chin meant it.

Few bought Bill Cowher’s bravado. The “wealth of talent” Cowher saw on his roster prompted eye rolls instead of “nods.” Yet Cowher forced critics to eat a slice of humble pie by taking the league by storm, starting 3-0.

In many ways, Bill Cowher defied definition. Regarded as a “players coach” whose players adored him, Cowher reputedly had abrasive relations with everyone else in the Steelers organization not named Rooney. In a league where players are said to “tune out” head coaches quickly, Bill Cowher recycled the same speeches so frequently that his veterans could often finish them.

  • Yet, Cowher’s ability to motivate served as perhaps his greatest asset.

Howie Long once labeled Cowher as the ultimate coach for his “Tough Guy team.” Bill Cowher preached and practiced tough, physical football on defense, and bruising in-between- the- tackles rushing on offense. “Conservative” best described his coaching style. But which decisions defined the trajectory of Cowher’s coaching career? How about these:

  • Calling a fake punt in his first game as coach when on the road and down by 14.
  • Deploying a 5 wide receiver formation that included Kordell Stewart as a “Slash” quarterback/wide receiver
  • Going for an on-sides kick in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XXX when down 10-20
  • Icing victory in Super Bowl XL by calling a fake reverse option pass

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

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

None of the above serve as examples of “Going by the book.”

When Bill Cowher stepped down as Steelers head coach on January 5th, 2006 the world had changed.

No one remembered that the Commonwealth of Independent States had ever existed, but Vladimir Putin was working to restore Russia’s military might. September 11th had obliterated Twin Towers from the New York skyline while burning their silhouette into our collective memory. Everyone owned a cellphone and Verizon now ran commercials reminding customers NOT to text and drive.

In the NFL, Joe Gibbs had returned as Redskins coach after watching 5 other men cycle through Washington’s coaching carousel. Bill Parcells coached the Dallas Cowboys, but would soon “retire” for good or until Miami offered him control of its front office in two year’s time, whichever came first. No one remembered the Run ‘N Shoot offense.

In Pittsburgh, Richard Mellon Scaife subsidized the Tribune-Review’s money-losing effort to topple the Post-Gazette which had long ago absorbed the Pittsburgh Press. The Carrick Village Dairy had closed. Its 3 squares-a-day patron had long since taken up permanent residence down the road at St. Joseph and St. George’s cemetery. Further yet down Brownsville road, Ravita’s had closed, but the neighborhood moved on.

Downtown, Three Rivers Stadium had imploded with Heinz Field and PNC Park taking its place. That forced the Steelers to relocate to 3400 South Water Street, South Side, on ground where J&L’s massive steel works had once stood. Something else had changed too.

  • The Steelers had added 5th trophy to their case.

It took Bill Cowher 15 years and 261 games to do it, but in Super Bowl XL he finally succeeded in handing One for the Thumb to Dan Rooney.

In the coming days, with the help of staff writer Tony Defeo, Steel Curtain Rising will tell the story of Bill Cowher and his Steelers, season-by-season. As we publish new stories, we’ll add links below.

Steelers 1992 Season: Cowher Power Awakens Steelers Nation
Steelers 1993 Season: Cowher’s Boys Not Ready for Prime Time
Steelers 1994 Season: Over Confidence is Cowher’s Achilles Heel
Steelers 1995 Season: Return to Super Bowl, but Trophy “Two Interceptions Too Far”
Steelers 1996 Season: The Bus Arrives in the Steel City!
Steelers 1997 Season: Defying Gravity with Cowher and Kordell
Steelers 1998 Season: The Black and Gold Crashes Down to Earth
Steelers 1999 Season: Cowher-Donahoe Feud Tears Team Apart, Comes to a Head
Steelers 2000 Season: Setting the Tone for the 2nd Super Bowl Era
Steelers 2001 Season: Contenders Again, as Playoff Drought Ends
Steelers 2002 Season: The Rise of Tommy Gun
Steelers 2003 Season: The Final Chapter of a Strange Era
Steelers 2004 Season: The Ben Roethlisberger Era Begins
Steelers 2005 Season: Bill Cowher Finally Hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy
Steelers 2006 Season: Super Bowl Hangover and the Chin Hangs it Up

 

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Steelers Free Agent Joshua Dobbs: Will the Rocket Scientist Return to Pittsburgh?

The life of an NFL third string quarterback is by definition, nondescript. About the only player on the roster who remains more anonymous is the long snapper. Wanna prove it? Ask a lifelong Steelers season ticket holder who never missed a game at Three Rivers Stadium during the ’80s and ’90s:  “Who wore Number 11 from 1989 through 1992?”

  • You’ll almost certainly draw a blank, although the answer is “Rick Strom.”

No one remembers Rick Strom today and, I’d bet, few could have named him at the height of his clipboard holding days. That makes Joshua Dobbs, the Steelers incumbent third string quarterback unique.

  • Fans know his name – that’s a bit unusual, but not every team has a rocket scientist as its third string quarterback.

The question is, will Joshua Dobbs the Rocket Scientist turned quarterback who is reaching unrestricted free agency return to Pittsburgh?

Joshua Dobbs, Jacob Philips, Steelers vs Browns

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

Capsule Profile of Joshua Dobbs’ Career with the Steelers

The Steelers surprised some when they drafted Joshua Dobbs in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. The move was a surprise because Landry Jones had developed in to a competent backup, while former NFL starter Zach Mettenberger had done a year of apprenticeship as the 3rd string QB.

Dobbs was inactive his rookie year, but by all accounts, he did everything a third stringer could do to prepare. Things didn’t look good for Joshua Dobbs when the Steelers commenced camp at St. Vincents in the summer of 2018, as Pittsburgh has just drafted Mason Rudolph.

The Steelers had only kept 4 quarterbacks twice in their history – how could Joshua Dobbs hope to survive?

  • Joshua Dobb didn’t just survive the summer at St. Vincents, he thrived.

Dobbs forced Landry Jones from the team and established himself as the number 1 backup behind Ben Roethlisberger. In that capacity he saw action twice. First in the road win against the Ravens where Dobbs came in for one play, audibled out of a run, and fired a laser like strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster and converted a 3rd down.

  • The second time came in the Black Hole at Oakland, where Dobbs started the second half and looked tentative.

Joshua Dobbs’ development plateaued in the summer of 2019, and the Steelers dealt him to the Jacksonville Jaguars following week 1 of 2019. It was a decision they would regret, as they quickly claimed him off of waivers less than a year later. Dobbs remained in street clothes throughout 2020, until the season finale at Cleveland, where the Steelers deployed a special package of plays for Dobbs.

With Dobbs delivered a dynamism to the offense completing 4 of 5 shovel passes and rushing twice for 20 yards, prompting questions about whether he’d get a helmet in the playoffs. He did not.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Joshua Dobbs 2021

The fact that fans know his name says a lot. True, Joshua Dobbs hasn’t been battle tested much, but he’s proven far more than most NFL third stringers. He’s good to have in the locker room, is a student of the game and delivers immediate athleticism to the depth chart.

  • Best yet, they’ll be no bidding war for Joshua Dobbs services.

The Steelers can bring him back at the veteran minimum to complete with Dwyane Haskins and they should. After all, this is the Golden Age of Steelers Third String Quarterbacks as QB Number 3 has been pressed into non-mop up action multiple times in the Roethlisberger era.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Joshua Dobbs in 2021

Ben Roethlisberger is about to begin his “Life’s Work.” Mason Rudolph is the heir apparent, and the Steelers have taken a flyer on Dwayne Haskins. Dobbs’ upside is dwarfed by Dwayne Haskins’.

  • The idea of the Steelers keeping 4 quarterback for a 3rd time simply isn’t feasible.

With that in mind, Joshua Dobbs deserves a chance to sign somewhere where he has a shot at being a backup quarterback and the Steelers should use his roster spot and precious salary cap space on someone else.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Joshua Dobbs in 2021

The Steelers decision to sign Dwayne Haskins would appear to doom Joshua Dobbs’ chances of returning to Pittsburgh. But appearances can be deceiving. The Steelers aren’t doing anything else on Haskins other than taking a flyer on a talented player with a troubled past.

  • They’ve done this enough times to know there’s usually a reason why a former first round pick is unemployed in February after just two years in the league.

With that said, the Steelers have very limited salary cap space to work with and the smart money says they’ll invest those dollars outside their quarterback depth chart. Look for Joshua Dobbs the rocket scientist to land somewhere outside of Pittsburgh in free agency.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

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Marty Schottenheimer was a Coach I Hated as a Kid but Respected as a Man

Marty Schottenheimer, one of the most successful head coaches in NFL history, passed away on February 8 at the age of 77.

Schottenheimer won 200 regular-season games over a 20-year career that included stints with four different teams, including the Browns (1984-1988), Chiefs (1989-1998), the now Washington Football Team (2001) and Chargers (2002-2006).

Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Cowher, Steelers

Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher with his mentor, Marty Schottenheimer. Photo Credit:Charley Gallay, Getty Images

It was Schottenheimer’s tenure in Cleveland in the mid-to-late-’80s that drew the ire of a little Steelers fan in Pittsburgh. I’m talking about yours truly, of course. Right around the time Schottenheimer was turning the Browns into Super Bowl contenders in the mid-’80s, the Steelers, who had won four Lombardi trophies in the previous decade, were firmly in the throes of their post-dynasty malaise that would basically last through the final year of Chuck Noll‘s career in 1991.

It was Schottenheimer who would coach the Browns to their first-ever victory at Three Rivers Stadium in 1986. It was those same Browns who would lay to rest whatever slight playoff hopes Pittsburgh had thanks to a 37-31 overtime loss at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the rematch late in the season.

Schottenheimer would go on to coach the Browns to three-straight AFC Central titles from 1985-1987. Meanwhile, the Steelers, following a stunning appearance in the AFC title game in 1984, were about to embark on their ugliest stretch since the pre-Noll days and wouldn’t win another division title until Noll retired and was replaced by Bill Cowher in 1992.

It wasn’t a fun time watching Schottenheimer’s Browns reign supreme in the AFC Central during those aforementioned three seasons, while Pittsburgh could only muster records of 7-9, 6-10 and 8-7, respectively.

  • But time, they say it heals all wounds.

As I got older and learned a bit more about Schottenheimer, I realized he was not only a good and super-positive guy–someone who always got his players to respond to his message — but he was from the Greater Pittsburgh area, namely, Canonsburg, Pa. Furthermore, Schottenheimer was the only coaching boss Cowher ever had, as the fellow Pittsburgh area native cut his teeth on Schottenheimer’s staff in Cleveland as both a special teams coach and then a secondary coach.

Bill Cowher followed Schottenheimer to Kansas City and was the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator from 1989-1991. It was there that Cowher emerged as a bona fide head-coaching candidate and found himself on the Steelers’ radar during their very important search to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Emperor.

Many said Cowher was too much like his coaching mentor, which was to say he was too conservative on offense; instead, relying on defense and a sound running game

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

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

After several near-misses, Cowher finally got his ring in 2005 when the Steelers vanquished the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Many have said that the key was taking the handcuffs off Ben Roethlisberger, his second-year quarterback who had the “it” factor the organization seemed to be missing at the position since the days of Terry Bradshaw.

  • Sadly, Cowher’s old boss never did win a ring.

Heck, Schottenheimer never even appeared in a Super Bowl, as many promising seasons in Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego ended before they could even reach that coveted grand stage.

Some have called Schottenheimer’s coaching career tragic due to his playoff failures, but I don’t see it that way. If you’ve never seen the A Football Life episode about Schottenheimer’s football career, I highly recommend it. Schottenheimer had a nondescript playing career for both the Bills and Patriots in the 1960s before turning to a life in coaching. Unfortunately, Schottenheimer spent several years trying to get his foot in the door in both the college and professional ranks but struggled to even get an interview.

As he told it, Schottenheimer’s family was struggling financially and pretty close to seeing everything come crashing down when the Giants hired him to be their linebackers coach in 1975. During his A Football Life episode, Schottenheimer broke down in tears when discussing the break that he got in New York. It changed his life. It changed his family’s life.

No, there was nothing tragic about Schottenheimer’s coaching career. Did his teams often come up short on the biggest stages? Yes, but he got to live his dream.

  • He got closer than many ever will to NFL’s Promised Land.

People think life is about the destination, but it’s really about the journey. I’d say Marty Schottenheimer had a great and memorable one.

Thank you, Marty Schottenheimer, not only for preparing Bill Cowher to be the Steelers’ next head coach after Chuck Noll but for being the kind of coach this man would have loved to play for if I had the talent to do so.

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Former Steeler Mike Vrabel’s First Playoff Run as Coach Mirrors Rookie Experience

As Tony Defeo pointed out on Behind the Steel Curtain, it is clear that the Tennessee Titans deserved that final 2019 AFC Wild Card spot far more than the Pittsburgh Steelers did. Their wild ride came to an end yesterday in Kansas City, but Mike Vrabel took his team much farther than Mike Tomlin could have taken his.

  • And in many ways, Mike Vrabel’s first post season as a coach mirrored his rookie season as a player.

People forget, but the Pittsburgh Steelers actually drafted Mike Vrabel in the 3rd round of the 1997 NFL Draft. The third round of the NFL Draft was the Money Round for Tom Donahoe. Tom Donahoe was hit or miss with his first and second round picks. But man, did he nail it with his third rounders, grabbing guys like Hines Ward, Joey Porter and Joel Steed. And Mike Vrabel.

Even Steelers draft history geeks rarely list Vrabel alongside Donahoe’s other 3rd round steals because Mike Vrabel made his contribution in New England, not Pittsburgh.

  • Mike Vrabel played in 15 games as a rookie defensive lineman for the Steelers.
  • While he played primarily on special teams, notching 17 tackles, he did contribute a sack and a half.

Legendary Steelers defensive lineman coach John Mitchell believed in keeping his starting defensive lineman fresh by rotating in backups. And if you were good enough to be part of the rotation, you’d be going into the game when your number was called, regardless of the situation.

Mike Vrabel Steelers, Mike Vrabel sack Drew Bledsoe, Steelers vs Patriots divisional playoff

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

So as fate would have it, with the Steelers defending a slim 7-6 lead against the Patriots at Three Rivers Stadium, rookie Mike Vrabel found himself on the field in during a drive the started less with less than 1:44 left to play. Bill Cowher had opted to go for it on 4th and one, but Kordell Stewart got stuffed.

While 1:44 isn’t a ton of time, it is sufficient for a veteran quarterback such as Drew Bledsoe to go 99 yards. And the Patriots started to move, going all the way to their own 42 with just under a minute to play, 2 time outs and a fresh set of downs.

  • Bledsoe faded back and Mike Vrabel strip sacked him, forcing a fumble with Jason Gildon recovered.

Mike Vrabel got his first win as a rookie player by forcing a turnover against a New England Patriots quarterback sealing the win for his team.

23 years later, Logan Ryan would intercept Tom Brady to seal Mike Vrabel’s first playoff win as a rookie head coach.

That win propelled rookie Mike Vrabel into the AFC Championship where he would lose at the hands of a hot comeback effort authored by an AFC West quarterback. Sound familiar?

Sometimes history plops pretty parallels like that into your lap.

Mike Vrabel the Steelers Linebacker that Got Away

Their appearance in the 1997 AFC Championship game seemed to confirm that the Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher had found the formula for winning while weathering annual exoduses of free agents. Indeed, in January 1998, headliners like Chad Scott, Will Blackwell, Mike Vrabel, Steve Conley and Earl Holmes, the Steelers 1997 Draft appeared to be a winner.

  • During that off season the Steelers decided to ask Mike Vrabel to lose weight and switch to outside linebacker.

The move seemed to be a natural. After coming back strong from a serious knee injury, ankle injury and staph infection had struck down Greg Lloyd, making it clear that legendary linebacker would have to be replaced. Mike Vrabel lost the weight and made the move.

  • Then his troubles began.

To win the starting job to replace Greg Lloyd, Mike Vrabel only needed to beat out Carlos Emmons. That might not sound like a tall order, but injuries would plague the summers of both 1998 and 1999 for Mike Vrabel. And by 1999, Joey Porter’s arrival also gave Mike Vrabel competition.

Coaches expected Porter to win the starting spot in 1999 after Carlos Emmons defected to Philadelphia as a free agent and Porter complied. That season, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter combined for 23 and half sacks.

  • It looked like Vrabel didn’t have a place in Pittsburgh, and he in fact did not.

He went to New England. Bill Belichick installed him as a starter. In 2001 he had 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions while Gildon and Porter combined for 21. The Steelers had made the right move. But by the time Vrabel was catching touchdowns in spot duty as a tight in in Super Bowls, Jason Gildon was clearly falling behind in his race with father time.

Clearly, Vrabel had had far more “Upside” than Gildon, but such 20/20 hindsight wasn’t available in the ’00 off season.

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