Team wins division despite upheaval at QB
By BOB LABRIOLA
Shortly after the Steelers had lost Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys, Coach Bill Cowher was asked to assess the season in light of that. "It was a special year … There is much to be proud of. The one thing you don't want to do in this business is dwell on things too long. It's not healthy, and it's not fair. You have to look at the whole picture."
Cowher was speaking about the team in general, but he could have been directing his comments at the situation that would envelop his starting quarterback.
During the 1995 regular season, Neil O'Donnell had put together the best sustained play of his career. An injury in the opener set him back a month, but O'Donnell passed for 17 touchdowns as the triggerman for an offense that often went hurry-up from formations including four and five wide receivers. Gradually over the course of the season, the offense grew to the same status as the defense within the hierarchy of the locker room, and that was because of O'Donnell. The image of Greg Lloyd hugging O'Donnell on the sideline at the end of a win in Chicago was more than just symbolic.
But it all came apart at Sun Devil Stadium in the Super Bowl. O'Donnell had thrown two interceptions that both were bad plays by the quarterback, and the Steelers had lost. The majority of the town hung the loss on O'Donnell, and Pittsburgh is a very demanding environment for the guy who is Steelers starting quarterback. And the specter of O'Donnell's impending unrestricted free agency added a whole other level of intrigue to the matter.
When the New York Jets came along and offered a contract that would make him the fourth highest-paid player in the NFL, O'Donnell was gone. Only a fool would contend the money wasn't a huge factor, but only the naïve would believe a part of O'Donnell didn't just want to get out of town. The Steelers were offering money that would have put O'Donnell in the top 10 among quarterbacks – remember, Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Randall Cunningham, Jim Kelly, John Elway and Brett Favre were his peers – and a championship roster. The Jets were coming off a 3-13 season and hadn't won a division title since 1969.
Then, when O'Donnell left with, "I didn't know what direction (the Steelers) were going," the reaction was swift.
Said Rod Woodson, "Neil's decision definitely wasn't based on winning. I just hope he doesn't end up in their highlights film the way Boomer Esiason did – picking himself up off the ground."
And Cowher, "I think what we've done is pretty self-evident. The direction that we're heading speaks for itself. I like the direction we're headed, personally."
Finally, Terry Bradshaw: "I guess my records are safe now, but I never lost a Super Bowl. And to me, that's the only thing that matters."
Losing their starting quarterback was only part of an offseason for the Steelers that included Leon Searcy's departure to Jacksonville for a contract that made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history, and Bam Morris' arrest for possession of six pounds of marijuana.
The Steelers replaced the hole on their offensive line with All-Pro Will Wolford, who got into the spirit of the offseason when he said, "This is one of the great teams in history and one of the great teams last year. I wanted to stay in the AFC and be on the first team from the AFC to win a Super Bowl in a while. Obviously, I would not have come to Pittsburgh if I thought they couldn't get back to the Super Bowl and win it."
Then on the day of the 2006 NFL Draft they would replace Morris with a guy who would become one of the great players in franchise history.
In the NFL version of Peter Minuit getting Manhattan Island in 1621 from the local Indians for $24 worth of beads and trinkets, the Steelers traded their second-round choice (59th overall) and a No. 4 pick in the 1997 draft to the St. Louis Rams for their third-round pick (72nd overall) and Jerome Bettis. Wolford for Searcy was a wash, and Bettis was a significant upgrade over Morris. But what would the Steelers do at quarterback?
Mark Malone was an NFL analyst on ESPN at the time, and he said, "Everybody pretty much agrees that the Pittsburgh Steelers are on the doorstep of competing for a championship again this season, and Bill Cowher is looking for someone who won't make mistakes from the quarterback spot."
With no real interest in any of the quarterbacks available via free agency, and because the team had drafted quarterbacks in both 1994 and 1995, Cowher announced the starting job would go to the winner of a three-way competition among veteran Mike Tomczak, third-year pro Jim Miller and second-year pro Kordell Stewart.
"I think what you're going to get," said Cowher, "is a situation where there's enough competition that whoever comes out of it is going to be better than when they started. They all bring different qualities, and at the same time they've all been pretty successful in this system. It's going to be a case of developing a guy who's most consistent, not the guy who learns it quickest."
Cowher named Miller the starter late in a preseason that included a fifth game – vs. the San Diego Chargers in Tokyo – and it seemed to be the right move. Tomczak's primary weakness as a quarterback always was protecting the football, and Stewart had been more of a wide receiver than a quarterback during his only other professional season. Yes, Miller was the way to go.
Then came the opener in Jacksonville, and it all hit the fan. A couple of days before the game the team learned that defensive end Ray Seals would miss the season with a torn rotator cuff, and then during the game Greg Lloyd was lost for the year to a torn patellar tendon. Leading receiver Yancey Thigpen was nursing what would become a season-long hamstring problem, and the team lost two other defensive starters – end Brentson Buckner and outside linebacker Jason Gildon – in the 24-9 loss to the Jaguars.
During the game, Miller was only one of many who didn't play well, but Cowher decided his team couldn't withstand growing pains from the quarterback. He switched to Tomczak. "I'm not concerned with any one individual. My bottom line is this football team, to do what I think is in the best interest of this football team, regardless of how individuals may feel. I think everyone understands that going in, and decisions will be made."
The situation stabilized somewhat, and the Steelers began to win, but it wouldn't be fair to credit it all to the switch at quarterback. Bettis posted seven 100-yard performances over the season's first nine games on the way to 1,431 yards rushing, Chad Brown would slide over to Lloyd's spot and ring up 13 sacks, Woodson returned from his ACL surgery with six interceptions, and Levon Kirkland added four sacks and four interceptions.
After the loss in Jacksonville, the Steelers won five straight, but after being 6-2 at the midway point, Tomczak began to drift back to the style that had characterized his career to that point, and his inconsistency infected the rest of the team. The Steelers finished 3-4 over the final seven weeks of the regular season when Tomczak threw 11 interceptions vs. eight touchdown passes. To compound the problems, Bettis injured an ankle in a win over San Diego on Dec. 8 that clinched the AFC Central Division.
The Steelers ended their regular season on a two-game losing streak, but with Bettis' ankle getting better the team's No. 1 issue going into the postseason was the same one that had dominated their offseason.
"I'm not a psychologist; sometimes I think I am," said Cowher when asked about Tomczak's confidence going into the playoffs. "I think you try to be realistic. You try to be objective. The one thing I'm going to continue to do, as I've stated before, is to try to do whatever we need to do in order to get this football team to play to the best of its abilities. I'm not going to hold anything back. I'm not going to tell anybody what they want to hear."
Because of the Steelers' late-season slump, the top two seeds in the AFC went to Denver and New England, which meant there would be no bye in the playoffs for them for the first time since 1993. Their opponent in the Wild Card Round would be the Indianapolis Colts, but this was hardly the same team that took the Steelers to the final seconds in the previous season's AFC Championship Game.
That time, the Colts hopes ended with a prayer, a Hail Mary that fell incomplete in the end zone as time expired. This time, the Colts didn't have a prayer.
The Steelers rushed for 231 yards and held the Colts to 41; they rolled up 401 yards of offense and held the Colts to 146; they scored five offensive touchdowns and allowed the Colts only one. Indianapolis led, 14-13, at halftime, but that was a mirage. The Steelers sacked Jim Harbaugh four times and literally beat him bloody; Harbaugh would need to see a cosmetic dentist because of his many run-ins with Pittsburgh's pass rush.
Tomczak threw two more interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, but it didn't really matter, and the fact is, he actually didn't play that poorly at all. The Steelers won, 42-14, and it was done in such a convincing manner that Colts coach Lindy Infante was inspired to say, "Like I told our players, I still believe we belonged in this playoff game."
Said Woodson, "This is playoff time, and we played with Steelers mentality for this time of year. That's something we can guarantee every week of the playoffs."
The win sent the Steelers to Foxborough for the AFC Divisional Round against the New England Patriots, recently revived by Coach Bill Parcells and a staff of assistants that included a guy named Bill Belichick.
They were going to need Bettis against the Patriots, but whether they would have him was up in the air. His ankle had held up well in the rout of the Colts, but on the first of his two touchdown runs, he strained a groin. Bettis finished with 102 yards and two touchdowns, but the worst of this kind of injury wouldn't reveal itself for another 24 hours. If the Steelers were concerned about that in the immediate aftermath of their Wild Card win, it wasn't apparent.
"This game does a lot for our confidence, especially with the kind of victory we had today," said safety Carnell Lake. "For the most part it was a dominating game, and we're going to need this confidence going on the road."
Johnson 29 FG
Stewart 1 run (Johnson kick)
Johnson 50 FG
Daniels 59 interception (Blanchard kick)
Bailey 9 pass from Harbaugh (Blanchard kick)
Bettis 1 run (Stewart pass to Farquhar)
Bettis 1 run (Johnson kick)
Witman 31 run (Johnson kick)
Stewart 3 run (John son kick)
Total Net Yds
Time of poss.