A solid team emerges from a shaky offseason
By BOB LABRIOLA
Back in the late 1990s – the days of NFL free agency but before Heinz Field was a realistic possibility – there was no such thing as an uneventful offseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers' 1996 season had included a third straight division title, but it ended in a disappointing manner with a blah performance in the AFC Divisional Round in New England against the Patriots, who would advance to Super Bowl XXXI only to lose to the Green Bay Packers because they couldn't tackle kick returner Desmond Howard.
The 1997 offseason began with the departure of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who accepted the same position under Coach Bruce Coslet with the Cincinnati Bengals. It was portrayed as a return home for LeBeau, who then would get a shot to be the team's head coach when Coslet was fired, but at the time the move lacked that feel-good component. Coach Bill Cowher brought in Jim Haslett, who had spent the previous season as the Saints' defensive coordinator.
As for the roster, outside linebacker Chad Brown parlayed a 13-sack season into mega-bucks from the Seattle Seahawks, who also threw a lot of owner Paul Allen's Microsoft money at cornerback Willie Williams. The loss of Williams was minor compared to the drama developing with Rod Woodson, one of the best players in Steelers history.
Woodson had missed all of 1995 with a torn ACL, and the injury plus his age had robbed him of some of the makeup speed that had made him the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1993. For years Woodson had been the highest-paid cornerback in football, but even though he was an unrestricted free agent he wasn't commanding that kind of money anymore.
The Steelers' offer to Woodson was the best one out there, but because it represented a pay cut over what he had made in 1996 he was angered by it. "With me, it's integrity," he said. "It's not how much money I have. I have enough money. I don't care about that. It's my integrity. My integrity means more to me than playing for any football team."
The situation would drag deeper into the offseason, but Woodson would leave the Steelers for a lesser contract offer from the San Francisco 49ers, who then would cut him after the 1997 season.
It wasn't all bad news for the Steelers during the offseason, because they did re-sign Jerome Bettis, whose 1,400-plus yards in 1996 had voided the final season of the contract he originally signed as a rookie with the Rams. Bettis actually tested the open market, but his experience with the Rams had left him with a strong desire to be somewhere he knew he was wanted and appreciated.
"The situation here was the best fit for me," said Bettis. "I fit in – the system, the community, the coaches – everything played a role because I left one organization where things were rough in a lot of those areas. I needed that security in knowing people were comfortable with me. I'm comfortable with the city, with the organization and with the offense."
The four-year, $14 million contract he got from the Steelers didn't hurt any, either. Bettis signed that contract on the day before his 25th birthday.
"It's really starting to dawn on me. I was in Detroit and went out to play laser tag," said Bettis. "There were about 100 kids there, and nobody said anything to me. I thought to myself, if I was in Pittsburgh I wouldn't have been able to escape one kid without an autograph. I realized Pittsburgh is someplace special in that even the little kids know who I am. That doesn't happen in too many other places."
The Steelers used their No. 1 pick in the draft to fortify their situation at cornerback by selecting Maryland's Chad Scott, and Cowher didn't wait until training camp to resolve the quarterback situation. The combination of Kordell Stewart's promise and Mike Tomczak's steadily declining play down the stretch of the 1996 season convinced Cowher to announce a decision by minicamp.
Why name Kordell Stewart without making him win the job in an open competition?
"Because I decided not to. No other reason," said Cowher. "I know these guys pretty well now, and the most important thing I wanted going in was for us to have an understanding of where everybody stood."
As the 1997 regular season was about to begin, it appeared the Steelers stood in an excellent spot. They had gone 5-0 in the preseason, Stewart had compiled a passer rating of 122.7, and the defense had 22 sacks.
Thud. That was the sound of the Steelers hitting the canvas in their opener against the Dallas Cowboys at Three Rivers Stadium. Troy Aikman completed 19-of-30 for 295 yards and four touchdowns, with receiver Michael Irvin caught seven of those for 153 yards and three scores in Dallas' 37-7 win. The Steelers didn't manage 100 net yards either running or passing, and Stewart converted just 1-of-11 on third down. It was a thorough beating.
"I like this football team," said Cowher, "as crazy as this might sound."
The Steelers squeaked out a 14-13 win over the Redskins, and then they found themselves down, 17-7, at halftime of their next game – a Monday night affair against the Jaguars in Jacksonville. Cowher used those 12 minutes in the visitor's locker room to challenge his players to begin playing the physical style that always has been a characteristic of a good Steelers team.
They responded. The Steelers took the second half kickoff and marched 80 yards in 13 plays, with Bettis' running accounting for 44 of those, and Stewart capped it off with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Yancey Thigpen. The Steelers would lose the game when a potential last-play game-winning field goal was blocked and returned for a touchdown, but what they did in Jacksonville proved to be a turning point.
The Steelers won five games in a row, only to lose by 13-10 in Kansas City because offensive coordinator Chan Gailey forgot about Bettis in the second half, but then they won two more to raise their record to 8-3. They were 9-4 going into a marquee matchup against the 11-2 Broncos at Three Rivers Stadium, and the Steelers used the occasion to play their best game of the season.
Bettis rushed for 125 yards, and Stewart passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns while running for 49 more and the two second-half touchdowns that were the difference in a 35-24 win. The defense limited Terrell Davis to 75 yards rushing, and it sacked John Elway twice and intercepted him once. The Steelers had faced the two teams with the best records in the AFC – Kansas City and Denver – and neither one could do anything to stop Bettis.
The Steelers were 10-4, and Bettis already had 1,585 yards rushing, a 4.6 average and nine total touchdowns. How would Bettis tackle himself? "My first thought is to go low, but then I say to myself, 'You'd probably have to go high.' But then I would probably run myself over.
An incredible overtime win in New England earned the Steelers the No. 2 seed; then when the Patriots defeated Miami in the Wild Card Game, it was New England at Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.
"I like the togetherness all around," said safety Darren Perry as the Steelers were about to enter the playoffs. "It's not like we weren't close all those other years, but there's a special closeness everyone had. No one is trying to be bigger than the team, and everyone is trying to do the unselfish things that get the job done. You like to see that."
Added linebacker Levon Kirkland, "I don't expect anything but the best in the playoffs. You have two games to get to the show, and you just have to give it all you have. If you can't do that, in practice and in games, maybe you don't belong in that situation. And I'm putting myself out there first."
Against the Patriots, Scott intercepted Drew Bledsoe on the game's opening possession, and his 27-yard return gave the Steelers the ball at their own 38-yard line. Stewart ended the possession with a 40-yard touchdown run, and the Steelers' quick 7-0 lead gave the impression that things were going to be easy.
Didn't turn out that way. That was the only Steelers' touchdown, but because the defense had limited the Patriots to two field goals, it was 7-6 midway through the fourth quarter.
But that's when the game almost got away from the Steelers. Rather than kick a field goal from the Patriots' 1-yard line, Cowher decided to go for the touchdown, but the New England defense rose up and kept Stewart out of the end zone.
Then the Patriots began to move the ball, and they were inside the Steelers 30-yard line with less than two minutes to play. Bledsoe went back to pass one more time when rookie Mike Vrabel was relentless in rushing the passer, and when he sacked Bledsoe and forced a fumble, linebacker Jason Gildon recovered for the Steelers at their own 34-yard line.
Ballgame. Steelers win, 7-6.
"We were in our regular dime package, no stunt or anything," said Vrabel. "It was just kind of a straight rush. We didn't have a blitz on. I was fortunate enough to find some kind of speed around the corner and keep rushing.
"Our coaches said all week that if you're the right end, keep rushing. Don't give up, because Bledsoe isn't going to look back to his left. He's not going to throw back to his left. He's going to roll to his right, and he did. I was lucky enough to catch his right arm as it was coming up."
The Steelers had staved off elimination by the same team that had bounced them from the playoffs the previous season, the same team that had prevented them from hosting a third straight AFC Championship Game.
Now, with a one year respite, the AFC Championship was going to be decided once again on the carpet at Three Rivers Stadium.
"It wasn't pretty, it wasn't artistic, but that's been indicative of this season – finding a way to win," said Cowher. "We've got some work to do, but it's nice to still be playing this late in January."
Stewart 40 run (Johnson kick)
Vinatieri 31 FG
Vinatieri 46 FG
Total Net Yds
Time of poss.