For 15 Days we will be counting down the Top 15 Greatest Steelers of the Bill Cowher Era. The list will have both offensive and defensive players, and in doing the list no kickers or punters were selected. Below is our number choice of the day building towards the number one Steeler of the Cowher Era.
QB Neil O’Donnell 1990-1995:
Neil O’Donnell will be remembered for two passes that forced him into being one of the most despised Steelers quarterbacks in history. The two throws came in Super Bowl XXX, in which the first one slipped out of his hand and into the hands of Cowboys CB Larry Brown. The second came with the Steelers down 20-17 late in the 4th quarter. The play called for WR Andre Hastings to be aware if the Cowboys ran a blitz to run a hot route. The blitz came, O’Donnell threw it where he thought Hastings would be, and instead stood Larry Brown, who took the ball deep into Steelers territory. Two plays later, the Cowboys scored, and O’Donnell became the focus of Steelers fans wrath around the country. His Super Bowl performace was ranked #9 is the “Worst Super Bowl Performances Ever” on ESPN.com’s Page 2.
Two months later, O’Donell signed a huge free agent contract with the Jets. He started that season 0-6, and in the final seven years in his career played for the Jets, Bengals and Titans. He will always be remembered though for his five seasons in Pittsburgh, and those two throws that lost the Steelers a shot at ring number five back in 1995.
The unfair thing about Neil that many forget is that as the four years as the Steelers starter, the team made the playoffs all four seasons, went to two AFC Title games, a Super Bowl, and had a starting record of 40-18, and the lowest INT ratio for QB’s in Steelers history. He was never flashy, not did he ever make the types of plays that made the highlights of SportCenter, but the bottom line on O’Donnell is that he was the perfect QB for the Steelers at a time when the QB was called up to manage the game, and once in a great while make a solid throw.
O’Donnell came to the Steelers in 1990 out of the University of Maryland. He was one of the best QB’s in the school’s history, and along with Boomer Esiason still ranks as among the schools best. His first season in Pittsburgh under Chuck Noll, Neil leared the system, but never saw the field. Then in 1991, he finally got his shot, splitting time with Bubby Brister in Chuck Noll’s last year as head coach. In a season in which the team went 7-9, Neil started half the games, and threw 13 TD’s and 9 interceptions.
Enter Bill Cowher in 1992, and enter O’Donnell becoming a full-time starter. After winning a a QB battle in training camp with Brister, O’Donnell started and the Steelers started the season 3-0, with O’Donnell and running back Barry Foster leading the way on offense. O’Donnell led the upstart Steelers to an 8-4 record, with the key wins that season coming against the Oilers twice and the Chiefs. Neil suffered a broken bone in his leg in week 14 vs the Seahakws at home, and missed the final three games of the season. Cowher, instead of going with Bubby Brister in the teams first home playoff game vs the Bills, instead chose a less than 100 percent O’Donnell, and the team lost 24-3.
1993 Neil had tendentios in his throwing arm, and the team started off 0-2. He got as healthy as he could, and quickly the Steeelers started winning games, and suddenly they were 6-3. The bottom dropped out after back to back losses to the Broncos and Bills, and the team went 3-4 in their last seven games, sneaking into the playoffs as a wild card at 9-7. O’Donnell threw for over 3,200 yards in 1993, and 14 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He started the playoff game in Kansas City, and in a hostile venue led the Steelers to leads of 17-7 and 24-17. First a special teams breakdown and then a defensive breakdown cost the Steelers, who fell in OT 27-24.
The following season the Steelers went 12-4, but were hailed by a defense that was #1 in the league. O’Donnell did have another solid season though, throwing for 2443 yards and 13 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. The fans though got even more excited when after suffering an injury Neil sat for two games and backup Mike Tomczak led the Steelers to wins over the Dolphins, in a game in which he threw over 300 yards, and in Los Angeles vs the Raiders. Much against what the fans wanted, Neil returned, and led the Steelers to a 3-0 mark before sitting the final game with home field and the AFC Central clinched.
In the first game of the 1994 playoffs vs the Browns at home, O’Donnell was mistake free, and the Steelers running game and defense was solid as they pounded the Browns 29-9. The team built a 24-3 halftime lead and were on cruise control throughout. Many felt that the AFC Title game the following game vs the Chargers was an after thought and the team was going to roll to the Super Bowl. Instead, it easily was the toughest loss to the Cowher Era along with Super Bowl XXX. With the Steelers up 13-3, San Diego scored two TD’s against the arrogant Steelers D, and in the final seconds O’Donnell led a furious rally that landed them at the Chargers three-yard line. Setting AFC Title game records across the board, O’Donnell’s 4th down pass was batted down by Dennis Gibson, sending the Steelers to a stunning 17-13 loss.
The 1995 season things didn’t exactly go smoothly for Neil and the Steelers, as the team started 3-4. Making it a 9 game season, the team finally came together, winning eight of the last nine, and clinching the AFC Central title and claiming the second seed in the AFC. The season also marked a shift for Neil and the offense, as the passing game with 4 and 5 wide outs came into play throughout a lot of the winning streak, with O’Donnell and the offense putting up huge numbers. Demons were exercised that season in the playoffs, as the team pounded the Bills, then O’Donnell hit two huge throws on a game-winning drive as the team stopped the upstart Colts 20-16.
Following the 27-17 Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys, the team knew that O’Donnell was going to get other offers as a free agent. Pittsburgh made Neil a more than fair offer, and even Sports Illustrated gave him the front cover on his back and forth with his wife and agent on if he should resign with Pittsburgh or head to New York to play for the awful Jets. On February 28th, O’Donnells tenure with the Steelers ended. He signed a long-term deal with the Jets, which included an $8 mil signing bonus. New York was 1-15 the year before, and his first year with the Jets they went 3-13. Steelers fans once again had a reason to hate the man that had led them to four straight playoff appearances.
Tomorrow: Number 11