PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 18: Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches his team play against the Seattle Seahawks during the game on September 18, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
It was a different team, a different era.
Yes, the San Francisco 49ers were leading the NFC West, but the NFL only had 28 teams, each conference had three divisions, the Titans were the Oilers and in Houston and Baltimore had yet to get a CFL team, let alone and NFL team.
Much has changed since year one of the Bill Cowher era, but the Steelers recent three-game stretch calls to mind a similar three-game stretch in 1992. And while the situations are not completely analogous that triad of games from yesteryear likely offers both lessons and warnings.
The 1991 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 7-9. Although ten teams finished with a worse record, several '92 pre-season publications routinely rated them as the 26th or the 27th in the league.
On opening day the Houston media report ignored the Oiler's home opener vs. the Steelers instead focused Houston's chances of getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Oilers jumped to a 14-0 lead, seemingly vindicating such nonchalance. But rookie head coach Bill Cowher countered with attitude of his own by calling a fake punt deep in Pittsburgh territory.
Mark Royals passed for 44 yards to Warren Williams. Cowher Power was born!
Behind the bone crunching rushing of Barry Foster and a punishing defense the Steelers defeated the Jets and Chargers to start 3-0.
No one had coined the term 'Steeler Nation' yet, but Cowher Power had awoken a passion in Steel City residents and expats alike. ESPN quoted cornerback David 'DJ' Johnson as saying something like, "Its kind of scary. Fans are walking around going 'Super Bowl' 'Super Bowl' whereas just a few weeks a go they were saying 'Toilet Bowl' 'Toilet Bowl.'"
Johnson's words seemed clairvoyant. In week 4 a ballyhooed signal caller named Brett Favre defeated the Steelers in his first NFL start. (It was arguably also Rod Woodson's worst day as a pro. Click here to watch the ESPN NFL PrimeTime summary, the quality is OK, and it runs about 4 min.) In week 5 the Steelers dropped another to Belinick's Browns at Cleveland Stadium.
The next week the Steelers defeated David Shula's Bengals, but the fact that it was Cincinnati's fourth straight loss gave a "so what" quality to the Cowher era's first shut out.
Defining Three Game Stretch
With a 4-2 record the Steelers next had to play the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Oilers, and Buffalo Bills. Kansas City and Houston were perennial contenders, while the Bills were two time AFC Champions.
Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest declared that the Steelers would define themselves during that 3 game stretch. A win over any of the three would be considered an upset but legitimize their strong start. Losses, he argued, would consign them to the mediocrity that had plagued the 1990 and 1991 Steelers.
In 1992 Arrowhead Stadium was a decidedly difficult place to play as the then NFC East heavyweight Philadelphia Eagles found out just two weeks before, but the Steelers dominated from start to finish.
Rod Woodson led the effort scoring on 80 yard punt return in the first quarter and nabbing an interception later in the day. Greg Lloyd sacked Dave Kreig twice and DJ Johnson intercepted a pass of his own. It was also Cowher's home coming, having coached the Chief's defense. The Steelers offense didn't put up gaudy numbers, but they did neutralize Kansas City's All Pro defenders Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith.
Pittsburgh had decisively taken out a major contender on the road and Labriola argued that this meant the Steelers could be counted upon to defeat any NFL team. Turning toward the Oilers impending visit to Three Rivers Stadium, Labriola raised the ante, declaring supremacy of the AFC Central was at stake opening the possibility of playoff games at Three Rivers Stadium for the first time in a generation."
The 1992 Steelers-Oilers game at Three Rivers Stadium was tailor made for NFL Films lives for. The Steelers led 7-6 at the half, but dug themselves into a deep hole in the third quarter giving up a passing touchdown and watching Ray Childress return a fumble 8 yards for a touchdown.
The Steelers refused to fold, as Steelers defense stopped the Oilers cold allowing Neil O'Donnell to led the Steelers offense down the field twice for two touchdowns.
With less than two minutes to play, Houston took one last shot. Cody Carlson marched his team down the field as the clock ticked. Steelers assistants implored Cowher to use time outs to give them a chance of getting the ball back. Cowher ignored the pleas saying "Don't worry, he's going to miss it, he's going to miss it." Sure enough, Al Del Greco did get one shot at a field goal, but was wide right.
The victory put them in sole possession of the AFC Central lead as they head to Buffalo to play the reigning AFC heavyweights. Alas, the Steelers showed they weren't quite ready for Prime Time.
Despite playing the Bengals two times a year (who then used the no huddle on every series), the Steelers were unable to compete with the K-Gun, no huddle, offense, as the Bills jumped to a 21-6 half time lead. The Steelers fought back with two touchdowns of their own, but the Bills got on the board again, and walked away with a 28-20 victory.
What Can We Learn?
The loss to the Bills seemingly doomed the Steelers chances at home field advantage for the playoffs, just as the Steelers loss to the Ravens has compromised their ability to control their own destiny.
But the Bills faltered late in the season, and the Steelers did clinch home field advantage.
The lesson is that the Steelers can root all they want for the Bengals or some other team to upset the Ravens, but their efforts are best-focused on taking care of business in house.
The flip side to that lesson is that the Steelers lost badly to the Bills in the franchise's first playoff game in over a decade.
In truth, that group of Pittsburgh Steelers probably wasn't ready for Prime Time.
But aside from that, one of the reasons why the Steelers lost so badly was that Bill Cowher insisted on starting Neil O'Donnell. O'Donnell had been hurt late in the season and missed the last three games.
Bubby Brister looked horrible in his first two starts, but came on strong to defeat the Browns in the season finale.
O'Donnell and Brister had competed for the starting job in camp, and Bill Cowher had seen enough of them since then to know that he wanted Neil as his starter. He started O'Donnell in the playoffs even though he wasn't fully ready, and the team suffered because of it.
The lesson is that the down the stretch, Mike Tomlin needs to play whoever he needs to play to give the Steelers the best chance to win.
That may sound kind of harsh, especially with Hines Ward so close to so many milestones that will differentiate him from other accomplished receivers.
But Bill Cowher was coaching a young team whose Super Bowl window was just opening.
Mike Tomlin would be wise to heed the lessons left by the 1992 Steelers.