Will There Ever Be Any Appreciation For Neil O'Donnell?

neil odonnell

I've recently posted some stories about the Steelers playoff teams of the 90's under Bill Cowher and how awesome I thought those years were.

The Steelers had a great run in that decade, making the playoffs six-straight seasons. The starting quarterback in four of those six seasons ('92-'95) was Neil O'Donnell. The Steelers were 43-21 in those four years with him at the helm, advanced to the AFC Championship Game following the '94 and '95 seasons, and appeared in their first Super Bowl since 1979 when they made it to Super Bowl XXX in 1995.

 

 

The Steelers didn't win the championship as they fell short after O'Donnell threw not one, but two very horrible interceptions to Larry Brown in the second half when Pittsburgh had a chance to take the lead.

O'Donnell signed with the Jets following the Super Bowl, played there for a few years, bounced around a bit, and then finally retired in 2003 after a few years with the Tennessee Titans.

O'Donnell played 14 seasons in the NFL, threw for 21,690 yards, 120 touchdown passes, and only 68 interceptions. In fact, O'Donnell retired with the best interceptions to attempts ratio in the history of the league (2.11 for every 100 attempts). I'm not a stats-guy and can certainly understand that the true measure of any quarterback is winning championships, but that's a pretty decent career right there. And the prime of it was played right here in Pittsburgh.

Despite the lackluster performance of O'Donnell in that Super Bowl, he still had a pretty impressive run as starting quarterback for the Steelers. You would think his time here would be celebrated just a little bit. However, just mention Neil O'Donnell's name to most Steelers fans and you will probably get an overwhelmingly negative reaction.

The main reason, of course, is because he came up short in the Super Bowl and then left as a free agent immediately after that. But O'Donnell wasn't a well-liked figure here in Pittsburgh even before those two interceptions. I was watching a replay of Super Bowl XXX recently (yes, I'm a glutton for punishment) and one of the NBC guys mentioned that O'Donnell wasn't the most popular player among Steeler fans.

He was right. However, it wasn't that way, initially. I remember watching a Steelers program shortly before the start of the 1992 season. It was a pep-rally show similar to what the Jerome Bettis/Hines Ward show would eventually become. O'Donnell was one of the Steelers introduced and the crowd really seemed to love him.

The Steelers had an awesome year in 1992 under new Head Coach Bill Cowher and made the playoffs with an 11-5 record. They came up short against the Bills in the playoffs, losing 24-3, and I believe this is where the fans' attitude towards O'Donnell changed forever.

Bubby Brister had filled in for O'Donnell at the end of the year while he was recovering from an injury and many people believed Bubby should have started the playoff game against Buffalo. I don't recall the exact details of the game, but the Steelers had several opportunities to jump on the Bills early and they could never take advantage of them.

Following the game, Brister made a comment that if he was the quarterback in those situations, he would have come through with more than 3-points. Brister left the Steelers following that season but the comments he made after that playoff game planted a seed with Steelers fans. A seed that, over the years, has grown into people actually thinking that the Steelers not only would have won that playoff game against Buffalo that day many years ago, but they may have even won a championship if Brister was the starter in subsequent seasons instead of O'Donnell.

I loved the Bubster as much as anyone. I enjoyed his leadership and his gunslinger mentality. I will always have fond memories of the 1989 season with Bubby leading the way. But I also remember the inconsistency, as well. Brister had the better part of five-seasons to entrench himself as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers and he just couldn't do it. There was a reason why he was a journeymen quarterback the remainder of his career after he left Pittsburgh.

In 1993, the Steelers signed Mike Tomczak to fill Brister's spot as the back-up to O'Donnell. Early in the preseason, there was a game at Three Rivers in-which Tomczak made a hard-nosed run for a first-down and the fans gave him a standing ovation. I knew immediately what the ovation meant. It meant, "I like this Tomczak fella. I think Cowher should give him a shot to start instead of O'Donnell."

In 1994, the Steelers had a pretty awesome year. They finished with their best regular season record since the 70's. O'Donnell was having a pretty good year, but was injured for a couple of games towards the end of the season and Tomczak filled in. He led them to two important wins over the Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Raiders. Tomczak didn't play lights-out or anything, but he was the back-up and did his part . O'Donnell was back under center for a game against the Eagles at Three Rivers stadium and he struggled most of the day before finally leading the team to a late victory. During the course of O'Donnell's struggles that day, the fans in the stands began to chant, "We Want Mike!" You know how fans love their back-up quarterbacks.

For whatever reason, like a lot of starting quarterbacks over the years, O'Donnell fell out of favor with Steelers fans and never recovered.

My intentions for writing this aren't to suggest that a love-affair should develop between Neil O'Donnell and Steeler Nation. After all, part of that falls on O'Donnell's shoulders. He left here 15 seasons ago and other than the occasional trip back to town as part of the visiting team, we really haven't heard much from him. I can't recall one interview or appearance in town since his playing days ended.

What I'm trying to point out is that Neil O'Donnell had a pretty nice career here and shouldn't be remembered just for those two infamous picks in the biggest game of his life. People also point to the 1994 AFC Championship Game and O'Donnell's inability to finish off the drive at the end. But what about the following year when he actually did finish off the drive in the AFC Championship Game? Remember his clutch 38 yard pass to Ernie Mills down to the one-yard line with less than two-minutes left and the Steelers trailing by 3 points? One of the most important postseason passes in the history of the franchise and there is very little mention of it. No, O'Donnell didn't get the job done in Super Bowl XXX, but he was a major factor in them getting there.

It has also been suggested by some very short-sighted people that O'Donnell was paid off and threw Super Bowl XXX. Yes, those two interceptions to Larry Brown were very bad and could make you wonder if it wasn't for a play that he made in the first quarter. The Steelers were getting dominated physically by the Cowboys at the start of the game. The defense hadn't been able to stop the Cowboys offense the first two drives and Pittsbrugh trailed 10-0.  The Steelers started to move the ball late in the first quarter and were deep in Dallas territory. They went into their no-huddle offense with O'Donnell in the shotgun. Pittsburgh appeared to have some momentum, but then on first down, Dermontti Dawson snapped the ball way over O'Donnell's head and Neil did everything in his power to fall on the football with Dallas defenders in hot pursuit. Now, if O'Donnell was really trying to throw the game, wouldn't that have been a convenient time to fail to fall on the fumble and allow the Cowboys to recover it and take it in for a touchdown? You can say a lot of things about Neil O'Donnell's career, but you can't say he was on Jerry Jone's payroll for Super Bowl XXX. No, not after that play.

O'Donnell was far from an elite quarterback and there may never be a "Welcome Back, Neil" ceremony similar to Terry Bradshaw's big night at Heinz Field in 2002. No, O'Donnell was never able to bring the City a championsnhip, but there were a lot of quarterbacks to come through Pittsburgh that didn't win, either. Guys like Jim Finks, Ted Marchibroda, and Bobby Layne are mostly remembered fondly by long-time Steelers fans. Heck, even Terry Hanratty and Tommy Maddox had their moments as very popular Steelers quarterbacks.

But in the long and glorious history of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise, only three quarterbacks have ever led the team to a championship game. Neil O'Donnell was one of them, and you may never love the man, but his time with the Steelers should be appreciated a little more.
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