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Steelers Throwback Thursday: Could “the Chin“ win in his head coaching debut?

BTSC harkens back to Bill Cowher’s first game in 1992.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Cleveland Browns - December 24, 2005 Photo by Jamie Mullen/NFLPhotoLibrary

As we fire up the BTSC Delorean for 1.21 jigawatts of fun, we set the time controls to a time when “the Flying Elvises“ came into prominence because of the weekend’s top movie Honeymoon In VegasBoyz II Men were on top of the music charts with “End of the Road” — and a nut-hugger-wearin’ jogger from Arkansas was gearing up for a presidential run. As for the Steelers, they were entering the Labor Day holiday with a new coach, William Laird Cowher, for the first time since Chuck Noll debuted 23 years earlier.

Welcome to September 6, 1992.

Not much was known about the 35-year old area native, except that he was the Kansas City Chiefs’ Defensive Coordinator under Marty Schottenheimer and was eight years removed from a career in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns. Plus, he had a cool mustache and a squarely defined chin.

Steelers Nation was expecting a complete rebuild and possible low-water marks under Cowher and his new starting QB, Neil O’Donnell. To make matters worse, Pittsburgh was an 11-point underdog and visiting co-favorites for the conference crown, the Houston Oilers.

Houston started off the game with then-35-year-old Warren Moon driving his team near midfield. But the future Hall of Famer threw an interception to another future Hall of Famer, Rod Woodson, who was nursing a calf injury. No. 26 returned the ball inside Houston territory to the 37. The Steelers could not convert the opportunity, though, and brought on the punt team. Pittsburgh got a break when Houston was called for offsides. With the ball now at the 32 and a 49-yard field goal attempt a possibility, Bill Cowher eschewed an opportunity for Gary Anderson to go for three and sent out Neil O’Donnell and the offense on fourth down. O’Donnell’s pass to Jeff Graham fell incomplete and the Steelers turned the ball over on downs.

Next, the Steelers’ defense shut Moon down and forced a punt, but the blue defense got offensive and put Houston on the board when Lamar Lathon sniffed out a play-action fake, burst through the offensive line and cracked Neil O’Donnell. Johnny Meads scooped up the ball and scampered all the way to the end zone for the score.

Later, the impact of Lathon surfaced again. Neil O’Donnell completed a pass to the normally sure-handed Merrill Hoge who, upon being hit by Lathon, coughed up the football and Jerry Gray recovered to set up the Oilers at the Steelers’ 26. From the 11, with defenders in his face, Warren Moon looked to be throwing the ball away. But Ernest Givens made a leaping grab and tapped his toes in the back of the end zone for the score. Instant replay was not a part of 1992 (like it had been since 1986). If so, Givens probably would have been ruled out because his toes were on the line. But with 5:25 remaining in the first quarter, Houston led 14-0. The Oilers as 11-point favorites seemed justified.

After a touchback, the Steelers took over at their own 20. After some modest movement and a long O’Donnell pass to a speedy Dwight Stone, the Steelers ended up with a fourth down on the Houston 45-yard line. Cowher sent Mark Royals in to punt, but it was a ruse. Instead, on a fake, the mustachioed punter threw the ball to running back Warren Williams, who rumbled all the way down to the Oilers’ one-yard line. Barry Foster converted on the next play and with 1:08 remaining, the Houston lead was cut in half at 14-7.

On the very next drive, Moon would throw his second interception of the day near midfield to Darren Perry. The Penn State rookie returned the ball down to the Houston 20. The Steelers had a chance to tie the game early in the second quarter, but a holding penalty to Duvall Love set the Steelers back. Despite two catches on the drive from Jeff Graham, Pittsburgh had to settle for a Gary Anderson field goal with 13:08 remaining in the half. It was now 14-10 Houston.

Following that, a 43-yard Lorenzo White run got the Oilers into field-goal territory. Al Del Greco converted to extend the lead to seven again.

After a Steelers’ punt, Pittsburgh got the ball back in good field position when Warren Moon threw his third interception of the game. The ball was tipped by Donald Evans on the line and Larry Griffin snagged the ball, setting the Steelers up at the Houston 34. No. 14 took advantage by tossing a 26-yard strike to Jeff Graham. The point-after was blocked by the dominant Ray Childress, so with less than two minutes left in the half, the Houston lead was a mere point at 17-16.

That wouldn’t last long though. Despite Moon almost getting picked-off by Richard Shelton, No. 1 drove Houston quickly to a score from eight yards out. At halftime, the home team was up 24-16.

In the third quarter, the Steelers ate up 6:18 and got to the Houston eight before settling for a 25-yard Gary Anderson field goal which cut the Houston lead to five. After a turnover on downs, the Steelers got another three from Anderson. At the end of three quarters, Jack Pardee’s team led only 24-22.

In the final quarter, Moon engineered a 12-play, clock-devouring drive down to the Steelers’ 4-yard line. Bill Cowher’s debut seemed about to be spoiled. But on the 13th play, Moon was flushed out of the pocket by Jerrol Williams and threw up a dying quail that Rod Woodson plucked from the air and returned 57 yards to the Houston 44. Then on 1st-and-goal from the nine, O’Donnell threaded the needle to rookie Adrian Cooper (from Oklahoma) for a TD. Cooper was replacing standout TE Eric Green, who ended up in a sling early in the first quarter. With 8:06 remaining, Pittsburgh had its first lead of the game at 29-24.

Moon tried to rally his team, but his fifth and final interception sealed the game. Larry Griffin’s second pick allowed the Steelers to steal a win in the Astrodome and gave Steelers Nation hope for life after Chuck Noll. The jubilant Steelers celebrated by administering a Gatorade shower to their new coach.

I remember this game like it was yesterday. I was entering my senior year at Pitt-Johnstown, and had just finished moving my stuff into our on-campus fraternity lodging (“you’re talking about Delta House, sir.”)

Sports Illustrated had predicted a 4-12 year for Pittsburgh, and there was little excitement about the game. It was only me, my friend Eric Roberts and a dude named Bert dedicated enough to be watching the game. By the fourth quarter, the lobby was jammed with about 20-some guys watching the Steelers. After that day, you had to find your seat early and stay there. The season was special as Pittsburgh would win the division and usher in a new era. Diehards like me, Roberts and Bert were glad to have been originals on the Cowher/Steeler bandwagon.