They were heartbreaking bookends. The 1994 season ended with a last-second, potentially lead-changing pass batted away, sending the Chargers to the Super Bowl and the Steelers packing. September 3, 1995 was the following season’s opening day, and in that first game, our one true superstar went down with a season ending injury. Rod (Woodson) was no longer God, unless God uses crutches. We had come so close the season before, and now as the new season dawned the lights seemed to dim on our hopes.
That season also ended in heartache, as a decidedly non-superstar defensive back Larry Brown intercepted two Neil O’Donnell passes before hoisting the Lombardi. But at least we got there. Say what you will — losing the Super Bowl is better than not playing in the Super Bowl.
A key part of the reason we ended up playing for the trophy was the selflessness and giftedness of one Carnell Lake. When Woodson went down, Lake stepped up, literally, taking over Rod’s cornerback position. It’s an astounding feat made all the more so by the fact that Lake played linebacker at UCLA. How is it possible for one player to be good enough to excel in the NFL not at one position, but two? In an era of mass specialization, sub-packages and x-y-z receivers, where draft prospects are judged on whether they are a 2-down guy or a 3-down guy, how could it be that “next up” was a guy already manning another part of the field? With all due respect to the standard being the standard, Lake was no Woodson that season — but he was an outstanding cornerback.
I think the answer is simple enough. Before he was a linebacker, a safety or a cornerback, Lake was a football player. He understood the game, and had the tools to run fast, hit hard and react instantly.
Lake was neither the first nor the last to fill sundry roles for the Steelers. For you fans still wet behind the ears, when you watch highlights from the glory days, know that the guy who caught that touchdown pass in Super Bowl IX is Larry Brown, the same guy who played Left Tackle in our next three Super Bowls. And of course, in that same Super Bowl XXX loss, one of O’Donnell’s most dangerous targets was none other than Kordell Stewart/Slash. That guy, who never got the credit he was due as a quarterback, lined up in various spots that season — split wide, under center, in the backfield — even punting once. Kordell Stewart was good at playing football.
The temptation is to assume that, because a player excels in doing more than one thing, he therefore doesn’t do any one thing particularly well. Thus Jaylen Samuels found himself the subject of much debate after the draft. Some skeptics argued there was a reason he was available on Day 3. Some optimists began daydreaming of never-ending trickeration.
The truth, as is often the case, is likely somewhere in the middle. What makes a man able to play different positions usually is the fruit of understanding the game, being able to visualize the moving parts on the playing field, and knowing how to manipulate them to your advantage. If blazing speed were all it took, DHB would be in the Pro Bowl, AB on special teams and Chris Rainey still on the roster. If brute strength were the key, then Daniel McCullers would be manning our middle. “Understanding the game” isn’t merely being able to pass an exam — it’s real-time translation of tactical advantages.
I’ve been persuaded for years that Todd Haley had an inordinate love for the element of surprise. How many times have we seen Ben drop deep on third and short and we pull our hair out — even if from time to time we rejoiced over a big play? And then there’s the deep sweep right, which was about as successful as the Colts’ weird punt formation. It’s not the tricks and the gimmicks that make the difference, but the tools. Here’s hoping Jaylen Samuels comes through with multiple sharp edges, twists and turns galore, and — come February — a tool for popping a cork.