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All-Time Pittsburgh Steelers ‘What-Ifs’, Part 6

Bill Cowher’s Second Act (1996-2003).

Jerome Bettis - File Photos
It’s easy to forget how big Jerome Bettis was. Look at that guy. Wow.
Photo by Arthur Anderson/Getty Images

This is the continuation of a series of “What If” articles on Steelers history.

1933-69: The Winter of Our Discontent: HERE.
1970-79: The Golden Age: HERE
1980-84: The Era where “Nothing Happened”: HERE
1985-92: The Great Bounce :HERE
1993-95: Don’t Call it a Comeback: HERE
2010-15: Heartbreak, part 1: HERE
2016-19: Heartbreak, part 2: HERE.

In this edition, another one of those moments we don’t talk about much: the gap between the Steelers Super Bowl XXX loss to the Cowboys, and their drafting of Ben Roethlisberger a decade later. There are dozens of What-If scenarios one could pull from those years; here are three:


Part 6: Bill Cowher’s Second Act (1996-2001)

1996: What if Kordell Stewart embraced the wide receiver position?
2000: What if Cowher had just committed to Kordell Stewart at quarterback?
2001: What if special teams didn’t botch the AFC Championship game?


1996: What if Kordell embraced the wide receiver position?

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart (R
Everyone in this photo is engaged in a football game except the referee, who’s clearly running from a bear.
Photo credit should read TIM CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Situation:

Those who remember Kordell Stewart certainly remember his rookie nickname: “Slash.” As in, “quarterback/running back/wide receiver/etc.” Stewart was a talented enough passer to make a Pro Bowl and start two AFC Championship games, but he was never a franchise quarterback. In fact, his “slash” utility role (which everyone seems to think Taysom Hill invented) initially seemed most successful as a wide receiver, where he caught 31 passes over his first two years, for over 17.0 yards per catch. Many thought he should have just given up the QB dream and settled in as a very good WR. What if he did?

My guess at what happens:

I think Stewart would have been fine as a wide receiver, but probably not a game changing Hall of Famer. So this is really a question about who the Steelers would start at QB in his place. Since Neil O’Donnell left as a free agent in 1996, the first question is: who was available at quarterback in the late 1990s?

Hmm... [thumbs through drafts from late 90s...] Um... [looks through other teams’ rosters for backup quarterbacks...] It looks like... [glances around the room avoiding eye-contact...] No one was available... [heavy sigh...] No one at all.

This was news to me: as bad as the drafting was for QBs in 1993-94, it’s probably worse in the late 90s, with practically no legit quarterback prospects available by the time the Steelers made their first round draft pick. They could have grabbed Matt Hasselbeck in 1998, but as a 6th rounder, he wouldn’t have been seen as a day 1 starter. It’s not until we get to 2000 that we suddenly have Chad Pennington, Mark Bulger, and Tom Brady on the board at the Steelers first pick, but considering O’Donnell’s departure before the 1996 opener, this is a long time without a starting quarterback. They could have worked harder at retaining O’Donnell and Mike Tomczak from 1996-2000, then drafted Bulger, Pennington, or Brady. But unfortunately, even if that was the plan they still wouldn’t have picked any of those guys. How do I know? Because in the actual 2000 off-season, Bill Cowher actually benched Kordell and went looking for his next great quarterback. And in our timeline, he didn’t draft Pennington, Bulger, Brady, or even Ken Dorsey. He went out and signed a Giants’ backup named Kent Graham. If it was time to move on from Tomczack and O’Donnell in this alternate timeline, I see no reason to assume he’d have behaved any differently.

Maybe Cowher would have had to move Stewart back to QB before 2000 anyway, until he could wrestle Charlie Batch from Detroit, or scout Tommy Maddox out of the XFL. Yikes. 1998-2000 was a three-year stretch with no playoffs — punctuated by a 1-10 run at the end of 1998 and beginning of 1999 (two losing seasons). Stewart was often blamed for Steelers losses during is starting tenure, but looking at the alternatives, I don’t see how ditching him would have solved much. What a mess…


2000: What if Cowher had just committed to Kordell at quarterback?

Steelers Kent Graham
I love that Rich Tylski (65) seems to be looking over his shoulder, like, “who the hell is that guy?”
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Situation:

Speaking of the 2000 season and Kent Graham... In 2000, BIll Cowher went out and signed Graham off the Giants, handing him the reigns to start the season. The Kent Graham Era started with a 16-0 shutout loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and lasted all of three weeks, with the Steelers sitting at 0-3. As if to kick sand in Pittsburgh’s eyes, the third loss came against the Tennessee Titans, who were quarterbacked that day by none other than Neil O’Donnell (filling in for an injured Steve McNair).

In any case, Kordell started the next week, and the team won a game. In fact, they won a lot of games. They won 23 or their next 30 games, taking the AFC’s #1 seed in 2001. But because of their 0-3 start, they missed the playoffs in 2000.

My guess at what happens:

I think the 2000 Steelers are an underrated team. Jerome Bettis rushed for 1314 yards and the team finished on a 9-4 run. They were also the last team to beat the 2000 Ravens, in week 9, before Baltimore won out at took their first Super Bowl title. That victory is instructive, as the Steelers out-defensed one of the most celebrated defenses of all time, winning a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust contest 9-6 in one of the great 15-round knock out ballgames of the era.

How was that instructive? Because the 2000 Steelers had an oustanding defense that no one remembers. During a six game stretch midseason, they pitched a pair of shutouts and didn’t allow a touchdown for 25 consecutive quarters, which put them in conversation with the 1976 Steelers. The following season, 2001, the Steelers fielded the #1 defense in football, ranking first in yards, first in rushing yards, third in points, and fourth in passing yards. They also led the league in rushing offense, and won 13 games. The way they closed the 2000 season was a pretty good signal for who they were about to become. But that team never got a chance to mix it up in the postseason.

If the Steelers had started Kordell and won one or two of those opening ballgames, they’d have made the playoffs as a wildcard. And from there, all bets are off. Could they have won the Super Bowl? Maybe. Remember, they had the formula for beating the eventual champion Ravens. They also knocked off AFC runner-up, Oakland, late in the season. And Cowher’s teams always seemed to play better as underdogs anyway; it’s not hard to imagine these guys shocking the world.

Then again, if they made it through the AFC playoff field, they’d have squared up against the New York Giants. We remember the 2000 Giants for their hopeless 34-7 loss to Baltimore, but that same team pounded the Steelers 30-10 in week 15 of the 2000 season — ultimately the loss that prevented the Steelers from making the playoffs in the end.

So what would have changed if Stewart had started 16 games? The Steelers would have made the playoffs. They’d have probably won a game or even two, but they probably wouldn’t have emerged with Lombardi #5 just yet.


2001: What if special teams doesn’t blow the AFC Championship game in 2001?

New England Patriots’ defender Troy Brown (L) pick
Listen: it sounds like air wheezing out of a balloon. Are you guys hearing that?
Photo credit should read DAVID MAXWELL/AFP via Getty Images

Situation:

The 2001 Steelers got a little ink in the previous entry — the NFL’s #1 defense, #1 rushing offense, and the AFC’s #1 seed. After losing their opener at Jacksonville, their week two matchup was postponed (along with everyone else’s) in the aftermath of 9/11. When the NFL resumed play on September 30, the Steelers went on a 12-1 tear, with their only loss coming against defending champion Baltimore in a game in which kicker Kris Brown went 1-5 on field goals and the Steelers lost by 3.

In other words, this was a spectacular team.

They did manage to come completely unglued in a week 16 loss to Cincinnati (Bill Cowher’s only career loss when leading by 11 or more in the second half), but otherwise, this team was clearly the class of the AFC.

Heading into the playoffs, the Steelers hosted the defending champion Ravens, and demolished them 27-10, outrushing them by a factor of seven(!) — 154 yards to 22. That set the stage for an AFC title match against the no-name New England Patriots — and one of the more demoralizing losses of the era.

History has remembered this as the first of Tom Brady’s many dominating performances over the Steelers, but in actuality Brady was flattened near the end of the second quarter, with only 115 passing yards and no touchdowns. Drew Bledsoe played the bulk of the contest, but he hardly overpowered the Steelers either. In fact, Pittsburgh largely outplayed the Patriots on offense and defense. The Steelers outpaced New England in yards (303-259), first downs (23-15), and fewest penalties (3-12), outscoring them 14-7 in an offense-vs-defense matchup. So how on earth did the Pats win this ballgame?

Because Troy Brown created two(!) special teams touchdowns — first returning a punt 55 yards for a score, then blocking a Kris Brown (no relation) field goal that Antwan Harris returned 49 yards for another. The latter score (which happens all of two or three times in a full season and never by the same guy who already returned a punt to the house) gave New England a 21-3 second half lead. Stewart took a lot of blame for his three interceptions in this loss, but two of those occurred in the last five minutes of the game, with Kordell trying frantically to bring the team back. It wasn’t his turnovers that cost this team a Super Bowl; it was Troy Brown and the Steelers special teams.

My guess at what happens:

Let’s say just one of those catastrophes doesn’t happen — I’ll guess the blocked field goal, since those are so rare. Let’s say Brown misses the kick, but that’s all. Pats’ ball at the Steelers’ 39. In that scenario, I think the Steelers win and go on to the Super Bowl.

New England’s offense was hopeless that day. I mentioned Brady’s mediocre stats; Bledsoe was really no better. He threw a touchdown, yes, but he ultimately went 10-21 for 102 yards on the day. Not world-beating numbers. Meanwhile, the Pats rushed for whopping 2.68 yards per carry over the course of the game. The Steelers defense truly had their number. Meanwhile, the Steelers struggled to run (Jerome Bettis notoriously had a bad injection the week before, and so was playing his first game in two months) but without the pressure of a frantic comeback, I suspect Stewart (255 yards passing, 41 yards rushing) would have been able to lead one more field goal drive. 20-17 Steelers instead of 17-24 Pats. That’s my guess.

So what changes? A lot of legacies, for starters.

The Tom Brady myth was built that year, partially due to the fact that there weren’t any genuine stars on that team, and that Bill Belichick was a black hole of charisma. The press needed something to grab onto, and “sixth round backup leads team to its first championship” made Brady an easy star. If he got knocked out of the AFC Title Game, which his team went on to lose, then missed the playoffs in 2002 (which New England did), he’d look like just another in a generation of young passers, rather than its vanguard (especially with his only post-season win courtesy of the Tuck Rule game). The Brady legend would almost certainly come back to earth.

Belichick also got a ton of mileage out of his “team of nobodies” focus that year — which he milked hard by sending the whole team out of the tunnel at once at the Super Bowl, rather than the starters getting introduced one by one. How much easier did that reputation make it to corral selfish types like Corey Dillon or Randy Moss in the ensuing years, as well as simply luring other stars who believed he’d get them a ring (Junior Seau, Darrelle Revis, Asante Samuel, etc.)? It’s a lot easier to shut a trouble-maker’s mouth if you can credibly claim, “step out of line and I’ll win a title with a guy off the street, like I did in 2001.” Lose this game, then miss the 2002 playoffs, and it’s easy to imagine a lot of talent NOT winding up in New England in the ensuing years.

What about the Steelers? They’d fulfill a lot of fans’ dreams, lining up the NFL’s top defense against the NFL’s top offense (St. Louis). It would be old-school Steelers’ running attack against the Rams’ Arena League vertical game. Hype for the ages.

Who would win? I hate to say it, but it looks like the Rams. Pittsburgh’s secondary was not great in those years. I can’t see Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington containing Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, unless the Steelers pass rush just obliterated the Rams line. If the Steelers were forced to help out deep, while also trying to blitz Kurt Warner, I think Marshall Faulk would eaten their lunch across the middle. Could Kendrell Bell have become Faulk’s kryptonite? Maybe. But then who’s covering Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl? The Steelers didn’t have the manpower for this one, I don’t think. Their blowout loss to Oakland in 2002’s second week (where Rich Gannon threw for 403 yards against essentially this same defense) doesn’t bode well.

Could the Bus control the clock? Maybe, but the Rams had the league’s #3 rush defense too. Could Stewart — a real rarity as a running quarterback in that era — have given St. Louis fits? That’s probably the Steelers best chance. I’m not sure that would be enough, but it’s possible.

This all opens a lot of other questions too. If the Steelers lose, Bill Cowher gets an 0-2 record in Super Bowls (both of them rematches against teams Chuck Noll beat). That’s two AFC titles, which is great, but at what point does he start to get a Marty Schottenheimer reputation? (I.e. good coach, but can’t win the big one.) On the flip side, if the Steelers win, like I asked in the last edition, how much longer does Cowher stay in town? He’d have delivered a Lombardi to the Rooneys, and stuck around for a decade by then. Would he get itchy to go build a new team from the ground up? He was only 43.

How about Kordell? Cowher benched him again in 2002, and Tommy Maddox lit up the league for a year. Could we imagine Stewart taking a seat just after a Super Bowl appearance? What about a Super Bowl win? It’s not totally unheard of (it happened to Trent Dilfer just a year prior), but it’s surely a harder sell. If Kordell keeps his job, does that jostle the Steelers’ offensive scheming during their disastrous 6-10 season in 2003? If you think that’s an affirmative, then the Steelers wouldn’t be in position to draft Big Ben that next year. Yikes.

This one largely-forgotten game seems to have tons riding on it for the future.


What’s next? A draft prospect from a MAC school that changes everything...