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
2010-15: Heartbreak, part 1: HERE
2016-19: Heartbreak, part 2: HERE.
In this edition, the injection of new blood, new fire, and a new strangle-hold on the AFC Central Division. It’s the first half of Bill Cowher’s career, and Dick Lebeau’s first round in town. It’s the 90s.
Part 4: Don’t call it a comeback (1992-96)
1992: What if Bill Cowher hadn’t run Barry Foster into the ground?
1993: What if the Steelers signed Joe Montana instead of hanging their hat on Neil O’Donnell?
1995: What if Andre Hastings or Ernie Mills had cut the other direction?
1992: What if Cowher hadn’t run Barry Foster into the ground?
In 1992, new coach Bill Cowher made two major changes to the Steelers offense. First he benched fiery but erratic quarterback Bubby Brister for low-risk Neil O’Donnell. Then he committed to a bell-cow running attack, with second year man Barry Foster as its head. (Chuck Noll always ran a pony backfield of multiple runners splitting the load.)
Foster had done nothing in his first two years; now he was 78% of the Steelers rushing attack. He responded by leading the AFC in rushing with a still-standing Steelers record 1690 yards. In the process, he tied the NFL record for 100 yard games, with twelve, and came 23 yards from becoming the first Steeler to lead the league since Bullet Bill Dudly in 1946.
Unfortunately, Foster logged 390 carries to get there. As Aaron Schatz has written, there seems to be a sweet spot for running back carries: 370 per season (23.125/game). Historically speaking, in Schatz’s observation, runners that carry more than 370 times fall into one of three categories: those who got injured the next year, those who were never the same after that, and Eric Dickerson.
Unfortunately, Foster fell into the first two categories, but not the third. He was injured on and off in 1993 and 1994, and was cut by the Steelers in 1995, He failed a physical in Carolina and retired before his 27th birthday. He never rushed for 1000 yards after that transcendent 1992 season.
My guess at what happens:
It’s reasonable to assume Foster would have played a longer, healthier career without being overused in 1992. But in the long run, I’m not sure that changes the Steelers’ fortunes much. When Foster began to decline, the Steelers replaced him with Bam Morris first, and eventually Jerome Bettis. Most of us probably agree Bettis was the best of the three, but all three of them powered very successful Steelers teams, with Morris helping lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl in 1995, and Bettis playing in four AFC Championship games and a Super Bowl win.
Also, while Foster was good, he accomplished a lot by volume. 1690 yards on 390 carries is 4.33 yards per carry, which is respectable, but hardly an impressive number. Given a more human-sized rushing load, Foster would almost certainly have come back down to earth. My suspicion is that his numbers would look a lot more like Rashard Mendenhall’s if he hadn’t been overrun. That’s not bad (Mendenhall broke 1000 yards twice and started a Super Bowl), but a couple of 1200 yard campaigns are harder to romanticize than a single shooting star season.
There is one meaningful change for the Steelers organization, though: if Foster was healthier and more of a force in 1994, it’s very possible that the Steelers would’ve beaten the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Title game. Many remember that the incomplete fourth down pass that sealed the San Diego win was intended for Foster, but I’m not even referring that play. If he was healthier, I don’t think it would have come down to that pass.
The Steelers led the league in rushing in 1994, with Foster and Morris (a rookie) each posting around 800 regular season yards. In the AFC Championship game, despite leading for nearly the entire contest, they rushed for only 66 yards, led by Foster’s 47 yards on 20 carries. Meanwhile, Neil O’Donnell (who averaged 26 passing attempts per game that year) threw 54 times. Bill Cowher’s teams were not built to win that way; they were built to protect a lead. But against the Chargers, the Steelers blew a 10-point second half lead, giving up the go-ahead points with 5:13 to go, and forcing that failed last-second drive. If Foster had been still been a powerful back, it seems likely the Steelers would have run the clock down in that second half and gone to Super Bowl XXIX.
That would match them up against the San Francisco 49ers. (I don’t know how that keeps happening; I swear I’m not doing this on purpose.) As of 1994, the Steelers and 49ers were both a perfect 4-0 in Super Bowls. This would be an historic game.
How would this have gone? Hard to predict, but it doesn’t look good for the Steelers. San Francisco beat Pittsburgh the previous year 24-13 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close. The Steelers defense and running game had matched up admirably, but the passing game was wretched, as neither O’Donnell nor Mike Tomczak had any luck in the air. Moreover, the 1994 Steelers were a bit of a frat house. These were the guys who’d made a Super Bowl rap video before the AFC Championship game then went out and lost the conference at home. This was a young team with a young coach and not a lot of discipline. I suspect Steve Young would have taken care of them in this Super Bowl.
What would that have done to Cowher’s legacy? Could he rally the team to return to the Super Bowl the next year, like they did in our timeline? What if they did, and lost to the Cowboys again? That would be two consecutive “One for the Thumb” Bowls (in which both sides were vying for their fifth ring). If the Steelers lost both, how long until the fan base turned on him? Yikes.
1993: What if the Steelers signed Joe Montana instead of hanging their hats on Neil O’Donnell?
This one is related to the other decisive move Cowher made, installing Neil O’Donnell at quarterback. O’Donnell’s Steelers were winners, qualifying for the playoffs in each of his four years starting, and making a Super Bowl appearance in his last. But with a top-notch running game and one of the league’s best defenses, his role was simply to not screw up. O’Donnell never threw more than 17 touchdowns in a season, and only broke 3,000 yards once.
One year into O’Donnell’s tenure, across the country, an unceremonious divorce was taking place between future Hall of Famer Joe Montana and those pesky 49ers. When San Francisco set the disgruntled 37-year-old free, he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he played two seasons for Marty Schottenheimer (featuring two playoff trips and a Pro Bowl) before calling it a career.
What many don’t know is that Montana, a Pittsburgh native, was really hoping to land with his hometown Steelers, who were very much a team on the rise. It was ultimately a non-starter because, as Montana later explained, “the Steelers said no because they still had O’Donnell.”
My guess at what happens:
This is strange. I’ve actually always thought Joe Montana is a little overrated, and that Bill Walsh’s schemes were the real drivers of that team. But here I am dreaming him into a Steelers uniform for the second time in this series. That said, there’s no doubt the man could play. And even at age 37, he’s probably Bill Cowher’s ideal QB. A trustworthy veteran, careful with the ball, clutch under pressure, and never going to lose the game for you, he’s the quarterback Cowher wanted O’Donnell to become.
O’Donnell was ten years younger than Montana, but he actually only lasted in Pittsburgh one year past Joe’s KC tenure — O’Donnell starting in Pittsburgh 1992-95, with Montana in KC from 1993-94 (including a win over O’Donnell’s Steelers in the 1993 playoffs). If Neil O’Donnell could get the Steelers to the brink several years in a row, and nearly win a Super Bowl, one imagines Montana could have taken them over the threshold at least once in a truncated two or three year run.
Let’s assume the Montana-led Steelers top the Chargers in 1994 and qualify for Super Bowl XXIX. Now you have not only the 4-0 Steelers vs the 4-0 Niners, you’ve also got Joe Montana vs Steve Young — perhaps the most-hyped Super Bowl match-up of all time. Holy crap.
Who wins? That’s tough — the Steelers defense could handle the 49ers ariel attack better than San Diego (imagine Super Bowl highlights of Rod Woodson and Jerry Rice battling all game long, or Gregg Lloyd and Kevin Greene chasing Young all over the field). More importantly, the thing that sunk Pittsburgh in that 1993 loss to S.F. was quarterback play; against S.D. in the 1994 playoffs, maturity. It sounds like a four-time Super Bowl champion QB, who happens to be a year older than the head coach, might have been a real difference maker. I can see the Steelers winning this one.
But let’s go beyond that: Montana retired after the 1994 season. And there’s probably no way the team could’ve kept (and benched) O’Donnell after a playoff berth and a Pro Bowl in 1992. So who replaces Montana?
It turns out the mid-90s drafts were not quarterback goldmines. If the Steelers started looking in 1993, their best bets were late-round picks — Mark Brunell, Elvis Grbac, and Trent Green. Brunell could have looked good in black-and-gold, but as a 5th round choice, he wasn’t projected as a starter, and the Steelers likely wouldn’t have pegged him as one either. Meanwhile, we know the Steelers wouldn’t have drafted Grbac or Green because in the same round they were selected (8th), with both still on the board, Pittsburgh picked Alex Van Pelt instead.
If that sounds bleak, 1994 was worse. The only possible prospect would have been 7th rounder Gus Frerotte (if you want to call him that). And instead of him, the Steelers took Jim Miller in the 6th. We’re not getting closer to solving this one. Maybe they’d have still grabbed Kordell Stewart in 1995, but unless Montana stuck around another year, you’re starting Stewart as a rookie, which seems like a bad idea.
The safest bet would probably be to go with another veteran. Who was floating around in 1995? Randall Cunningham (32 years old), Bernie Kosar (32), and Rich Gannon (30) seem reasonable. Gannon would be my choice, but he missed the entire 1994 season with injury; that’s a pretty big gamble. It’s possible that Cowher would still draft Stewart in 1995, then start Mike Tomczak (33) for a year or two as a bridge, just like our timeline. But that’s a pretty big mess at QB for an otherwise loaded team. There’s really no good answer for this one.
1995: What if Andre Hastings or Ernie Mills cut the other direction?
In 1995 the Steelers took on the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, and came agonizingly close to posting a dynasty-rattling upset. With a defense that stifled the Dallas triplets, and an incredibly bold (and largely forgotten) surprise onside kick, Pittsburgh was in position to win this one in the second half.
Let me set it up, for those who have blocked it out of memory:
After a tough first half, Dallas led 13-7. The Steelers had driven to near midfield halfway through the third, when O’Donnell threw outside, and Ernie Mills cut in. The pass sailed right to Dallas DB Larry Brown, who returned the intereception to the Steelers 18. One play later, the score was 20-7.
Early in the 4th, a Steelers field goal cut the lead to 20-10. That’s when Bill Cowher made the gutsiest call of his career. With 11:48 to go, he called a surprise onside kick, which Deon Figures recovered. Nine plays later, the Steelers had cut the lead to 20-17. Dallas picked up one first down on the ensuing possession, and punted back with 4:41 to go. That gave the Steelers the ball, the clock, and all the momentum.
And then, on 2nd and 10, O’Donnell threw outside and Andre Hastings cut in. The pass sailed right to Dallas DB Larry Brown, who returned the interception to the Steelers six yard line. Two plays later, the score was 27-17. Game.
My guess at what happens:
It’s never been clear whose fault these were — O’Donnell’s or the receivers’ — but if either of these picks doesn’t happen, I think the Steelers win. In Dallas’ two prior Super Bowls this era they hadn’t been challenged at all. With the Steelers punching them in the mouth, these Cowboys were not responding like a dynasty. They also didn’t have their coach to rally them, as Jimmy Johnson had left Dallas in a fight with Jerry Jones (who claimed this roster could win a Super Bowl with any idiot at the helm). The Cowboys had lost control of this game; I think the Steelers would have completed the comeback.
The results of that are complicated:
For one, the 90s Cowboys would be looked at differently today — less of a dynasty than a team on good run, like the 1999-2001 Rams or 2013-14 Seahawks. Historically speaking, we really wouldn’t have a “Team of the 90s.” Jerry Jones also would also publically lose the argument with Johnson, so that’s fun.
In Pittsburgh, Cowher’s legacy could be really different. And so might his future. Would he stick around for 15 years if he’d brought home a Lombardi in year three? I suspect not. Cowher often said his biggest wish was to bring an championship home for the Rooneys, and he walked away just 12 months after finally doing so. I imagine he wouldn’t have lasted as long if he’d have checked that box sooner. As well, in our timeline, he got into a power struggle with de-facto-GM Tom Donohoe during a three year slump, which resulted in Donohoe’s departure from the team in 1999. I predict Cowher would leave Pittsburgh instead, and try to build a champion somewhere where he had control over personnel too. That means not just no Bill Cowher in the early 2000s; it also means no Kevin Colbert. The ripple effect from that would be incalculable.
One more aftershock: with Pittsburgh’s third Super Bowl victory over the Cowboys, Dallas fans would undoubtedly come to hate the Steelers for the rest of eternity. So, while a lot of these results is ambiguous, there are some things that would’ve been all-around good…
Yeesh. These were all pretty rough. Take me to the millennium...