clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Flashback Friday: What might have been with Steelers WR Yancey Thigpen

New, comments

The 1997 Steelers had it all: An All-Pro running back, a duel-threat quarterback, one of the league's top defenses and arguably the best wide receiver in football. But starting that off-season, links from that strong Steelers team began to break, with no break have a bigger impact than the one Yancy Thigpen left behind.

There's something special about watching a wide receiver that is perfectly in tune with his quarterback.

Yancey Thigpen was that receiver with not one but two quarterbacks during his time with the Steelers, and that's why his departure 17 years ago was so difficult to digest.

For those that didn't watch him play, Thigpen had combinations similar to that of some of the other great receivers in Steelers history. Over his time in Pittsburgh, Thigpen showed flashes of Lynn Swann's grace, Hines Ward's toughness and Antonio Brown's game-breaking ability. He was the complete package at receiver who was also blessed with some of the best hands the Steelers have ever had at the position.

Acquired from the Chargers in 1992, Thigen's role in the Steelers offense grew in each of the next three seasons, and by 1995, Thigpen had ascended to Pittsburgh's No.1 receiver. Thigpen relished in his role, catching a then-franchise record 85 passes for 1,304 yards and earning his first Pro Bowl berth. Thigpen continued his stellar season into the post season, catching 12 more passes that included his touchdown grab against Deon Sanders in Super Bowl XXX.

After missing 10 games due in injury in 1996, Thigpen looked to reclaim his place as one of the NFL's best wide outs. But this time around, he would be with the Steelers third starting quarterback in as many seasons in Kordell Stewart, formerly known as 'Slash' for his previous responsibilities as a passer/running back/receiver/kicker. While no one questioned his freakish athletic ability, football "experts" and fans alike wondered out loud if Stewart was ready to take on the role as the Steelers starting quarterback. The questions grew more frequent and louder following a 1-2 start to the season that included an ugly 37-7 loss to the Cowboys in Week 1.

Riding the play of their dominant defense while giving The Bus a steady diet of carries, Pittsburgh rebounded from their slow start. So too did Stewart, in large measure due to the rapport he gained with No. 82. As the season progressed, the combination of Stewart and Thigpen became one of the most lethal units in the NFL, ascending to heights neither would again reach in their professional football careers.

While Stewart became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 20 touchdowns and rush for 10 scores in a season, Thigpen emerged as the most dangerous wide receiver in football. He pulled down 79 catches for a then franchise record 1,398 yards and earning a second Pro Bowl selection, doing so while helping the Steelers pull out several miraculous victories that made the '97 season truly special.

After trailing 21-0 to the Ravens in Week 6, Thigpen's seven-catch, 162-yard effort helped the Steelers prevail in Baltimore, 42-34. His 196-yard effort on 11 catches helped spearhead Pittsburgh's emotional 23-17 overtime win in Week 9 over the Jaguars, at the time the Steelers biggest rivals. After falling behind by two touchdowns early to the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos, Thigpen pulled down six catches for 175 yards and three touchdowns in Pittsburgh's 35-21 triumph in Week 16. One week later, Thigpen helped Pittsburgh clinch the AFC Central title and a second round playoff bye with his balletic fourth and seven sideline catch that was followed by his sliding, two-point conversion catch in the Steelers dramatic, come-from-behind victory in New England in Week 16. When revisiting the Steelers magical 1997 season, there's no question that Yancy Thigen was among the most intricate parts of what made that team of the best in the Bill Cowher era.

Despite the loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship game, the thought of Stewart spending his prime with Thigpen as his security blanket was reason to keep a positive vibe. That optimism was squashed not long into the offseason, however, as Thigpen signed with the Titans in what was, at the time, one of the most lucrative contracts for a wide receiver in NFL history. Just like that, one of the biggest links of the mid 90's Steelers was gone.

Stewart never again found the same rapport with another receiver as the one he found with Thigpen. Slash regressed over the next several years as did the Steelers, who fell to 7-9 and 6-10 over the next two seasons. Thigpen too was never able to duplicate the success he had during his final season in Pittsburgh, retiring in 2000 after three mediocre seasons in Tennessee. While the memories of watching Thigpen were not dampened by how it ended, one can't help but wonder what may have been if the Steelers would have been able to keep him in Pittsburgh.

With the recent rumors surrounding Antonio Brown and his desire for a new contract, it brings to mind the career of Yancey Thigpen, one that brought much joy and excitement but was over in Pittsburgh all too soon. It's not every day we see a receiver of Brown's caliber, and hopefully, Thigpen's tale can serve as a reminder to enjoy the talents of these great players while they're here, because you never know when it will end.