O'Donnell aces his first exam for Steelers

August 05, 1991|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

PITTSBURGH -- First, there was live television. Neil O'Donnell, with only a skimpy white towel draped around his middle, obliged the minicam.

Next came the postgame radio show, a good 15 minutes with Pittsburgh broadcaster Myron Cope, and after that the print media was waiting.

This was a night when everybody wanted a piece of O'Donnell, the erstwhile University of Maryland quarterback who draws his pay with the Pittsburgh Steelers these days. In the end, only the Washington Redskins got the cold shoulder from O'Donnell.

Playing in his first game since Maryland's season finale in 1989, O'Donnell engineered three second-half scoring drives last night as the Steelers beat Washington, 16-7, in a preseason affair at Three Rivers Stadium.

O'Donnell's impressive performance, coupled with a freak pregame injury, appears to have given him the Steelers' backup position behind starting quarterback Bubby Brister.

When three-year veteran Rick Strom doubled over in pregame warmups with a torn cartilage in his rib cage, O'Donnell had the job by default. By the end of the night, there was little doubt he deserved it.

Even though Steelers coach Chuck Noll wasn't ready to confirm the obvious, he said he expected Strom to be out for some time. And then he gave O'Donnell a verbal pat on the back, if ever so lightly. A year ago, when O'Donnell missed the start of training camp as a holdout, Noll suggested he had squandered his rookie season and should sit out the year.

"O'Donnell did a good job," Noll said last night, singing a different tune. "I thought both quarterbacks [Brister and O'Donnell] played well. They showed a real awareness and knowledge of what we're trying to do."

Brister had two touchdown passes wiped out by penalties in the first half. He completed 11 of 14 for 114 yards, but was only able to produce a field goal.

O'Donnell, inheriting a 7-3 deficit, was 9-for-13 in the second half for 111 yards and one touchdown. He had one series with the Steelers' first team offensive line (a field goal) and spent the rest of the half playing behind backups.

"I played OK," he said. "I made some good plays and I made some bad ones. There's some room for improvement."

The play that won the game for the Steelers came five minutes into the fourth quarter. On first down from the Washington 34, O'Donnell dropped a picture-perfect pass into the hands of wide receiver Ron Fair at the goal line, just out of the reach of cornerback Jim Spencer. It capped a seven-play, 80-yard drive.

The play, named "waggle-X-go," was one O'Donnell and Fair have worked on often in training camp. "Ron made a great adjustment to the ball," O'Donnell said. "I just let it go. We hook up on that a lot in practice."

Ever since the Steelers took O'Donnell in the third round of the 1990 draft, that's all he's done. Practice. Despite his holdout, he made the team as the third quarterback a year ago. He was activated for three games, but never took a snap in a preseason or regular-season game.

"I learned a lot from last year," he said. "It was frustrating at first after starting three years at Maryland. But I looked at it as a learning experience. Bubby taught me a lot."

O'Donnell, 6 feet 3 and 221 pounds, was Maryland's second-most productive quarterback ever behind Boomer Esiason, now with the Cincinnati Bengals. He completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 4,989 yards, 26 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

The NFL game, he decided after his formal baptism, is "a step or two quicker" than the college game.

Nevertheless, O'Donnell is keeping pace. He repeatedly avoided Redskins pass rushers and scampered niftily out of harm's way. He was sacked only once. He play-faked so well on one pass that the Redskins' Bobby Wilson, a first-round draft pick, slammed into running back Leroy Thompson before realizing O'Donnell still had the ball.

"I run pretty well for a big guy," O'Donnell said. "I did a lot of that in college. I'm just trying to make something happen."

It was a special night that was just a bit more meaningful because it came against the Redskins, the closest pro team to Maryland.

"I have a lot of buddies down there who are Redskin fans," O'Donnell said, as a smile crossed his face. "I think I'll have a few messages on my [phone] recorder tonight."

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