Reich, O'Donnell: Terps apart Ex-Maryland quarterbacks duel in Bills-Steelers playoff

January 09, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Frank Reich is the career second-stringer, the guy who spent a seeming lifetime in the wings, ever ready, ever vigilant.

Neil O'Donnell is the promising front-liner, an unsung draft pick who landed in the right place at the right time.

Different paths, same origin.

Both learned their trade at Quarterback U.

Reich, of the Buffalo Bills, and O'Donnell, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, represent the newest rage in the NFL -- the Maryland quarterback.

They'll try to knock one another out of the NFL playoffs today at Three Rivers Stadium in an intriguing AFC divisional-round matchup of former Terrapins heroes.

"I'm very happy for Frank," said O'Donnell, Class of '89. "He waited a long time. It's kind of a neat scenario. But as it relates to the game, it doesn't mean anything."

Reich, Class of '84, served his apprenticeship to Boomer Esiason at Maryland. At Buffalo, he sits behind Jim Kelly. Or he did, anyway, until Kelly went down with a knee injury on the final week of the regular season.

Last week, Reich became the King of Comebacks when he delivered Buffalo from a 35-3 third-quarter deficit against the Houston Oilers to a 41-38 wild-card win in overtime. In his senior year at Maryland in 1984, Reich erased a 31-0 deficit against Miami to win, 42-40. Thus, a career backup authored the two biggest comebacks in Division I-A and the NFL.

That is Reich's claim to fame. For now, that is. In eight NFL seasons, he has started seven games and won five. He is reliable, dependable and low-key. He is also proud to be part of the legacy of Bobby Ross and Joe Krivak.

"The system we ran at Maryland was a pro-style offense," Reich said. "And obviously, Bobby Ross, our coach, and Joe Krivak, as offensive coordinator, were the common denominators. They really drilled us well in the pro-style offense, reading patterns, reading defenses, recognizing what teams are doing.

"It's really fun for us when we talk about it, that we put together a nice string of successful quarterbacks in the league."

There are five Maryland quarterbacks in the NFL -- all in the AFC. Esiason, waiting to be traded from the Cincinnati Bengals, started the tradition in 1984. Since then, Reich, Stan Gelbaugh (Class of '85), O'Donnell and Scott Zolak (Class of '90) have joined him.

Ross took the San Diego Chargers to the playoffs this season as a rookie NFL coach after an 0-4 start. If they beat the Miami Dolphins tomorrow, the AFC championship will have a distinct Maryland flavor.

Today's matchup figures to tickle the fancy of Terrapins fans. Krivak, who had his turn as head coach at Maryland, will watch as a fan and a mentor. "I'll root when Buffalo's on offense," he said, "and I'll root when Pittsburgh's on offense. I'll enjoy it.

"What I've done in the past as an assistant and head coach, I feel very comfortable with. I feel happy these guys have had success. I'm not taking any bows. [But] somewhere along the line, I like to think I had a little input into their success. I'm excited for them, not only because they're good players, but because they're good people."

While Reich rides the wave of his incredible adventure in Buffalo, O'Donnell arrives fresh from a three-week stint on the injured list. Trying to avoid a sack against the Seattle Seahawks, he cracked the fibula in his right leg Dec. 6 and missed the last three regular-season games. With Bubby Brister at quarterback, the Steelers lost two of the three.

Still, Pittsburgh finished 11-5, won the AFC Central title and earned home-field advantage in the playoffs. This week, rookie coach Bill Cowher reinstalled O'Donnell as the starter, but said Brister would be used in relief if needed. "I've talked with both quarterbacks . . . and we're all cognizant of the fact this is do or die," Cowher said.

O'Donnell took advantage of the bye week to test his right leg. "I tested it three days hard last week, and I'm ready," he said. "Will it be a factor? Not at all. Once I get started, I'll never know it was broken."

O'Donnell, who also missed one game with a hamstring pull, won nine of 12 starts this season. In an offense that relied on running back Barry Foster, he passed for 2,283 yards and 13 touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, the architect of the New York Giants' Super Bowl offense, was careful not to overload the third-year quarterback.

"He understands what we want done," Erhardt said. "We're not lTC asking him to make big plays. We're asking him to complement what we're doing. He has shown good consistency, and he hasn't put us in trouble."

O'Donnell's passer rating of 83.6 was third best in the AFC this season. He broke team records for completion percentage (59.1), career completion percentage (56.9), and career passer rating (81.1).

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