Steelers take stock in potential, see O'Donnell's blue-chip future Free agency brings early windfall for ex-Terp

June 16, 1993|By Bill Modoono | Bill Modoono,Contributing Writer

PITTSBURGH -- The month was June and Three Rivers Stadium was in its baseball configuration, but Neil O'Donnell was not surprised to be on the carpet playing football.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were holding their minicamp last week, which was fine with O'Donnell, who says pro football has become a "year-round" job anyway.

He should know.

Consider the "off-season" O'Donnell has had after his first full season as a starting quarterback in the NFL. First, he was courted by several teams. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got serious, forcing the Steelers to match an offer that will pay him $2.7 million a year for the next three years.

Then Pittsburgh signed Mike Tomczak, a nine-year veteran who has started more than twice as many games in his career as O'Donnell, to serve as his designated backup.

Finally, the Steelers removed any hint of a quarterback controversy when they released veteran Bubby Brister.

All of the above was slightly remarkable treatment for O'Donnell, who is coming off a year in which he threw only two more touchdown passes than interceptions (13-11) and was unimpressive in a playoff loss to Buffalo.

Yes, he did lead the Steelers to their first AFC Central title in eight seasons, but much of the offensive credit was given to running back Barry Foster, who had a record 12 100-yard rushing games in 1992 and averaged 24 carries per game.

But O'Donnell has yet to establish himself as a star in the NFL. It could be years before demanding Steelers fans see him as a worthy successor to Terry Bradshaw. Moreover, considering Boomer Esiason's career accomplishments and factor in how well Frank Reich did in the playoffs last year, you could make the case that O'Donnell's main distinction is being the third-best University of Maryland quarterback in the NFL.

None of which matters to the Steelers. Or to O'Donnell. He has been ordained as the man who will lead the Steelers in the post-Chuck Noll era, and he's being treated that way.

"The timing was really right," said O'Donnell, explaining how he went from Brister's backup in 1991 to an extremely attractive free agent in 1993.

"It's a different system now," said Tom Donahoe, Steelers director of football operations. "His agent [Leigh Steinberg] played the system and we decided to match Tampa Bay's offer. It was not really a bidding war."

Perhaps not. But O'Donnell is still being paid like a star before he becomes one. The NFL has a history of paying for potential, but, third-round picks (as O'Donnell was in 1990) normally have to produce before they get the big money.

But that was before free agency was introduced to the NFL. Now, if you play the right position and are not bound by a long-term contract, you can have your value determined on the open market.

"One of the factors is it is so difficult to find quarterbacks," said Donahoe. "There aren't a lot of quarterbacks around and when you see one with potential like Neil they become very valuable."

O'Donnell's assets may not be statistically verifiable yet, but he does possess a number of them. Such as his size (6 feet 3, 230 pounds) and strength, attributes that have become increasingly important to quarterbacks who must absorb punishment 16 Sundays a season.

"He's a quarterback who's built like a linebacker," says Donahoe.

There is also his touch on deep passes, an ability that was not exactly showcased in the Steelers' conservative offense last year. With a year's experience, O'Donnell could demonstrate it this season.

"I guarantee you we'll put it up deep this year," O'Donnell said.

Perhaps most importantly, there is the matter of O'Donnell's leadership. While Brister was flamboyant and demonstrative on the field, O'Donnell is considerably less animated. Off the field, O'Donnell is also less given to the brashness of his predecessor. He has been labeled "bland" by the Pittsburgh media. Beneath the blandness lies a leader.

"Unless you've been inside a huddle with him," says fullback Merril Hoge, "you don't know what kind of a leader he is. He's calm and composed and filled with self-confidence. He's got tremendous leadership."

O'Donnell doesn't call attention to himself, as Brister did. Instead, he responds to a question about his career by saying: "My career is I need all 11 guys to work to make my career go where I want it."

O'Donnell did not play a down his rookie season and only got to start eight games in 1991 after Brister was hurt.

"He's a young quarterback with the ability to get a lot better," said Donahoe. "We think he will get a lot better."

They're banking on it.

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