Free agent O'Donnell puts his bottom line on line today

January 28, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Wish Neil O'Donnell well, for his value is about to plummet. Super Bowl XXX could be his last game as a Pittsburgh Steeler, and the last time anyone considers him such a hot commodity.

O'Donnell, 29, is in a historic negotiating position. The NFL is set to complete its fourth year of free agency. And O'Donnell will be the first quarterback to become an unrestricted free agent after playing in a Super Bowl.

That's the good news.

The bad news is, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 13 1/2 -point underdogs to the Dallas Cowboys at Sun Devil Stadium, and no one has ever confused O'Donnell with Joe Namath.

He has come a long way since his days at Maryland, but can anyone seriously imagine him taking over a Super Bowl? O'Donnell is an above-average quarterback on a good team. He will need every break tonight, and then some.

"I hope he wins. I want him to win in the worst way," said the New York Jets' Boomer Esiason, another former Maryland quarterback. "I just don't know if it's possible."

Anything is possible, but even O'Donnell concedes that if Pittsburgh falls behind early, it's over. The Steelers will be forced to throw, and there's no way O'Donnell can win a shootout with Troy Aikman, who is 9-1 in the postseason.

Beating the Cowboys in the Super Bowl is enough of a burden. Beating the Cowboys with so much at stake off the field makes the task that much more daunting.

O'Donnell's agent, Leigh Steinberg, predicts a victory could be worth $3 million to $4 million in endorsements, and that's just in the short run. A loss, however, could cost O'Donnell millions in the free-agent market.

That's a potential $6 million swing.

Ouch.

Still, O'Donnell seemed relaxed enough this week, joking about trimming his beard, musing about catching a pass from Kordell Stewart, speaking eloquently about his late father, Jack.

"I came so far and I've worked so hard to get this opportunity, I've just kind of put the contract on the back burner," he said. "How many great quarterbacks have never been to the Super Bowl? How many great athletes never had the opportunity to do it?

"I'm in the sixth year of my career. I've taken the team four years to the playoffs. I've played in two AFC championship games and I'm playing in my first Super Bowl. That's not a bad resume."

Not bad at all, especially considering that the Steelers should be playing in their second straight Super Bowl, having fallen just 3 yards short last season.

O'Donnell says his preference is to remain in Pittsburgh, but win or lose, he's probably gone. Winning would move him out of the Steelers' price range. Losing might persuade the team to go with Stewart, the rookie from Colorado.

That would be a gamble -- Stewart began the season fourth on the depth chart -- but it probably would be a popular move in Pittsburgh, a city that has never quite embraced O'Donnell.

"Neil has been a guy who may have taken some unjust criticism," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "Early in his career a lot of people said that we can't get there because we couldn't throw the ball. But our offense wasn't conducive to throwing the ball as much as it has been this year."

That's true, and O'Donnell thrived in the more wide-open offense, becoming the first Steelers quarterback to produce four 300-yard passing games in one season -- despite missing four weeks with a fractured pinky on his right (throwing) hand.

Those four- and five-receiver sets require O'Donnell to make quick decisions and accurate passes. His career interception rate is the best among active passers. Still, no one compares him with Aikman, or any of the other elite quarterbacks.

He has made his share of big plays this postseason, but he also has thrown more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two) -- and both TDs were disputed. Heck, if Indianapolis' Quentin Coryatt hadn't botched a sure interception in the AFC title game, O'Donnell already might be packing his bags.

Think about it: The Steelers aren't big spenders. They could sign a modestly priced veteran to ease Stewart's transition, and reinforce the team in other areas. It's not a classic path for a conference champion. But with the salary cap, it might be the best option.

Likewise, O'Donnell might be better off elsewhere. He benefits from playing with a strong receiving corps and solid offensive line. But he'd face even more scrutiny as a $4 million quarterback in a blue-collar town.

Chances are, he'll end up playing closer to his home in Madison, N.J. -- with the New York Giants, New York Jets or even the Philadelphia Eagles. But would the team be as good? Would O'Donnell get the same chance to shine?

A victory tonight, and those questions become moot -- O'Donnell will become part of Super Bowl lore, and some team will break the bank to sign him. But a loss tonight, and the perception of his talents might never be the same.

It's an enviable position.

It's a frightening position.

Wish Neil O'Donnell well.

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