O'Donnell may be a goat, but he went down kicking

January 29, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Jackie Smith, Scott Norwood, Neil O'Donnell. It might not be fair, but that's life at America's biggest sporting event. O'Donnell threw two awful interceptions last night. O'Donnell became a Super Bowl goat.

No one will remember that he brought the Pittsburgh Steelers back, nearly all the way back, back from 13-0, back from 20-7, back to where they had a chance to end 11 years of AFC misery in the Super Bowl.

The ending, that's all that matters.

Steelers ball, four minutes left, three-point game. O'Donnell had completed 14 of his previous 16 passes, produced 10 fourth-quarter points. Now came the final drive, from his 32, a chance to make Super Bowl history.

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. . . .

Ah, wrong Neil.

O'Donnell already had thrown one inexplicable interception to Larry Brown. And then, just when he began inching toward his crowning moment, he threw another.

Whose fault was it? No one could say for sure after Dallas' 27-17 victory. The Cowboys blitzed on the play. One Pittsburgh receiver, Corey Holliday, raced downfield. Another, Andre Hastings, had the option of breaking inside or out.

That was the problem.

Hastings broke in.

O'Donnell threw out.

"A miscommunication," that's what Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher called it. O'Donnell refused to blame any of his teammates, saying, "We're all in this together."

"It was a 'hot' read," Hastings said, referring to the blitz. "I was thinking 'hot' and I broke 'hot,' but Neil threw the out. I read it one way and Neil read it the other. That's just the way it came out."

And that's how Brown got named Most Valuable Player -- a fitting honor, even if both his interceptions were gifts. Brown lost a 10-week-old baby in November. Brown is one of the few Cowboys worth admiring.

But if the hero was a profile in courage, then so, in his own way, was the goat. What we'll remember about this game is Pittsburgh. What we'll remember, for better and worse, is O'Donnell.

The fact is, the Cowboys were lucky to win. The Cowboys should have built a bigger lead in the first half, then barely survived the second, running only 19 plays, producing only five first downs, gaining only 61 yards.

O'Donnell isn't Troy Aikman, but if nothing else, he proved a fighter. The belief here was that the Super Bowl would expose him, hurt him in the free-agent market. That still might happen, but no one can question the man's heart.

He battled. All the Steelers did. Heck, it should have been over after O'Donnell threw his first killer interception in the third quarter, the one leading to a Dallas touchdown and a 20-7 lead.

But O'Donnell wouldn't quit.

"That's one thing I do -- I bounce back," he said. "I'm not going to worry about what happened on the last play. You can't play this position and have it hanging over your head."

But in the end, the team with the better quarterback won. Aikman, now 10-1 in the postseason, completed 15 of 23 passes, with no interceptions. He never beats himself. That is his hallmark. That is what set him apart.

O'Donnell, on the other hand, threw six interceptions in the postseason -- one fewer than his regular-season total. Six interceptions, not counting a near-miss by Indianapolis' Quentin Coryatt that would have kept Pittsburgh out of the Super Bowl.

The second one last night might have been debatable, but the first one clearly was his fault. Cowher said the pass "sailed" on him. O'Donnell said, "it slipped totally out of my hand." Whatever, all of his receivers had broken over the middle. And he threw out.

It was O'Donnell's first Super Bowl. It took him three quarters to settle down. His passes were high and wide for most of the night, and he completed 28 of 49 only because the Steelers receivers kept making acrobatic catches.

Cowher refused to criticize him afterward, saying, "Neil has played well. Neil got us here. Without Neil O'Donnell, we wouldn't have played late into January. Look at the big picture, not the small pieces. He had a heckuva year."

Fair enough, but that's not what the Pittsburgh fans will remember. O'Donnell's first interception was the worst Super Bowl pass since Garo Yepremian's. His second, whether his fault or not, wasn't much better.

"There was a little miscommunication between the wide receivers and the quarterback," O'Donnell said. "You can't single out one individual and say that was the reason we lost the football game. That was never my style."

Still, you know who will get the blame. At least when Earl Morrall missed Jimmy Orr, he didn't see him. O'Donnell was blitzed on both plays. The second was a timing pattern. But would Aikman have made those throws?

"They broke the routes off, and because of the pressure, Neil didn't see them," Dallas defensive coordinator Dave Campo said. "He just happened to throw them in the right spot, and Larry did a good job of being where he was supposed to be."

4l Brown said he made a "great break" on the second pick, but he didn't even have to move. Neil O'Donnell had brought the Steelers back, nearly all the way back. But all anyone will remember is that he threw it away in the end.

Jackie Smith, Scott Norwood, Neil O'Donnell.

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