Cowboys won game, but Steelers might have won over America

January 29, 1996|By John Steadman

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Put the Pittsburgh Steelers on your shoulders. Give them a ride fit for a hero. They came away a loser on the scoreboard and in the record book of time but, more importantly, earned the respect and affection that are usually only heaped upon the front-running winners.

All praise for Pittsburgh, a team that was sadly underrated and unappreciated . . . . but never an underachiever. The Steelers, reaching back for a maximum effort, had the Dallas Cowboys in trouble with a late thrust but couldn't put them away.

The Cowboys almost tripped over their own arrogance and self-exultation. The football history books will show that they won by 10 points, 27-17. That sounds comfortable enough, but in truth it wasn't that way at all.

Even Jerry Jones, the bore who owns the Dallas franchise, offered respect to the losers as they headed for the locker room. His coach, Barry Switzer, provided similar compliments.

The only disturbing tableau was seeing Neil O'Donnell, who gave his all to a Steelers offense, walk off the field, helmet in hand, and looking so alone as he headed for the sideline.

After a wretched start, O'Donnell pulled himself and the Steelers together for a stirring comeback that fell short.

O'Donnell's two interceptions that set up Dallas scores weren't entirely his fault, and he didn't offer a whisper of an alibi. Larry Brown, the Cowboys cornerback, got in front of two O'Donnell passes at critical moments.

This shut down the Steelers, took away some of their verve, and set up the Cowboys, shaking in their boots, to regain their equilibrium and, finally, put it away. Brown won the Most Valuable Player award by simply being in the right spot.

"On the first interception," Brown said, "I was fortunate because it was probably a broken pattern. On the other one, I beat the receiver to the ball on a quick slant. I dedicated this one to Barry Switzer."

The coach has been lampooned and demeaned, but Switzer means more to the Cowboys than many of the press-box oracles want to admit. Switzer knows how to win and handle personnel. The latter is the key to success for any coach. Players realize he gives them an honest count and like his style.

In a way, he's something like the late Don McCafferty, who was known as the "Easy Rider" when he led the Baltimore Colts to victory in Super Bowl V against the Cowboys.

Maybe Switzer doesn't know how to act the part of a pseudo genius, but he doesn't confuse players with complex formations and coverages. He keeps it basic.

His relationships with the men under him has brought nothing but admiration. Joe Washington, who had a long career in the NFL, said, "I was with Barry at Oklahoma and I'd be hard-pressed to tell you I ever played for a better man. He came up the hard way, the son of a bootlegger, and overcame a lot."

Take a true genius of a coach, one Clark Shaughnessy, who could diagram 63 different ways to run off tackle. It availed him nothing, being a dismal failure in his brief interlude as a pro coach. Switzer deserves applause for keeping a "happy ship," something that is difficult to do in these times of disgruntled and spoiled athletes who would rather showboat than perform as

professionals.

The Steelers appeared to be coming back with a vengeance -- certainly it was sheer determination -- when they kicked a field goal to halve the score to 20-10.

Then they recovered an onside kick and, with O'Donnell firing strikes and mighty Bam Morris running with power, put together a 52-yard drive, dotted with a touchdown that made it 20-17. But Brown intervened to set up the final score by picking off O'Donnell and carrying it to the 6.The set up a tally by Emmitt Smith, who, for the most part, had been held under control by the swarming Steelers defense.

It could easily have been a runaway, another botched and disappointing Super Bowl, except for the grit of the underdog Steelers.

They could have packed their bags early and taken leave of the premises as the Cowboys dominated them in the first half. The Steelers kept dodging shots when it seemed another score would put them well on the road to ruin.

In the first half, after Dallas pushed the ball in 12 plays to the Pittsburgh 15 and needed only a short yard on third down to keep the drive going, Smith tried to run around right end and was quickly pinned to the turf by linebacker Levon Kirkland.

It was a strategic blunder. Instead of pursuing the shortest distance between two points, Smith was trying to get much more and paid the price, a 3-yard loss.

The field, although looking greener than an Irish pasture, was slippery, and at times backs were having as much trouble as if they were drunk and wearing roller skates. Still, the Cowboys tried to circle right end and, failing dismally, had to go for three instead of six.

That made the margin only 13 instead of 17, which provided a lift to the Steelers.

If O'Donnell could have had a hot hand in the early going, the Steelers might even have kept it closer than the 13-7 halftime count. The Steelers' air-arm couldn't find the target but still put together a 13-play drive late in the second quarter that got them on the scoreboard -- and lifted their emotions as they headed for the halftime break.

Pittsburgh covered itself with glory, but the joy of victory went to the Cowboys. They were the best team, as plainly indicated by the end result, but the Steelers won the plaudits of the audience.

It was a rare situation of a loser also being a winner. A toast to the Steelers, so magnificent in defeat. They stole a piece of America's heart.

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