O'Donnell brings Steelers back, lets Steelers down

January 29, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

TEMPE, Ariz. -- He had brought them back, nearly all the way back, back from 13-0, back from 20-7, back to where the Pittsburgh Steelers had a chance to end 11 years of AFC misery in the Super Bowl.

Now it was Steelers ball, four minutes left, down three points. Neil O'Donnell had completed 10 of his previous 12 passes, produced 10 fourth-quarter points. One last drive, from his 32, a chance to make Super Bowl history.

Who could have imagined what happened next? 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.

Maybe one of his receivers ran the wrong route. Maybe O'Donnell never should have thrown the ball. Andre Hastings broke over the middle. Corey Holliday took off downfield. And O'Donnell, fighting off a blitz, hit Brown right in the numbers.

"A miscommunication," that's what Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said happened on the second interception. 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."

Brown was named Most Valuable Player of Dallas' 27-17 victory -- a fitting honor, even if both his interceptions were gifts. Brown lost a 2-month-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 is the former Maryland star, 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's a fighter. The belief here was that the Super Bowl would expose him, hurt him in the free-agent market. That still could happen, but no one can question the man's heart.

He fought. 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 the one thing I do -- I bounce back," he said. "I'm not a guy who dwells on what happened. I threw an interception -- those things happen. We were going to take our chances. We didn't come here to play a close game."

But in the end, the team with the better quarterback won. It almost always works out that way in the Super Bowl. The NFC is the conference with Aikman and Steve Young, the conference that once had Joe Montana.

Even in years where the AFC had the edge, something else went awry. John Elway never had a defense in Denver. Jim Kelly was superior to Jeff Hostetler, but the Giants controlled that Super Bowl with Ottis Anderson.

Aikman vs. O'Donnell? It figured to be a rout, and in a sense, it was. 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 from O'Donnell.

The first interception clearly was O'Donnell's fault. Cowher said the pass "sailed" on him. O'Donnell said, "it slipped totally out of my hand." Whatever, O'Donnell shouldn't have thrown the ball. There wasn't a Pittsburgh receiver in sight.

It was his first Super Bowl. It took him three quarters to settle down. His passes were high and wide for most of the game, 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 heck of a 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 the one attempted by Garo Yepremian. 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 wonder 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."

Brown said he made a "great break" on the second pick, and Campo agreed. 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.

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