O'Donnell: no regrets NFL: The career of the ex-Terps QB, who'll lead the Bengals here Sunday, has nose-dived since he left the Steelers, but he's not looking back.

September 24, 1998|By VITO STELLINO | VITO STELLINO,SUN STAFF

Neil O'Donnell sounds like a man who protests too much.

A former Maryland quarterback, he went from the Super Bowl to a 1-15 record when he left the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent in 1996 for the New York Jets.

Now playing for his fourth coach and third team in the past four years, O'Donnell, who will be calling signals for the Cincinnati Bengals against the Ravens Sunday night, is still trying to get his career back on track.

Yet the former Terrapin insists he has no regrets about signing the five-year, $25 million deal with the Jets. He also insists he didn't leave Pittsburgh simply because of the money.

"That's the normal fan reaction, taking the money," he said yesterday. "But it wasn't all that.

"There was a lot of " he said before pausing.

"Remember Ron Erhardt left with me, also. There was a guy who was from New Jersey. He was a big part of trying to get me to go to New York."

Erhardt was the Steelers' offensive coordinator who was signed by then-Jets coach Rich Kotite just before O'Donnell signed.

It's hard to believe, though, that Erhardt was as big a factor as the money in the decision. O'Donnell's agent, Leigh Steinberg, apparently pressed him hard to take the money.

In any case, the move to New York turned out to be a disaster.

O'Donnell played in only six games with the Jets in 1996 before going out with a shoulder injury and missing six games. He then injured his calf in pre-game warm-ups and also missed the last four.

The result was a 1-15 mark that led to Kotite's firing and Bill Parcells' arrival.

For reasons that still are unclear, O'Donnell fell out of favor with Parcells. With a playoff berth on the line in Detroit in the regular-season finale, the coach put the ball in the hands of Ray Lucas and running back Leon Johnson, both of whom threw critical interceptions that cost the Jets the playoff berth.

When O'Donnell refused to take a pay cut, Parcells fired him in June. The quarterback left with only $11.75 million of his original $25 million deal.

O'Donnell doesn't know what happened in New York.

"I'm still wondering," he said.

He insisted there wasn't a rift with Parcells.

"All you've read and all you've heard about Bill Parcells and I -- we're fine," he said.

At least the move didn't cost him any money. The Bengals signed him to a four-year deal for $17.25 million.

He's starting over, though, with a team that is 1-2 after Sunday's discouraging, 13-6 loss to Green Bay.

O'Donnell was handcuffed by the Packers' defense. The running game managed only 28 yards, and O'Donnell passed for only 151 yards.

When the Bengals got the ball at their 46 with 1: 53 left, O'Donnell had a chance to drive them to a tying touchdown and overtime. Instead, he threw a 6-yard pass on first down and then three incomplete passes.

If O'Donnell had stayed in Pittsburgh, it's likely he still would be starting for a Super Bowl contender. It's unlikely Kordell Stewart, who's been struggling, could have supplanted O'Donnell.

O'Donnell can only wonder how many Super Bowls he might have played in if he'd stayed with the Steelers.

Now, his last Super Bowl memory may turn out to be the ball he threw into Larry Brown's hands to deliver Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys.

O'Donnell, though, refuses to think about what might have been. "That seems so long ago. I'm not one to ever look back. You make a decision, you have to win with it."

O'Donnell always will be questioned about leaving Pittsburgh until he finds success somewhere else.

After the 1-15 year in New York, he said: "I answer that question every day. People come up to me and say, 'Why did you leave Pittsburgh and come here?' Never did I think it would be this way."

The one thing O'Donnell has never done is criticize the Steelers for not matching the Jets' offer.

"I never forget when I first left there, everyone wanted me to say something bad. That wasn't my style. I look at the owner there, Mr. [Dan] Rooney. He and I had a special relationship. That's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

Now, he's scrambling to improve a Cincinnati team that's having a bad decade.

The Bengals haven't been in the playoffs since 1990 and have begun the previous seven years 0-8, 2-5, 0-10, 0-8, 2-4, 1-6 and 1-7.

If the Bengals don't upset the Ravens, they'll be 1-3 and could be on the verge of another slide. O'Donnell's trying to change things in a hurry, but it won't be easy.

"Let's face it," he said. "I've really been with these guys only eight weeks total."

If O'Donnell is going to start turning the Bengals around, he couldn't pick a better place to start than Baltimore after playing at Maryland.

XTC "I still have a lot of friends who do live around that area," he said. "It's really great to see Baltimore where it is today. When I was down there in college, the city was kind of in a rebuilding process. With the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, they were trying to make an effort to clean it all up, and now with Camden Yards and your [football] stadium, it looks like a beautiful place to be."

Bengals at a glance

Last game: Lost to Green Bay, 13-6, Sunday.

Last meeting with Ravens: Defeated them, 16-14, in last year's season finale on Dec. 21 in Cincinnati.

Who's hot: Wide receiver Carl Pickens has caught an AFC-leading 20 receptions for 202 yards. Across the field, Darnay Scott has a 21.8-yards-per-catch average.

Who's not: Corey Dillon and the Bengals' running game. Cincinnati ranks 28th in the NFL in rushing, averaging just 76 yards per game. Dillon has only 196 yards on 52 carries through three games, which is below last year's rookie total of 1,129 yards. Cornerback Corey Sawyer is out for the season after knee surgery.

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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