1. October 26, 1997
Shovel Pass Puts Steelers Back in Division Race
Steelers 23 – Jaguars 17 (O.T.)
The Steelers had quite a bit riding on this 1997 midseason game against Jacksonville. Not only were they a game behind Jacksonville because of the #5 game on my list, but they needed a win to keep pace in the division race. The Jaguars had the Steelers number at that point in their brief yet successful existence, and what better way for the Steelers to put those upstarts in their place than to beat them at Three Rivers Stadium and swing the balance of power back to Pittsburgh in terms of A.F.C. Central supremacy.
I’ll always remember this game for one thing and one thing alone: Greg Lloyd (who was one of my favorite players at the time) blasted the hell out of Jaguars WR Keenan McCardell on the first play from scrimmage. Why did Lloyd do it? Rumors have come from all over the place, the most popular one said that Lloyd received an “anonymous” phone call at home that was supposedly McCardell which threatened to hurt Lloyd and his family. Could the call have come from McCardell? Could it have come from a prankster? Who knows? Either way, the hit apparently scared the crap out of McCardell and he finished the game with only 2 grabs for 22 yards. Here’s a link to the Orlando Sentinel article by Juliet Macur that describes the event in its immediate aftermath.
Anyways, as was the case so many times during the 1997 season, like this example, or this one, the Steelers started the game very lackadaisically (aside from the Lloyd hit), and the Jaguars took full advantage. The teams played a scoreless 1st Quarter and it appeared as if the game would be a low-scoring affair. Yet the road team took advantage of the Steelers and their sluggish start, and put 10 points up on the board by Half Time. Jacksonville drew first blood on a 7 yard TD reception by their KR/WR Willie Jackson from Brunell early in the 2nd Quarter. A Mike Hollis 20 yard Field Goal later in the period tacked onto the Jacksonville lead and the Steelers found themselves down 10-0, on their home field, against their biggest rival during that time period, and a division title hanging in the balance.
The Steelers in their true energetic and heart-stopping fashion of 1997, illustrated their mettle on 3 successive 2nd Half possessions. On the first one, Kordell engineered a scoring drive that he capped off with an incredible pass to the corner of the endzone to his new 3rd WR Courtney Hawkins on a 28 yard pass! The score seemed to ignite something in the Steelers because it drew them within 3 points and there was still a Quarter and a half to play. Jacksonville having their lead cut to 10-7 displayed the confidence of a team wise beyond their years and promptly took the ensuing kickoff and QB Mark Brunell directed his troops down the field at will. Jacksonville got the ball all the way inside the Steelers’ 5 yard line and faced a 4th and less than 1 at the 2. Then Greg Lloyd stepped up and made the play of the game at that juncture. On a miscommunication or something RB James Stewart crashed into Brunell for the handoff and Lloyd crashed into the backfield and stuffed Stewart short of the 1st Down Marker! What Kordell and the Offense did next was nothing short of remarkable. Stewart drove his guys 98 yards, and with just over 12 minutes left in the game he ran the ball in from 6 yards out to put the Steelers ahead by a score of 14-10! In the span of just under a Quarter the Steelers had gone from 10-0 to 14-10!
To make things even more crazy, when the Steelers got the ball back Jerome Bettis put the ball on the carpet and the Jaguars recovered! Giving Mark Brunell in his prime extra chances was downright irresponsible and the Jaguars soon capitalized on Bettis’ mistake. Brunell quickly rallied his Offense and with just over 8 minutes left in the game he hit his TE Pete Mitchell with a 3 yard TD pass to put the Jaguars back in front 17-14.
Despite losing the lead, Kordell and the Steelers simply refused to lose and countered with a drive of their own. By the time their drive had stalled, the Steelers found themselves deep inside the Jacksonville Red Zone, and the Steelers tied the game up with 2:21 left to play on a Norm Johnson 19 yard Field Goal. The game ended in a 17-17 tie, and the Steelers won the coin toss and took full advantage to win the game.
Stewart marched his team down the field to the Jacksonville on an efficient drive, and then went to a bit of razzle-dazzle and Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey dialed up a shovel pass to the most unlikeliest of players: Jerome Bettis. The Bus himself had as fleet of feet for any guy his size, but he wasn’t what you would call a track star, especially in his prime like in 1997. Yet Gailey knew the play would work and the Steelers’ Offense executed it to perfection. Once Jerome got to the second level untouched you knew it was going for 6 because those puny Jaguars DB’s couldn’t tackle a “Bus” with a head of steam! Bettis raced to the end zone for a 17 yard TD reception and the Steelers won the game 23-17 in O.T.!
Shovel passes, like the one that won the game, were the types of tricky plays concocted by Gailey which highlighted that fantastic 1997 season. While not the greatest Coach ever by any stretch of the word, Gailey does deserve credit for taking less than stellar QB’s and allowing them to find success in the N.F.L., ex. Tyler Thigpen, and now Ryan Fitzpatrick. But his greatest achievement in the N.F.L. had to be his helping Kordell Stewart become a star in his first season as a starter in 1997, because Kordell enjoyed the best year of his career that year. You could tell that Gailey had a lot to do with Kordell’s success as well because Kordell really tanked in ‘98 and ‘99 under Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride until his benching late in 1999. Stewart had a decent 2000 season though, and if it wasn’t for “Inspector Gadget” Mularkey’s tutelage and playcalling in 2001, Kordell might not have had that final year of redemption.
The Steelers’ 3 Most Valuable Skill Players of 1997 each had wonderful and successful nights against Jacksonville and were the stars of the game. Stewart went over 300 yards passing and had over 350 total yards and 3 Total TD’s. Bettis had 99 yards rushing coupled with 35 yards receiving and the ever important 17 yard go-ahead TD reception. But WR Yancey Thigpen had a career day in terms of catches and yards. Yancey had 11 catches for 196 yards against a pretty good Jacksonville Defense. I’ll always say that Gailey’s and Thigpen’s departures really hurt Kordell’s development as a QB, and it makes me wonder what would have become of Thigpen had he stayed in the Steel City and not left for Tennessee only to be ineffective, injured, and flush with cash.
With the win, the Steelers now were a full game ahead of Jacksonville in the division and stood at 6-2 at the halfway mark. Pittsburgh really needed this game because they finished with the same record as the Jaguars (11-5), and if it wasn’t for Pittsburgh’s advantage in point differential, they would have lost the division to the Jaguars. To me this game should be considered the best of the series because it featured both teams playing each other when their rivalry was the most heated and there was the most on the line. Granted each team has had single seasons better than 1997, but the excitement of the division race, and the fact that the game was an O.T. thriller has to put this game at #1.