Act II: The ’97 Broncos, The ’97 Steelers, and Me
The ’97 Broncos:
Early in ’97 season, I hated anything and everything to do with the Broncos. I despised their fans yelling “IN-COM-PLETE!” after every errant pass the opposition threw. My stomach turned every time I saw Terrell Davis and Howard Griffith do the “Mile High Salute” after scoring a TD. It incensed me so much that I can still vividly remember yelling at my television: “Congratulations, you’ve one upped “The Ickey Shuffle” you untalented douche-bags!” Granted not the language you would want a 10 year old to use, but hey I had an expanded vocabulary, and called ’em like I saw ’em.
I hated how their “zone-blocking scheme,” opened holes for a scrub Back like Davis and made him a star. I used to joke with my Mom that anybody with an ounce of athletic ability could run for 1,000 yards in the Kubiak Offense, and that if my Grandmother was inserted at RB she could gain at least 700 yards in it. (Funny, because I have been proven right with guys like Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell, Steve Slaton, Arian Foster etc. having great seasons in that same Offense). And it certainly didn’t help that I had to sit and watch the Broncos every single Sunday because I was located at the epicenter of the regional market!
Yet the worst part about the 12-4 Broncos of that particular season was the fact that they were a tough team. They played strong Defense against both the run and pass and were led by DE Neil Smith and Safety Steve Atwater, they had two underrated yet fantastic WR’s in Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, and of course they were led by one of the greatest QB’s to ever lace ’em up in the form of John Elway. They were a good team in ’97, but to me, they weren’t even the same caliber as the Steelers were that year.
The ’97 Steelers
At the same time I was trapped in Denver, the 1997 Steelers were playing some fantastic football as well. I can say with full effect today that outside of the ’05 and ’08 Super Bowl teams, the ’97 team ranks as my all-time favorite. That season Pittsburgh played in numerous down to the wire contests that featured outrageous plays, performances, and comebacks galore.
The Defense was led by Pro Bowl Safety Carnell Lake and Pro Bowl ILB Levon Kirkland who simply stepped their games up to a level that was unheard of that season. Lake played both Safety and Corner that season and teamed with FS Darren Perry (who was my favorite player during those years) for 7 INT’s and 3 FF’s. Yet Lake’s most impressive stat that season was his 6.0 Sacks which led the entire team! I have never seen a Safety outside of Troy Polamalu rush the QB with as much success and effectiveness as Carnell Lake did, and to this day he remains one of the Steeler franchise’s most unsung players.
Kirkland set the standard for N.F.L. ILB’s and amassed 126 Tackles and 5.0 Sacks that season and continued to be a steady force in Pittsburgh’s Defense. With the strong play up front by Pro Bowl NT Joel Steed and the DE’s Kevin Henry and Nolan Harrison, the Steelers’ Defense in ’97 was ranked #1 against the Run (Yards) and brought the heat by accumulating 48.0 Sacks!
But while I was becoming enamored with the Defense, the Steelers’ Offense in ’97 was being led by the Offensive Line and a Triumvirate of Stars: QB Kordell Stewart, RB Jerome Bettis, and WR Yancey Thigpen.
Stewart was the media sensation that season. While he was erratic at times, his athletic ability was off the charts and he helped to orchestrate some amazing comebacks. In his first season as the full-time starter, Kordell threw for over 3,000 yards, 20 TD’s, and rushed for 476 yards and 11 more TD’s. Basically the only thing I can compare him to is Cam Newton and what he is doing today in Carolina. The guy was just a Touchdown machine in 1997.
Bettis enjoyed the finest season of his career that season as well. Running behind a great Offensive Line led by future Hall of Famer Dirt Dawson, and his former teammate in Los Angeles FB Tim Lester (a.k.a. “The Bus Driver), Bettis led the League in Carries (375), was ranked #2 in the A.F.C. in Rushing Yards (1,665), and totaled 9 TD’s. Bettis was at his physical peak and in his absolute prime in 1997, and many teams simply didn’t have an answer for the guy who ran for 111.0 yards per game.
The oft-injured Yancey Thigpen enjoyed an amazing season in 1997 as well. Likely due to his contract expiring at the end of the year, Thigpen played like a man possessed that season and emerged as Kordell’s favorite and go-to target. Thigpen caught 79 balls for 1398 yards and 7 TD’s while playing a full season after missing 10 games due to injury in 1996. Yancey was money, and he finished 2nd in Yards per catch (17.7) and 3rd in Receiving Yards per game (87.4) in the entire N.F.L..
By Playoff Time in January of 1998 I was so happy because the Steelers were poised for a Super Bowl run after winning the A.F.C. Central with an 11-5 record. Yet, what made me even more excited was the fact that the Steelers would get the Broncos again (they had beat them 35-24 in a game where Kordell accounted for all 5 TD’s in Week 15. It was amazing, and if I had time this week I would do a writeup on it) at Three Rivers to decide who would go to the Super Bowl. Finally I thought, the Steelers could put the Broncos in their place once and for all! And in my 10 year old brain I figured that if the Steelers could beat Denver bad enough, maybe all the fans would crawl back into their holes from which they came.
I mean, I thought for sure that the Steelers would come out guns blazin’ and simply out-play the Broncos again. They had done it once before, so what was really stopping them?
The stage was thus set for the Steelers to continue their run to “One for the Thumb” and lay waste to a Broncos team that stood in their path. Unfortunately for Steeler Nation and I, things didn’t work out that way.