Twenty years ago, the Steelers were putting the pieces back together again following a disappointing 27-17 Super Bowl XXX loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
It had been the Steelers first Super Bowl appearance in sixteen years, and hopes were riding high for the 1996 season. However, the winds of salary cap change that can often tear apart a team near the top of the NFL mountain blew through the Steel City when quarterback Neil O’Donnell signed a 5-year $25 million dollar contract with the New York Jets.
More unfortunate change occurred that March when second-year running back Bam Morris was found with marijuana in the trunk of his car during an off-season vacation.
The Steelers promptly released him, but that left a huge hole to fill in the Steelers backfield. Director of Pro Football Operations, Tom Donahue, filled the hole during the NFL draft by swinging what became the organization’s greatest trade in their history. The team traded their second round pick and the following year’s fourth round pick to the Rams for Jerome Bettis and a third round pick.
The rest is history. Bettis ran for 1431 yards and 11 touchdowns in 1996 and quickly became a fan favorite and the face of the team. The quarterback situation ended up being a bit stickier. Bill Cowher held an open competition for the starting quarterback job during training camp.
The contestants? Veteran Mike Tomczak, a second year pro known as “Slash” (Kordell Stewart), and another second year pro, Jim Miller. Miller eventually won the starting spot, based on what Cowher called at the time, “a gut feeling.” His tenure didn’t last long, though. Miller was yanked in the third quarter of an opening day 24-9 loss to Jacksonville and barely saw the field again as a member of the Steelers.
Mike Tomczak replaced Miller at quarterback for the remainder of the season. New offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, also worked Kordell Stewart into the offense at various times, mostly as a means of utilizing Stewart’s running ability.
Tomzcak’s play at quarterback was exceptional at times, adequate most others, and dreadful at other times. He wound up tossing 15 touchdowns, but also 17 interceptions.
Fortunately, the Steelers defense was still rock solid throughout the year, despite losing Greg Lloyd in the season opener to a season ending knee injury. They adjusted by switching Chad Brown to Lloyd’s right outside linebacker spot and starting Jerry Olsavsky in Brown’s position on the inside next to Levon Kirkland.
Brown responded by tallying 13 sacks and putting himself in position for a lucrative new contract the following season. However, that new contract would eventually be given to Brown by what would become his new team, the Seattle Seahawks.
The 1996 team lost a number of games they could’ve and maybe should’ve won: 23-13 to the 8-8 Houston Oilers, 34-24 to the 8-8 Cincinnati Bengals, and 31-17 to the 4-12 Baltimore Ravens. They also lost three of their last four games.
Still, their 10-6 record was good enough for them to repeat as AFC Central Division Champions. They then blasted the Indianapolis Colts 42-14 in the AFC Wild Card game, a rematch of their AFC Championship game the previous year.
The following week, the Steelers travelled to Foxboro for an AFC Divisional showdown with the New England Patriots. The team had been besieged by injuries to several key players throughout the season. Greg Lloyd, Mark Bruner, and Yancey Thigpen were lost to season ending injuries, while Jerome Bettis and several other players were hampered towards the end of the season.
It appeared to finally catch up with them, as they looked out of gas against the Patriots who dominated the game and came away with a 28-3 victory.
In Retrospect: Looking back at the 1996 season, you have to think what might have been had Neil O’Donnell stayed in Pittsburgh. O’Donnell was in his prime and was coming off of his best season in 1995. Granted, his two baffling interceptions in Super Bowl XXX dredges up feelings of resentment with Steelers fans to this day.
Unfortunately, that tends to be the extent of people’s memories with regard to O’Donnell. The truth is that he was the best quarterback the Steelers had post Terry Bradshaw and prior to Ben Roethlisberger. He’s also the only quarterback besides Bradshaw and Big Ben to lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl.
True, the Steelers had a number of injuries throughout the 1996 season, but the team’s real downfall was their quarterback play. It’s very possible that had the Steelers been able to retain O’Donnell, they would’ve made a second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl.