Sometimes the team that doesn’t win it all captures your heart.
Why else would, say, the 1969 Cubs be so revered by their fans? Or why the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers were remembered by Roger Kahn as “The Boys of Summer?”
Maybe that’s why my favorite Steelers team of all time is the 1995 squad- the only Steelers team ever to lose a Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh has never been a city that embraced a “lovable loser.” At the time of my 1971 birth, for instance, it could very well be argued the two most popular teams in town were the Pittsburgh Pirates and Duquesne Dukes basketball squad.
Today, it seems as if these two entities don’t even count after years of losing.
But the ’95 Steelers weren’t losers. They were the AFC CHAMPIONS, dammit!
They were the only Steelers team of a generation to go to the Super Bowl, sandwiched between five teams that made the AFC Championship Game but somehow could not win it.
They overcame a 3-4 start to make the Super Bowl. They won six games in the fourth quarter—including one of the three greatest AFC Championship games ever played—and would have won a seventh in Green Bay had Yancey Thigpen not dropped a game-ending pass at the goal line.
Owner Dan Rooney said the ’95 Steelers’ quartet of wide receivers were better than when the franchise was blessed with Hall of Famers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann.
Pittsburgh’s Hall of Fame cornerback, Rod Woodson, was lost for the season on opening day with torn ligaments in his knee, then made a historic recovery by playing in the Super Bowl.
In his absence, Carnell Lake, a linebacker in college, moved from his starting safety position to play cornerback and the Steelers went 10-2.
They beat the Bears for the first time in franchise history in Chicago. They introduced a magical player, Kordell Stewart, who seemingly could play every position.
They swept Cleveland in the Browns’ final season before moving to Baltimore, but Steelers fans put down their Terrible Towels for a day and wore orange armbands for a Monday Night Game at Three Rivers Stadium against the Browns to show solidarity to their regional neighbors in a display of sportsmanship rarely seen in the NFL.
Two players, Willie Williams, who led the AFC in interceptions and made a huge tackle to force a punt late in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, and rowdy special teams ace Lethon Flowers, also were teammates at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C.
They did everything but win the actual Super Bowl.
The scapegoat of the defeat is quarterback Neil O’Donnell, whose fourth-quarter interception prevented what appeared to be the course for a record 13-point comeback in the Big Dance. The two interceptions he threw to Larry Brown have turned him into football’s Bill Buckner.
But it says here O’Donnell has received a bad rap. Consider:
A- On O’Donnell’s fatal fourth-quarter interception that changed the momentum of Super Bowl XXX, he threw the pass in the right place, only to have slot receiver Andre Hastings turn inside instead of outside on his route. Receiver Ernie Mills tore up his knee on the wet turf of Sun Devil Stadium on the Steelers’ previous possession. Had either of these instances not occurred, this pass is likely completed for a first down and O’Donnell likely leads the Steelers to the biggest come-from-behind victory in Super Bowl history- establishing himself as Game MVP and a superstar.
B- O’Donnell retired in 2003 as the least likely quarterback in NFL history to throw an interception. It simply does not add up he would be the sole reason for Brown’s picks.
C- O’Donnell’s 1995 season mirrors Ben Roethlisberger’s 2005 season. In both seasons the Steelers were 11-5. In both seasons these quarterbacks missed four games due to injury and the team went 2-2 in their absence, only to be resurrected by their return. O’Donnell’s touchdown-to-interception ratio in 1995 was 17-7. Roethlisberger’s? 17-9. And both quarterbacks, for whatever reason, struggled in the Super Bowl.
Like Roethlisberger in 2005, the Steelers in 1995 wouldn’t have made it as far as they did without O’Donnell.
He was the team MVP, threw for 300 yards a Steelers record four times and 200 in 11 of his 14 complete games, and tied his own team record for completion percentage.
He engineered a 67-yard touchdown drive with 3:03 remaining in the AFC Championship Game complete with a fourth down completion to Hastings and 39-yard strike to Mills that set up Bam Morris’ game-winning one-yard touchdown run, became the first player in team history to throw 50 passes in a game twice in the same season and his 87.7 quarterback rating was second only in Steelers history to Terry Bradshaw’s 87.8 in 1975.
It doesn’t bode well for Steeler Nation’s reputation to have this animosity towards a player that led them to the Super Bowl. Brian Sipe is also best remembered for throwing a fatal interception in the postseason, yet Cleveland fans revere him and he never led the Browns as far as the AFC Championship Game, something O’Donnell did for the Steelers twice.
The very next season, 1996, Jacksonville’s Mark Brunell would throw an interception to New England’s Willie Clay in the end zone, not at midfield, with four minutes remaining in the AFC Championship Game and the Jaguars trailing 13-6. On the next possession James Stewart fumbled away any chance for Jacksonville victory at midfield.
Yet neither Brunell or Stewart are despised in North Florida. If anything, they, like Sipe, are revered.
And none of them ever played in a Super Bowl, either.
It’s one thing to have high standards. It’s another that every primary starting quarterback the Pittsburgh Steelers have had between Bradshaw and Roethlisberger—Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Stewart, and Tommy Maddox—led the Steelers to the playoffs yet all of them, with the possible exception of Tomczak, are generally thought of negatively by Steeler Nation- and even Bradshaw and Roethlisberger have had their critics.
Keith Olbermann has Fred Merkle. I have Neil O’Donnell.
So explains my allegiance to the ’95 Steelers. In my heart, Mills doesn’t tear up his knee. He is the intended receiver who makes the right cut on the pass route that begins a game-winning touchdown drive. O’Donnell becomes the architect of the biggest Super Bowl comeback ever.
He returns to the Steelers that offseason instead of defecting to the New York Jets, leads Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl in ’96 (a season in which the Steelers fell from fifth to 27th in the NFL in passing) and ’97 and becomes a Hall of Famer, not a journeyman.
On a personal note, I was just 24 in 1995. It was probably the last year of my life where the vast majority of players on the roster were older than I was; where I could watch professional sports with the innocence of a child.
I moved to Pittsburgh that year in large part because I knew, just knew, the Steelers were going to go to the Super Bowl that year and I simply couldn’t live through such a season out of town.
And regardless of the final score of the Super Bowl, I honestly don’t think the 1995 Steelers ever let me down.