Ron Erhardt died this week at the age of 80. A lot of people in the football world will mourn this loss as will a pocket full of fans who remember him as a guy that directed the New York Giants offense to two Super Bowl wins. For me, it was the 1995 NFL season that I will most remember Erhardt for and not so much because he helped lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX under Head Coach Bill Cowher, but because he is the man who introduced us to ‘Slash.’
While it was the father of the Terrible Towel, Myron Cope that coined the named ‘Slash’ for rookie quarterback Kordell Stewart, it was Erhardt that designed a run-oriented offense into a progressive, revolutionary system.
Kordell Stewart was a quarterback at the University of Colorado and was drafted in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft by the Steelers in 1995. The pick was seen as a reach by some who saw Stewart as ‘unpolished’ and not ‘an NFL quarterback.’ Whether the Steelers drafted him thinking he’d be a quarterback or the multi-purpose player he was in the early part of his career is unclear, but as Training Camp of ’95 wore on it was clear he needed to be used in some manner.
Ron Erhardt was the man charged with the task of finding ways to use ‘Slash.’ Although he saw some action earlier, it was a Monday Night game in Three Rivers Stadium that the attention of football fans everywhere was attracted by Stewart. The Pittsburgh Steelers most hated rival, the Cleveland Browns were in town for the nationally televised game.
Although Slash didn’t exactly dazzle the whole game, it was his stunningly athletic two-yard touchdown pass to Ernie Mills in the back of the end zone that created all the buzz. Stewart looked as though he was playing in a schoolyard as he raced back and forth looking for a receiver. He would end up catching two passes and rushing for twice for 13 yards. Slash was officially ‘the next big thing’ in Pittsburgh.
To understand how different this must have been for Erhardt is to recognize his prior coordinator positions, most notably with the New York Giants. In 1991, the Giants faced the explosive Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. Erhardt designed a game plan that was to take time off the clock behind the bruising running of OJ Anderson and the short passing of QB Jeff Hostetler. Keeping the ‘K-Gun’ offense off the field, Erhardt’s plan worked in a 20-19 victory.
Previously in Super Bowl XXI against the John Elway-led Denver Broncos, Erhardt designed an excellent plan of efficiency as QB Phil Simms threw only three incompletions en route to a 38-20 win. The game plan was well-balanced as the Giants rushed 38 times for 136 yards and two scores on the ground.
It was obviously the balance and run-emphasizing nature of Erhardt’s play-calling that enticed the Steelers to bring him into the fold in Pittsburgh. In ’95, Erhardt led the offense to a 5th overall ranking in the NFL relying on the pass more than many thought he would behind a stable of good receivers and quarterback Neil O’Donnell. Besides Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills and Charles Johnson, Head Coach Bill Cowher knew he had to find a place for Kordell Stewart to make an impact.
Slash would throw 15 total passes in his rookie season and caught 14 more for 235 yards and a score. Stewart would eventually become the starting QB for the Steelers in the 1997 season leading them to the AFC Championship game where they lost to Denver.
Unfortunately, conflict with Cowher over just how to use Stewart and the direction of the offense in general led to Erhardt’s resignation following the Super Bowl XXX season. Erhardt did more than just create and polish the role for Stewart because he also took a traditionally run-oriented team and turned them into one that could be just as comfortable in a five-wide set.
While Erhardt was not in Pittsburgh long, he definitely left his mark in many ways and will certainly be remembered by many in the Steel City as a revolutionary thinker and play-caller and creator of ‘Slash.’