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Reflections on O’Donnell and Super Bowl XXX

During the off-season, we at steeleraddicts are looking back at memorable moments in Steelers’ History as well as some we may not want to remember at all.

 

There are times when I think about it that it seems almost surreal. And to think that it was in 1996 makes it feel stranger and makes me feel older. Super Bowl XXX was surreal on a couple of levels because the Pittsburgh Steelers entered as such huge underdogs and because we pretty much outplayed the Dallas Cowboys throughout the game yet lost.

Ask anyone impartial who saw the game and they’ll tell you the 27-17 Dallas win was much closer than the final score indicated. The game also demonstrates how just one or two plays out of 130 or so a game can change the course of a team’s fate and certainly that of a player as well.

Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Neil O’Donnell was never going to be mistaken for the second coming of Johnny Unitas but he was strong-armed guy with pretty good accuracy who actually entered the game with the lowest interception per pass ratio in the National Football League that season.

It wasn’t much of a secret that O’Donnell was more than likely playing his last game as a Steeler because the money he was going to command in free agency was not going to be paid to him by the Rooney’s.  While he was offered a contract by the Steelers, he spurned it for more money and the bright lights and big city of New York as he signed to play with the Jets.

O’Donnell’s career in the Big Apple started with an 0-6 run, but to his credit, he would play well in spot duty later in his career with Tennessee backing up Steve McNair.

Right or wrong, O’Donnell will always be remembered by the Steelers Nation for his performance in Super Bowl XXX. While his final stat line would show three interceptions, (one was a hail mary to end the game) it of course is the other two that still make Steelers’ fans cringe when they see three X’s side-by-side.

Both O’Donnell throws were into the right flat and both found the waiting hands of Cowboys’ defensive back Larry Brown. For his part, Brown took his two ‘gifts’ and turned them into a Super Bowl MVP award and a nice free agent contract from the Oakland Raiders. As much as I want to put all of the blame on O’Donnell for those interceptions, I can’t. One? Absolutely, positively for sure was on him, but the other was all about miscommunication.

Young Steelers’ receiver Andre Hastings ran a slant when most believe he should have run an out route. The debate could be endless as to whether or not O’Donnell could have adjusted or should have never thrown the ball in the first place, but I have a hard time blaming him 100% on that one.

The sad fact is that O’Donnell helped get the Steelers to that game with a late scoring pass against the underdog Indianapolis Colts in the first place in the AFC Championship Game and when he retired he had the lowest interception ratio in NFL history per every 100 passes until it was broken recently by Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay. With that said, he will forever be remembered for those interceptions, both of which led to short touchdown drives for the Cowboys. The last of which took a tenuous three-point lead to ten and essentially shot down any chance the Steelers had of winning.

All day long the Steelers defense had bottled up Emmitt Smith and the dominant Cowboys’ running game and forced Dallas to pretty much become one dimensional. While the Pittsburgh offense wasn’t exactly on fire either, it was becoming more productive as the game wore on behind the passing of O’Donnell and the running of Bam Morris.

Steelers’ running back Eric Pegram said after the game, “We just gave away the Super Bowl.” Pegram wasn’t wrong and everyone knew it. Perhaps the biggest issue to get past was the fact that this was the first loss in five trips to the Super Bowl and it proved to be a tougher pill to swallow for Steelers’ fans than anyone might have imagined. Was it the loss? Was it how we lost? Or was it who we lost to? While it’s a combination of all three, you couldn’t fault any fan for siding with one issue over the other two.

Peyton Manning will always have his one Super Bowl title, but what clinched his only Super Bowl loss was poor communication between him and Reggie Wayne which resulted in Tracy Porter’s clinching interception return. I’m not suggesting that O’Donnell gets a pass by any stretch because quarterbacks have to take the blame for things they may not necessarily have a role in because that’s leadership, but was the Super Bowl XXX loss entirely on him? It will always be up for debate, unless of course your name is Larry Brown.

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