- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
His Abe Lincoln look may leave you cold. For long stretches of Super Bowl XXX he couldn't hit the side of a butte. But say this for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell: The guy believes that teams, not individuals, lose games.
O'Donnell employed such clichés as "We're all in this together" and "There's no i in team" after Pittsburgh lost the Super Bowl. But in truth, it was his first two interceptions that spelled doom for the Steelers. On the second, with just over four minutes remaining in the game and Pittsburgh trailing by only three points, wide receiver Andre Hastings went in one direction and O'Donnell threw the ball in another when the Cowboys blitzed.
"If the defender is pushing me, I'm going out," said Hastings. "If the guy's soft, I'm going in. It was a gray area. I did a hook, and Neil read an out."
Hastings's gray area hot-withstanding, O'Donnell deserves brickbats for playing like a robot and for failing to take better care of the ball after he had already thrown an interception to Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown in the previous quarter.
Despite the rally-killing mistake, which came after the Steelers had courageously cut a 20-7 Dallas lead to 20-17, O'Donnell was, for the most part, upbeat and philosophical after the game, even though he had virtually wrapped a red bow on the MVP trophy and handed it to Brown. It was only after he escaped the crush of cameras and microphones in the media tent and returned to his locker that O'Donnell briefly bared his soul. "I'm hurting," he said. "My heart's breaking." He was consoled by his agent, Leigh Steinberg, who embraced him and attempted to reassure his client by saying, "You're young, you'll be back."
But with whom? Now an unrestricted free agent, the 29-year-old O'Donnell is expected to demand as much as $4 million for next season, a sum the thrifty Rooney family, which owns the Steelers, is unlikely to pay. At this point the Rooneys may not have to. With his erratic Super Bowl performance, O'Donnell, who made $2.4 million this season, may have played himself back into Pittsburgh's salary structure.
In the early going O'Donnell suffered from a case of the yips. On Pittsburgh's second possession, he spied running back Erric Pegram open on the left sideline and uncorked a pass that could not have been caught by Manute Bol. It was a harbinger of ugly balls to come. Between them, Hastings and fellow wideout Ernie Mills caught 18 passes. Many of their receptions were spectacular—a testament to the control problems of O'Donnell. who overthrew receivers, threw behind receivers, did everything but hit them in stride.
The one guy O'Donnell did consistently hit in the numbers was Brown, who picked him off twice. On Brown's first interception "the ball just slipped out of my hand," said O'Donnell. On the second, Brown said, "I was reading the quarterback all the way, and I felt he thought the receiver was going to go out. I think there was some miscommunication."
Although O'Donnell tried to sell the notion that Pittsburgh had failed as a team, his teammates were willing to point a finger at an individual—namely him. Said Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson, "I'm not mad at Neil. What I'm more concerned with is finding out what happened. What didn't he see?"
Not exactly a vote of confidence, was it? In the Pittsburgh dressing room, testimonials to O'Donnell were conspicuous by their absence. Said a disgusted Pegram, "We gave away the Super Bowl. We even gave away the MVP. It was like Christmas out there." Of Brown's first interception, Mills said, "Neil made a bad, bad read."