SUPER BOWL XXX RUNNER UP 1995 PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Three yards short… just 3 yards short of the 1994 AFC Championship. That loss to the San Diego Chargers haunted the Pittsburgh Steelers for nearly a full year. They had fought to unseat the Bills and Oilers in an AFC ruled by open offenses during the early 90s. In 1994 with each foe not making the playoffs, Pittsburgh would coast to Super Bowl XXIX, right?? After all Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Rod Woodson and the rest of the Blitzburgh defense would be back intact.

sbxxxpLOL Uh huh that’s exactly what everyone thought when on a rainy, gray, dreary, ominous day in Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers welcomed the San Diego Chargers in what was going to be a Steelers coronation and they’d be off to win that elusive “one for the thumb”, fifth Super Bowl title. However trailing late in the 4th quarter 13-10, on a 3rd and short, Stan Humphries play faked and went up top for Tony Martin for a 43yd touchdown with a few minutes to go in the game.

The Steelers weren’t known for their passing offense or good at a two minute drill. Frantically the Steelers raced down field when they were caught 3 yards away from the goal line facing a 4th down. The season rested on one play… Neil O’Donnell threw for Barry Foster yet Dennis Gibson knocked the ball down to preserve a 17-13 upset. Prozac prescriptions skyrocketed in western Pennsylvania.

So the mantra going into the ’95 season was to get those “3 more yards”. It was emblazoned on banners, t-shirts, terrible towels, you name it. They were determined not to be denied again.

In the offseason the Steelers said goodbye to free agent TE Eric Green and farewell to Barry Foster. Foster who had led the AFC with 1,690yds rushing in 1992 was the heart of the offense since Coach Bill Cowher had come to the Steel City. Yet unlike when the team lost Hardy Nickerson and Thomas Everett in recent years, Green and Foster represented the offenses identity and personality. So when they lost their most decorated player, cornerback Rod Woodson in week one, staggered to a 3-4 start, it looked like 1995 would become a lost season.

nfl_woodson-rings_600x600Enter Kordell Stewart. The mid-round draftee QB from Colorado made famous for his hail mary pass that beat Michigan in 1994, was languishing on the Steelers bench. Several receivers were injured and he was pressed into duty as a receiver in practice where he proved to be more athletic than the regular receivers. Stewart electrified in practice. Cowher started to insert Stewart into the lineup in several packages and a now wide open Steelers offense was born.

The big play along with 3, 4, and 5 receiver sets were run with regularity, for the first time. Teams did not have any film to study they’re new approach nor ANY film to recognize where or how they would use Stewart.

With this new weapon, “Slash” helped the Steelers break their predictable play calling and a bolder offense went from scoring 21 to 27 points per game. They went on an 8 game winning streak and for 6 straight games scored in the last two minutes before the half. Stewart scored 4 of those touchdowns. They took the momentum into the half with them in the process. Retooled with new enthusiasm the ’95 Steelers screamed into the playoffs.

super-bowl-logo-1995How different was this team? In their first playoff win over Buffalo, the Steelers scored the most points ever in a home playoff game winning 40-21. The AFC Championship against the upstart Indianapolis Colts was a slugfest that echoed the 1994 championship in many ways. The most eery was when Harbaugh duplicated the exact same scenario, throwing a late 4th qtr bomb to Floyd Turner to take a 16-13 lead. You want to talk about a hush falling over a stadium, my goodness you would have thought you were at a funeral…lol and we were. After all they had overcome to get back to the championship game and they were in the same position again?? Are you kidding me??

So what had changed?? The season long development of their passing game is what had.  Not only were they able to initiate a march, they actually faced the team’s motto during the drive. Facing a 4th and 3 near midfield with their season on the line, O’Donnell hit Andre Hastings to keep the drive alive. “To hell with a tie!”

Nearing field goal range for a game tying kick, this bolder Steeler offense went for it all when O’Donnell found a streaking Ernie Mills down to the 2. They scored on the next play to take a 20-16 lead. Now it was up to the defense to hold off the Colts who had come from behind many times that season. Harbaugh brought them to within a failed hail mary of pulling off the upset.

So with a collective sigh of relief they were off to Super Bowl XXX. They literally got those three more yards. Although they lost to Dallas, they thoroughly outplayed them from the middle of the second quarter on. They held Dallas to 61 total yards in the second half, fewest ever for a Super Bowl winner.

They were the first to kick an onside kick without being under 5 minutes to go. Something the Saints copied in Super Bowl XLIV. A couple errant interceptions by O’Donnell robbed this team of its rightful place in history as a Super Bowl champion. Yet the magnificence of their effort in trying to achieve their goal was to be celebrated. Tremendous lesson to be learned from these men is a simple one. To achieve what you want, you may have to change how you do things to get there.

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Sigh…. Neil!!! This was the crowning jewel for becoming AFC Champions in 1995. They should have won it all…

 

SUPER BOWL XXII RUNNER UP 1987 DENVER BRONCOS

Coming off a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants the year before was disappointing, however #1 draft pick John Elway had arrived.  By all accounts Elway came of age with “The Drive”, the 98 yard march in Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the last minutes of the AFC Championship Game. Denver tied it at 20 in the final minutes and won 23-20 in OT.

87 Broncos ringThe game was seen as an all time classic.  Cleveland’s “Dawg Defense” smarted for over a year feeling as though they let the Brown’s fans down and swore to get revenge against the Broncos, and Elway in particular.  Two weeks later Elway came up a little short in his upset bid of the New York Giants out in the Rose Bowl, Super Bowl XXI, yet had a bright future. Denver would have many opportunities with a quarterback who conceivably could carry a team seemingly all by himself…wouldn’t they??

Bronco fans were buoyed with more optimism for the future with Elway than wracked with Super Bowl disappointment.  After all, this franchise hadn’t won a league championship in their first 26 years of existence. They hadn’t been among the league’s elite since the late 70s. This was the first time the Broncos had a legitimate “franchise quarterback” and Elway followed up his ’86 campaign with a better one the following season.

1987-cf-tnElway’s mobility was a vital element in the offense; he would scramble for first downs, scramble to keep passing plays alive, then deliver the ball anywhere on the field with his rocket arm. The offense being more potent helped resurrect the Orange Crush defense by keeping drives alive and the defense rested. Many pundits predicted that 1987 would be the Broncos year.

Enter the 1987 season; the Broncos bolstered their passing attack with speedy receiver Ricky Nattiel from Florida. He supplemented incumbents Vance Johnson and Mark Jackson and the three proved harder to defense. The “Three Amigos” were deadlier than ever thanks to an increasing penchant of Bronco coach Dan Reeves to go with more 3 receiver sets to create mismatches.

Steady play came from Sammy Winder at running back.  Versatile Steve Sewell saw increased playing time as a third down back with the loss of Gerald Willhite due to injury. Points rang up all year as the Broncos went 11-4 (strike shortened year) and earned home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs with a 24-0 win over San Diego in the snow in the final week. So this year, if they faced nemesis Cleveland, it would be in the friendly confines of Mile High Stadium.

00033503From 1977 – 1990 the Denver Broncos enjoyed the best home record in all the NFL. It was loud, the steel framing of the stadium & stairs made it louder when the 75,000 fans began to stomp on them. Already vociferous in nature, the din of the fans, along with the thin air that made it hard to breathe for hyper ventilating opponents. It made Mile High a most inhospitable place.  Many teams fell victim to this lethal combination….except one.

The Cleveland Browns were on a collision course with the Broncos.  They were running roughshod over the AFC Central and again finishing with a 10-5 record. Bernie Kosar, Webster Slaughter, Earnest Byner led the offense, where Clay Matthews, the late Eddie Johnson, Hanford Dixon, Ray Ellis, and Frank Minnifield again led the Dawg defense which added a new wrinkle. To take advantage of their superior cornerback play started to employ the “Bear” defense which was the Browns version of the “46 defense.”

As the AFC Championship began, Elway was on fire taking a 14-3 lead as Cleveland couldn’t get out of their own way. Several turnovers kept the Browns fighting an uphill battle. He kept play after play going with his legs and scrambling to find open receivers. They built a 21-3 halftime lead and when the Browns threatened to comeback, Elway made plays to turn the momentum.

super-bowl-logo-1987When Cleveland closed the score to 21-10, three plays later he escapes a 3 man rush scrambles out and hits Mark Jackson. He eludes 3 defenders and completes an 80 yard touchdown to put the Browns behind by 18 points again at 28-10. Once the Browns orchestrated a second half come back tying it at 31, he then drives the Broncos to the winning touchdown to Sammy Winder to make it 38-31. They withstood a final charge and recovers Earnest Byner’s fumble to escape to Super Bowl XXII.

Denver needed every great play from Elway that day to edge the Browns. His second AFC Championship solidified his position as one of the premier QBs with a bright future ahead. All he had to do was win a Super Bowl and he would have his second chance against the Washington Redskins.

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SUPER BOWL XX RUNNER UP 1985 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

One of the more forgotten Super Bowl participants of the first 20 years are these 1985 New England Patriots. When you mention them most people scoff “well the Bears killed them!” Newsflash McFly, the ’85 Bears did that to everyone they faced going 18-1. What this team should be remembered for is laying the belief that if you can get hot at the end of the season, you can roll into the Super Bowl. They were the original road warriors having won 3 straight postseason road games to make it to Super Bowl XX.

sbxx.3Although they were coached by former Johnny Unitas receiver Raymond Berry, this was a conservative team that relied on the run and good defense. Craig James rushed for 1,227 yards and Tony Collins kicked in another 657. Collins had been a 1,000 yard rusher just a season before. They had a few proven pros in WR Stanley Morgan and part time QB Steve Grogan.

Why part time?? The maturation of young QB Tony Eason necessitated his insertion in the lineup when he struggled. Grogan bailed them out as a relief pitcher multiple times in ’85. Eason was a part of the curse of the ’83 draft, which we will cover later. However this team was good enough to win with spotty quarterback play.

The big reason is they fielded the 7th best defense in football led by Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett. He was the AFC Defensive Player of the year with 16.5 sacks, and of all the 3-4 Outside Linebackers he was the best in the NFL in ’85.

He was the enforcer on a defense that sent LB Steve Nelson, CB Raymond Clayborn, and S Fred Marion with him to the Pro Bowl.

super-bowl-logo-1985They pulled off 3 straight road playoff upsets on the strength of causing 16 turnovers in 3 playoff games. The most notable were the 6 they forced Dan Marino and the Dolphins into in the AFC Championship Game. Miami was the defending AFC champion and had an 18 game winning streak against them in the Orange Bowl.

A truly monumental effort that shouldn’t be forgotten for coming up short in Super Bowl XX.

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SUPER BOWL VI RUNNER UP 1971 MIAMI DOLPHINS

Super Bowl VI in New Orleans pitted Dallas v. Miami.  The first serious season in the sun for Miami came to an inglorious end with a 24-3 loss yet served to be the springboard for the undefeated 1972 season that were to come.  However the trip through the AFC playoffs was an exercise in self discovery with the 2OT win over the Chiefs and the 21-0 AFC Championship over Shula’s former team and defending Super Bowl champion Colts.

superbowlvi2My feeling is this team had to have been emotionally drained by the time Super Bowl VI was kicked off.  If you look at the divisional playoff game, which was the longest game ever played at 82:40, that’s almost a game and a half that went deep into the 6th quarter!  Ed Podolak was a beast in that game for Kansas City with 350 all purpose yards.

It was a draining game being played away from home on Christmas of all things.  Miami outlasted the Chiefs (Super Bowl IV winner) 27-24 and staggered off to the AFC Championship game.

super-bowl-logo-1971If you read my post on the Super Bowl watch the Colts received for losing Super Bowl III, you remember me speaking on the corporate pressures that hastened Don Shula’s departure and Carroll Rosenbloom (then Colts owner) switching ownership with the Rams.

Well Rosenbloom was still the Colts owner when they won Super Bowl V and were headed down to Miami to play the AFC Championship game to make it to Super Bowl VI.  You knew that Shula and Rosenbloom both wanted that game against one another.  You know Shula was pushing the Dolphins hard that week and answering questions about playing his former team.  The Dolphins prevailed 21-0 and were off to the Super Bowl VI.

This team must have been exhausted going into that game coupled with the excitement of being in their first Super Bowl too.  They had to be drained…

Yet this is the ring for conquering the rest of the AFC, and we know of course the Dolphins went on to back to back wins in Super Bowl VII and VIII.