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A SERIOUS CASE OF THE YIPS

Feb. 05, 1996
Feb. 05, 1996

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Feb. 5, 1996

A SERIOUS CASE OF THE YIPS

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.

This is an article from the Feb. 5, 1996 issue Original Layout

O'Donnell employed such cliches 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 notwithstanding, 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."

Guys, guys--haven't you heard? You're all in this together. There
is no i in team. And there is no joy in Pittsburgh.

--Austin Murphy

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER O'Donnell endured four sacks, but his misfires hurt far worse.[Dallas Cowboy sacking Neil O'Donnell]