O'Donnell lets down Steelers

SUPER BOWL XXX: Two second-half interceptions hand Dallas a third title in four years
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In the build-up to Super Bowl XXX it was suggested to Neil O'Donnell, who looks like the bassist in a country and western group, that if he shaved his beard off it might improve his marketability. He declined the offer, and perhaps it was just as well. As the game itself showed, it will take more than a trip to the barbers to turn the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback into a superstar.

O'Donnell has endured more than his fair share of critics in six years with the Steelers, but as a key figure in their route to this year's finale his supporters argued that he had now done enough to be regarded among the sport's elite. His performance in Sunday night's showpiece in Tempe made the suggestion seem ridiculous.

O'Donnell crowned a desperately unconvincing display with the two interceptions that settled a compelling, if somewhat unsatisfying, Super Bowl. As a result the Dallas Cowboys won 27-17 to claim a third title in the last four years, but this was the least impressive of their recent triumphs and can only complicate, rather than settle, the debate surrounding the gifts (or lack of them) of their head coach, Barry Switzer.

Twice in the second half the Steelers fought their way back into a game that should have been beyond them, and twice O'Donnell hijacked their hopes. There are occasions when quarterbacks are unfairly blamed for ceding possession, but there can be no denying O'Donnell's culpability.

In the third quarter the Steelers' attack was threatening an equalising score when the Steeler playcaller threw a bewildering pass straight into the hands of the Cowboys' Larry Brown. There wasn't a Steeler within 10 yards of him. Brown returned the ball to the Dallas 18-yard line and a couple of plays later Emmitt Smith plunged over to give the Cowboys a 20-7 lead.

Still the underdogs were not done, and with four and a half minutes remaining they took possession on their 33, having cut the lead to 20-17. One of the great Super Bowl finishes seemed a possibility until O'Donnell, again intimidated by a posse of blitzing Cowboys, once more found Brown. This time the Dallas cornerback made it to the seven, and Smith's second short- range TD ended the contest.

Bill Cowher, the Steelers head coach, was quick to console his quarterback as they left the field. "I told him to look at the big picture, not just this game. We wouldn't have been here without him," Cowher said.

All the same, O'Donnell's performance may prove expensive. His contract expires next month, and with an annual income of $2.8m (pounds 1.8m) is one of the less well rewarded of a lucrative calling. An impressive year suggested it was time for him to join the $4m club, but his unhappy Sunday may change all that, and could even persuade the Steelers to allow him to move elsewhere.

Certainly there was a stark contrast between O'Donnell's work and that of Troy Aikman, his Dallas counterpart. Faced with much the same sort of pressure, Aikman displayed characteristic poise in the pocket, either finding his man or throwing the ball away. His match return was a relatively modest 209 yards and cannot be said to have won the game. Crucially, he did not lose it either.

In a confusing and ultimately disappointing Dallas display Aikman's aplomb was probably the difference, but should not have been necessary. The Cowboys so utterly dominated the early stages that, for a while, it was difficult to see the game staying competitive until half-time, let alone the finish.

On his first carry Smith, freed by a block by Larry Allen on Greg Lloyd that should have carried its own assault charge, dashed for 23 yards. The Cowboys were no less successful through the air, with Aikman happy to locate the underneath receiver when the Steelers shut down the deeper options. By the end of the first quarter the Cowboys, clearly at home in Arizona, were 10-0 ahead and apparently poised for another rout.

That the Steelers were able to mount a response speaks much for their heart, and also some shrewd coaching adjustments. Projected as the Cowboys' inferiors in just about every regard, they began to thwart Smith, largely thanks to the efforts linebacker Levon Kirkland. A scoring drive was limited to a field goal, and the next one, for the first time, produced a punt.

Then, as the half came to a close, the Steeler offense belatedly generated some momentum, culminating in a scoring reception from Yancey Thigpen with 17 seconds left that combined two unlikely scenarios: a perfectly thrown ball from O'Donnell and Deion Sanders being beaten for a touchdown.

At the break the Steelers were entitled to be delighted that they only trailed 13-7, and the sense that this might, staggeringly, be a victory for the common people grew in the second half as they continued to thwart the Cowboy attack.

O'Donnell's indiscretions changed all that (though Bam Morris's three- yard plunge kept the contest alive after the first one) but hardly alter the impression that the Cowboys under Switzer are considerably less threatening than under his predecessor, Jimmy Johnson.

Switzer has a reputation as a laid-back, players' coach, but it is difficult to imagine a Johnson team having to take a time-out when Pittsburgh switched to the no-huddle offense, muffing a kick-off or fluffing Pittsburgh's onside kick. Switzer's Cowboys did all three on Sunday, and also failed to make the most of their awesome attacking armoury. (Smith rushed for just 49 yards.)

Naturally the Cowboy players entertained no such doubts as they rallied round their leader afterwards. "I'm proud of this team and I'm especially happy for coach Switzer," Brown said. "We owe this to the man."

Brown was voted the game's Most Valuable Player, an arguable award given that his two game-breaking interventions were straightforward plays that required no great skill. Aikman and Kirkland would have been worthy alternatives, but from a game lacking in outstanding individual efforts it was probably a fitting selection.

The choice of the game's least valuable player was presumably less difficult.