It can't be easy running the Steeler offense. Going into Sunday's game against the Dolphins, Pittsburgh was 7-3, but its offense hadn't scored in 2½ games and its passing game ranked 24th in the NFL. "We're running the ball pretty well," offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt said late last week, "but we're killing ourselves throwing it. We've got to get production there. We've got to find a rhythm in the passing game."
How convenient for the Steelers that slumping quarterback Neil O'Donnell suffered a bruised ankle in Pittsburgh's 12-9 overtime win over Houston on Nov. 6. The Steelers could replace him with a healthy Mike Tomczak without appearing to yank O'Donnell for poor performance. Tomczak, a 10-year veteran in his second season in Pittsburgh, is the consummate backup: He never complains, and he has learned to accept his role as an understudy. You can have a long, $800,000-a-year NFL life by supporting the starter and performing efficiently the few times a year you have to play.
On Sunday, in his first start since the opening game of the 1993 season. Tomczak stunned the Dolphins with the biggest game of his life, completing 26 of 42 passes for 343 yards (to Dan Marino's 312) as the Steelers beat Miami 16-13 in overtime.
"My life is very simple," Tomczak said unemotionally in the afterglow of the win. "I don't expect anything. And I learned a long time ago in Chicago that the less stress you have, the better you perform."
The good news for Pittsburgh is that it will be in every game because of its mistake-free defense, which is playing as soundly as any unit in the league. The Steelers are not nearly as up-and-down as last year, when they whipped the Bills 23-0 one week and got creamed 37-13 by the Broncos the next. "The difference," cornerback Rod Woodson says, "is we've got guys who for the most part have played together for three years now, and we don't break down. If we get into the playoffs, we'll understand the pressure and what it takes to win big games."
But that lackluster offense could yet do the Steelers in. Overlooked in the wake of Tomczak's performance against Miami was this fact: After Sunday's games only five teams in the NFL had scored fewer points this year than Pittsburgh's 192. Still, if the season were to end today, the Steelers, who are tied for the best record in the conference with the Browns and the Chargers, would have home field advantage through the playoffs. Pittsburgh's 7-1 record in AFC games is better than San Diego's 7-2, and the Steelers have a head-to-head edge over division rival Cleveland. But if Pittsburgh is to emerge as a threat to the 49ers of the world, it has to be more efficient on offense. Sound familiar? Steeler fans have been saying the same thing ever since Terry Bradshaw retired in 1983.
With five months to go until the NFL draft, Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair has erased most pro scouts' doubts about his ability, and he could become the highest-drafted black quarterback in history. Andre Ware, chosen seventh by the Lions in 1990, now holds that distinction. Since September personnel people around the league have been wondering whether McNair's gaudy numbers in Division I-AA competition justify his being selected among the first picks. Last week SI asked 18 NFL personnel directors, general managers and scouts what round they thought the 6'2", 218-pound McNair would be drafted in and where in that round—top 10, middle 10 or bottom 10—he would go. Seven thought that McNair would be chosen among the first 10 picks of round 1, four predicted he would be taken in the middle of the first round, four felt McNair would go late in the first and the remaining three said he would be a high second-rounder.
The expansion clubs, Carolina and Jacksonville, will pick one-two on April 22, and, says Cowboy scout Walter Juliff, "One of those teams will have to make a decision on McNair." Says Juliff's boss, Dallas scouting director Larry Lacewell, "If you had put McNair in Florida State's offense, he'd have been incredible." Should McNair—with 44 touchdown passes and 4,863 total yards this season for the Braves—slip to low in the first round or out of it entirely, it will raise the troubling question of whether the NFL is color-blind. Remember, over the last 25 years, three small-college quarterbacks who eventually made it to the Super Bowl—Steeler Terry Bradshaw (Louisiana Tech), Giant Phil Simms (Morehead State) and Redskin Doug Williams (Grambling)—were picked in the first round.
Buffalo's Steve Christie has never been your garden-variety kicker. A case in point: After he kicked the winning three-pointer in the greatest comeback in NFL history—Buffalo's 41-38 wild-card win over the Oilers in 1992—a fan who caught the ball in the stands offered to return it to him for $10,000. "Ten grand?" Christie said. "I wouldn't give $10 for it."
Clearly, Christie has more than field goals on his mind. When his contract with the Bills expires after next season, he will consider leaving the NFL for pro soccer. A native of Oakville, Ont., Christie is a former member of the Canadian Junior World Cup soccer team and dreams of moving to Europe in 1996 to play soccer for a living—even though he knows kicking the round ball won't be nearly as lucrative as kicking the oval one.
"Playing in the NFL was never a goal of mine as a kid," says Christie. "Now I look at [U.S. World Cup star] Alexi Lalas making it in Italy. Wow! I stay up every Monday night until two in the morning watching a European soccer game on cable. I know the money would be a lot different, but I'd love to do it. I'm just waiting for my wife to say, 'O.K., go ahead.' "
Losing Christie to the Tottenham Hotspurs would be an awful blow to the Bills. This season he had a team-record string of 17 consecutive field goals that was snapped on Nov. 14 when his 32-yard attempt was blocked in a 23-10 loss to the Steelers. "I never look at stats or field goal lists," Christie says. "You make 'em? So what. You miss 'em? So what. I keep it pretty simple. You have to."
Christie's ability—rare for a kicker—to avoid becoming obsessed with his work probably stems from his habit of spending much of his spare time painting. He is an abstract impressionist who works in oil, and he is now doing a series of canvases called Crossbars, which depict, well, what else? "Painting helps me get away from everything," Christie says. Clearly. Here are the NFL's most efficient kickers of all time, all of whom are active:
This year's craze among NFL players? Drag racing. Go into any locker room, and you'll hear players bragging about their cars. The Browns' Eric Metcalf and Eric Turner were arrested for racing on a Cleveland highway in September. Now a source tells SI that a group of young Jets are racing on Long Island. NFL security had better stop this before someone gets killed....
Leading 9-6 late in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals had a fourth-and-four at the Eagle 41 and elected to punt. Just before the snap, Arizona center Randy Kirk said to Philly lineman Greg Townsend, "Hey, fatso!" He hoped to rattle Townsend, and he did. Townsend slugged Kirk in the jaw, drawing an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty, which gave the Cardinals a first down and led to a field goal four plays later.
The End Zone
After 13 months spent rehabilitating his injured right knee, linebacker Jerry Olsavsky has returned to the Steelers. Two tendons from a cadaver were implanted in his knee in November 1993, and Olsavsky learned afterward that the tendons had belonged to a recently departed Texan. "I can use them," Olsavsky said. "They play pretty good football in Texas."
Tomczak (18) rose to the occasion with a big day against Miami.
Christie, who uses painting to take his mind off kicking, may give the NFL the boot in favor of soccer.
1. Nick Lowery, Jett
2. Steve Christie, Bills
3. Gary Anderson, Steelers
4. John Carney, Chargers
5. Pete Stoyanovich, Dolphins