There are many reasons why we have selected Pittsburgh
quarterback Neil O'Donnell as the AFC Central's Most Valuable
Player for 1995, but the principal one is best illustrated by a
play in the third quarter of the Steelers' 49-31 victory over
the Bengals on Nov. 19.
O'Donnell completed 24 of 31 passes for 377 yards and three
touchdowns in that game, one of five this season in which he did
not throw an interception. His yardage total was the second most
in team history, behind Bobby Layne's 409 against the Chicago
Cardinals in December 1958. And he helped erase an 18-point
deficit, the biggest in a come-from-behind win by the Steelers
in 10 years.
But it was after his second touchdown pass, a 15-yard dart to
wideout Andre Hastings in the back of the end zone, that
O'Donnell clinched our vote for MVP. With the Steelers down
31-26, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher decided to go for the
two-point conversion and sent in rookie quarterback Kordell
Stewart to run the option. So O'Donnell lined up as a receiver
and leaned into a defender without the slightest hesitation. How
many quarterbacks can throw for nearly 400 yards and be counted
on to block a linebacker?
"But I'm not your typical NFL quarterback," says O'Donnell. "I
hate hype. I don't like the spotlight. I just want to do my job,
whatever it is I'm called to do--pass, run or block--and then go
home and hang out with my family."
Stewart pitched the ball to running back Erric Pegram for the
two-point conversion, and the Steelers were on their way back,
not only in the game--they scored the next 21 points--but in the
season as well. The comeback against Cincinnati was the defining
moment of Pittsburgh's ongoing eight-game winning streak, which
has secured the Steelers their third divisional title of the '90s.
Despite missing four of the first five games with a broken bone
in his right pinkie, O'Donnell has thrown for 2,652 yards and 16
touchdowns with seven interceptions. "Neil's not jittery in the
pocket anymore," says Steeler wide receiver Yancey Thigpen.
"People say he's boring. It's more that he's just being calm and
confident. And we needed that this year."
Under O'Donnell's steady hand, the Pittsburgh offense pulled off
a midseason about-face, morphing from a run-heavy force into one
of the AFC's most potent passing attacks. When the offensive
transformation required him to take a backseat to Stewart,
O'Donnell handled that with his usual aplomb. "When we were
struggling and I told people Neil was the one who could bring us
back, they laughed at me," says Steeler offensive coordinator
Ron Erhardt. "Nobody seems to be laughing now."
Except O'Donnell, who is being favorably compared with
Pittsburgh legend Terry Bradshaw by the same fans who used to
pan O'Donnell for not being flashy or vocal enough. "Terry won
four championships, so he will always be the man here," says
O'Donnell, who will be an unrestricted free agent at season's
end. "Sure, I wouldn't mind taking a run at the big guy and all
of his records. But I'd do anything for a Super Bowl ring."
Mr. MVP will even throw a block or two.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS The sixth-year quarterback gave the Steelers a much-needed lift with his gritty play. [Neil O'Donnell]