From the PG Archives: O'Donnell throws where no Steelers tread

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This story from the Post-Gazette archives was first published on January 29, 1996.

TEMPE, ARIZ. -- The season that had flourished with so many big plays from the quarterback ended last night with Neil O'Donnell seeing a mirage in the desert.

The benefactor was Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown, who won a Super Bowl MVP award merely by being in the right place at the right time.

O'Donnell threw three interceptions in the game that counted most, but it was the two to Brown that proved to be the most destructive in the Cowboys' 27-17 victory in Super Bowl XXX.

It could be a matter of bar-room debate which was the most costly:

The one that came with the Steelers trailing, 13-7, when Brown returned the interception 44 yards to set up Emmitt Smth's first touchdown.

Or the one with the Steelers trailing, 20-17, that Brown returned 33 yards to set up Smith's 4-yard touchdown and drive the nail in the Steelers' wondrous season.

"The first one kind of got away from me," O'Donnell said when it was all over last night and the Cowboys had become the first team to win three Super Bowl in four years. "On the second one, we're all in this together, we're a team. I'm not going to single anyone out. That's not my style."

There was no trace of blame in the Steelers' locker room last night. Not after the Steelers had rallied from a woeful start and pushed the Cowboys to the brink of despair.

But the interceptions by Brown ended the suspense quickly. In a season in which he threw only seven interceptions, O'Donnell threw three in the final 30 minutes of the final game. They will haunt him for a long time.

On the first, O'Donnell said his pass sailed to the outside when all three Steelers receivers -- Andre Hastings, Kordell Stewart and Ernie Mills -- ran to the inside.

"Neil may have had a bad read," Mills said. "Everybody is supposed to go the inside."

Maybe O'Donnell thought he saw a Steelers receiver there. Alas, the only person there was Brown, the Cowboys' cornerback, who was playing zone and had remained in his coverage area.

"I don't know what Neil saw or what happened to the other two guys," Hastings said. "It wasn't a miscommunication, I know that."

Brown returned the interception 44 yards before being run out by Justin Strzelczyk at the Steelers' 18.

Two players later, after a Troy Aikman's 17-yard pass to Michael Irvin, Smith scored on 1-yard run for a 20-7 lead.

"It just got away from me," O'Donnell said. "It slipped totally out of my hand."

The interception occurred on third-and-9 from the Steelers' 48. The Cowboys were clinging to a 13-7 lead. It was at a time when the Steelers had stolen the Cowboys' momentum.

"They were running slants on me all day," Brown said. "I knew I was going to jump in and make the play. I was very fortunate to get it."

Miscommunication is what the Steelers are offering on Brown's second interception. If the first pick put the Steelers' season in jeopardy, this one closed the suspense.

It was second-and-10 at the Steelers' 32. Less than four minutes remained. The Steelers brought out their four wide-receiver set, with Corey Holliday replacing Mills, who was out with a right knee sprain.

Holliday was lined wide right. Hastings was lined inside him. Yancey Thigpen and Stewart were lined to the left. The play is designed to go to Hastings. But it was a "hot read," which means both Hastings and O'Donnell have to read what the coverage is doing. Hastings ran out about five yards and turned inside. O'Donnell, though, read the route to the outside.

"It can go either way," Hastings said. "Neil and I were on two different pages."

Again, Brown had to do little. He picked off the pass and returned it 33 yards to the Steelers' 6. Two plays later, Smith scored again, and the Steelers' hopes had been dashed by a bad throw and a miscommunication.

"Neil's not going to blame Andre, and Andre's not going to blame Neil," said receivers coach Chan Gailey. "That's what team means."

"It's not Neil's fault," Hastings said. "It's a situation where you have a miscommunication. It's like when the quarterback says the snap is on two and the center snaps it on one. It's no one's fault."


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