1992 Pittsburgh Steelers: The Cowher Era Begins

The 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers came into the year ready for a fresh start. Chuck Noll, the head coach who had led the franchise to four Super Bowls in a six-year period from 1974-79 had stepped aside and was replaced by Bill Cowher, a young coach hungry to prove myself. The franchise needed just such a shot in the arm.

Pittsburgh hadn’t been a bad team of late under Noll, but since the last Super Bowl in 1979, they’d only won 10 regular season games one time (1983) and only reached the AFC Championship Game once (1984). For a city and a region that loves its football and had scaled the heights not that long ago, it was time for a return to steady contention. 1992 was the year it happened.

Cowher built his rookie success on defense. The Steeler D was anchored by linebacker Greg Lloyd and corner Rod Woodson, both on their way to a Pro Bowl and Woodson being one of the best to ever play his position. Pittsburgh finished second in the NFL in points allowed.

The offense was more middling, but Barry Foster rushed for nearly 1,700 yards and quarterback Neil O’Donnell made a Pro Bowl. They were enough to give the defense some help and control the pace of a game.

Week 1 showed this was a new era. The Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) were a consistent playoff team and a high-powered offense, having qualified for the postseason each year since 1987 behind quarterback Warren Moon. The Steelers picked off Moon five times, and O’Donnell threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to win the game 29-24.

The Steelers came out of the gate at 3-0, and would later defeat another playoff perennial in Marty Schottenheimer’s Kansas City Chiefs. Woodson returned a punt 80 yards for a score and the Steelers beat the Chiefs with shocking ease, 27-3. The first half of the schedule concluded as it had begun—with a win over the Oilers. Foster ran for 118 yards and O’Donnell threw two fourth quarter touchdown passes to turn a fourth quarter deficit into a 21-20 win.

Riding high at 6-2, the Steelers eventually got to 10-3, before a couple of December losses left them at 11-5. The AFC was very well-balanced in 1992 though, and while four teams won eleven games and two more won ten, Pittsburgh’s record was enough to get them the #1 seed in the playoffs. The last time the Steelers had homefield advantage was 1978 and no one needed to remind the faithful how that season turned up.

The one thing the 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t have though, was postseason experience. Their divisional playoff opponent, the Buffalo Bills, had it in spades. Buffalo had won the AFC title each of the previous two years and came into the game off a stunning rally from 35-3 down to beat Houston.

Even playing without their star quarterback, Jim Kelly, and even with Pittsburgh’s rush defense, corralling elite Buffalo runner Thurman Thomas, the Bills had enough talent and savvy to let the Steelers know they weren’t quite there yet. Pittsburgh got an early field goal to start the scoring, but never scored again. Buffalo got 104 rush yards from backup running back Kenneth Davis and won 24-3.

The year didn’t end the way Steeler fans were hoping, but for the first time in a long time, there was real hope of Super Bowl contention. Pittsburgh would make the playoffs each year through 1996 and won the AFC Championship in 1995. After a brief hiatus from the playoffs, Cowher took them to several more postseasons and finally won it all in 2005 before retiring a year later. 1992 was when it all began.