The 1999 Pittsburgh Steelers continued a franchise decline that had begun with a late-season collapse in 1998. The ’99 edition of the Steelers teased with a decent first half of the season, but crashed hard in the second half and were well out of the playoff picture.
There was some improvement offensively, as the team went from 28th to 17th in the NFL in points scored, with new offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. They broke in a young receiver in 23-year-old Hines Ward.
But on balance, the offense was still subpar. Kordell Stewart only threw for 1,464 yards. Jerome Bettis was a 1,000-yard rusher, but given that he only barely cleared the 1K threshold, that was a disappointment by his career standards. Alan Faneca was a talented left guard, but also just 23-years-old. There were no Pro Bowl players on offense.
The Pittsburgh defense was pretty good, at 12th in the league, but even that was below the high standards this unit had set in previous years and would do again in future years. There were no Pro Bowlers on this side of the ball either, with outside linebackers Jason Gildon and Carlos Emmons, along with strong safety Lee Flowers, being the most impactful players.
Pittsburgh opened the season on Sunday night in Cleveland. This was the year the Browns returned to the NFL, after the city’s first franchise had moved to Baltimore in 1996 and re-named themselves the Ravens. A prime-time opening with Cleveland’s long-time rival was the perfect way to welcome the city back to the NFL. At least it was perfect for the Steelers—they ran over the expansion team with 217 rush yards and won 43-0.
Having visited the “new Browns”, Pittsburgh then traveled to face the “old Browns”, with a trip to Baltimore. The Steelers led 20-13 before giving up the tying touchdown with 1:27 left. Stewart was able to move the team into position for a Kris Brown field goal to win the game.
Pittsburgh played their first home game against the Seattle Seahawks, who would go 9-7 and win the AFC West in their first year under Mike Holmgren (Seattle was not realigned into the NFC until 2002). Stewart and backup Mike Tomczak combined to throw five interceptions in a 29-10 loss.
Another bad showing at home came against a very good Jacksonville Jaguars team—the Steelers trailed 13-3 and then Stewart was tackled twice for safeties, creating the strangest path to a 17-3 final score ever. The third straight defeat to a playoff team came when Pittsburgh couldn’t run the ball in Buffalo, losing to Doug Flutie and the Bills 24-21.
The Steelers got back on track with a 17-3 road win over a lousy Cincinnati Bengals team, intercepting Akili Smith twice and getting 111 rush yards from Bettis. Pittsburgh beat another bad team, the Atlanta Falcons in a Monday Night home date. They controlled the ground game and won 13-9. It was less than inspiring, but they went into the bye week at 4-3.
Another game against a really bad team, this time the San Francisco 49ers, continued to inflate the Steeler record as they won 27-6. But giving up 223 rush yards was a bad sign. The schedule was still working in Pittsburgh’s favor though, as the Browns were coming to the Steel City.
The Steelers led 15-7, but Stewart was playing terrible, going 15/32 for 137 yards and two interceptions. Cleveland got a better game from their quarterback, Tom Couch and rallied for a 16-15 win, one of just two games the Browns would win this season. Another close loss, 16-10 in Tennessee followed.
With a record of 5-5, the season was teetering and Pittsburgh went to Cincinnati. The previous year, the Steelers had been swept by a Bengals team that went 3-13. Even though Pittsburgh had the earlier win, settling for a split with a 4-12 team wasn’t likely to make them feel any better. Bettis was outrushed Cory Dillon and the Steelers, a (-11) favorite, lost 27-20.
The losing continued at Jacksonville, 20-6, with Bettis being held to 23 yards rushing. Then Pittsburgh lost 31-24 at home to Baltimore. The secondary allowed Tony Banks to find Qadry Ismail for three touchdown passes, from distances of 54, 69 and 76. This, on a day when Banks completed only eight passes total.
Pittsburgh was 5-8 and the season was all but lost when they visited the Kansas City Chiefs, a non-playoff 9-7 team on a Saturday afternoon. While the pass defense failed against the Ravens, it was the rush defense’s turn to get pounded by the Chiefs, who gained 218 rush yards. Tomczak started for Stewart, but the results were no better—four interceptions in 35-19 loss.
Tomczak again started a home game with the Carolina Panthers, and a strong showing from Bettis, with 137 yards, ended the losing streak in a 30-20 win. But it was the last win of the year. The season finale was at home with the Tennessee Titans, the team that would eventually make the Super Bowl out of the AFC. Pittsburgh was down 31-7 by the second quarter and 40-15 in the third quarter before making the final score look respectable at 47-36.
It was a miserable year to be a Steelers fan in 1999. But a revival was around the corner. The team improved in 2000 and were back in the playoffs by 2001.