For much of the season the 1998 Pittsburgh Steelers looked like just another playoff team that Bill Cowher had been rolling off the assembly line every year since his arrival in the Steel City. Then a loss under strange circumstances triggered a collapse that lasted two additional seasons.
Pittsburgh’s success started with a defense that ranked seventh in the NFL in points allowed. Outside linebacker Jason Gildon recorded eleven sacks, and there were good players with inside linebacker Levon Kirkland and corner Carnell Lake. But this was mostly about a unit whose whole transcended the sum of its parts—not a single Steeler defender made the Pro Bowl.
Center Dermontti Dawson, a future Hall of Famer, and now 33-years-old was the only Pro Bowler on offense, but this side of the ball didn’t collectively lift its game. Wide receiver Yancey Thigpen had left via free agency and quarterback Kordell Stewart struggled, throwing 18 interceptions.
Jerome Bettis had a good year running the ball, but even his 1,185 yards were a slip in production. Courtney Hawkins and Charles Johnson were decent receivers, but didn’t make up for the loss of Thigpen.
Pittsburgh still got the season off to a good start in Baltimore, overcoming three turnovers and beating a bad Ravens team 20-13. Another ugly win against a bad team followed when the Steelers won a 17-12 home game with the Chicago Bears.
The poor play caught up to Pittsburgh in Miami, against the playoff-bound Dolphins. Stewart was awful, throwing three interceptions and producing just 82 yards in a 21-0 loss. The Steelers were able to bounce back and grind their way past an average Seattle Seahawks team 13-10 thanks to 185 yards from Bettis. It was also a win over an old rival—Warren Moon, whom Pittsburgh regularly battled when he was in his prime with the Houston Oilers, was finishing his career in Seattle.
No one could be inspired by the Steelers play, but they were still 3-1 and had a bye week to try and fix their problems. It didn’t show up in the first game back though—a 25-20 loss at the woeful Cincinnati Bengals. The loss was extra bitter for three reasons—the Steelers grabbed an early 10-0 lead, they rushed for 257 yards and the Cincy quarterback was Neil O’Donnell, the QB of Pittsburgh’s 1995 AFC championship team.
The offensive struggles continued for the first half against the Ravens and the Steelers trailed 6-3. Stewart finally turned it around with a 55-yard touchdown pass to Johnson in the third quarter and on the strength of five turnovers, Pittsburgh won 16-6.
It was time for a Monday Night visit to the Kansas City Chiefs, the third straight year the Steelers and Chiefs had played on MNF in Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City was on a path similar to Pittsburgh –success throughout the decade, not quite enough to win a Super Bowl, and now struggling to maintain their status.
The game was a grinding defensive battle, and it was tied 13-13 in the fourth quarter. Bettis rushed for 119 yards and Pittsburgh won the turnover battle 3-1. Stewart found Johnson on a short touchdown pass to break the tie and win it 20-13. KC slipped to 7-9 and missed the playoffs. The Steelers were soon to follow them to the same place.
Pittsburgh was trounced at home by the Tennessee Oilers, who had yet to change their name to the Titans following the move from Houston. The final score was a deceptive close 41-31, but the Steelers trailed 34-7 in the fourth quarter.
A big Monday Night game with the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre was up next, and the Steelers were ready. Stewart was locked in, going 15/22 for 231 yards and no interceptions. Bettis got the ball 34 times and ground out 100 yards. Pittsburgh bolted to a 27-0 lead and then hung on for a 27-20 win.
Stewart played well again the following week in Tennessee, going 22/28 for 239 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. But there was no running game and the lead was only 14-13 late in the game. The Oilers drove to a field goal with six seconds left and then tacked on a touchdown after the kickoff was fumbled.
After winning the old AFC Central four straight years, the Steelers trailed first-place Jacksonville by two games when the Jaguars came to Pittsburgh on November 22. But there was still time to come back—win this home game, and the season finale would be on Monday Night in Jacksonville. Cornerback DeWayne Washington stepped up big in this one.
Washington intercepted Mark Brunnell and took it 52 yards to the house to begin the scoring in the first quarter. Stewart was consistent throughout the game, 25/36 for 208 yards and no interceptions, and the Steelers led 23-15.
It was time for Washington again. With the Jags driving to try and tie it, Washington intercepted another pass and took this one 78 yards for the score. The 30-15 win put Pittsburgh right back in the division race and at 7-4, they were poised to at least make the playoffs.
Thanksgiving in Detroit was when it all started to come undone and it happened in a bizarre way. The game itself was odd—neither Bettis, nor the great Lion running back Barry Sanders had a good game. But Stewart was pretty good, as was Lion quarterback Charlie Batch, a future Pittsburgh signal-caller. The game went to overtime at 16-16 and then things got weird.
Pittsburgh called the coin toss and Detroit won it. Only Bettis, who called it in the air, said the official misheard his call. The Lions won the game. Unfortunately, no one ever thought to make the audio on a coin toss to be reviewable by instant replay, so the controversy lingered. But the Steelers kept losing games.
The running game again disappeared in a home game with New England, a team the Steelers had faced in the playoffs in both 1996 and 1997, and would make it again this year. The Patriots won 23-9. Stewart played poorly in a game against an 8-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers team coached by Tony Dungy, throwing three interceptions in a 16-3 loss. The pass defense fell apart at home against Cincinnati, giving up 367 yards to Jeff Blake in 25-24 loss. The Bengals only won three games in 1998, but two of them were against the Steelers.
By the time the season-ending Monday Night game in Jacksonville game, the Steelers were 7-8 and the Jaguars were resting starters for the playoffs. It didn’t help. Pittsburgh went meekly and lost 21-3.
The collapse of 1998 foreshadowed a brief stretch in the wilderness for this proud franchise. They were a bad team in 1999, and missed the playoffs again in 2000. This was the “bridge” period between two eras of Cowher success, one from 1992-97, the other from 2001-06.