Losing with your scrubs — How stars watched from the sidelines as the 1992 Steelers, with home field advantage, took a 24-3 playoff drilling from Buffalo

        Posted: 2012

When it comes to playing rookies, Bill Cowher in his first year as head coach was already about as old-school as it gets.

Inheriting an above-average team from Chuck Noll that went 7-9, Cowher in 1992 unleashed many skill-position players who sat under The Emperor. That turned their record around by 4 games, to 11-5 and, incredibly, home-field playoff advantage in a lackluster AFC season.

But while Cowher was compelled to insert several of Noll's players into the starting lineup, nobody apparently could persuade him to do the same with his own pickups.

And so, when the Buffalo Bills came to town in a highly winnable AFC Divisional playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 9, 1993, several players of elite talent sat on the bench while scrubs got drubbed in a dismal 24-3 meltdown.

The list of Steelers from this game with Pro Bowl credentials is long ... but many barely got on the field.

Start with Yancey Thigpen, a young wide receiver who would achieve stardom in 1995 and 1997. In this 3-point offensive output, Thigpen was only spotted on special teams, while Dwight Stone and Charles Davenport and Adrian Cooper were called upon to catch the passes.

With leading receiver Jeff Graham sidelined by a bum ankle, Thigpen, as he would in 1994 and 1995, might've been a dangerous complement to Ernie Mills, who led the team with 8 catches vs. Buffalo and managed to come up big every playoff game despite only averaging about 30 regular season receptions a year.

Stone somehow held a starting job for several years; his stupendous straight-ahead speed more than negated by hands of stone and utter lack of any football moves. Davenport was a bust from Day 1, though he did make a couple decent grabs in this game.

The offensive line, a strength for much of the season, was spotty in this game, as John Jackson and Duval Love repeatedly had trouble with the Bruce Smith side of the Buffalo line and Neil O'Donnell routinely encountered pressure. Yet, first-round draft pick Leon Searcy, who would be an excellent tackle for years, spent this game as he spent all others that season, on the bench. Justin Strzelczyk, a reserve lineman with the best size of the unit who would prove highly effective in the mid-'90s, sat until Jackson left the game in the 4th quarter after briefly losing mobility in his legs.

A defense that ranked 2nd in the league in points allowed admirably stymied the Bills until the 4th quarter. Yet 2 high draft picks of Bill Cowher who would reach Pro Bowl status — Levon Kirkland and Joel Steed — never saw meaningful action in this game; Steed was actually deactivated.

Much of the blame could fall on the secondary, where perennial Pro Bowler Rod Woodson experienced one of his worst games as a pro that included a concussion and broken hand. Exploitable reserves included Sammy Walker, beaten for a touchdown, and Richard Shelton, who dropped a 2nd-half Pick 6 that would've turned the game around.

Neither Kirkland nor Steed was a pass rusher. But could these future Pro Bowlers have helped a defense that managed a paltry 1 sack for 4 yards, applied little heat and created absolutely nothing on this day?

2 other quality Steelers players who helped them win a playoff game (and nearly another) in 1989 were barely role players against Buffalo. Merril Hoge's status as ballcarrier had been sharply reduced with the rightful promotion of Barry Foster, and Jerry Olsavsky had found himself unable to take playing time away from the overrated Hardy Nickerson and solid-but-unspectacular David Little.

Cowher's personnel decisions in this game harken back to Chuck Noll's wide receiver calls in 1974 and 1975, when Frank Lewis and Ronnie Shanklin would somehow be tapped for a few series while the only receivers to make any kind of play were Swann and Stallworth.

Several Steelers players in this game come to mind as the definition of "JAG" — or "Just A Guy." Aside from the receiving corps, the entire defensive line matched this description, as did outside linebacker Jerrol Williams (4 sacks for the season), cornerback D.J. Johnson and maybe most importantly, both quarterback options, Neil O'Donnell and Bubby Brister.

Facing two-time conference champ Buffalo, which a week earlier stunned Houston in the greatest comeback of all time and had easily handled the Steelers in both the '91 and '92 seasons, was bound to be a tough assignment. With Woodson having a dreadful game, Graham not playing and quarterback Neil O'Donnell (leg) making only his first start in weeks, it was probably unlikely the Steelers would win.

Yet Houston proved a week earlier that the Bills' defense was no longer stout. Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas were noticeably banged up in this game. To score 3 points at home against this club after Houston rained 38 of them a week earlier on the road suggests something in the game plan seriously didn't work.

Coaches rightly fear rookie mistakes. What they should fear even more is losing winnable playoff games with known journeymen on the field while highly regarded — and possibly difference-making — prospects sit and watch.

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