Is Neil O’Donnell A Top Five QB In Steelers’ History?

Throwing this question to you Steelers’ Nation off an ESPN poll that closes up shop tomorrow. Each team is ranking their top five quarterbacks in franchise history. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ list has the usual suspects; Ben Roethlisberger and Terry Bradshaw. There’s a separate debate to be had for which of those two should sit in the #1 spot. Another argument, another time.

Sitting in the five spot was Neil O’Donnell.

My first thought was, no way.

My second thought was, yeah maybe. 

The list of great Steelers’ quarterbacks is top heavy. Ben and Bradshaw are in the top tier while most fans would struggle to name a third. ESPN got it right, and hopefully the fan voting reflects that, with Bobby Layne in third place.

Kordell Stewart is 4th and O’Donnell bringing up the rear. He’s most known for his collapse in the Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys, tossing three picks in the 27-17 loss. One came in the 3rd quarter, leading to a Cowboys’ touchdown the next play, with another late in the 4th that essentially sealed the win for Dallas.

His career impression for fans is ugly, to say the least. But when you have to think about who to replace him with, you realize O’Donnell might deserve that 5th spot. The best option, and who I would likely go with, to replace him is Jim Finks.

His numbers aren’t nearly as shiny but that’s par for the course for someone who played in the 50s. He led the league in touchdown passes in 1952 and yards three years later. He also definitely did not throw any interceptions to Larry Brown.

I am just a young whipper snapper so the older wiser crowd can clue me in. Is O’Donnell worthy of being a Top 5 QB?

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • Hec

    Yes…..but only by default!

  • Richard

    I guess Johnny Unitas and Len Dawson do not count because their success was with other teams.

  • AndyR34

    Those were my guesses as well. They were Steeler QB’s!

  • Hec

    Also Marino who we did not draft, but would be first if we did! Are his stats in the Panthers eligible for this argument….lol

  • John Phillips

    Hanratty

  • Boots

    He’s one of only 3 QB’s to start a SB for the team.

  • george

    He played 5 years for the Steelers. Average 57.10% passing percentage, 195 yards per game 57.3% interception rate and 81.7 overall average QB rating. Threw three pics in the SB against Dallas then wanted a pay raise the next year. Top anything doesn’t come to mind when I think of Neil O’Donnell.

  • Jaybird

    You beat me to it. I was going to say maybe if we didn’t give away HOF QBs that’s Stewart and O’Donnell would even be on the list.

  • Rob H

    Exactly, beyond Bradshaw and Ben, there’s just not a lot to choose from.
    O’Donnell became an above average regular season QB under Cowher, whenever he set his feet you knew it was almost an automatic completion, but when you saw him shuffling at all, you held your breath. He also became very mediocre once they got into the postseason, they made it to the Superbowl in 95 in spite of his performance, not because of it.

  • walter

    What about Jeffereson Street Joe Gilliam? Man he was good if he didnt get into drugs.

  • walter

    Cant tell ya about Jim Finks. Man I aint that old. Need to check with some guys in the nursing homes

  • terrygordon30

    Why not cheat a little and include John Unitas, Len Dawson, Jack Kemp, Earl Morrall, and Bill Nelson?

  • alevin16

    Bubby Brister if for nothing else, the 1989 season (damn you Mark Stock!!! ;D)

  • Hec

    Alex, could you or would you do a segment comparing and contrasting the careers of Unitas, Dawson, Bradshaw, Marino, and Big Ben in a what if scenario? Like how Unitas and Marino would been revered in or how would these 5 great quarterbacks have stacked up Pittsburgh’s football history and/or something along those lines?

  • Jacob

    Neil O’Donnell was better than Kordell Stewart. O’Donnell rarely threw interceptions until that Super Bowl game, and they weren’t all his fault. He was a better QB than people give him credit for.

  • Mark Stouffer

    Neil had a brain fart in the Super Bowl, but aside from that he did decently enough to get them there, which is enough to be a Top 5 Steelers QB.
    But yeah, it’s the Top 2, and then a gap the size of Casey Hampton

  • Hec

    That gap is bigger and wider than that….lmbo

  • Hec

    Wait! That interception that made Larry Brown a rich man wasn’t his fault?

  • Rob H

    O’Donnell claimed he threw to a spot he expected the receiver (Holliday) to be, to which his own receiver (Ernie Mills) asked the obvious question of why you would not look where you were throwing, especially at that moment in a super bowl.
    I recall that being the first and only time in my life that I thought a super bowl was ever rigged, because he did the exact same thing twice, both times he had a wide open receiver that he didn’t see, and they both led to touchdowns for the cowboys. In retrospect, I just think he choked under pressure.

  • Jeff McNeill

    I would think you would have to have a stat with the team to be included.

  • Jeff McNeill

    I would rank them:
    1) Ben
    2) Terry
    3) Neil
    4) Kordell
    And that is all I could include on the list.

  • Dirt Dawg54

    O’Donnell was a better QB than Kordell. I get that people were bummed about that SB. We should have own it. But people forget we were marching and had momentum when Dawson sailed a snap over Neil’s head killing that drive. The Cowboys kicked a FG on the subsequent drive.

    People also forget Neil was sacked four times and under pressure almost all day.

    And it’s still debatable what happened on the first two ints (the last was a Hail Mary chuck at the end of the game). On the first, Mills was cutting inside to the middle of the field and Neil threw to the sideline. Neil claims the ball slipped.

    On the second, Neil again threw to the sideline, a spot route, believing the receive would be there (I think it was supposed to be Hastings but some say it was Holliday). Erhardt himself said Neil threw an out and Hastings ran a hitch; that one of them got their read wrong based on the coverage. Mills took issue with that explanation wondering why the QB was throwing to a spot anyway.

    And Brown said he figured both times Neil was just throwing the ball away because he was under so much pressure.

    Who really knows what happened? All I know is O’Donnell retired with the lowest interception percentage of any QB ever. He won a lot of games for us and got us to a SB.

    It didn’t help matters when Bubby Brister called out Neil after the Steelers scored 3 points in a playoff game in 1992. Brister said he would have got us more than that. He was annoyed .Neil was named the starter over him. He left that offseason. A lot of fans pined for him even though he threw 51 TDs and 57 INTs. Not exactly stellar QB play from him.

  • Dirt Dawg54

    Yes, and he claimed the ball slipped on the first throw.

    People who claim the SB was rigged forget all the good plays he made including scrambling and diving on a snap that sailed over his head. If he was truly throwing the game he could have let that one go. He also made some great plays to get us points in the first place.

    The hate for him is a little much. Yes, we lost that SB but it wasn’t entirely on him (although little doubt in my mind that if even one of those picks doesn’t happen, we win that sucker – we were driving with four minutes left and down by 3). Painful.

    But he will be blamed jus like people will blame Mendenhall for the gaffe against GB (even though LeBeau’s defence didn’t show up most of the game).

  • Dirt Dawg54

    Dawson was 6 of 17 for 97 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs as a Steeler. Played three seasons with us. Also rushed 9 times for 50 yards. He dressed for 19 games and I think he may have actually started one.

  • Rob H

    Yea, I have no doubt whatsoever that we would have scored on that drive, we had all the momentum, and Dallas was on their heels, having no answer for Bam Morris, who seemed to be getting at least 8 yards every time he touched the ball in that last quarter.
    That and the Chargers loss the year before were by far the toughest losses I have ever endured, the Green Bay loss didn’t sting anywhere near as bad for me. Rodgers played out of his mind that whole postseason, and was throwing balls in that game no defense could have defended. I was frankly surprised we still even had a chance to win when the fumble happened.

  • Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt

    I agree that yr O’Donnell was great until the SB where it literally looked like he was paid to throw the game we definitely should’ve won that game

  • Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt

    Ben
    joe
    Terry
    O’Donnell
    brister

  • Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt

    I completely blame O’Donnell for that L

  • Hec

    Actually, we had the game won. All we had to do was let Bam Morris keep running those last 4 minutes. Bam Morris was running all over that defense, but they had to put the ball in the air and throw it all away! I don’t think it was rigged, either. Dallas just had a great pass rush and the secondary made QBs pay for their mistakes. Also, take into account that O’Donnell had a screw inserted in his dumb which may have affected his mechanics on certain passes. And, yes O’Donnell managed the Steelers offense better than most under his limited capabilities. I give him credit for that, but those 2 interceptions still hurt!

  • Alex Kozora

    Of course.

  • Jacob

    On the 4 quarter interception that changed the game, O’Donnell threw the pass in the right place, but Hastings turned inside instead of outside on the route. Thus, the pick.

  • Hec

    Could be true, but Hasting wasn’t the one who threw the ball so O’Donnell has to be accountable for the pick. Hasting and the ball were in two totally different places. The receiver may have made the mistake but the QB should’ve known that. It’s not like it was a bang bang situation, that pass was nowhere near the receiver.

  • Jacob

    Timed routes require trust that the receiver is going to be in the right place at the right time. If he isn’t, the receiver is responsible for the pick

  • MP34

    Rick Strom!

  • WilliamSekinger

    I have to agree with the author on O’Donnell being 5th best QB in Steelers history. When I really think about that it kinda makes me sad…

  • PaeperCup

    And this is why it’s so important to win Now with Ben. When Kordell Stewart is your franchises 4th best QB, you have to accept the fact that franchise QBs are extremely difficult to come by.

  • Larry Kraus

    Tommy Maddox at number 5. I wouldn’t put he that shall go nameless on any list that implies anything good.

  • Larry Kraus

    Oh and I hate to think just how good terry would have been on today’s team. The man was fearless and he just flat out came through when it mattered most. He did need a running threat but so does everyone else. Terry number 1 ben 2.

  • StolenUpVotes

    I am not so sure I would rank Kordell over Neil to be honest. Now some that is a product of the circumstances surrounding Kordell (The team not using him effectively on a consistent basis). Dude was absolutely fun to watch in 1997 and was a pro bowler in 2001, but Neil showed more consistency year to year and that shouldn’t be overlooked. For all the crap he gets for the SB people forget that he was the QB on the AFC’s highest scoring offense that season and they don’t get that far without him. Rarely did he make mistakes that doomed the team. Was he spectacular? No, but I guarantee you the Steelers are competing in the AFC title game for a possible second straight SB berth in 1996 if he was still on the team.

  • Mechanix

    I agree with most of the comments here. I don’t have the stats to back it up, but I remember Neil O’Donnell was the man back in the day. They had that five wide grouping with Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Charles Johnson, Andre Hastings, and Kordell Stewart. Funny story–my sister back then caught a glimpse of his picture and said he was ugly.

  • Robert E Lil

    This is sooooo easy: (modern era)

    1. Ben
    2. Terry
    3. Maddox (if for nothing else than getting rid of #10 and the comeback against the Browns in the playoffs)
    4. Bubby (entertainment value)
    5. Mike Tomczak (he’s not #10 or O’Donnell)

  • O’Donnell was a very good QB all the way up until that super bowl against the Cowboys. Top five? Yes.

    During O’Donnell’s career, those deep passes to WRs Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Charles Johnson and company along with TE Eric Green were a beautiful thing to watch. O’Donnell also had the best ratio of interceptions / completions. His play-faking ability (hiding the ball when pretending to hand it off) was some of the best I had ever seen.

    It was a shame that he threw those interceptions in that super bowl. That was a game I had thought the Steelers had in the bag after recovering that onside kick. Would have given Rod Woodson a super bowl ring. He was the best player on the defense for many years, and he really deserved it. After that meltdown, Woodson and other Steelers left. If we would have won that super bowl, most of them would have stuck around.

    O’Donnell was better than Maddox and Stewart when it came to passing the ball. He was never any kind of a great runner as Stewart was, but in my opinion, a QB is there to pass the ball and only run when he has to. Kordell would run a lot because he had that kind of talent with his legs.

    Most Steelers fans hate O’Donnell. I don’t.

  • Robert E Lil

    Courtney Hawkins!

  • StolenUpVotes

    Hawkins came after the departure of Mills and Hastings

  • Robert E Lil

    Ahhh. Okay. Man the names on those teams bring back a lot of memories. Great, great, great players. But that darn qb position

  • walter

    Chuck Noll was asked about Joe if he expected so much progress from an 11th round draft pick. Noll, who always touted draft the best player available philosophy, said “Hell no, if we had we would have drafted him number 1”

  • Matt Manzo

    He could be the top ugliest QB we’ve ever had?!

  • walter

    We had just recovered an onside kick and had decent field position but I believe the interception was the first play. But maybe Im wrong.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Neil O’Donnell, bless his heart, probably does belong in the top 5 despite the abysmal performance in the Super Bowl; he did help get them there. I have O’Donnell as the 5th best all-time quarterback and overall # 78 as an all-time Steelers player. Jom Finks I have listed as # 143 overall and the 7th best Steelers quarterback. The biggest issue being that he never led the Steelers to a single playoff season. Ahead of Finks, I have Bubby Brister and ranked # 126 overall.

  • StolenUpVotes

    Realized I never gave you my email to see this list of yours. Ncotner0910@gmail.com

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Jack Kemp wasn’t bad for other teams either.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Just sent

  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    I concur,

  • Buccos9

    I believe that O’Donnell was unfairly tarred for the Larry Brown interceptions in that Super Bowl loss to Dallas. There was an injury to one of the Steelers’ top two receivers during the game, and on at least one of the interceptions the backup receiver went one way when O’Donnell expected him to go the other way. I can’t say for sure who was at fault, but it was more than likely the receiver. O’Donnell got the Steelers to the Super Bowl and had a chance to lead them on a possibly winning drive late in the game when the last interception happened. But for one zig instead of a zag, we might all think differently about O’Donnell, and where he belongs among Steeler QBs.

  • stan

    Its a close call for me but I’ll say no. He had a couple of nice years in the 90’s but I tend to think he was the product of a good team rather than the team leader. Like so many others, he really never had success after he left Pittsburgh and that tells the story for me. I have to put Brister ahead of him because he had to do more to carry the team in the late 80’s- early 90’s. There really were no other good offensive players during those years. That makes my top 5: Ben; Terry; Kordell; Layne, Brister, O’Donnell.

  • Keith Evans

    Terry (got it done, tough, 4 times sb champ)
    Ben (very good qb, but never quite become one of the greats, too late now)
    O’Donnell (a good qb for us until his SB aberrations)
    Stewart (statistically not as bad as remembered)
    Brister (not much talent around him, did a decent job keeping us keen in the 80s)

  • Steel Your Face

    I’m still convinced he was paid off to throw those picks to Larry Brown. No. F-ing. Way…

  • Robert E Lil

    You know what they say

    If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will

  • Steel Your Face

    Bound to cover just a little more ground…!

  • John Noh

    Ben is going to be a hall of famer – not one of the greats? Ha!

  • Kevin Artis

    Tommy Maddox might edge out O’Donnell.

  • Kevin Artis

    1. Terry (4 SB)
    2. Ben (2 SB)
    3. Neil (Lost 1 SB)
    4. Kordell
    5. Tommy Maddox.

  • J.

    Yes O’Donnell is top 5.

  • capehouse

    Neil was pretty bad the entire playoff run in ’95. Terrible against the Bills in the playoffs in ’92 as well. His career was solid though.

  • Ike Evans

    F**k neil O’Donnell

  • Big Joe

    Yes. He played well for the team. One of those SB picks was the WR’s fault at a time when they had Dallas’ on its heels spurring a potential come from behind win. Like Mendenhall fumbling on the drive where we had GB’s defense tired. Neil wasn’t perfect but was better, IMO, than Stewart and Maddox especially from a consistency perspective. I think we fans weren’t used to losing SBs and we took it out on Neil – Some quite a bit too far from what I understand to have been the case egging his house and harassing his wife and kids if memory serves.

  • Dshoff

    Gee thanks for making me remember that. 🙂 He caught everything else that year. If he makes that catch, who knows. We were certainly on a roll.

  • Justin Warrenfeltz

    No. Screw him. He’ll never deserve to be anywhere near the top of greatest Steelers ANYTHING. I’d put Landry Jones, Dennis Dixon, Mike Vick, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch, Kent Graham, literally ANYBODY at #5 over O’Donnell.

  • Dshoff

    Yep, I’d put Neil above Stewart as well.

  • toonasteel

    Unfortunately, he’s top five…

  • Dshoff

    I strongly believe that we could have gone back to one or maybe even 2 more superbowls if ODonnell would have stayed with the Steelers. I wonder if ODonnell has ever spoken about if he regreted his decision to leave.

  • StolenUpVotes

    They don’t have that first round bye without him

  • Craig M

    Terry Bradshaw is my pick as number one because he called his own plays and could be judged on his performance by his performance as a field general. Hanratty could have been great if he wasn’t behind Bradshaw IMO. Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam thru like Namath but his insecurity and drugs got him messed up (God that kid could throw a straight line pass like nobody’s business). I wish Charlie Batch could have had more opportunity to develop but no way could he unseat Big Ben- I loved the way he got that pill around to different receivers, he was kind of my favorite player back then. Talked to a guy who played w/ Unitas said he was skinny tough and hard as steel- what he could have done w/ the Steelers could have been something for the ages.

  • alevin16

    I still wonder. That was such a magical run. I still remember that not only did everything have to fall right but it had to go to the last Monday night game between the Bengals and the Vikings.

  • Ryan Alderman

    With a straight face I say I’d put Bubby over O’Donnell. Certainly Tomzak.

  • Ryan Alderman

    I wouldn’t count them, no.

  • Ryan Alderman

    Lol

  • John Phillips

    Best post in this conversation

  • John Phillips

    Oh those golden Grahams

  • John Phillips

    Forgot about Batch. How many seasons did we screwup up when Batch was playing well, and Ben would come back from injury too early, and suck the first game he played.

  • Kevin Schwartz

    I’m kind of surprised the argument isn’t to put him 4th over Stewart. I know Stewart had a bit more upside, but if you asked me to take one or the other, I’d probably go with O’Donnell.

  • Craig M

    Cowher’s last season, I believe, is the one I remember most. Batch came in carried us to a playoff birth needing only one more win, as I recall, w/ 5 games left. Ben came back after the motorcycle accident/ concussion and then I think an appendectomy, Cowher played Ben instead of Batch when Batch had one of the highest QB ratings among QBs and we didn’t make it to the playoffs as I recall. And we had arguably the best Defense in all of football that year- probably would have dominated the SB.

  • mhurk

    Are You Joking? He is a Traitor! If there is one player in the history of the NFL I dislike more than Tom Brady its Nieldown O’donell, I wonder how much JJ paid Him .

  • mhurk

    Most blantant SELLOUT in the History of Professional sports !

  • mhurk

    He threw the game.

  • Steel City Slim

    I think I’d take Batch over O’Donnell and Kordell.

  • Conserv_58

    I’d place Bubby Brister, Mike Tomzak, Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox above O’Donnell.

    In those days, Cowher’s offense was built around the running game. O’Donnell was the definition of a game manager in Cowher’s offense. There was nothing special or outstanding about his game. Therefore, it was the Steelers’ defense that carried the team. It was the defense that got them to the Super Bowl with the offense contributing just enough to hold their own weight. The 1995 Steelers defense was top three in the NFL that year. The following off season, 1996 the Steelers signed free agent, Jerome Bettis from the Rams.

  • Conserv_58

    There is nothing funny about mentioning Tommy Maddox. If Maddox could have stayed healthy he could have finished out his contract with a decent record.

  • Conserv_58

    I stopped at your ridiculous comment regarding Ben.

  • Conserv_58

    Yes, the receiver ran the wrong route. I think it was Charles Johnson, but it still doesn’t excuse the fact that O’Donnell was looking right at the spot where Johnson was supposed to be and there was no Steelers jersey within five to ten yards when Brown intercepted the ball.

  • Conserv_58

    His contribution to the 1995 team was adequate at best. That defense is what got them to the SB. That was also Kordell Stewart’s rookie season.

  • Terrible Towlie

    the broncos got a FG right before halftime, from a catch that wasnt a catch….SI had a good pic with the ball touching the ground….theres 3 points, we lost by 1

  • Terrible Towlie

    andre hastings ran the wrong route

  • copanut

    Joe also came to my mind. He was great for that six game spread in 1974, but then the meteor streaked out. 17 picks against 9 TDs and a 53 lifetime passer rating suggests he was better in my memory than in reality.

  • Joel Miller

    Yes and ahead of Kordell.

  • Hec

    Alex, could you or would you do a segment comparing and contrasting the careers of Unitas, Dawson, Bradshaw, Marino, and Big Ben in a what if scenario? Like how Unitas and Marino would been revered in Steelers’ folklore nation or how would these 5 great quarterbacks have stacked up Pittsburgh’s football history and/or something along those lines had they played their respective careers in Steelers uniform? I think it’ll be fun to debate just to fill the dead air with something like this meanwhile there is nothing else to really talk about until training camp and the preseason kicks off.

  • paul lochrane

    ben over bradshaw, please don’t even compare the 2, you are an idiot