Every great thing has a beginning, and for Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Cowher, the start to his remarkable 15-year run as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers started in thrilling fashion.
The Steelers made the trip to the Houston Astrodome to open the season against the rival Houston Oilers and head coach Jack Pardee on Sept. 6, 1992.
Pittsburgh was coming off of a 7-9 season in the final year under Chuck Noll, missing the playoffs. The Oilers had gone 11-5 in 1991 under Pardee, losing in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs to the Denver Broncos.
The 1992 season brought much anticipation to the Steelers’ fan base, and right away Cowher and the Steelers delivered, winning a thriller thanks to some gutsy calls from the rookie head coach and his staff.
Things started well for Pittsburgh as star defensive back Rod Woodson picked off Warren Moon on the first drive of the game, giving a preview of what was to come for Houston’s big-name quarterback.
After that interception though, the Steelers fell behind 14-0 early as defensive end Johnny Means returned a Neil O’Donnell fumble 15 yards on a strip sack for the game’s opening score, Then Moon found wide receiver Ernest Givens in the back of the end zone on a scramble drill for an 11-yard touchdown, staking the Oilers to a two-score lead in the first quarter.
The Steelers rallied, thanks to a gutsy call from Cowher that might have been a total accident.
Facing a 4th and 15, the Steelers ran a fake from their own 44-yard line. Punter Mark Royals threw the ball to Warren Williams. Thankfully, it worked. The Oilers brought the house, leaving Williams wide open, and he took the ball down to the two-yard line.
The fake punt sparked the Steelers as running back Barry Foster — who went on to finish second in the NFL MVP voting that season with 1,690 rushing yards — scored on the next play, making it a 14-7 game.
Steelers kicker Gary Anderson and Oilers kicker Al Del Greco traded field goals, making it a 17-10 game, but the Steelers offense got going again as O’Donnell found wide receiver Jeff Graham for a 26-yard touchdown pass. That made it a 17-16 game after a failed point after attempt.
That’s one heck of a throw from O’Donnell and a great play working through a holding penalty by Graham to make the catch and get two feet in bounds for the score.
The Oilers extended the lead to eight points before the half as Moon found Givens from 8 yards out, making it 24-16 Houston.
Coming out of the half, the Steelers regrouped and took control.
Anderson drilled two more field goals in the third quarter, one of which came after another Moon interception. Then the Steelers’ defense stood tall in the fourth quarter. Woodson again came through, picking off an ill-advised throw from Moon in the end zone, returning it to midfield giving the Steelers real life.
Foster got the drive going with a 25-yard run off left tackle, knifing through the Oilers’ defense to get Pittsburgh into scoring position.
It’s rather remarkable to watch Foster run during the 1992 season. He was quite the combination of speed and power and a perfect fit for Cowher’s style that season.
A few plays later, O’Donnell threw a strike to tight end Adrian Cooper from 9 yards out for the go-ahead touchdown, giving Pittsburgh its first lead of the game.
What a dart from O’Donnell in traffic to the backup tight end for the score. Quite the celebration from Cooper, too.
With a lead in hand, the Steelers’ defense clamped down on Moon and the Oilers again.
This time, it was cornerback Larry Griffin picking off his second pass of the game.
Following the Griffin interception, the Steelers looked to put the game away, but soon faced a big third and 5 near midfield coming out of the two-minute warning.
On the road, with a lead against a strong Oilers team and already having gambled and won earlier in the game, Cowher rolled the dice again, believing in his team.
This time, it was a reverse to wide receiver Dwight Stone that put the game away. Stone took the handoff from Foster and raced around left tackle. He followed O’Donnell down the left sideline for the 18-yard run, putting the game away for the Steelers.
Pittsburgh went on to win the game 29-24, giving Cowher his first of 149 regular-season wins and helping the Steelers go 11-5 in his first season in charge. The Steelers ultimately lost to the Buffalo Bills in the 1992 divisional round after winning the AFC Central title, but it was quite a successful season for Cowher and the Steelers, which all started with the thriller in Houston.