´ Steel Curtain Rising: Remembering Ron Erhardt's Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator, 1992-1995

Who gets the game ball for the win over the Colts?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Remembering Ron Erhardt's Tenure as Steelers Offensive Coordinator, 1992-1995

Most people forget the Buffalo Bills were heavy favorites to win Super Bowl XXV. Reality turned out to be different.

People remember Scott Norwood’s last second missed field goal. They recall how Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick's defense disrupted the K-Gun offense that was supposed to end a decade of NFC Super Bowl dominance.

  • But the game’s real story was New York's offensive game plan.

The Giants came out with 3 tight ends and handed off to 33 year old O.J. Anderson. Anderson could only grind out 3 yards and change a carry, but New York fed him the ball anyway and dared Buffalo to stop them.

The Bills couldn't.

Like a Burmese python, the Giants smothered the oxygen out of the game, leaving none for the Bills vaunted offense to take flight. New York possessed the ball for an unheard of 40 minutes, including 22 in the second half.

  • Smash Mouth Football had perhaps never reached a higher pinnacle than Super Bowl XXV.

After the game Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola penned a column praising the Giants for the upset. He then broke down the Giants offensive roster along side the Steelers roster, arguing that the Steelers were at least equal to the Giants.

The 1990 Steelers had followed up on their storybook 1989 season with a disastrous trek up Walton’s Mountain. Joe Walton’s offense relied on finesse and gimmicks and stood as a stark contrast to New York’s physical, bruising style.

For another year, Labriola’s column was nothing more than a trivial, but poignant reminder of what Chuck Noll’s final years might have been.

When Chuck Noll decided to hang it up in 1991, Labriola’s speculations became a lot less trivial.

That’s because Bill Cowher selected Ron Earhart, the architect of the ’90 Giants Super Bowl offense, to be his first offensive coordinator.

Sadly, Ron Earhart passed away at age 80 in Boca Raton, Florida, and Steel Curtain Rising now mourns his loss and celebrates his memory.

Throw to Score, Run to Win

Unlike his predecessor Tom Moore and his successors Ken Wisenhunt and, yes, Bruce Arians, Moore can stake no claim to a piece of the Steelers Six Lombardis.

But he nonetheless made an important contribution to Steelers football, which deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

  • Erhardt’s off quoted philosophy was simple: “Throw to Score, Run to Win.”

In other words, get a lead and take the air out of the ball.

To fans who feel that the Steelers went pass happy under Bruce Arians, a few video tapes from the Erhardt Era should serve as the perfect antidote.

Erhardt, in a word, liked to run the ball. During his tenure in Pittsburgh, Ron Erhardt’s offense never dipped below 5th in rushing attempts, and was number 1 in rushing yards in 1994 and 4th and 6th in 1992 and 1993 respectively.

  • Earhart allowed for zero ambiguity about the Steelers identity, they were a physical, Smash Mouth Football, power rushing team.

He also simplified the offense greatly. Joe Walton’s playbook had hundreds of plays and dozens of formations and a scheme for every situation – and he’d call any one of them in the heat of a game, whether the Steelers had practice it or not.

In contrast, as reported by Ed Bouchette in the Dawn of a New Steel Age, Erhardt based his offense on a “dirty dozen” plays which he hammered into his team in practice.

Erhardt wasn’t perfect. Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense had befuddled Erhardt when the two faced off in the NFC East, and the ’93 Houston Oilers defense manhandled Erhardt’s offense not once but twice that season.

And when Barry Foster went down for the season in mid-1993, Erhardt failed to fully exploit the rushing talents of Merril Hoge. To wit, after Foster’s injury the Steelers won the games where Hoge got significant carries and lost those where he remain an afterthought.

Bill Cowher fired wide receivers coach Bob Harrison after the 1993 season, replacing him with Chan Gailey. Under Gailey’s influence the Steeler’s offense opened up, including the increased use of 4 wide receiver sets in the later half of 1994 and 5 wide receivers in 1995.

As recently reported by Ed Bouchette in PG Plus, the Steelers had agreed to allow Erhardt to coach out the final year of his contract in 1995 and then make way for Gailey. Erhardt had a change of heart and wanted to stay, but Cowher declined to renew his contract, promoting Chan Gailey to offensive coordinator instead.

Erhardt coached the New York Jets offense for Rich Kotite in 1996 before retiring.

Ron Erhardt wasn’t one of the “great” offensive minds to serve in Pittsburgh, but he did inject physicality back into Steelers football at a time when it was needed. Steel Curtain Risings thoughts and prayers go out to Ron Erhardt’s family.

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