Ex-Maryland Qbs Not A Passing Fancy -- Bills' Reich, Steelers' O'donnell Face Off In Playoffs

PITTSBURGH - Frank Reich is the career second-stringer, the guy who spent a seeming lifetime in the wings, ever vigilant.

Neil O'Donnell is the promising front-liner, an unsung draft pick who landed in the right place at the right time.

Different paths, same origin.

Both learned their trade at Quarterback U. Reich, of the Buffalo Bills, and O'Donnell, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, represent the newest rage in the NFL - the Maryland quarterback.

There are five Maryland passers in the NFL. Boomer Esiason of the Cincinnati Bengals started the tradition in 1984. Since then, Reich, current Seahawk Stan Gelbaugh (Class of '85), O'Donnell (Class of '89) and Scott Zolak (Class of '90) have arrived.

Reich and O'Donnell will try to knock one another out of the NFL playoffs today at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium in an AFC divisional round matchup of former Terrapin heroes.

"I'm very happy for Frank," said O'Donnell. "He waited a long time. It's kind of a neat scenario. But as it relates to the game, it doesn't mean anything."

Reich, Class of '84, served his apprenticeship to Esiason at Maryland. At Buffalo, he sits behind Jim Kelly. Or he did, until Kelly injured a knee in the final week of the regular season.

Last week, Reich became the King of Comebacks when he delivered Buffalo from a 35-3 third-quarter deficit against the Houston Oilers to a 41-38 wild-card win in overtime. In his senior year at Maryland in 1984, Reich erased a 31-0 deficit against Miami (Fla.) to win, 42-40. Thus, a career backup authored the two biggest comebacks in Division I-A and the NFL.

That is Reich's claim to fame. For now, that is. In eight NFL seasons, he has started seven games and won five. He is reliable, dependable and low-key.

"The system we ran at Maryland was a pro-style offense," Reich said. "And obviously, Bobby Ross, our coach, and Joe Krivak, as offensive coordinator, were the common denominators. They really drilled us well in the pro-style offense, reading patterns, reading defenses, recognizing what teams are doing."

Ross took the San Diego Chargers to the playoffs this season as a rookie NFL coach after an 0-4 start. If they beat the Miami Dolphins tomorrow, the AFC championship will have a distinct Maryland flavor.

Today's matchup figures to tickle the fancy of Terrapin fans. Krivak, who had his turn as head coach at Maryland, will watch as a fan and a mentor. "I'll root when Buffalo's on offense," he said, "and I'll root when Pittsburgh's on offense. I'll enjoy it."

While Reich rides the wave of his adventure in Buffalo, O'Donnell arrives fresh from the injured list. Against the Seahawks, he cracked the fibula in his right leg Dec. 6 and missed the last three regular-season games. With Bubby Brister quarterbacking, the Steelers lost two of the three.

Still, Pittsburgh finished 11-5, won the AFC Central and earned home-field advantage in the playoffs. Rookie coach Bill Cowher will start O'Donnell but said Brister would be used if needed. "We're all cognizant of the fact this is do-or-die," Cowher said.

O'Donnell, who also missed one game with a hamstring pull, won nine of 12 starts this season. In an offense that relied on running back Barry Foster, he passed for 2,283 yards and 13 touchdowns.

In a 28-20 loss to the Bills on Nov. 8 in Buffalo, O'Donnell completed 15 of 24 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns. The Bills have won the past four games against the Steelers, all in Buffalo. This is the Bills' first game in Pittsburgh since 1985.

It is also O'Donnell's first playoff game. "I'll try not to get caught up in all the hype and just prepare for the game," he said. "The only way to get experience (in a playoff game) is to play."

Even though Reich got his first playoff start last week, his lack of experience was not a factor.

Esiason, a former roommate of Reich's, perhaps has the best perspective.

"The Bills never lost a game Frank started that counted," Esiason said of Reich's 5-2 record, including two losses as a starter in regular-season finales when Buffalo rested its regulars. "He's very confident and very poised. He knows what he's doing."