The Steelers season is history repeating itself. No, not necessarily the 2008 Lombardi -winning season but more like the plot of the Rob Reiner film Misery. Let’s see if this sounds familiar?
A famous novelist (football team) is the author of a successful series of bestselling novels (seasons) featuring a character named Misery (The Steelers, who win with suffering, even in Super Bowl-winning seasons). The author’s (team’s) number one fan talks at length about him and his awards (Lombardis). The fan(s) is angered by the inconsistency and conserative approach of the latest novel (season). Soon after, Annie (the fans) discovers that Misery (winning) dies at the end of the book, and the fan flies into a rage. She bestows on him an array of injuries and insists he write a new novel (season) titled Misery’s Return (winning #7), in which he brings the character back to life.
We’re living Stephen King in real life!
It can be really easy to get too high after a victory and even easier to get much too down after a loss. “They’re winning it all!”, “This offense is unstoppable at times!”, and “This is a legendary defense!” turns on a dime to “Fire them all!”, “This defense sucks!”, & “This offense is unwatchable!”.
But where we are now exceeds even that kind of mood-swinging that would make The Haleys blush. Now every throw is proof Ben is injured. Or washed up. Or afraid to get hit. Or dumb. Every playcall is evidence they’ll never be any good, that the Head Coach and the Offensive Coordinator are incapable of coaching, that the team is poorly coached and will be one and done in the postseason.
What I’m trying to say is: a loss isn’t just a loss now. We don’t watch the game and then say, “Oh, they just didn’t play well tonight.” or “Buffalo played a good game… they’re a good team.” Instead, we watch the game and think the world has ended. Every loss is a notice that they’re just not good enough. Hell, every close game, the sky is falling.
Our favorite team is like a walking, talking version of the multiple universe theory in action. You know, where those physicists theorize that every instant, a new, infinite number of universes are created? The Steelers are living in at least three simulataneously––one where they win it all, one where they bounce back but fall short, and one where everyone on Earth is obliterated.
This just in, one of the great truisms of sport: They’re not as good as they appeared to be during the 11-game winning streak, and they’re not as bad as they have appeared to be in the last 3.
However, this loss––even if we don’t read too much into it––was a tipping point for their season. We can say goodbye to the #1 seed and the biggest advantage that goes with it: rest.The Steelers are now in a position to see their most realistic best-case scenario to the Lombardi, and it ain’t pretty:
Coming off week 16 vs Indy and week 17 at Cleveland, their Super Bowl-winning journey would look something like:
Round 1: beat Baltimore in a third-time grudge match
Round 2: beat Buffalo in Buffalo
Round 3: beat KC in KC
Super Bowl: beat the best team/hottest team in the NFC, likely with a hot QB like Russell Wilson/Aaron Rodgers, or perhaps old nemesis, Tom Brady, and his buddies Gronk & AB.
A few weeks ago, I’d have said the Steelers had as good a chance to win the Super Bowl as anyone. Sitting here now, I’d be hard-pressed to see them winning anything.
But such is life after losing. And a bitter loss it was, not just on the scoreboard, but on the injury front.Pittsburgh’s troops have officially reached the point of the year where everybody is hurt and many of them are outright injured. Just look at the list of guys who we know are injured/hurt:
Zach Banner (ACL)
David Decastro (knee/abdominal)
Matt Feiler (shoulder/pec)
Kevin Dotson (shoulder)
Devin Bush (ACL)
Robert Spillane (knee)
Bud Dupree (ACL)
Alex Highsmith (ankle)
Tyson Alualu (likely playing hurt)
Joe Haden (concussion)
Steven Nelson (knee)
T.J. Watt (lower body)
At one point last night, the Steelers were playing without three starting OL, without their starting RB, without their 3 top ILB (and ILB4 started his first game fo the team & ILB5 played the first defensive snaps of his entire career), without their top CB, and with their top 3 EDGE rushers either on IR or out of the game. Do you think injuries/COVID are becoming a factor?
Injuries are even making great players look bad. T.J Watt doing uncharacteristic things like tentatively rushing the passer, giving up on the backside pursuit of a run play, and then getting caught inside on a Josh Allen scramble and escape to his side; he never loses contain like that. And he certainly doesn’t chase halfheartedly if he does get caught. Ben can’t move the way he wants to and now appears to be struggling to step into throws and or hang in long enough to make throws downfield.
I could talk about all sorts of things that happened in this game––mistakes, penalties, analytics, predictability–– some good and many bad, but there’s only two significant stories here:
1. Can the Steelers get healthy enough and adjust to the loss of starters enough to win more games vs. good opponents this year?
2. Is this the end?
My current answers are subject to change every 15 minutes, but I suppose at the moment they would be:
1. probably not and
2. it sure looked like it on Sunday Night
But the season probably hinges on a couple of their Quarterback’s hinges: his elbow and his knee. And on his ebbing magical powers.
What is it that truly great QBs do? How do they make a differnece in game? They figure out ways to win when their surrounding cast is struggling, when the defense has them on the ropes, when the team and the game needs them to make a play. For one night, the guy who did that is wearing one of those ubiquitous (in Buffalo, anyway) #17 jerseys. The guy wearing #7 in white, black, & gold didn’t have that same magic.
So, the question becomes: Is this it? Is this what the end days of Ben’s career look like? Is this how the story of the 2020 Steelers writes itself? A grinding end, brought on by injuries, COVID madness, and no-bye-week fatigue?
All of that is possible. There is no doomsday scenario grim enough that isn’t plausible. Ben’s injured, decides father time has run out the clock like Mike Tomlin at the beginning of the first half, calls it a career after the Ravens obliterate whatever’s left of his offensive line, and hands the keys to… the Cliff Stoudt, er, Mason Rudolph era. And the team has wholesale defections in free agency. And the coaches stay the same. And the ownership maintains the same basic mentality and persona. Welcome to the NFL desert and last-place in the division while they attempt to simultaneously not have a losing record AND rebuild from the ground up.
There is a tiny chance that the team we’ve witnessed on its sharp downward trajectory can still be the great team they appeared to be at times earlier this season. It is not impossible that they get hot again. Let’s wind it back to 2008.
The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers had the soon-to-be Defensive player of the year as its primary edge rusher, its defense was stellar throughout the season. The QB was injured, played hurt, and struggled to regain the form he’d had in the previous season. They had a wave of losses and injuries at one position group––in their case OL––lost HOF Alan Faneca in free agency, lost Kendall Simmons to a torn Achillies, lost Marvel Smith to a back injury, and wound up with a starting five that was arguably the worst in the NFL:
LT Max Starks
LG Chris Kemoeatu
C Justin Hartwig
RG Darnell Stapleton
RT Willie Colon
A QB whose shoulder was separated when the LG allowed the reigning DPOY a free rush in week 1 and the worst OL in the NFL, playing on fumes. What could possibly go wrong?
The offense struggled mightily and the Steelers were seen as a team too flawed on that side of the ball to contend for a Super Bowl. Through the first 15 weeks of that season, the team had low scoring games of 10, 6, 14, 20, 11, 20, and 13 points. Ben’s persistent issues throwing deep were the talk of SteelerFury and the cable news networks. Willie Parker struggled to a career-low 3.8 yards per carry, and his backup got broken and sent to IR. In week 17, they traveled to visit the 12-2 Tennessee Titans. The Titans not only won the game, they thoroughly and completely dominated the Steelers. Roethlisberger was intercepted twice––including a pick 6, Hines Ward lost his cool after being pressed all day by Cortland Finnegan, the offense scored its 14th and final point early in the 3rd quarter, and from that point the wheels fell off. The defense got gashed for a long TD drive, Ben threw a costly interception that gave Tennessee the ball at the Pittsburgh 37, and the Titans scored 21 straight, on their way to a 31-14 statement game victory. The Steelers were written off as dead. Their offense not good enough to score with top teams, their defense a paper tiger. Their QB was a fluke who couldn’t re-create his past success. The injuries finally caught up with them. Yadda, yadda, and more yadda.
Well, of course, you know how that story ends: the gang bounced back with a 31-0 victory over Cleveland, beat Phil Rivers and the Chargers for a 2nd time, beat the Ravens for a third time, and pulled out an offensive drive for the ages to beat HOF QB Kurt Warner and his Cardinals in the Super Bowl. They averaged 29 points per game in their last 4 and won a Lombardi with 5 blockers who gave new meaning to the words “offensive line”.
But for all the similarities, that team had one ace-in-the-hole: They had Ben Roethlisberger, who overcame the shortcomings and found a way to get the job done. Does tthis team have that Ben Roethlisberger? Only the next few weeks will tell. I wouldn’t rule it out––he’s done that dance a few times already this season––but the story of the 2020 Steelers and 2020 Ben Roethlisberger is still being written. Will it be a drama? A tragedy? A plan that all comes together? A dark comedic twist? Will the hero save the universe? Die in a blaze of glory? Talk about moments lost in time and tears like rain? Kick a bucket like Jimmy Durante? Collect all the Infinity stones? Anything is possible. I mean, IT’S 2020!!! Literally, anything is possible.
Now ^^^THIS^^^ perfectly describes being a loyal Steelers fan at the end of every season but 6.
Tune in next week to find out what happens… on the next episode of The Adventures of the Pittsburgh Steelers.