Think about the NFL over the past five to 10 years. A few things have been undeniably true, for the most part, in that general span of time. The likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been tossing touchdowns and winning a ton of games in New England and Indianapolis/Denver, respectively. Adrian Petersen runs, Andre Johnson catches, Tony Gonzalez scores and dunks the football through the goalpost and Clay Matthews tortures quarterbacks. There are perennial losers – I’m lookin’ at you, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Buffalo – and there is always someone in the news for something other than football, whether it be a crime, a controversial comment or photo or an appearance on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Here in Pittsburgh, one constant has been true for not only a decade, but for virtually the entire life of the sport’s most successful franchise. The Steelers win, and anything different is a failure to meet expectations in the eyes of every player, coach and fan associated with the black and gold. There have been 47 Super Bowls played since that era began in 1967, and Pittsburgh has participated in eight of those, winning six. Only the Dallas Cowboys have been to as many and they have won five, along with the San Francisco 49ers. There are ten franchises (of the current 32) that have been to one Super Bowl or less, four of which have never earned the opportunity (Cleveland, Detroit, Jacksonville, Houston).
Having been founded and owned by the same family for the entire 80-year life of the organization, the Steelers have not been a major success from the very beginning. In fact, the team was quite lousy in the early days of its history, dating back to 1933, when they were known as the Pirates. They also briefly merged with teams in Philadelphia and Chicago, playing under different team names during a time when there was a shortage of players during World War II. It was not until the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that the team moved into the new Three Rivers Stadium and began to find sustained success on the field, the likes of which we are accustomed to today. Winning Super Bowls in 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979 under head coach Chuck Noll, quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and the “Steel Curtain” defense, the popularity and value of the Pittsburgh Steelers skyrocketed.
After a run of mediocrity through most of the 1980s, a return to domination began again with a stretch of five AFC Central division titles in six years, beginning in 1992. Under new head coach Bill Cowher, the Steelers made the playoffs in each of those six years, including a Super Bowl appearance in 1995. Cowher continued to build upon a winning tradition, having only three losing seasons in his 15 seasons. In his second to last season, the Steelers won “one for the thumb”, capturing the fifth Super Bowl title in six tries by defeating Seattle in 2006.
More recently, under Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh has won three division titles in six seasons. Two more Super Bowl appearances have already come and gone, a win in 2009 and a loss in 2011. There have been 15 AFC Championship game appearances in team history, by far the most overall, four ahead of the Oakland Raiders. All of these numbers simply prove that this is a team that has given so much to cheer about in the Steel City, that a letdown every now and then ought to be excused and forgiven.
The 2013 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers has not been pretty, starting 0-3 due to a combination of miserable offense, key injuries, a tired defense, and perhaps some inner turmoil with players and a certain offensive coordinator. Be that as it may, the framework for success in the NFL has not been torn away. Tomlin’s group has a franchise quarterback, talented rookies at the major skill positions, veteran leadership sprinkled throughout, and a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator in Dick LeBeau.
Yes, it is painful to watch for the time being, but if one team in the history of professional sports deserves some slack, it is our football team. Parity in the NFL is perhaps the greatest of all of the major American professional sports and, because of that, even the most successful machine breaks down every once in awhile. Be sure that Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and the other football minds in the front offices of Heinz Field will find a way to tune it up and continue on the winning path they have been on for most of the last half-century. There is hardly a need for rebuilding here, rather just a need for patience and a few of the right moves along the way.