The 2015-16 Pittsburgh Steelers season was one wild ride – silly, sublime, heartbreaking, exhilarating – full of adversity and transcendence, rewards and regrets, devastating injuries and edifying teamwork, on field potential both realized and left dangling, tantalizingly unfulfilled…in other words, a football season. The clock finally struck midnight on Pittsburgh’s fairy tale playoff run at Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High – one of the league’s few truly authentic and historic home field advantages – and the Steelers’ golden coach grudgingly turned back into a pumpkin, though the men remained men and not mice. I think those men left everything out there on the field. They have exceedingly little to hang their heads about today, and reason for real optimism going forward. All the same, we – which is to say the team, the coaches, the ownership, the administrators, the city, the worldwide fanbase (including the screaming four of us yesterday in my buddy’s living room) – still lost, and it was a tough way to go. To hear the national intelligentsia tell during the week of lead up, this was all a foregone conclusion. These Steelers were already living on borrowed time. The team that had at times during the regular season looked like an unstoppable offensive behemoth had endured a series of surgically-timed ailments to pile atop its several lengthy, still-lingering losses. Antonio Brown may have rewritten the team’s record book at wide receiver this year, and left a serious dent in league history as well, but he couldn’t emerge from last week’s prison riot in Cincinnati or the NFL’s subsequent concussion protocol in time to suit up, leaving a gaping wound in the team’s vaunted receiving corps. To compound the complications, Pro Bowl QB Ben Roethlisberger would play with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder, complete with torn ligaments, making the question of what kind of arm strength he might carry into Mile High both a real and a multi-million dollar one. On a late week episode of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, host mouth Tony Kornheiser went so far as to say he couldn’t envision a winning scenario for Pittsburgh. His was not a minority opinion nationally.
Kornheiser is a one-size-fits-all TV sports columnist, occasionally a very insightful one and occasionally a buffoon, but this to me highlights a key difference between analyzing the greater NFL for a living and actually following a team. Much of the evidence did, in fact, point to Denver, with its future HOF quarterback/pizza huckster, its group of talented (and healthy) receivers, formidable defense, and home field advantage, essentially winning a walkover against a depleted, possibly demoralized team. I get it, but football writers aren’t paid for their passion, and I feel that, as a result, certain trends and nuances tend to escape them. I mentioned Steeler fans among the losers of this game above for a reason. For all our myriad faults, both perceived and actual, we rolled with this squad the entire year, through choppy waters, uneven play, and adversity that I think would’ve sent others off in search of the nearest white flag. We were watching and following the team all season, since before the draft and before training camp, and I believe we knew what we had here, both in the quality of men and the quality of leadership wearing the black and yellow. When disaster struck this year, the Steelers always closed ranks and grew closer together. The “next man up” concept wasn’t just a convenient fiction intended to provide false comfort in the wake of grim injury. Instead, that man – whether he was Cody Wallace (C) or DeAngelo Williams (RB) or Vince Williams (LB) or Landry Jones (QB) or Robert Golden (S) or Alejandro Villaneuva (LT) or Sean Spence (LB) or Dan McCullers (NT) or the damned near incredible Chris Boswell, our fourth kicker of the season and the man who finally provided not just stability but brilliance to the position after cutting off the head of the dread and terrible rampaging Scobee – invariably played his guts out and the team rallied around him. That is how this team was always conceived, and the wisdom underlying its construction showed in tense moments. Degree of difficulty doesn’t weather these bonds, it strengthens them.
There was no real reason to expect or fear the inevitable in Denver, because inevitability wasn’t in play. What I had always expected going in was a dogfight between two strong, proud, capable teams, and that is precisely what I got. On the first play of the game, Roethlisberger attempted to catch the Bronco secondary sleeping on his injured shoulder and lofted a bomb fifty yards in the air but, unfortunately/impressively, five yards in front of a streaking Markus Wheaton. So much for that question. Big Ben’s 24 for 37, 339-yard performance may have been merely okay by his gaudy standards of late, but he remains the only QB all year to put up 300 yards on the Bronco defense, which he did not once but twice. To that end, and in Brown’s absence, he was aided invaluably by emerging X receiver Martavis Bryant, whose uneven but explosive year following a pot suspension was properly contextualized by his superb play this postseason (his somersaulting juggle catch against the Bengals was one of the year’s best). The Steelers also got able supporting efforts from rookie Sammie Coates and veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, although Markus Wheaton was unable to build on the momentum of recent performances and turned in a pedestrian, five-catch effort for minimal yards, not counting a couple of close call miscues in the return game. The Broncos were stout and smart, and made a handful of big plays when they absolutely had to. I’m thinking of “Young Money” alumnus Emmanuel Sanders knocking a sure interception out of the hands of Steeler William Gay, who’d jumped a Manning route the way he does almost every one of his picks and looked primed to turn the game’s momentum on its ear, or that critical late moment, when the Steelers appeared to have all the momentum in the world, when Denver CB Bradley Roby punched the ball out of RB Fitz Touissant’s grasp as he pushed for extra yardage. Hell, the wind was even a tangible presence on field – routinely catapulting kickoffs ten yards past the back of the end zone and making dead solid scoring attempts go all squiggly in their otherwise true trajectories – though it played havoc not with field goals (8-8 between the two teams, including Brandon McManus’ depressing 5-5 clip), as you’d expect, but rather burrowed momentarily into the psyche of rookie Steelers punter Jordan Berry, who shanked two early punts for nets of approx. twenty-five yards apiece, gift-wrapping outstanding field position the Broncos parlayed into what would turn out to be decisive field goals.
Berry eventually settled down but never seemed completely settled, and the defense, for its part and to its credit, time and again turned away the prolific Broncos offense in or near the red zone, holding them, as alluded to above, to field goals. This defense, the subject of so much scrutiny and reflexive handwringing coming into the season, remains a work in progress, but the progress, where it’s come, has been head-turning. Today it came in guise of stalwart, run-stuffing play from DE Stephon Tuitt and LB Jarvis Jones – a kid often unfairly maligned in real time as a “first round bust” whose play is lately writing a different story – and time-defying, anti-ballistic big game hunting from LB James Harrison and S Will Allen, who are always around the ball in crucial moments. The Steelers D employed its unspoken “bend but don’t break” philosophy until the last possible moment, but lacked the splash plays and pressure that had pulled it out of mediocrity. Even then, this was a perilously close game, only ending on an unsuccessful onside kick attempt with the Steelers down 23-16. In a game fought so evenly, Denver’s +1 turnover margin almost couldn’t help but be the difference. I was as crestfallen at the loss as any fan, but my heart still couldn’t help but go out to Touissant, the fourth-string former practice squad player called up to fill the void when first Bell and then Williams fell to injury. In the late stages of the game, the CBS camera tracked him like a bloodhound, cutting with rich, unspoken approval to otherwise non-sequitur, and generally unremarked upon, shots of him sitting, watching the field in what one assumes was helpless disbelief. More than one commentator brought up similarities between this situation and the mind-bending denouement of the prior week’s AFC Wild Card game*, when Bengals RB Jeremy Hill’s 11th hour fumble allowed the Steelers a semi-miraculous opportunity to win even before immaturity (from professional knee-capper Vontaze Burfict) and rank stupidity (from noted voice of reason/judge of character Adam “Pacman” Jones) finally sealed it for them, but I don’t find the two terribly comparable. First off, Hill and Toussaint are not equivalent players. The former’s a rising star, the latter (formerly) a talented nobody, now the answer to an obscure trivia question. The Bengal fumble happened with just over a minute left in a game that was Cincy’s to lose, whereas the Steeler fumble occurred with ten minutes remaining in a game that, at that point, was totally up for grabs. Our late inability to protect Ben or do to a Denver runner what Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier did to Hill simply allowed the Broncos to finally put the game out of reach with climactic scores. People suggesting that some kind of karmic retribution or other celestial account-squaring was at play here have insufficient knowledge of what karma actually is, or else just need to come to sad grips with the fact that, for their teams, the NFL offseason is already well underway, and likely, that it started one week before the Steelers’ did and came, at least officially, at their hands. Sleep tight, unbiased, unsolicited, unpaid commentariat.
*As is often the case at DAE, my conceptual eyes for this post proved to be much larger than my stomach. I originally intended this to be a five-section mega-recap, with dedicated individual pieces on not merely the Denver loss, but last week’s still festering Cincinnati win, the remaining playoffs along with a Super Bowl pick (I have no idea who’s winning the NFC, but suffice it to say they’ve always been my team!), the Steelers’ season as a whole, and a few thoughts on 2016-17. That last bit – the Steelers now officially own the 25th pick in the draft and have an excess of workmanlike (though vital in 2015) talent either in its last contracted year or potentially poised for retirement – will likely come in the next installment of “Steelers Thoughts”. As for the Bungles, I don’t think there’s too much left to say. I understand the pain and frustration of following a team, believe me…but I also really missed using that nickname, and it’s to the credit of those many Bengals players that play hard and do things the right way that I’ve had so little cause to over the past several years. Still, it’s not pro wrestling out there. All teams, including mine, have pockets of awful fans, but if, as fans, you feel the further need to take on a weird, hyper-emotional, Conan the Barbarian sort of ethos at the expense of any sense of logic or perspective, it’s going to result in lovely performance art like public urination on the people in line in front of you, or cheering the injury of your opponent’s franchise QB and pelting him with garbage as he’s carted off the field. That’s football I guess. I’ve said many, MANY things in the name of fandom that I’m not proud of. My humble, if not sympathetic, suggestion is to keep it in your living room. And if, as an organization, you employ head cases like Burfict and Jones and then neither teach nor reign them in at all, yeah, they’re going to make some terrific plays for you because they’re well above average football players, but they’re also reckless, tone deaf wankers who are going to accuse brutally concussed opponents of faking their injury, and offer half-hearted apologies after the fact but full-throated schadenfreude when you finally do lose. They’ll probably also eventually cost you a game, or a season, or worse. I’d be grateful it’s only been the one time…so far.
My best friend and I spoke earlier in the week about this Steelers group and all it had faced and overcome just to get to this point. This team, after all, delivered two wins, the first gut-wrenching and the second inexplicable, on a golden platter to its five-win blood rival and, despite a 10-6 record, lauded offense, and opportunistic defense, needed unlikely help just to reach the playoffs, where it fought a phonebooth road battle pulsing with pure hatred, kept its composure to the last, and was rewarded for it. So amazing was the victory in Cincinnati that we were forced to agree that the team, given its pluck in the face of hardship, was now essentially playing with house money. Of course, that mindset changed completely at kickoff, if not an hour after we said it. It turns out that losing house money hurts like hell, too. I do like that head coach Mike Tomlin, true to established form, refused to even hint at excuses afterward. If it doesn’t seem I’m following his example here, I promise you’re subtly misreading my intentions. These aren’t sour grapes. I find myself legitimately impressed with this team’s accomplishments. I wonder how long it’ll be until my own latent bitterness creeps back in. It’s reasonable to wonder whether the Steelers, after battling hard all year, poured themselves so thoroughly into this game that there would’ve even been much left with which to face New England next week if they’d won. Presumably, we’d get Brown back, and possibly Williams, and with a focused defense and Ben surprisingly effective even with a bum wing, I think we’d have been formidable.
This Broncos-Steelers tilt marked the first playoff game in NFL history in which one of the teams was without both its leading receiver and leading rusher. I certainly think with them playing, the result is quite possibly different and we’re punching a ticket to scenic Foxboro this morning. But I can’t get hung up on what-ifs, in spite of how easy and tempting that might be. Instead, I choose to see our last minutes in Denver – one big mistake, one final push, a stirring effort that fell just short – as endemic of what kind of football team this is. Forgive me for being a glass half full character in the face of defeat – it does run contrary to so much of my original wiring and programming – but I loved loving this team in 2015 just as much as I loved loving it in 2005 or 2008. Please name another, or any, that ever came into a playoff game with essentially a walking, 6’5” question mark at quarterback, missing its all-world wide receiver, all-pro center (Maurkice Pouncey, who didn’t last the preseason), invaluable starting running back (DeAngelo Williams was injured early in the season finale, not to mention the all-pro running back in Le’Veon Bell we lost for good after only five starts) and could still go toe-to-toe with a top five QB all time and football’s best defense, in a legendarily hostile environment attuned to its advantage not merely in terms of morale but of more esoteric matters like, say, the ability to comfortably breathe. If you can’t do that, you didn’t follow the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Steelers. If you didn’t follow the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Steelers, I think you missed a ride for the ages.