In the privacy of my home, or a friend’s, or the relative safety of a Steeler bar or especially rowdy corner table, believe you me, I’ll gladly rag on your team, and your players, and your fanbase, and your ownership, your stupid, overrated city, and adorable but misplaced civic pride – and the refs (especially the refs) – until they are all bleeding like sieves from multiple metaphorical wounds. No enemy is technically within earshot and so, in my view, no one technically gets hurt. I fully expect and endorse the same treatment from opposing fans, so long as I’m not around to hear that either. Convenient, no? Venting one’s spleen in a controlled, friendly environment can be terribly therapeutic. I wish it wasn’t strictly necessary, of course, but outside of vicarious onfield accomplishments – which, let’s face it, are fleeting and never, ever a given – it’s just about the only solace to be reliably found in sports. There is a very good reason that I keep my in-person trash talking to a bare minimum, however… or, rather, two. One – I’m not convinced it’s always harmless fun, nor am I without shame. I have evolved over almost forty years as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan into an anthropomorphic cauldron of bubbling hatred, wrapped in decorative black and yellow ribbon and exceedingly thin skin. As we share a perhaps overly emotional bond to a merciless game, I can’t trust you to be 100% civil and maintain perspective face-to-face any more than I do myself. I’ll certainly buy you a beer after, and we can maybe talk about something less divisive and triggering, like politics.
Two – The worm always turns. Frigging always, and I don’t want to hear about it, from you, or us, or anyone. As exhibit A, I present your 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers, a team for whom, after Sunday’s morbidly fascinating second half meltdown against the Los Diego Fighting Irish Chargers, any reasonable week-to-week performance expectations can officially now be checked at the door. Pin whatever cliche about championship teams you wish to the Steelers donkey. This team will more than likely reduce it to bloody tatters. I had thought the worm definitively turned three Sundays ago against the Jacksonville Jaguars, in a game that, at the time, felt closer to an exorcism than an athletic contest. The Steelers overcame multiple turnovers and crippling deja-vu to storm back against a bogeyman that had gashed and dismantled them during the 2017 regular season and then conclusively eliminated them from the playoffs, dramatically winning the 2018 meeting with mere seconds to spare. The air was thick with adult invective that day, as I and a loud group of friends/well-wishers essentially took over a Columbus bar with no official allegiance in a bloodless coup. It was an amazing turn of events, and precisely the sort of thing you watch sports for. We were flabbergasted, exhausted, and exuberant. I almost wrote about it, but the annoying voice in my head convinced me the worm might turn again if I tested fate. Turns out that the universe doesn’t even regard me highly enough to enjoy puncturing my hubris. So that’s edifying and fun.
Victories like Jacksonville are supposed to be not just a turning point but a Rubicon, a line that can only be crossed once, brooks no backward step, and unleashes the sort of momentum that can carry its passenger/spur its wielder to potentially great things. A mere week later, I had the sad privilege of listening to our game against the Denver Broncos during an extended car ride home from the Thanksgiving holiday and receiving a combination reality check and unnecessary object lesson in the treachery and fickle nature of our proverbial worm. Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate that Sirius XM radio offers NFL play by play in its “Howard Stern” package, but those games never end well for me. I don’t know what sort of permanent embargo is in effect that forces me to listen to the other team’s chucklehead commentators instead of Hillgrove, Ilkin, and Wolfley, but it is maddening. This is in no small part because their respective scrappy little engines that could always seem to do so well against unenviable odds and give those local yokels something to really shout and strut about. (I still remember Jay Ajayi’s inexplicable coming out party against us a few years ago.) I can barely recount how many times Denver’s announcers stood in stunned admiration at how the Broncos were still even in this game despite essentially being doubled up in terms of yards gained and time of possession by Pittsburgh’s mid-octane offense. Four turnovers during critical drives – all hideous, all timely, all debilitating – will derail even the most fearsome, rumbling train.
The Steelers scrambled for survival and were able to pull it together against Jacksonville, but only because their bipolar defense kept the game within arm’s length while the offense refocused on efficiency. Against Denver, that defense allowed too many individual big plays without making any of their own, and that, paired with painful mental lapses in all three phases, and those four absolutely shattering takeaways, triggered a Rocky Mountain avalanche, resulting in a loss to an objectively inferior team.* Ben Roethlisberger’s astonishing final-second goal line interception to nobody whatsoever ended the game in high style, and he spent much of the following week trying to explain the inexplicable, casting conspicuous blame on any number of teammates who didn’t also wear John Elway’s old number. He might find fewer places to realistically deflect fault after the Charger game, if that’s even possible, having, after a generally superlative first half, not only helped enable the Chargers’ unlikely comeback from a 23-7 deficit by orchestrating a post-halftime offense that puffed and floundered until finding itself uncomfortably deep in the jaws of crunchtime, but also floating a(nother) timely interception five yards over the head of TE Vance McDonald to kill a(nother) promising drive. At the time, the interception seemed disappointing but not apocalyptic. Conditioned by past trauma, no fan who valued his or her sanity wanted to see it as an ill omen. Nevertheless, if the Steelers owned the first half, luck and much more would be on the Chargers’ side in the second.
*The Broncos, to their credit, seem to have parlayed their Steeler win into just the sort of momentum I’d figured might follow us out of Jacksonville. Perhaps their worm will turn soon, though it’s nothing that can be predicted with any measure of certainty. All I can hope for is that if we meet in the playoffs, it won’t have to be in Denver (yet again). Their defense is legit.
Despite that earlier admission, my personal policy is to rarely ever blame referees for losses outright. The Steelers made this bed, then converted it from a California King into a sinkhole. Beyond the offensive third quarter offense and overly accommodating second half D, hard-charging safety Sean Davis flung himself into both Joe Haden and the path of a critical foiled interception. James Conner was lost late in the game with a lower leg contusion. Pro Bowl(t) WR Keenan Allen was guarded by overmatched linebackers for much of the evening, reaping a predictable windfall. The Chargers needed three consecutive last-second field goal attempts to secure the win, and got them all when first a miss and then a block were negated by Offside penalties. Still, the Charger efforts had significant help. Their first touchdown of the game came on a sideline bomb gifted by a missed False Start penalty so glaringly obvious that it caused everyone on the field but the receiver to lose a step in disbelief.** A punt return touchdown was later allowed despite the presence of a textbook illegal block in the back. It’s been argued that Haden was not actually offside on the missed, prepenultimate field goal, and, more persuasively, that the Chargers’ blackjack dealer of a long snapper helped induce the second Offside by illegally shuffling the ball before hiking it. Beleaguered CB Artie Burns was, indeed, offside by a country mile on the final, successful attempt, and overshot the kicker wildly instead of impeding him. That one’s on him, the same way this one is on the Steelers.
**I know full well how much nicer it is to be gainfully employed than not, and I’m not calling for any scalps here. Still, as a Browns-loving coworker reminded me first thing Monday morning, his team fell victim to a similar uncalled head-slapper against the Chargers earlier this season and the NFL actually later fired the offending referee. The egregious non-call in our game coyoted the Chargers’ only sign of offensive life in the entire first half when, instead, it should have wiped the damned thing out. That same coworker and his band of Merry Brown Men smiled in sheepish agreement when I railed against the reversed call from our respective teams’ season-opening tilt, when an entire refereeing crew somehow couldn’t discern that a kick had bounced off the face of a Brown and, as a newly live ball, into the alert and waiting arms of the aforementioned Davis. The Steelers were oozing momentum at that point and this ridiculous bit of revisionist history stopped the bleeding long enough for the talented Browns to find themselves. I’ve heard so many official dodges from the League’s impressive team of amateur physicists about which way that ball was spinning, but nobody yet has been able to explain how the same ball could suddenly change trajectory in mid-air – from literally a 60 to a 90-degree angle – without the catalyst of, I dunno, bouncing off a receiving player’s helmet. We’re not analyzing the Zapruder film here. Of course, that didn’t lead to a conviction either.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. This was “Alumni Weekend” in Pittsburgh, an occasion ripe with spine-tingling photo opportunities that brought together former champions, from Super Bowls XIII and XLIII respectively – to say nothing of all the busts in Canton – to mingle with what we still hope are future ones. I got especially wistful watching the XLIII reunion of defensive line and edge rushers – Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Lamarr Woodley, and even prodigal son James Harrison letting go the bygones – in spite of the fact that, at least from a statistical standpoint, quarterback pressure is not the 2018 Steelers’ problem. Inconsistency most definitely is. We’ve seen it all before by now, and repeatedly. Engaging and dynamic, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the League’s breakout stars; The ascendant James Conner is arguably its best individual story. Ben and Antonio Brown seem to break a new team record every other week. Even with Le’Veon Bell now gone by his own hand and largely forgotten, if not altogether buried, this offense should be volcanic. Instead, it operates in quick, exceptional bursts that pierce what all too often are periods of listlessness or outright stagnation. The defense alternates between overachieving mightily and struggling to achieve, period. We not only need Ryan Shazier back on patrol, we need Rod Woodson. Or Mel Blount. Even on those rare occasions when the Steelers legitimately have someone else to share the blame – a visibly aggrieved Mike Tomlin refused to comment on the horrid officiating post-game, tersely stating that he’d, “already sent enough money to New York” – it still rings hollow.
I don’t write these “Steelers Thoughts” columns with near enough regularity (you’re welcome) to feel comfortable scorching or even singeing the earth and then just leaving. This final paragraph then – because so often, and like so many fans, I am only truly compelled to speak when things are bad – is inevitably where I try to put a positive spin on things for the future. It’s a sickness. My Dad always told me that’s a key ingredient to a happy life, to “live in the future”. So, yeah, blame him…because right now I’m conflicted, and annoyed. The Steelers contend that a two-game skid, however nauseating, is no cause to “push the panic button”, so I’ll try to follow suit. I still believe this team can accomplish great things. I believe in its talent level; I believe in the sincerity and work ethic of individuals from the tip top to the Practice Squad, from the coaches room to the owner’s box. What Sunday’s devastating loss to the Chargers, and the refs, and the Steelers, accomplished was to rob me of any expectation that this team would accomplish great things. And that sucks. And it stings. I can’t tell you how wrong I hope I am, but unlike a simple majority of referee calls onfield – No, that a player lying flat on his back with a mild concussion involuntarily let go of a ball which you then scooped up and ran ninety yards the other way does not automatically mean you just scored a touchdown – I will have to be definitively proven wrong. Until then, I must be content to be surprised more often than I am disappointed. This team has it in them, I think, to prove as well as to survive; to thrive as well as to sputter. The worm may yet turn again in 2018. That so often does seem to be the case.