There are those out there who believe that winning the Super Bowl is the only thing, and that anything short of Lombardi is a failure. I am not one of those. I refuse to believe that 97 percent of the NFL, the greatest sports entity in the world, is a failure. To the contrary, I feel sorry for those people who believe that joy can only end with a parade. They should really take up another passion, one that doesn't threaten frustration for the rest of their lives. I wrote in my book, and I'll say it again here, successful destination is the pinnacle, make no mistake, but the fun is in the journey.
To realize how difficult it is to win the Super Bowl, try this exercise. Get 32 ping pong balls, write your name on just one of them and put them all into a brown paper bag. Once a year, just once on your birthday, reach into that bag and pull out one ball. See how long it takes, if ever, for you to pull out that one ball with your name on it. Thankfully, gratefully, the Pittsburgh Steelers have experienced that parade twice in the last six years and six times total, more than any other NFL franchise.
The Steelers went through unique and unprecedented adversity in this past year:
- Their franchise quarterback uses poor social judgment and was banished for the first quarter of the season.
- One of the best clutch wide receivers in the league puts one more straw on the camel's back and is banished for a fifth-round pick just prior to the Draft.
- The team loses both starting offensive tackles from an already mediocre line, causing them to ask a 35-year-old left tackle to move to the right side for the first time in his life, and asking a serviceable back-up to occupy the most important position on the offensive line at left tackle.
- Training camp was an awkward balancing act between giving reps to Big Ben and giving them to some other signal caller.
- The second-string quarterback was hurt in the exhibition season, necessitating the promotion of the #3 quarterback.
- The #3 quarterback goes down, leaving #4 to play against two teams who ended up winning 23 games this season.
- The team loses both kicking specialists. The punter went down to injured reserve while the enigmatic kicker also decided to place another straw on the camel's back and was dispatched in midseason.
- One of the team's three best defenders becomes the NFL's poster boy for how the game can no longer be played like it has been for 90 years, causing confusion, uncertainty and a delicate psychological predicament for the head coach and the clubhouse.
- Another of the three top defenders goes down with a triceps injury in October, never to be seen on the field again.
- The final defender in that trilogy nurses a heel injury and clearly was just a percentage of what he should have been, when the team needed him most.
Put all of that load on another franchise and you'd be lucky to win three games. The Pittsburgh Steelers, not just any other franchise, finished in the Super Bowl with at least 14 victories. Navigating like Jason and the Argonauts through the Clashing Rocks, Head Coach Mike Tomlin deserves to be the NFL's Coach-of-the-Year. Consider that only Tomlin and Bill Belichick are the only two coaches who, from 2007, have coached all 64 regular season games with playoff hopes still on the line. Mike Tomlin has never coached an NFL game when his team was not still in playoff contention.
The Steelers defeated all three of their division rivals twice this past year. They beat the Ravens twice in two of the greatest football games in recent memory, and they embarrassed the hated Cleveland Browns - that alone is a successful season in my book. That home playoff game against Baltimore was epic. Trailing a team like that by 14 points at half was as close to insurmountable as possible. Yet the team rose from the ashes. During that third quarter, if the power had gone out in Heinz Field, the lights would have remained on just from the electricity from the fans. The game in Baltimore was another classic. Beating Atlanta in overtime, Tennessee on the road and then thrashing Tampa - all without Ben, and then damn near beating Baltimore with our fourth-string quarterback, made for a memorable season.
We all have our moments to remember. I went to Cleveland for that final regular season game when Pittsburgh humiliated the Browns in their own yard. It is hard to imagine that more Steelers fans than Browns fans were in that stadium after that game ended, a site that I had never seen before in my 50 years of following the NFL. I stayed until the end to savor every moment. The black and gold fans went to the tunnel area where Steelers players and coaches stopped to salute us. I will never forget that site, in Cleveland! These great moments cannot be erased by falling short in the end.
Consider that the Steelers made the NFL Final Four for the 15th time since the merger of 1970. They passed Dallas to now lead the league with that milestone. Fifteen times in 41 seasons is a remarkable 37 percent - well more than a third of the time this beloved franchise makes it to the Championship Game. And we're not talking about a little stretch of time like the Patriots or Colts have with their all-world quarterbacks, we're talking a span of 41 years. Moreover, the Steelers now have 31 winning seasons in those 41 years, putting more separation from the Cowboys and Dolphins (29).
The team was given two mandates by ownership during the last offseason. One was to run the ball better when the team had to run the ball. Yes, the offensive line continued with injury and turmoil, yet the Steelers ranked number one in the NFL in converting third-and-one situations (85%). The second mandate was to do a better job of getting the young players ready sooner. How about a rookie center playing right away and making the Pro Bowl? How about two outstanding wide receivers improving through the season to have a major impact? Only Jason Worilds, who might be a star in the making, sat in the shade due to the caliber of the current linebacking corp. The future is bright.
Consider these three added nuggets for Steeler Nation as it heads into the offseason:
- Milledgeville is over. Of course, Ben still needs to hang on the right side of the tracks, but if so, we have reached the point where people will actually defend Ben if Milledgeville is brought up again (e.g. Goodell/King). There is nothing like the glare of the Super Bowl to bring everything out once and for all. Everyone from Egypt to Australia has had their whacks. It is now forever old news.
- While the offensive line has been triaged with duct tape and bubble gum, in essense, the Steelers have two free agent additions (pending signings and the labor deal), Starks and Colon, who will be welcomed reinforcements to the line. With now alot of experienced players, healthy competition will only make that unit better. Add Sean Kugler to the mix, considering all that he has done this year, and the future actually looks very bright for the O-line.
- The receiving corp is a young energetic group that looks to add excitement for many years to come. These guys might even merit a nickname of sorts being so young and fast and clutch. With Ben and Mendy also being young, those who think the window of opportunity is closing for the Streelers might be pleasantly surprised otherwise.
The beauty of the NFL is that when one season ends, hopes for the next season begin immediately. The Steelers still need to figure out the offensive line and the aging defense needs more youth ready to replace legends who will soon ride into the sunset. And, there are free agents aplenty who are making Steeler Nation nervous as long as they remain unsigned. I am sure we will be having these discussions over the next three months. But while we do, keep that smile on your face Steeler Nation. The real joy of life is in the journey, not the destination. This past season has been a great, great journey. Thank you Steelers.