The Pittsburgh Steelers have basically had two-types of eras in their history. The years when they weren't serious World Championship contenders (1933-1971 and the early 80's-1991) and the years when they were multiple-time Super Bowl Champions (1972-1979 and 2004-the present).
But there was one unique era when the Steelers were legitimate World Championship contenders but could never quite get over the hump (1992-1997). During that six-year stretch, the Steelers made the playoffs each season, won their division five-times, advanced to the AFC Championship game three-times, and appeared in one Super Bowl.
When I first started following the Steelers on a regular basis as a kid in the early 80's, they were a team in decline after years of excellence in the 70's. This was no surprise--it is usually the norm for teams to suffer years of mediocrity after many years of success--but that didn't make it any less painful to experience as a young fan.
From 1980 through 1991, the Steelers only won 10 games one time and from 1985 through 1991, they finished below .500 four times. Pittsburgh did make the playoffs in 1984 and again in 1989, and they were both memorable years that I will always cherish, but the Steelers were a Cinderella story in each of those seasons. They were the "little engine that could", not a team to be taken seriously as one of the best and most formidable groups in the NFL.
Legendary Head Coach Chuck Noll was in his final years as the on-field leader of the Pittsburgh Steelers and when he retired following the '91 season, I wondered if I would ever again see a time when the Steelers were bona fide Super Bowl contenders.
After Bill Cowher succeeded Noll in 1992, I never had to wonder any longer. He brought a new approach and energy to the organization and it began to pay huge dividends almost immediately.
The team finished with its best record since the 70's at 11-5 in '92 and not only made the playoffs, but earned the number 1 seed in the AFC. They didn't miss the playoffs again until 1998--almost matching the streak of the Super Steelers of the 1970's. Not even the current multiple-Super Bowl-winning Steelers can claim such a postseason streak.
The Steelers of the 90's will never fully be celebrated like the teams of the 70's and this current era and that's to be expected. The Steelers of the 70's were the greatest dynasty in the history of the league. They had 9-Hall-of-Fame players on their roster. And this current era of awesome Steelers football, with multiple Super Bowl appearances and championships, will also receive the accolades it richly deserves for decades to come. Popular players like The Bus, Hines, and Troy will be revered for generations like Franco, Swanny, and "Mean" Joe have been since well before their playing-days were over.
I'm not saying it's wrong that the teams of the 90's don't get the same kind of love and recognition in the community that a multi-time World Championship team gets. That kind of adulation and glory goes along with it. Like Joey Porter said after Super Bowl XL, it's the bells and whistles of winning a World Championship. You get the parade, endorsements, and maybe even a statue or two.
And teams that win multiple championships with charismatic and talented players such as Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, James Harrison, and Ben Roethlisberger deserve such recognition.
But the Steelers of 1992-1997 were only a couple of heartbreaking losses away from joining the Steelers of the 70's and the Steelers of today as Super Bowl champions.
Maybe if they had won a Super Bowl or two, it wouldn't be just Rod Woodson as the lone Hall of Fame representative from that era. Dermontti Dawson would probably have been inducted already, and perhaps even Carnell Lake would be getting some mild-consideration. A Super Bowl victory may have elevated Neil O'Donnell's status to that of a hero in this town instead of one of the most hated-athletes in the history of Pittsburgh. After all, he's only one of three quarterbacks to ever lead our beloved Steelers to a Super Bowl. A World Championship may have made players like Levon Kirkland and John Jackson fixtures in the community like Andy Russell and Rocky Bleier have been for years.
The accomplishments of the 70's Steelers may never be duplicated and the teams of the last 7-years have produced some of the greatest games and players Pittsburgh has ever seen.
But those Steelers of the 90's will always have a special place in my heart.