Thanksgiving Day preceded by a win over a division rival. The numerals "5" and "7"populating the win loss columns. An up and down season. Controversy over rules. A Steelers team in transition struggling to find its way.
Of course this is the story to date of the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers. But it is also the story of the 1998 Pittsburgh Steelers. The symmetries do not line up perfectly. Rarely do they. But the parallels history provides offer both peril and promise for Pittsburgh.
The 1998 Pittsburgh Steelers
Mr. Willliam Laird Cowher never matched his predecessor's Lombardi count. But he will always be able to boast to tell his grandchildren that accomplished something that Chuck Noll never did, and that was to take his first seven Steelers teams to the playoffs.
- And he did so facing a hazard that Noll never had to negotiate - an annual exodus of free agents.
Under the guidance of Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher, the Steelers of the mid-90's kept winning when everyone said they should be losing. 1998 would be the year the naysayers got it right, but on Thanksgiving Day that fact, while on the horizon, was far from confirmed.
By that point the 1998 Steelers had played in their share of ugly losses. An 2-0 start followed by a shut out vs. Miami. A gritty win vs. Seattle where injuries forced the Steelers to play all dressed lineman offensive lineman (sound familiar?), preceded the indignity of a last minute loss at Cincinnati at the hands of none other than Neil O'Donnell.
Wins vs. Baltimore and on Monday night vs. Kansas City, in a game that saw Hines Ward throw his first NFL pass, seemed to put the Steelers back on track. But then the following week at Three Rivers Stadium, Eddie George plowed through the Steelers defense like a spoon through mashed potatoes. Tennessee would win again two weeks later.
But on either side of those losses came convincing, or seemingly convincing, wins vs. Green Bay and Jacksonville. As chronicled earlier here on BTSC, Steelers Nation now knows those to be mere "Tease Games."
But that wasn't quite apparent on Thanksgiving Day 1998, where a trip to Motor City and its rookie quarterback Charlie Batch seemed like the perfect antidote.
Thanksgiving Day 1998
The Detroit Lions entered the day at 4-7. The Steelers at 7-4. By any measure the game should have been a cake walk for the Steelers. Yet, instead of taking control of the game, they dropped passes and relied on Norm Johnson's leg. Jerome Bettis only amassed 67 yards on 26 carries. But that doubled Barry Sanders' total of 33.
The Steelers nonetheless held a 13-6 lead going into the fourth quarter, until Homestead native Charlie Batch made it interesting by burning Carnell Lake to connect for a 21 yard touchdown strike to Herman Moore. The Lions tacked on a field goal, yet the Steelers fought back. And with 1 second remaining on the clock, Norm Johnson sent the game to overtime....
- Then things got interesting.
In what will be the most infamous coin toss in sports history, Jerome Bettis and Carnell Lake strode to midfield to represent the Steelers. With the coin in the air, Bettis clearly called out "Tails."
The coin landed. It was "tails."
Referee Phil Luckett confirmed the flip explaining, "The coin says tails, but the call was heads. Detroit, do you wish to kick or receive?" Defensive end Robert Porcher, representing Detroit for the coin toss, was stunned with disbelief. But he gathered enough wits about him to take the ball.
It didn't take long for Herman Moore seemed to have taken control of the game when beat Carnell Lake again for a 28 yard pass.
- Yet on third and 11, Darren Perry and Chris Oldham seemed to swing things back in Pittsburgh's favor, by sacking Batch for a ten yard loss.
Once again, the official intervened again, flagging Oldham for a facemask.
At the time, officials could call a 5 yard unintentional face mask or a 15 yard and automatic first down intentional one. This clearly should have been an unintentional 5 yard foul, but the officials ruled it 15.
The Lions kicked the field goal icing the game in the NFL's then sudden death overtime rules.
Fast Forward 15 Years to the 2013 Steelers
The parallels between Thanksgiving Day of games 1998 and 2013 are uncanny.
Field goals instead of touchdowns. Last minute rallies and multiple false endings. Poor judgment calls by officials and blatant officiating errors.
- Yet if the parallels ring a little a little too true to the collective ears of Steelers Nation, ironically the juxtapositions offer something more interesting.
The 1998 Steelers started off slowly but managed to get a lead in spite of themselves, only to watch it slip away. The 2013 Steelers started slowly, on offense at least, but roared back to life with contributions from across the board.
Mike Tomlin's Sideline Shuffle of course has created a fire storm of controversy, just as did referee Phil Luckette's inability to distinguish "tails" from heads in a spoken word format.Tomlin's transgression had no impact on the game (Cortez Allen was most likely going to catch him) , yet he got punished. Luckette's ineptitude did impact the result of the game, yet he was not disciplined and kept on officiating.
The 1998 Steelers Thanksgiving loss in Detroit left them at 7-5, but still very much in the AFC Central race. The 2013 Steelers Thanksgiving loss left the at 5-7 with their playoff chances hanging by a thread.
But in the '98 Thanksgiving Day loss, the Steelers had the look of a player juggling a routine catch, trying to get under control while he's still in bounds, when he fails the natural thought is, "If he can complete that, he doesn't deserve it."
In due course, the 1998 Steelers would lose their next and final 4 games, as the "My buddy's the Cop" phase of Kordell Stewart's career began in earnest. The blown coin flip took the wind out of the team's sails, and by the end all but a handful of players quit on Cowher.
But what of these 2013 Steelers?
The fight, determination, and tenacity they showed in the second half, and particularly at the goal, lent an almost story-like quality to the game; almost like Friday Night Lights the movie goes pro.
Can the 2013 Steelers turn the tables and produce Thanksgiving Day loss results that are the inverse of their 1998 brethren?
Time will tell. But bet on Mike Tomlin's team to fight to the end.