I have known the game of football for just eight years. When I came to the U.S. to study, I had no clue what "first-and-ten" was, or what a tight end was supposed to do. But I learned that very quickly because the city I was blessed to live in for a year was Pittsburgh.
By the time I got through the preseason games, I knew that last year the Steelers went 15-1, that they had this young quarterback named who was supposed to be really good, that their second-best guy decided to postpone retirement for a year, and their third-best guy was "holding out" because he wanted a better contract. And once I figured out the basic rules of the game, I felt I was in great shape entering my first football season.
And what a season it was.
The Steelers went 7-2, then 7-5, then 11-5, won three games on the road in the playoffs and beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl – the team’s first in 26 years. Except that for me there was no quarter-century wait, it was my first season, and it immediately ended with a championship of the team I fell in love with. The expectations bar was set pretty high; the frame of reference was made brutally strict. But back then I was sure that that was the standard – the level of success the team was expected to achieve year in, year out.
And it didn’t matter that next year the Steelers went a disappointing 8-8 (with being 2-6 halfway through the season), or that the team was ravaged with injuries (some of them life-threatening). That was just an aberration, bad luck. Things were still fine – we had the same nasty defence, we had the same great quarterback. And even Coach Cowher’s departure after the 2006 campaign did not shake that confident feeling of stability – we had Dick LeBeau, Coach Dad.
Following years did nothing to lower the expectations bar. Another championship in 2008 and a Super Bowl appearance in 2010 did their thing, early playoff exits in 2007 and 2011 were disappointing but at some level – understandable, and the key feeling remained strong – this team has a core that will keep it at the top, competitive for the title each year.
Until 2012. This was the year that came with a realization that very soon the Steelers may not look the same – in a big way. Big Ben is getting older, and with the extent of injury he goes through every year, this can’t last too long. Coach LeBeau is even older, and every season could be his last. Heck, even Troy Polamalu is getting more and more grey hair. And the likes of Hines Ward and James Farrior were asked to retire from football. Too much was changing and that could not be good.
And so it happened. Things did unravel in 2012. Ben got injured while playing his best football, the defense faltered in the most inopportune moments and, to make things much, much worse all the things fell into their places for the hated Ravens and they won the Super Bowl. And after the season, with the Steelers licking their wounds and fighting for salary cap space, more of the past is going away. Harrison is gone, Hampton will probably follow suit. Mike Wallace isn’t coming back.
These will be the new Steelers that will have to face the defending champs twice in the regular season. The 2013 Steelers will not be a Super Bowl favorite. They will not even be picked to make playoffs this year. That’s a dip in expectations.
But how does one deal with that? I should have known that the team cannot always win – especially in the league with so much emphasis on parity. I should have known that players get old, get hurt and get cut. And I should have known that this is a offense league, where the great D will only get you this far. I did know all that. But it is still painfully difficult to imagine the team selecting a starting QB in the draft – will it be Big Ben, or will it be Tommy Maddox? A team can’t just hit two jackpots on QBs in a row, right?
Or how about the defense? Will there be a new James Harrison? Or Troy Polamalu? Or Casey Hampton? Before we see anyone who could fill their shoes – I will have my doubts.
This is this nasty, nagging feeling that makes me forget that even in the eight years of my following of the Steelers, the team was perfectly able to replace outgoing LBs – Clark Haggans, Joey Porter, Larry Foote… I forget that the Steelers have what may be a fantastic, young offensive line (when everybody gets healthy)… I forget that at 31, a QB is in his prime… I forget that the QB has a couple of great young speedsters to throw to…
There are just too many question marks, too many holes on the roster and too many misses in the recent drafts to be sure that the Steelers can overcome that, and that they can be in the playoff picture come Week 17. Too much is changing.
How does one deal with that?
I guess there's no other way than just wait – for the draft, for the OTAs, for the camp, for the preseason and for Week 1 – with hope in the heart. But, boy, is that a strange feeling.