Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
There is no question a time of transition has begun for the Pittsburgh Steelers--a small price for the recent Super Bowl success. However, that doesn't mean fans will have to endure a long-absence from the playoffs as a result.
It's true, back in 1978, John Paul II was elected the 264th Pope, and the Steelers won Super Bowl XIII later that year. Almost three decades later, in April of 2005, Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, and just nine months later, Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL. On Wednesday, 115 Cardinals from around the world gathered to elect Benedict's replacement, so I'm predicting Super Bowl success for Pittsburgh this year.
That might seem like a silly prediction, but that's the kind of intangible faith (and superstition) we Steelers fans are known for.
Unfortunately, things are looking rather bleak for the Black and Gold these days--James Harrison was released on Saturday, Mike Wallace just signed a lucrative deal with the Dolphins on Tuesday, Willie Colon was released, while Rashard Mendenhall signed with Cardinals on Wednesday, and it's just a matter of time before Keenan Lewis signs a rich contract with another team.
It appears that nothing short of Immaculate Intervention will make Pittsburgh competitive in the near future.
It's disappointing to see so many players go--including three fairly productive recent draft choices--but it's the price a team usually must pay for trying to keep a championship team together. Multiple Super Bowl appearances in a very short period doesn't happen to every team, and when it does it's only natural to want to ride that out until the very end.
Steelers fans resigned themselves long ago to the fact that their favorite team rarely makes a splash in the free agent market. But why bother looking outside your very own locker room when you have players the caliber of Hines Ward, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Ben Roethlisberger, Ike Taylor, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and LaMarr Woodley to try and re-sign? Any one of those players could have been highly-touted free-agents signed by another team, but Pittsburgh made sure they played their prime years right here, and the result was a second Super Bowl dynasty.
You really can't blame the Steelers for doing what they did. It's not very pleasant now that the blood-letting has begun--it's a real shame that a young corner like Lewis has to get caught up in the current--but wasn't it a fun ride? Would you trade the memories that 2005, 2008 and even 2010 produced?
I know I wouldn't.
And nothing about recent Steelers' history suggests more great memories won't be made in the near future.
The other day, I wrote a tribute piece, chronicling the many awesome linebackers that have come through Pittsburgh (I can't believe I forgot about Robin Cole, Kevin Greene and Chad Brown), but the rich history of talent hasn't been confined to linebackers.
Back in the late 90's, when Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson was close to calling it a career, the Steelers selected guard Alan Faneca in the first round of the 1998 NFL Draft. Dawson, who made seven Pro Bowls with Pittsburgh, was out of football after the 2000 season; a year later, Faneca would make his first of nine-straight Pro Bowls (six with Pittsburgh).
The 2000 season also happened to be the last one in a Steelers uniform for inside linebacker Levon Kirkland, who was waived by the team due to salary cap problems (sound familiar?) As I stated earlier, Pittsburgh NEVER makes a splash in free agency, but that doesn't mean the organization hasn't been successful in that regard. Within two seasons of Dawson's retirement and Kirkland's dismissal, the Steelers signed center Jeff Hartings from Detroit and linebacker James Farrior from the Jets, and both would play key roles in the team's Super Bowl resurgence.
Speaking of free agent signings who weren't considered sexy, what about Ryan Clark? Polamalu often talked about how in-tune he was with free safety Chris Hope when he played in Pittsburgh. Hope was a solid contributor to the Super Bowl XL team whose free agent price tag proved to be too much the following off-season, as he signed a six year deal with the Titans. The Steelers responded by signing Clark. Clark was far from a heralded free agent--Washington chose not to re-sign him following the '05 season--but by 2008, he was a key cog in a legendary defense that led the way to the team's record sixth Lombardi trophy.
And would Pittsburgh have even made it to Super Bowl XLV two years later if it wasn't for Clark's turnover-inducing heroics in the third quarter of the comeback victory over the Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs?
Clark has made himself into one of the most indispensable members of the Steelers' defense, and Polamalu now talks about the special bond the two share, both on and off the field.
If there's one thing the Steelers have shown in recent years, it's the ability to move on and rebound after productive players leave the team--just three seasons after Faneca left via free agency, the team drafted future Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.
Another example is Pittsburgh's receiver "tree" over the past decade.
Following the 2004 season, receiver Plaxico Burress became a much sought-after free agent who signed with the Giants. Pittsburgh responded by signing Cedrick Wilson from the 49ers, who would actually become the team's third receiver behind Ward and Anwaan Randle El. Ward, Randle El and Wilson weren't the best receivers in the NFL in 2005, but they helped lead the team to Super Bowl XL, where Randle El became the first and only receiver to throw a touchdown pass in the Steelers, 21-10, triumph over Seattle.
Much like Hope, Randle El's free agent price was too high, as the Redskins signed him to a lucrative deal. However, in the 2006 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh traded up in the first round to take Santonio Holmes, and three seasons later, his contributions to the team's Super Bowl XLIII Championship are now a thing of legend.
Nate Washington was the Steelers' designated deep threat during the '08 season, but like Hope a few years earlier, he moved on to Tennessee as a free agent in the off-season.
Pittsburgh selected Wallace in the third round in 2009, and he assumed Washington's role as the 3rd receiver, catching 39 passes and averaging nearly 20 yards per reception.
Unfortunately for Holmes, he proved to be more trouble than he was worth and was shipped off to the Jets prior to the 2010 season. Wallace stepped in and quickly became one of the best deep threats in the NFL, racking up over 1200 receiving yards as the Steelers advanced all the way to the Super Bowl.
It's hard to say how Pittsburgh will respond to the departure of players such as Wallace, and it's almost taboo to even suggest a rebuilding phase, but in today's NFL, rebuilding doesn't necessarily mean a long absence from the playoffs. Parity being what it is in 2013, new teams make the playoffs each season--the Colts and Vikings both made the playoffs a year ago after finishing a combined 5-27 in 2011--so why can't Pittsburgh, a team with a top-tier quarterback in Roethlisberger, rebound and make the postseason with the help of the third place schedule it will inherit in 2013?
The Steelers have made the postseason at least four teams in each decade, dating back to the 1970's. Even in the 1980's, a rather mediocre era that was the consequence of the franchise's initial Super Bowl dynasty, Pittsburgh still managed to make the playoffs four times and even made a couple of improbable Super Bowl runs in the process.
The Steelers have already made the playoffs two times so far in the 10's, and there's no reason to believe a decade long drought is on the horizon.
We have lots of tangible reasons to have faith in the Steelers' ability to get through this transition phase and bring us more playoff magic in the very near future--and none of those reasons have anything to do with a new Pope.