During the off-season prior to the 2012-2013 season, I, like most Steelers fans, was feeling the burn of the overtime loss to the Broncos in the playoffs. Immediately I wanted the opportunity to see the team back in the playoffs with a chance to prove themselves. After a second consecutive 12-4 season such an opportunity seemed likely and there was much hope in Steeler Nation for a rebound. However inwardly I worried about the oncoming intangible that spelled trouble for Pittsburgh: the Steelers Cycle.
The Steelers cycle has been a revolving three year period in effect since the 2001-2002 NFL season. Every three seasons the Steelers will make the playoffs for two seasons and then for one reason or another, miss the playoffs in the third. It has been a pattern that the franchise’s fortune has followed for 12 straight seasons. Sometimes the cycle has come with horrible unexpected bad luck to specific players, other times it involves a random drop in the team’s production.
However the cycle also can bring good tidings for the franchise. Each time the Steelers have missed the playoffs they rebound very well. There has only been one instance since the existence of this cycle that in the year subsequent to missing the playoffs where the Steelers did not at least play in the AFC championship game (2007, and that year was followed by a Super Bowl victory). After 2001 the Steelers took a drastic change in direction with Tommy Maddox under center. While I personally felt this was a long term mistake, it seemed like the right thing to do after Maddox led the Steelers to one of their better playoff comebacks in recent history against the Cleveland Browns in the 2002-2003 playoffs. However the reality hit hard that No. 8 was just a journeyman quarterback without any mobility in 2003 when the team had a 6-10 record (a record that is the lowest the team has achieved since before the Cowher era).
It looked as if the team that just a few years ago was a blocked field goal touchdown return from going to the Super Bowl was dismantled and no longer a contender. Then the world witnessed the coming of Ben Roethlisberger and his remarkable 15 game winning streak as a starter to begin his career that led the Steelers to the AFC championship game again. That cycle came around however after a Super Bowl victory, with much credit going to Super Bowl blues in 2006 and a near-death motor cycle accident that led to Roethlisberger’s worst year of his career.
The two following years yielded yet another Super Bowl victory under the direction of Mike Tomlin. But the cycle’s downside struck again in 2009 when Troy Polamalu suffered an injury in week one against the Tennessee Titans that would prevent him from being effective for the rest of that season. The Steelers' defense never recovered from his injury and Tyrone Carter was exposed as a weakness in the defense. The team went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. However the team again rebounded by winning the AFC championship game the following year and Polamalu earning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. The defense which dominated for almost an entire decade still wrecked havoc upon opposing offenses and Ben Roethlisberger was finding different ways to win games. The absence of Santonio Holmes might have cost the Steelers the Super Bowl against the Packers, but the emergence of Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown provided a litany of receivers to choose from to see who would step up to become the new leader of the proud unit once Hines Ward retired.
We just saw the end of this revolution in the cycle after a brutal injury to Roethlisberger against the Chiefs added on top of a long list of injuries including the former first round draft pick and starting running back Rashard Mendenhall, injuries to almost every starting offensive lineman, and a depleted secondary that could only field it’s fourth-string corner back in Curtis Brown against the Cowboys.
The powers that be seem to dictate this year the team will make the playoffs! The past three cycles have yielded the Steelers one Super Bowl appearance per three years. Three of the four cycles have involved a defeat of the Ravens (2001, 2008, 2010). Should the cycle hold up, we could be in for a fun two years.
Disclaimer: In all reality this has no actual effect on the team’s performance on the field. Superstitious topics are fun to converse over when bizarre injuries and inexplicable happenings occur, and every fan-base would like to deflect their team’s mistakes and shortcomings onto a phenomenon that does not involve the team’s own inadequacies. This is a lot like the Madden curse, the curse of the Terrible Towel, and other superstitious institutions made up from the fanaticism of loving fans.
Whereas I was hoping the cycle superstition wouldn’t hold up this time last year, and the great Stevie Wonder warns us not to believe in things we don’t understand, this Steelers fan hopes for the cycle to hold true for at least another year.