"THESE are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine, on the darkest day of the year, two days before Christmas, in 1776.
"The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." It got dark and cold early this year, Steeler fans.
And the home opener tried not only our patience, but - among true believers - our very souls. Homer was so upset, he headed for the Red Lobster to gorge himself on unlimited shrimp (scampi and hand breaded) and drown his sorrows with cold, delicious beer.
But even that failed to ease the pain, and he spent Sunday night beset with the twin demons of indigestion and flatulence. There is the haunting fear that the Steelers simply are not who we thought they are.
They looked awful in pre-season. Pre-season matters little, except that it helps shape the bottom half of the roster and the special teams. Yet what we saw in pre-season after the starters went out provided little reason for enthusiasm beyond Jones and Wheaton and a few others.
The Steelers, right now, are a lot like Pittsburgh was right after the steel mills closed down. The very old stayed, and the students stayed, but the middle-agers, those in the prime of their lives, left town to find work and the 'burgh was forced to live with what they called a "demographic hole."
Right now, the Steelers have a good number of veterans, and a number of extremely promising rookies, but the ghosts of Limas Sweed, Mendenhall, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, and others haunt this franchise. Years two through six are the prime years, and there simply are not enough guys left from those drafts still on this roster.
There is a demographic hole, and it's the absence of star players who should be in the prime of their careers. A lot of what has happened has been bad luck. The injuries to DeCastro and Spence last summer - and the antics of Ta'amu and Rainey - made that a star-crossed draft.
Earlier, we heard how lucky the Steelers were that Mendenhall and Sweed were passed over by so many teams. Well, maybe we ought to rethink our luck and wonder what other teams knew that Colbert & Co didn't know. The draft, of course, is a crapshoot after the first eight or ten picks, and the Steelers regularly draft somewhere around twenty.
That, and salary cap hell, made a day of reckoning all the more likely. And now it's here. Parity is a bitch for winners. You draft lower, pay your stars more, and, sooner or later, it comes back to bite you.
Everyone has known the offensive line has been a problem, and they have done their best to address the problem, with two first round picks and two second round picks in recent drafts. They just haven't stayed healthy, and when they have, they haven't jelled as a unit. Everyone says they are athletic, but are they strong enough to control the line of scrimmage? We haven't seen that. At least not yet.
Perhaps the most frightening thing is that a team that used to be very, very deep has been scavenging the waiver wire, and the bottom half of the roster appears to have more holes in it than the hulk of the Titanic. Yeah, they picked up a Wallace, but it's Cody and he ain't Mike. And while they let go Starks and Legursky, their efforts to find an OL backup ended not with a bang but a Whimper (Homer apologizes).
It's a long season, and, as the veterans suffer injuries, these guys from the bottom half of the roster will be the next man up. That's not the most comforting thought. Just as unsettling was the coaching and game management of the home opener. The fumble on the opening drive was inexcusable on far too many levels. They did not have the right package in the game for the play that was called. They started to send the right players in, but time was running short on the play clock, so they called them back and went with the guys already in the game.
Ben got them to the line with four seconds left on the play clock, rushed the count, rushed the snap, fouled up his footwork, and botched the handoff, handing it off far too high and Redman never had full control of the ball. If there's one thing about a quick hitter, it's that you can't mess up the exchange. It comes too quick, and it's too close to the line of scrimmage. There is no room for error. None.
For Tomlin, Haley, and Roethlisberger to suffer simultaneous brain farts and fail to call a time out (all three TO's were remaining) is simply inexcusable. Nor did the coaching staff earn any plaudits with adjustments made after the loss of Pouncey. The status of Miller and Spaeth left them short at TE, and when Beachum had to move to Center, they were left with the tight end on many of their planned packages having to play center.
With the 53 and 45, you always have to gamble. Do you suit up an extra guy on the OL or the DL? Or ST? You gotta choose. They gambled that Pouncey wouldn't get hurt. They lost that gamble. And whatever adjustments were made after Beachum moved to center didn't seem to work. The offensive line made up for its lack of run blocking by failing to protect the quarterback.
The question now is whether the Steelers are as bad as they looked Sunday, and whether they can rally to a good or even respectable season. And the answer depends on whether the remaining veterans stay healthy (and get healthy in the case of Miller), and whether the promising rookies - Jones, Bell, Wheaton, and others - can be of immediate help.
This team has a very good defense, but the offense hasn't been able to move the ball since Ben went down last year in the Kansas City game. Not at all. The offensive line has been awful, and the running game nonexistent, If the team is forced to pass, but it can't adequately protect the QB, how long can Ben hold up?
From the way Tomlin and Colbert worked the waiver wire in recent weeks, it seems like they understand there's a shortage of quality players at the bottom of the roster. There is still enough veteran talent to pull this team together, and have a decent season, so long as the kids do their part and grow into stars very, very quickly. But nothing is guaranteed.
The Steelers had won ten home openers in a row, but that didn't mean diddly squat Sunday, because the guys wearing gold and black weren't named Ward, Smith, Harrison, Lewis, Hoke, Bettis, Faneca, or any of the other departed stars who won those ten home openers.
This team has a lot of different guys - who just happen to wear the same black and gold. Never confuse the laundry with the guys who wear it. It's far too early to give up on the guys wearing the black and gold this year, but their start has tried our patience - and our souls.
We may soon find out who are the sunshine patriots among us. Those of us in Steeler Nation who count ourselves as winter soldiers will stand by this team as they sort things out and/or rebuild. Hopefully sooner, rather than later. But we will stand by them as we always have. Hope for fair weather. But prepare for a cold, difficult winter, just in case. The harder the conflict, as Tom Paine told us, the more glorious the triumph.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- Steelers Sign K Shayne Graham
- Steelers sign C/G Fernando Velasco in wake of Maurkice Pouncey injury
- Are we witnessing the Fall of the House of Colbert?
- Steelers running game can't get worse, and that's a good thing
- New Steelers defenders shine despite Week 1 loss to Titans
- 5 things we learned from the Steelers loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 1
- Steelers will re-sign running back Jonathan Dwyer
- Winners and Losers from Steelers loss to Tennessee Titans
- Report: LaRod Stephens-Howling suffered torn ACL in loss to Titans
- Maybe the 2013 Steelers are who many feared they were