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"The Story" on the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers

Story telling drives both the NFL's and Steeler's popularity. Yet Steelers history is fraught with a love-hate relationship with "the narrative." What does that tell us about the 2013 Steelers, as they seek to "write their story?"

National Anthem with Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin, awaiting something big
National Anthem with Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin, awaiting something big
Jamie Squire

Good story telling drives the NFL's popularity. Lest you doubt the narrative's role in crafting the NFL into one of the USA 's strongest brand names, simply watch NFL Films piece on the Ice Bowl.

The art of story telling is also deeply intertwined with the Steelers popularity. Who can resist the appeal of a humble, down to earth owner such as Art Rooney Sr. suffering through 40 years of losing, only to suddenly win very, very big?

But story telling is very much an "art" and decidedly not a science.

There's a reason why they call it "spinning a yarn." At its core, the art of story telling involves finding common threads to wrap around otherwise chaotic events.

Day-to-day commentators, be they from ESPN, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette or Behind the Steel Curtain have it a lot harder than the Sabols at NFL Flims did, and an example from Steelers history shows why.

The 1989 Steelers are near and dear to my heart because they opened the season with two combined 92-10 losses, yet bounced back upset the division rival Houston Oilers in the playoffs.

That's a great story by itself, but consider one nugget from the 41-10 pounding Pittsburgh suffered in week two at Cincinnati:

...But hard numbers do not carry the day in football games or football seasons.

The Tuesday after the game the Washington Post ran a little one inch, 4 line blurb titled "Man of Steel." It revealed that linebacker Brian Hinkle had played a full two quarters during the second half of the Bengals game on a broken fibula.

Brian Hinkle's resolve and determination made a statement for the few with the savvy to listen. Losing their first two games by cumulative score of 92-10 may have humiliated the team, but the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers were very far from defeated.

Quite a poetic and powerful prediction, right?

So it should be, as it was written with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight.

BTSC 's writers have a far more difficult task - we've got to try to make observations like the one you see above in the moment, without the benefit of any hindsight.

How accurate have the yarn weavers of Steelers Nation historically been, and what is the story on the Steelers in 2013?

Let's take a look.

The Steelers Love-Hate History with "The Narrative"

My understanding of the Steelers "narrative" began in the early 80's. I was just old enough to follow the team, but in suburban Maryland my main medium for the Steelers information was my old brother who informed me that "The Steelers only have old guys, and rookies."

But most professional reporter's analysis didn't go much deeper. 1982 began with L.C. Greenwood and John Banazak getting cut, Terry Bradshaw playing his last full season and Lynn Swann retiring.

The story of the coming years, the pundits decided, was that Chuck Noll was to be exposed as a coach who "only won because he had the players."

Yet the Emperor, stubborn to a fault, refused to go along with that narrative, and led two teams with mediocre talent to the playoffs in both 1983 and 1984.

Good coaches guide player in writing their own stories.

But reality's independence from the narrative cuts both ways, as I vividly remember some preseason magazine in about 1985 concluding, "Slow by steadily the Steel Curtain is rising again."

The Steelers followed surprise 1984 AFC Central division championship by finishing 7-9 in 1985 and 6-10 in 1986.

As mentioned above, in 1989 Chuck Noll thumbed his nose at his "game has passed him by" template, but by then a new Steelers narrative had emerged. This one told that the Rooneys were cheap and that the Steelers were "one of the worst paying teams in the NFL." (Washington Redskins center Jeff Bostic reminded WMAL listeners of this fact on more than one occasion.)

Free agency doomed the Steelers, because Dan Rooney would refuse to pay players their worth.

That story got regurgitated throughout the 1990's. Every off season Steelers Nation was subjected to a blizzard of stories decrying the annual free agent exodus and predicting nothing but gloom and doom for the coming season....

...All the while, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe were quietly laying down the template for salary cap era success - draft smart, resign essential players and allow others to overpay for the rest.

The Steelers kept on winning and ultimately came within two Neil O'Donnell interceptions of pulling off a major upset in Super Bowl XXX.

After Steelers let the Jets overpay O'Donnell, the narrative took an ironic twist.

The 1996 Steelers won the division again and won a playoff game - with Mike Tomazck at quarterback. The next year first year starter Kordell Stewart led the Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship game as NBC opened the game showing parallel images of the 1995 and 1997 starting line ups.

The new story was "Cowher wins no matter with whatever players you give him."

A 1998 off season prediction made in, if memory serves, Street and Smith's, rated the Steelers as the NFL's number 3 team, underlining irony the story tellers where both late and had gotten it wrong again.

The Steelers stumbled to 7-9 in 1998 and swooned to 6-10 in 1999. Finally, the press could run the "free agency has doomed the Steelers" stories they'd been dying to run since 1993.

Never mind that the '98-'99 decline was fueled by key draft misfires which were probably a product of the simmering Cowher-Donahoe feud.

Narrative on the Steelers for the '00's? Back Pittsburgh into a Corner at Your Peril

As the Steelers embarked on '00, the word was that Bill Cowher was on a short leash and perhaps gone by mid-season. That team started out 0-3, seemingly confirming the narrative.

Then of course they went down to Jacksonville and won the game the set the tone for the decade -- the Steelers are most dangerous when backed into a corner.

And really if you think about it, this was the decade in Steelers history when art and life really did reflect each other.

The Cleveland had the '02 Steelers on the ropes in the playoffs, yet with 1:41 left to go Tommy Maddox reportedly told the huddle, "OK, we got them where we want them" and led Pittsburgh to the go-ahead score.

Still, story spinners got thrown curves.

When the '03 Steelers were en route to an 6-10 record, Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest likened the team to someone who was overweight, who didn't get that way overnight, nor would snap into shape instantly.

Of course the '04 Steelers rebounded going 15-1.

Everyone knows how badly backed into a corner the '05 Steelers were, only to rally for One for the Thumb.

And if there's anything that the 2008 Steelers excelled at, it was that they did exactly what they had to win games at exactly the moments they needed to do it, and they did it time and time again.

At the end of the Steelers disappointing 2009 season, Ed Bouchette declared that second "Super Steelers era" to be at an end. The Steelers, minus their starting quarterback for the season's first four games, promptly made another Super Bowl appearance.

The Story on the Steelers in the Second Decade of the 21st Century

The Steelers of course were not successful in Super Bowl XLV. "Poor cornerback play" became the story explaining why they failed in Dallas.

Anyone registering a pulse in Steelers Nation during the Steelers 2011 off season knew that Keenan Lewis was a bust and that Bryant McFadden and William Gay were positively the worst corners in football.

And, almost as if on cue, the Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin promptly went out and fielded the league's number one pass defense.

Then again, the Steelers lost at home to Baltimore and then to Tim Tebow on the road on the strength of two long passes against a secondary famous for not giving up the big play.

When the narrative strikes back, it does so with a vengeance.

After that, the pundits said that if there was a year that the Steelers would take a step back 2012 would be it. And as it turned out, inconsistency and injury would conspire to help the Steelers take that step back.

The Story on the 2013 Steelers

So what is the word on the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers? It depends on who you ask.

Dan Gigler of the Post Gazette's Blog 'N Gold did a survey of what's out there and the results won't get many Facebook likes from BTSC's audience.

Don Banks of SI predicts the Steelers worst season since 2003. Over at, Mike Silver is only one of 11 experts picking the Steelers to make the playoffs. ESPN, with the help of Pro Football Focus has done statistical analysis which concludes that the Steelers will finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs.

Gigler reminds us that Gregg Rosenthal at NFL Network sees the Steelers making the AFC Championship game.

Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest argues that as long as the Steelers have Roethlisberger, they're in it (he said the same thing last year, for those taking notes.) Our own Ivan Cole has pieced together his own three part series making the case for the Steelers.

All of those predictions are one thing, but they do little to inform us of "The Story."

In that light, ESPN's Jeffri Chadiha observed:

The Steelers basically resemble every other legendary franchise that hits hard times. The San Francisco 49ers had their struggles in the mid-2000s....

He goes on to discuss the down periods the Redskins and Cowboys have suffered.

Jeffri Chadiha's piece is deeply flawed, but in citing the 49ers he's got the right narrative. But he should be pointing to the 49ers of the 80's.

The Steelers dynasty of the 70's were certainly superior to the 49ers of the 1980's, but credit Bill Walsh for continually renewing the team throughout the decade. Joe Montana was the one true constant to those teams, who at age 31 still had two Super Bowls in his future.

Ben Roethlisberger turned 31 this year. And therein lies our story: The Steelers are on a quest to reload while Roethlisberger remains in his prime.

Beyond that, Mike Tomlin does have some specific challenges in store for him in 2013, but "The Story" on the Steelers in 2013, and for the next few years to come, will be on how well they execute this reloading process.

No one knows how that process will ultimately play out, but we sure will have fun trying.

Fasten your seat belt ladies and gentleman. The Roethlisberger Reloading Era shifts into high gear on Sunday, and Behind the Steel Curtain will be there to cover it end-to-end.

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