“The thrill isn’t in the winning, it’s in the doing.” (Charles Henry Noll)
Watching the recent playoff bid by the Pittsburgh Penguins, an effort rudely dashed before a raucous home crowd in the Steel City, I was struck not only by the monumental challenge the Pens faced in their effort to win three consecutive NHL championships, but also by the subtle and sometimes-decisive role which luck can play in a team’s championship quest.
Just imagine if the Steelers were beginning preparations for the 2018 regular season on the wings of two consecutive league titles — precisely where the Penguins stood at the beginning of this hockey season. We can easily picture the inflated rhetoric and brash talk of a new Steelers’ dynasty pervading the Pittsburgh sports media. But that’s the way it is with human psychology — when we’re on top, we feel unstoppable and tend to dismiss obvious-but-unwelcome seeds of our inevitable fall from grace.
That Steelers Nation is hungry for a seventh Lombardi Trophy seems as self-evident as the family dog’s craving for that juicy steak on your dinner plate. But there’s a key difference between the cravings of fans supporting teams that never have tasted a championship and those of a fan base like Pittsburgh’s. Once a team and its fans experience the kind of success which the Steelers have enjoyed, the once-impossible dream of a championship morphs into a perennial expectation. Thus, during the early stage of each Steelers season, when the Black-and-gold’s on-field performance fails to measure up to fans’ lofty and often-unrealistic expectations, we invariably hear a chorus of petulant calls for the heads of anyone connected with the team.
If they’ve demonstrated anything, the past two NFL seasons have underscored the reality that, more often than not, uncanny events intervene to determine which team walks away with the shiny hardware at season’s end. Consider for example the case of Super Bowl LI, a game totally dominated by the Atlanta Falcons for nearly three quarters of play before their strange and utter collapse during the final quarter. Likewise, ponder the derision any sports pundit would have faced had they audaciously predicted the Philadelphia Eagles winning Super Bowl LII with Carson Wentz watching from the sidelines in street clothes, while Nick Foles out-dueled Tom Brady.
As too frequently happens in our political sphere, avid sports fans tend to deal in absolutes, and opinions on each and every aspect of the home team tend to be sharply polarized. That’s why, as we enter another exciting season of Steelers football, it’s helpful to keep in mind that all opinions are equally valid and nobody has a corner on forecasting. Based on the two aforementioned Super Bowls, for instance, even the most off-the-wall predictions cannot be summarily dismissed because reality is often stranger than fiction. Furthermore, lest we forget—and as Chuck Noll clearly appreciated—pro sports is as much about the championship quest as it is about carrying home the big prize.
While the Steelers managed to find some defensive help during the off-season, it’s clear that their primary emphasis going into the 2018 NFL Draft was on bolstering an already-potent offense. And given the trend in the league today towards higher-scoring shootouts (e.g. the 87 total points scored in the Steelers’ AFC playoff defeat by Jacksonville or the 74 total points scored in Super Bowl LII), it’s difficult to honestly fault the Steelers’ front office for loading up on offensive talent which was more-readily available at the points when they made their draft picks.
For me at least, seeing the hometown Penguins fall short in their nearly-impossible quest to capture a third-consecutive NHL title has driven home a couple of valuable lessons that we’ll hopefully keep in mind as we prepare for the 2018 regular season. First, it’ll help to avoid the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately mentality so common among chronic critics. Perhaps we might even try to show some gratitude for the opportunity to be part of the tremendous success that the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise has achieved over time. These golden sports eras don’t come around very often (just ask the Pittsburgh Pirates). When they do, they’re just as fleeting as they are glorious. For example, even though the Penguins are still a very competitive NHL team, who knows how long it might be before Pittsburgh hoists another Stanley Cup in triumph? Secondly, it’s important to acknowledge that every human endeavor entails a significant and sometimes-decisive element of luck which remains utterly unpredictable and beyond the reach of any human planning, no matter how well conceived it might be.
So here we are, with Steelers Nation entering its annual season of great expectations. On our journey, some initial hopes will prove too optimistic while, at the same time, the inevitable, preseason paranoia is exposed as overly pessimistic. But as always, enjoying this 2018 Steelers season will depend, not so much on whose opinion happens to be most prescient, but principally on our much-anticipated opportunity to share the excitement and mysteries of a brand new season from week to week.