We were really lucky and fortunate in the ‘70s because we got a group of not only good football players, but good people — a group that wanted to be together and wanted to be the best. (Chuck Noll)
What exactly spells the difference between a championship NFL season and one that’s best forgotten? In reality, there’s not much separating the league’s 32 teams these days strictly in terms of player recruitment, overall athletic ability or coaching. So why are there still 12 NFL teams — comprising 37.5 percent of the league — that have never won a Lombardi Trophy? In otherwise great sports towns such as Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Cincinnati and Atlanta, why have the local NFL franchises put their loyal fans through decades of utter futility? Talk to any football fan from those cities and you’ll hear a litany of would-haves and should-haves spiced with sundry profanities. And prior to the mid-1970s, those very same gripes could often be heard echoing through the streets of the Steel City.
Probably the most frustrating experience of all is when a team knocks on the door to glory repeatedly over a period of time without ever gaining admission to the championship circle. Just ask any long-in-the-tooth Minnesota Vikings fan about that. In 1969 — the same year I graduated from high school — the Vikings lost their first of four Super Bowls 23-7 to Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs. Then in January 1974, the Vikings were defeated 24-7 by the Miami Dolphins under Don Shula in Super Bowl VIII. The following year in Super Bowl IX, of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers ended four decades of futility by stuffing Fran Tarkenton and his teammates 16-6 on the strength of a superb defense whose nickname would later become part of the title to a well-known and successful sports website. Two years later, as the coup de grace, the Oakland Raiders led by John Madden trounced Minnesota 32-14 in Super Bowl XI.
Minnesota’s legendary head coach, Bud Grant, and former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy thus share the dubious distinction of seeing their teams lose four Super Bowls. This despite Grant being the most successful coach in Vikings history and the third most successful professional football coach overall (behind only Don Shula and George Halas). Including Grant’s successful coaching career in the CFL before he was named head coach for the Vikings, he compiled a combined 290 wins in both the Canadian and U.S. professional leagues. As for Levy, his 112 wins as Buffalo’s head coach are the most of any Bills coach.
Having spent the period of 1996-2005 living in the Cincinnati area, I’ve had some exposure to the even more debilitating effects that perennial doormat teams have on their fans. In addition to the Bengals, this notorious group includes the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills and L.A. Chargers — franchises that collectively have exactly zip to show for decades of blood, sweat and tears.
In Cincinnati, this futility has reached hideous proportions, creating a psychology nearly identical to the one I recall growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1960s. While they might start each new season filled with hope and great expectations, in the back of their minds — or maybe in the pits of their stomachs — Bengals fans fully expect the inevitable onset of catastrophe from year to year. Things have gotten so bad in the Queen City nowadays that even the Bengals’ front office appears resigned to losing in perpetuity because it continues renewing Marvin Lewis’s contract. This despite his 125-112-3 career record in regular-season games and 0-7 record in the playoffs. Undaunted by past failures, Lewis is preparing to start his 16th year as the Bengals’ head coach.
You’ll encounter very much the same hopeless psychology in Cleveland and Detroit — cities where few fans honestly expect the home team to do anything but stink up the gridiron on game days. And speaking of psychology, just when they finally thought they’d scaled the mountain, the Atlanta Falcons folded like a cheap pup-tent in the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. In some ways, that demoralizing choke-job might have done more to ruin the Georgia franchise’s chances to ever win a Super Bowl than anything else that could have happened.
Teams that inhabit the NFL’s version of Mamby-Pamby Land have certain distinguishing traits which invariably conspire to frustrate their inflated expectations. One of the most obvious of these traits — with the notable exception of Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati — is the often-excessive pressure exerted on newly-minted head coaches to take awful teams and begin winning very soon, lest they lose their jobs. Consider that, in 2018, Falcons’ Head Coach Dan Quinn starts only his fourth year with the team; Hue Jackson kicks off his third year with the Browns; Matt Patricia begins his rookie year as the Lions’ head coach; and Sean McDermott is only in his second year coaching the Buffalo Bills — as is Anthony Lynn with the Chargers.
Despite the fact that, if many in Steelers Nation had their way, Mike Tomlin currently would be coaching in some other NFL city, experience shows that, when you start playing musical chairs with head coaches, it usually marks either the beginning or the continuation of a downward spiral for the franchise. On the opposite extreme, Cincinnati seems to be the only organization willing to play the continuity theme to the hilt, regardless of never winning or even coming close to a Super Bowl title under the Lewis regime.
The other big factor which stands out with the doormat franchises is their utter lack of team cohesion. If you go down the line from Buffalo all the way to Chargers Country (and points in between), you’ll mainly find a motley collection of soap-opera stories with various actors tortured by nagging insecurities, substance abuse and feeling unappreciated or otherwise disconnected from their parent organizations. But so far — and for the most part — the Steelers left that sorry tradition behind more than four decades ago. Those of us old enough to recall how badly the 1960s Steelers sucked never want to return to those dark, hopeless days. And if the vaunted “standard” means anything in Pittsburgh, it means we’re never going back there — ever! As Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll both emphasized during their illustrious careers, without that crucial sense of togetherness, your team simply isn’t going anywhere.
When you look at the NFL’s most successful franchises including the Steelers, Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, you see football organizations that have built reputations for stability and implementing the key factors necessary to win league championships. When any of these perennial contenders hires a head coach, they implicitly trust their own instincts and show the patience which allows their new head coach to truly make the team his own.
That’s why Mike Tomlin was given the opportunity to succeed and also why he’ll be kicking off his 12th season in the Steel City. In Green Bay, Mike McCarthy will start his 13th season with the Packers; Jason Garrett begins his ninth season in Dallas; and —last but not least — Bill Belichick launches his 19th season with New England. Meanwhile, the Giants and the 49ers appear to have fallen off of the wagon in recent years. New York is starting over with rookie coach Pat Shurmur and San Francisco’s head coach Kyle Shanahan is starting only his sophomore season.
As for the Steelers, they appear to be standing at a crossroads — with one sign pointing towards that elusive Stairway to Seven, while the other sign marks a well-traveled route to Mamby-Pamby Land. I know you’ve all seen the TV commercial featuring the tough drill-sergeant, so you’re aware that the road to this undesirable location is paved with good intentions but poor performances and hurt feelings that make everyone feel sad. It’s a middling place where everyone gripes and solicits sympathy for their contract demands; turf toe; the Commissioner; the referees; their number of targets (or carries) per game, etc., etc.
But in the Steel City — unlike a number of other NFL towns — we’ve already got the coaching and front-office stability necessary to win another Lombardi Trophy. What’s less certain is whether the Black-and-gold can avoid taking that wrong turn which puts them on the road to Mamby-Pamby Land. Those six shiny trophies on display at Steelers headquarters make a strong argument that Pittsburgh remains one city where the standard truly does remain as the standard.
Players and fans of the Black-and-gold will find out soon enough which path we’ve chosen. The Steelers will be facing some tough competition in 2018, as well as some lesser teams which have improved themselves significantly during the offseason. As the coming season grinds onward, we’ll see whether both the team and Steelers Nation as a whole are willing to pay the price of hanging together, so that we don’t all hang separately. It’s this solidarity of purpose which very well might be the difference and the true key to the Steelers’ 2018 season.