I think I may have reached capacity on my willingness to stomach the shallow claim that the Pittsburgh Steelers are “the worst [9-0, 10-0, 11-0, etc.] team in NFL history.”
In the latest example of this trend, the league’s online presence, NFL.com, recently posted its week 13 power rankings, slotting the 10-1 Kansas City Chiefs at #1, and relegating the 11-0 Steelers to #2. They’re not alone. In fact, this unflappable belief in Kansas City’s superiority is so universal that even when power rankings place the Steelers at the top, commentators tend to fall all over themselves to insist that the Chiefs are really the league’s best team, but they have to put an undefeated team at the top.
This isn’t a giant surprise; NFL talking heads have long betrayed a preference for offense over defense, arena-ball shootouts over strategy and strength, and fantasy stats over lunch-pail wins. They also love repeating familiar tropes and stories, such as “Patrick Mahomes is the greatest quarterback who’s ever played.” (All the easier to cut and paste their copy from the last two seasons.) This stuff is annoying (please refer to my last diatribe about this, from February), but at least those moves are recognizable.
The Steelers-bashing, however, seems new to me. And weird.
This week, in fact, two different nfl.com commentators picked lowly 4-7 Washington (a team so dispossessed they don’t even have a name) to topple the undefeated Steelers this weekend. One of the writers, Nate Burleson, is quite frankly too smart for this, so I’m going to assume his pick is some one-time hot-take and ignore it. But Gregg Rosenthal, who writes the weekly picks for the league, actually said: “I want to see [Alex] Smith help topple the last undefeated team and I want to see his postgame interview” (lest we allow Ben Roethlisberger’s eight month surgery rehab and 2020 excellence to steal any thunder from the holy return of Alex Smith).
Oops. I can feel my irritation coming on a little strong. Maybe now is a good time to step back and let the talking heads speak for themselves.
Different versions of the same story
Here is how Dan Hanzus wrote-up the aforementioned power rankings for the league’s official website:
- #1 — Kansas City: “We might be reaching the point where the NFL has to split up Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill. The pairing is simply too unfair for opponents. Just ask the Buccaneers, a very capable defense that was embarrassed by the Terror Twins… Mahomes accounted for nearly 500 yards of offense and iced the game with a clinical clock-killing drive after the Bucs had closed within a field goal with less than five minutes to play… He is the perfect quarterback.”
- #2 — Pittsburgh: “…The defense did what it was supposed to do against a deeply compromised Ravens offense, but the offense deserves nil in the way of plaudits. Pittsburgh failed to establish the run, while Ben Roethlisberger was let down numerous times by receivers who struggled with drops. If the Steelers are going to deliver a performance like that against a contender at full strength, you can pencil in that first loss right now.”
Interesting. Now let me try to tell these stories a different way:
- On Sunday, the Chiefs dominated offensively, against a talented but overhyped Buccaneers team that is currently in free-fall. K.C. put up impressive early numbers, but couldn’t put the game away, and nearly blew a 17-point lead. It took a late clock-killing drive to seal a three point victory.
- On Wednesday, the Steelers dominated defensively, against a talented but overhyped Ravens team that is currently in free-fall. Pittsburgh recorded impressive numbers, but didn’t put the game away, and nearly blew a 12-point lead. It took a late clock-killing drive to seal a five point victory.
These games sound pretty similar when you put them that way (and I didn’t even have to invent a terrible nickname in the process).
Okay, one more round. Let’s see what this looks like if we flip the script one beat futher:
- Kansas City: In perfect weather conditions last Sunday, Kansas City defeated a reeling and publically infighting Tampa Bay Buccaneers team (currently on a 1-3 skid). The Chiefs put up ridiculous passing numbers in the first quarter in jumping out to a 17-0 lead, but then spent three quarters watching the inconsistent Bucs pull within three, outscoring the Chiefs 24-10 over the final three periods. K.C.’s record-teasing offense recorded multiple 3-and-outs and only picked up seven non-penalty first downs after halftime, as the previously sputtering Bucs gained 300 second half yards, and came a pair of head-scratching Tom Brady interceptions from a shocking comeback. Despite posting 543 yards and possessing the ball for nearly 37 minutes, the Chiefs managed just 27 points, and only won by a field goal.
- Pittsburgh: After multiple last-second delays and a blizzard, the Pittsburgh Steelers finally took the field Wednesday afternoon, and completed a season sweep of their arch-rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers defense was dominant, holding the Ravens to 219 yards of offense (a full half of which came on just two plays). Pittsburgh also recorded three sacks two takeaways, a half-ending goal-line stand, and even a defensive touchdown (their second pick-6 against Baltimore this season). Both teams played shorthanded, though the Ravens’ initial tsunami of COVID cases had begun to cycle out, with several compromised starters off virus protocols by gametime. On offense, Ben Roethlisberger completed 70% of his passes for 266 yards, but the game stayed close as his receivers dropped a number of catchable balls, including a pair of potential touchdowns. A fourth quarter broken coverage (the only lapse for a Pittsburgh passing defense that otherwise held the Ravens to a staggering 20 net yards on the day), allowed Baltimore to creep back into the game late. But then the Steelers’ rushing attack came to life, swallowing the final three minutes to preserve a victory and keep the home team undefeated.
Funny how your angle of vision can change things.
All six of the above descriptions are built out of the facts—they’re all reasonable representations of week 12—but they sound like pretty different ballgames, depending on how you choose to spin them.
My goal here is not to denigrate the Chiefs, who are obviously a very good team. Nor is it to claim that one interpretation of events is more “correct” than another (though I think Hanzus’s fawning over Mahomes and Hill is embarrassing). Rather I’m here to argue that the endless superlatives cascading over the Chiefs (or Alex Smith, for that matter) and the dismissiveness with which people regard Roethlisberger and the Steelers, are not observations, as they’re presented—they’re narratives.
That is, they’re stories that the talking heads want to tell about this season. They’re based on the season (sometimes quite loosely), but they’re not the season itself.
And there’s nothing about them that’s more “true” than the slanted retellings I presented above.
We should be able to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time
I watched the Chiefs/Bucs game last Sunday.
Like everyone else, I was stunned by Tyreek Hill’s ridiculous 203 first quarter receiving yards. But unlike everyone else (apparently), I was kind of underwhelmed that he only picked up 66 over the final three periods.
Like everyone else, I was impressed that Pat Mahomes threw for 462 yards on the day. But unlike everyone else, I was pretty unimpressed that KC somehow only put up 27 points, that they managed to surrender 420 yards to an offense that had just 34 at the end of the first period, or that they very nearly blew a 17 point lead to a team in visible and public meltdown.
The narrative says the Chiefs are both a work of art and a hurricane, but if you’d have tuned into the contest in the second quarter (and muted the gushing announcers), you could be forgiven for assuming the Buccaneers won in a walk.
I also watched the Steelers/Ravens on Wednesday.
Like everyone else, I expected the missing heads on the COVID reserve to impact the game, but unlike everyone else, I noticed that the Ravens weren’t hit nearly as hard as it initially appeared, and that the Steelers had lost some important pieces in the process too.
Like everyone else, I was irritated with the Steelers’ anemic running game and dropped passes, but unlike everyone else, I expected a lack of focus after the week they’d had (and I also remembered that the Ravens defense is pretty strong, and was only missing two starters due to the virus).
Like everyone else, I expected Pittsburgh win by more than five, but unlike everyone else, I saw the Steelers dominate despite playing poorly, with only a blown coverage and a couple of dropped balls keeping the Ravens alive.
Division rivalries are always tough (ask K.C. about the Raiders), but with this one, very little would have had to change for the 19-14 final score to have been 40-7 instead.
The 2020 Steelers are a damned good team
As impressive as the Chiefs are on offense this season, the Steelers have been even more dominant on defense. In case you missed it, the Steelers D is currently on pace for a hat trick no defense has EVER accomplished—leading the league in sacks, takeaways, and points in the same season. (They’re also 3rd in total yards, and first in opponent passer rating, opponent completion percentage, tackles for losses, interceptions, and an absolute litany of other defensive categories.)
And yet, you can feel the frustration of the talking heads, who simply can’t wait for the Steelers to lose so they can stop talking about defense or the Steelers’ whack-a-mole offensive depth, and go back to swooning over Mahomes (or Aaron Rogers, or Deandre Hopkins, or Tyreek Hill, or—if they would just play along—Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson).
And that’s a shame. What the Steelers are doing this season is special. With a geriatric quarterback fresh off a season-ending throwing-arm injury, and a receiver room full of kids born when he was in high school; with a defense that just lost its second star linebacker to an ACL tear, on a schedule that has been monkey-wrenched over and over by everyone except the Steelers; in a year without a training camp or preseason and with the most complicated external pressures since WWII shut down half the league—these guys have become just the 10th team in the modern era to start 11-0, are currently the highest scoring squad in team history, and are on pace to become one of the most dominant defenses the game has ever seen.
And no one even seems impressed.
It’s true, they don’t have the deep ball threats that make the commentators giddy (though Chase Claypool’s 84 yard touchdown is still the longest in the NFL this year, and JuJu Smith-Schuster is still the only player in NFL history with two 97 yard receptions in his career).
They don’t have a glamorous MVP quarterback (though Ben Roethlisberger is the best backyard baller the league has ever seen, has posted more 500-yard games and more perfect passer ratings than anyone in history, led the league in passing in his last full season, sits fourth on the all time list of 4th quarter comebacks, and has two Super Bowl rings).
They don’t win decisively like a champion “should” (though they have the highest point differential in the league this year, carpet bombed the now-9-3 Cleveland Browns a month ago 38-7, and went 3-0 midseason against teams that came in a combined 14-2).
And they don’t create highlight reels like the glitzy teams do (except those defensive splash plays, like sacks and takeaways and pick-6 returns, which the Steelers produce more of than anyone else in football).
So I can see why no one thinks they’re for real.
What’s more, they don’t have marketable stars the league could key on (except, you know, internet superstar JuJu Smith-Schuster, extremely likeable rookie sensation Chase Claypool, and Derek and T.J. Watt, two thirds of the most likeable family in sports).
They don’t have interesting side-characters either (except in their quarterback room, which features a 1st ballot hall of famer, a nuclear physicist, a champion duck caller, and the guy Myles Garrett tried to kill on national TV last season).
They don’t even have a moving human-interest story (except, you know, James Conner beating cancer, or Ryan Shazier beating paralysis, or Al Villanueva playing the most successful NFL career by a combat veteran since Roger Staubach, or Mike Tomlin quietly becoming the winningest Black coach in history this very damned season).
So I get it that it’s hard to find an angle for this team, as they take aim at their record 7th Lombardi or the first 19-0 season in history (hey look: two more great stories no one’s writing about).
We do not care.
If you find yourself irritated by all this, like I clearly do, take solace. The Steelers are better than the media wants them to be—they’re historically good on defense, and scrappy and deep on offense—a mix of wily veterans and spry, athletic, and fearless youngsters. They’re talented, battle-tested, and extremely well-coached. And they don’t care one bit about this stuff. They just keep winning.
They’re virtually guaranteed a trip to the playoffs this year. And all the fawning or dismissiveness in the world won’t mean a thing when the rubber hits the road in January. (Or as Mike Tomlin would say, once they “get inside a bowl.”) And if the Steelers get the confetti shower in Tampa in February (like they did in that same stadium a dozen years ago), that’s all anyone will remember.