There has been a lot of debate in recent weeks about the direction of the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. One of the arguments I’ve heard many places can be paraphrased as follows:
“This team has only won 3 playoff games in 10 years. That’s unacceptable for this organization.”
The first sentence in this statement is absolutely true. The Steelers only have three playoff victories since their appearance in Super Bowl XLV following the 2010 season. The are tied for 15th in the number of playoffs wins over this time period which puts them literally as a “middle of the road” team. Of course, this is not a desired outcome. But to think the Steelers are this magical organization which constantly turns out playoff victories is not completely based in historical reality.
To look back at the Steelers’ playoff success, I’m going to start in 1972. Discussing things before the “Immaculate Reception” era just isn’t fair. The Steelers were not known as a winning franchise and had not appeared in the playoffs for 25 years prior to their first victory in amazing fashion over the Oakland Raiders.
Over eight seasons from 1972 to 1979, the Pittsburgh Steelers tallied four Super Bowl victories. Over this eight year stretch, the Steelers made the playoffs every season. Based on the playoff format at the time, the four seasons in which the Steelers won the Super Bowl they went 3–0 in the postseason. During the other four seasons, two of them they went 1-1 and the other two they went to 0-1. Even the great Pittsburgh Steelers team of the 1970s still had two seasons mixed in where they did not win a playoff game.
This isn’t really the point, it’s just putting things in context.
The point is, following the Steelers dominant postseason run of the 1979 season where they won every game in the playoffs by double digits in route to their Super Bowl XIV victory, there came in extremely long stretch of playoff struggles.
After leading the Steelers to four Super Bowls over six seasons, head coach Chuck Noll continued with the team for another 12 years. In those 12 years, the Steelers had a total of two playoff victories.
During this “Noll: Post-Super Bowl” era, the Steelers made the postseason four out of the 12 years and only reached double-digit wins once with 10 victories in 1983. It should be noted the Steelers best winning percentage came in 1982 when they finished 6-3 in the strike-shortened season. But during these playoff runs, the Steelers only achieved victories in 1984 and 1989 when they went 1-1 in those postseasons.
When Chuck Noll retired and Bill Cowher took over the team in 1992, they found immediate regular-season success and made the playoffs the next two seasons. Unfortunately, it did not equate to any playoff victories. So after winning four Super Bowls, the Steelers went a 14-year stretch with only two playoff victories. From 1980 through 1993, The Steelers had a postseason record of 2-6.
Before you dismiss this stretch altogether, we all acknowledge that the Steelers struggled at the quarterback position. Stout, Malone, Brister, and O’Donnell are names which don’t usually ring out in a positive manner with all lot of Steelers’ fans. But it is what the Steelers went forward with during that time.
If you’re looking at the Steelers franchise and their history when it comes to Super Bowls, it basically falls in three clusters with other postseason births surrounding them. The Steelers had their four Super Bowl victories in eight seasons from 1972 to 1979 when they made the playoffs every season along the way. The Steelers also had a bit of an outlier of six straight seasons making the playoffs from 1992 to 1997 with a Super Bowl appearance sandwiched in the middle. The Steelers then had another cluster which I’ll put at eight seasons from 2004 through 2011 where they made the playoffs six out of eight years, went to the Super Bowl three times and were victorious twice.
Other than these three areas, the Steelers only have two other times where they have clustered together playoff births for three seasons or more. This came from 1982 to 1984 and 2014 to 2017. In both of these clusters, the Steelers did not make it past the Conference Championship game.
Of course, and argument can be made that the Steelers regular season record over the last 10 seasons gave more hope for playoffs success as they finished with double-digit wins six of the last 10 seasons yet only manage three playoff victories. This is true.
The point is, the Pittsburgh Steelers may be tied for the most Super Bowl wins in NFL history, but it doesn’t mean the team has postseason success every year along the way. There are ups and downs which lead to multiple disappointments. And even though the Steelers are in a tough postseason stretch, it’s not like the franchise has not seen it before. Hopefully the Steelers 2020 playoff berth after two years of missing the postseason is the start of another cluster of playoff seasons and not simply an outlier along the way.