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For Steelers and fans, winning must wait

Once upon a time, the Black-and-Gold were expected to win, but those days are gone.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

“A life of frustration is inevitable for any coach whose main enjoyment is winning.” (Chuck Noll)

Chuck Noll will always be a giant among NFL coaches. Winning four Super Bowl championships in a 6-year span during the 1970s is a feat that probably never will be matched. But despite his success, Noll knew only too well that championships are fleeting. And as Noll once quipped, unless you can appreciate football as a work-in-progress and stay focused on the doing rather than strictly winning, football can easily become a life of frustration for coaches and fans alike.

As some of the darker, preseason forecasts have come to pass during the first three weeks of the regular season, we’re hearing all of the usual calls for Coach Tomlin’s head, benching Ben Roethlisberger -- even putting the entire team and coaching staff on waivers. But Coach Noll understood the law of averages eventually catches up to everyone, even his 4-time Super Bowl champs. In fact, if someone were aware only of Noll's post-1980 coaching career, they'd likely conclude he was mediocre instead of a Hall of Fame coach. Sadly, this historical reality seems totally lost on the hyper-zealous fan.

It’s one thing to admit that the 2021 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers has some serious shortcomings which might not be rectified during the current season. But it’s quite different to suggest imploding the entire organization and reverting to square one. Pro football teams that never reach the top (e.g. Bengals, Falcons, Lions, Chargers) are the same organizations that excel at shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic every few years. And the long-suffering fans of these teams never seem to connect the dots between the home teams' ingrained patterns of panic decision-making and their lack of success on the field.

As dark as the situation in Pittsburgh might seem today, there’s still reason for optimism that the picture might change. Consider first the big picture in the NFL after Week 3. Sixteen teams have losing records and the same number have surrendered more points than they’ve scored. Three of these so-so teams (Tennessee, Baltimore and Green Bay) currently are leading their divisions. Five teams haven’t won a single game. The two teams widely expected to meet in Super Bowl LVI (Chiefs and Bucs) have looked beatable in the wake of embarrassing defeats.

While this doesn’t restore any shine to the Steelers’ dismal performances, it does suggest that it probably won't be too difficult for many NFL teams to compete for a playoff berth this season. Instead of the histrionics we see from fans each time the Steelers lose, now might be a better time for calm reflection.

Anyone who follows this team is well aware that the offensive line isn’t nearly up to par. Given this fact, it’s premature to blame Roethlisberger or Tomlin. If anything, the front office bears responsibility for failing to adequately fill the shoes vacated when Marquis Pouncey and David DeCastro retired, and Matt Feiler departed for Southern California. While their replacements might still develop into excellent NFL linemen, this probably won't happen soon enough to salvage the current season or quell the raging critics.

Defensively, we’re seeing the impact of inadequate depth in the absence of T.J. Watt, Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt. But realistically, and even if all three were available, the Steelers still would have only one guy capable of consistently pressuring the quarterback. Given the talent level at quarterback in the NFL today, one reliable pass-rusher simply isn’t enough. While the defense Pittsburgh started the season with is very good and still improving, the backup players clearly are not up to that level. And the more pressure loaded onto the shoulders of this banged-up defense by an inept offense, the more breakdowns we’re likely to see.

Recent comments by Roethlisberger and Tomlin indicate nobody in the organization is panicking at this early stage, and they'll obviously be taking steps to turn things around as the season goes on. But considering the obstacles this team faces in terms of both inexperienced and injured players, the extended 2021 season might seem considerably longer for Steelers fans.

Every NFL team goes through periods when the wheels appear to fall off, and it's hard to deny the Black-and-Gold currently appear to be skidding down the highway on their backsides. Coach Tomlin and the Steelers' front office hardly have the luxury of patience, but fans would do well to look for modest improvements rather than earthshaking gains during the coming weeks.

The Steelers' history of success gives many fans the same inflated expectations we held during the team's glory days. But as Bruce Springsteen sang and Chuck Noll preached, "Those glory days they'll pass you by."

There's more than a grain of truth in the view that the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers currently are not a very good football team. But the verdict on the caliber and future of Steelers coaches and players will depend on how well or poorly the team meets this challenge. On the other hand, the many quick-fix remedies suggested by fans will continue to be little more than background noise.

In today's parity-NFL, it's virtually impossible to assemble or retain a powerhouse team akin to the 1970s Steelers. That's why, if you truly want to enjoy football today, it's important to appreciate the doing part of the game which invariably occupies periods much longer than the winning.