As I typed the headline of this piece, I chuckled. No doubt there will be some who will glance at it and think, “That Smith guy is an idiot”. Some of the parents of the players I’ve coached over the years have certainly entertained that thought. They even let me know from time to time. For those around BTSC who were teetering on the subject, I may have confirmed your suspicions.
I’m serious, though. It’s not as though I prefer to root for a bad Steelers team. Some of the greatest joys of my life have come as a result of the Steelers reaching the pinnacle of NFL success. My fandom began as a little boy, while watching them defeat the Cowboys in Super Bowl X. Something about the black and gold uniforms, and the way Jack Lambert stormed in like a superhero to slam Cliff Harris to the turf when he taunted Roy Gerela, resonated with me, even if I was too young to understand why. A few years later, the Steelers did it again, knocking off the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII, and then the Rams a year later. Those victories gave me bragging rights over all the Eagles fans at my middle school. I carried a sense of gravitas as I paraded through the hallways in the mesh #58 jersey my parents had given me as a birthday present. To paraphrase Red from Shawshank Redemption, I was the Lord of all creation.
Following that victory over the Rams, however, a funny thing happened. Not ha-ha funny, of course, but funny, as in odd, in that I never saw it coming. The Steelers stopped winning. They went 9-7 and missed the playoffs in 1980, then 8-8 in ‘81. A strike shortened the 1982 season, and in ‘83 and ‘84 the Steelers rebounded to make the playoffs. They were good but not great at that point, and were bounced by better teams.
By 1985, most of the stars from the Super Bowl seasons had retired, and the team, once replete with future Hall of Famers, suddenly lacked star power. Bradshaw became Stoudt, then Woodley, then Malone. Harris became Pollard and Jackson. Greene and Greenwood became Dunn and Gary. They retreated first into mediocrity, and then were flat-out bad. From ‘85-’88, they went 26-37, missing the playoffs each year.
It stung at first. I remember sitting in my room by myself after they lost the ‘84 championship in Miami and refusing to come out or speak to anyone. I didn’t want to go to school the next day because people would tease me about it. I thought, The Steelers aren’t supposed to lose. Football mattered so much to me, and I put so much stock in Pittsburgh’s success, that it felt as though their failures were my failures. As though my self-worth was tied directly to their success.
Slowly, though, I understood that things change, and that losing was real, even for the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers. Eventually, I gained a new perspective. The team wasn’t very good anymore, but they fought. They had scrappy players, like Bryan Hinkle, David Little and Ray Pinney, who were limited athletically but who played the game hard and got the most out of their ability. Losing sucked. But those Steelers teams were still fun to root for.
I had a friend at the time who was a Bears fan. They had won the Super Bowl in ‘85 with one the greatest teams ever assembled. The next season, Chicago hosted the Steelers at Soldier Field. All week long, my friend talked smack about what a blowout it would be. The Bears were 10-2, the Steelers were 4-8, and the Steelers shouldn’t even bother showing up. Walter Payton would rush for 200 yards and the “46” defense would devour poor Mark Malone. I’ll give you two touchdowns, he said. Let’s bet on it.
The loser of the bet was required to run a lap through our local supermarket — after school, when it was sure to be crowded — in an outfit of the winner’s choosing. Ridiculous as this may sound, in the days before omnipresent surveillance cameras and cell phones, it was not a particularly unusual wager. It was, however, both humiliating to the loser and hysterical to the victor.
We gathered that Sunday at his house to watch. The game was not on national television, and with no Red Zone to keep us current, we waited for the scores to flash on the screen during the local game. They would pop up every ten minutes or so, and each time they did, I smiled and he sunk. The Bears trailed until a late touchdown evened the score, and a Kevin Butler field goal won it for them in overtime. I hated that the Steelers lost. But I could not have been more proud as a fan.
And so, it was with great pleasure a few days later that I stood near the registers at the front of the market, watching as my friend wound his way in and out of the aisles, drawing an occasional shriek from an unsuspecting patron, dressed only in a Pittsburgh Steelers ski cap and a jock strap.
There have been other periods since that time where I’ve enjoyed rooting for bad Steelers’ teams. The 2003 squad comes to mind. Like those teams from the mid-80s, this was a transitional group. Bill Cowher’s original core — the Blitzburgh/Slash/He Who Shall Not Be Named iterations — were largely gone. They had been fun but frustrating teams that brought winning back to Pittsburgh, with four championship appearances and a trip to the Super Bowl, but were never quite good enough to claim the Lombardi. By 2003, a cast-off from the XFL, Tommy Maddox, was their quarterback, and hard-nosed, run-first “Steeler football” had been replaced by the Tommy Gun offense. This featured Maddox in the shotgun, dodging pass rushers behind a shaky line, slinging the ball to a cast of young receivers that featured Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwan Randle-El. Coordinator Mike Mularkey had Maddox attempt 40 or more passes in five games that season, with 30+ in six others. For many, it was an act of offensive sacrilege. What in the name of Dan Kreider was happening?
A new era of football, that’s what. The NFL was evolving, as spread concepts trickled into the pro game. 11 personnel sets were becoming all the rage, with fullbacks being phased out in favor of quick slot receivers. Teams still ran the ball, but they had begun to value spreading the field and throwing it as a more efficient approach than slamming it into a pile of bodies. While rushing efficiency remained relatively static, passing efficiency leapt forward, beginning in the early 2000s. The Steelers under Maddox were not particularly good. But they joined the revolution.
And guess what? It was fun to watch! It was new, and that newness created excitement. There were new schemes and concepts, new formations and motions, new game-plans. Cowher, despite his protruding chin, flying spittle and smash-mouth persona, showed he was open to change. The changes didn’t work, necessarily, as the Steelers stumbled to a 6-10 record. But that mark put them in position to draft Ben Roethlisberger, and things took off from there.
Which brings us to 2022. This is certainly the worst Steelers team since the Tommy Gun era. As I pointed out in my “3 & Out” column following the Jets game, there are some similarities between this and the ‘03 team. Both were young, and transitioning away from being title-contenders, and looking for new identities. The ‘04 Steelers found theirs in Roethlisberger and a rebuilt defense. The ‘22 Steelers? It’s too early to say. They will lose a bunch of games this season. They will struggle to find themselves. They will, at times, seem like a total mess, like they did at Buffalo last Sunday.
Once you accept that, and understand who this team is, you can embrace them. Dare I say it, you may even enjoy them. It’s going to be fun watching Kenny Pickett grow. Don’t judge him by his stat line, or by how many points the offense scores. Judge him by how well he does real NFL quarterback things, like manipulate coverage, anticipate receivers coming open and stand in the pocket as it collapses around him. Enjoy the fact that when Quinnen Williams of the Jets, all 303 pounds of him, drilled Pickett as he delivered a strike to Pat Freiermuth in Pickett’s debut two weeks ago, the rookie got up, jawed with Williams then laughed as Williams walked away. Enjoy the fact he has already shown, with little preparation, that the moment is not too big for him.
And enjoy George Pickens. He is the most dynamic receiver this team has drafted in years. Pickens is not a complete player yet, and has much to learn. But his play-making ability has not been seen in Pittsburgh since Antonio Brown left town.
Enjoy the leadership James Daniels is providing, and his ascension as the alpha of an offensive line that is both young and improving. They will take their lumps this year, too. But the promise they are starting to show could mean big things in the future.
Enjoy Cam Heyward. A pro’s pro. The heart and soul of this team, still. He’ll be gone before long, and we’ll miss him dearly.
Enjoy Minkah. He does so many spectacular things, both obvious and subtle.
Enjoy an upset victory or two. They will come amidst the losses.
Because, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my history as a Steelers fan, it’s this: winning is fantastic, but also hard to appreciate without some losing. No franchise is good enough to win all the time. Not even the Steelers, who have the highest winning percentage of any NFL team over the past 50 years, with six Lombardi’s to boot.
Losing sucks. But it’s inevitable. And occasionally, if you keep the right perspective, rooting for a bad Steelers’ team can be fun.