Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.” The profundity of this quote is rooted in its simplicity; it presents winning and losing as entirely dichotomous concepts and rejects philosophizing about the means that promoted either outcome. And in the context of professional team sports, that’s kind of the entire point. Every season yields only one champion.
Counterpoint: this quote sucks! Applying the framework of this quote to the 2023 Steelers should evoke feelings of contentment, perhaps even enthusiasm. Nay. Both of Pittsburgh’s losses felt like full-fledged confirmations of the cynicism that underpinned the preseason, and all three wins felt like that one dream where all your teeth fall out and then you wake up overcome with relief when your tongue hits enamel.
The Steelers are 3-2 and owners of sole possession of first place in the AFC North, but I’m recalling another King in the North, Robb Stark, and how his fleeting reign ended with belligerents festooning a wolf’s head on his neck-stump and parading his pockmarked corpse around their encampment.
And I’m recalling this because millennial Steelers fans like me are a ludicrously spoiled contingent. The Steelers have had four losing seasons in my entire lifetime (their last losing season came in 2003; I was 11 years old and at that time experienced my “fanhood” through the proxy of pretending to be Hines Ward during games of catch with my dad) and they’ve won two Super Bowls. Nearly the entirety of my conscious Steelers fanhood has been punctuated by Hall of Fame quarterback play, so the displays of mewling fatalism, because the dim bulb that represents the offense has miraculously illuminated a trek to the pinnacle of the division, are a reflection of a sense of entitlement to a team that always remains in the hunt.
None of this is healthy, by the way. You think I liked watching the Steelers claw their way out of the mud to beat the Ravens in a game so ugly it should’ve forced the NFL to consider implementing an English Premier League-style relegation system? Or that it’s fun to relitigate the particulars of that game (chiefly, what felt like a dozen dropped passes from Ravens receivers, and an uncharacteristically poor decision from Lamar Jackson in crunch time) to justify the pessimism I feel about the result rather than luxuriating in the fact that they clutched a win from the gnashing maw of defeat? The Steelers are ranked 30th in total offense, 29th in scoring offense, and 30th in total defense; they have the league’s eighth-worst points differential and its third-worst yardage differentiation. That they are somehow 3-2 is an utter statistical anomaly.
And yet…they’re somehow 3-2, heading into a bye week to hopefully recalibrate, and should return WR Diontae Johnson to help inject some vitality and dynamism into the offense. There is no getting around how bad the offense is and has been, but the yardage being allowed by the defense is largely correlated to how frequently the offense is giving the ball back to the opposition, either by way of turnovers or stalled drives. The Steelers are actually ranked right in the middle of the league in scoring defense, further indicating that all the yardage they’re allowing might be the outgrowth of something beyond their immediate control and not a symptom of their own deficiencies.
So, maybe if the offense gains some sort of foothold and starts carrying its weight, it’ll achieve a level of equilibrium that enables the whole enterprise to start operating with a telegenic consistency more befitting their record. After all, even though Robb Stark died, his brother Bran did ultimately become the king of the entire continent, so it all kind of worked out for the family in the end…
Again, it is profoundly unhealthy to be so distinctly of two minds about anything, let alone a team for whom your rooting interests are purely voluntary. But it is also extremely fun to have intense, “Oh my God, I hate this team,” ruminations overlapping thoughts of “You know, maybe they’ll get this figured out,” on a weekly basis. It makes you feel more engaged, more alive, and also extremely crazy.
In the moment, however, like when your punt returner fumbles inside his team’s 10 yard-line and three plays later your rookie defensive back intercepts a pass in the end zone that would’ve iced the game for the opposition, and shortly thereafter your maligned sophomore quarterback engineers a game-winning drive that culminates in him lofting a glorious, parabolic touchdown pass, and then your chest tightens up like a snare drum because you aren’t sure if what you’re feeling is elation or vitriol for them making you feel this way in the first place or both things at once, you start to question if continuing down this path might spell your end.
This team is going to kill me.