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Steel Curtain Sound-Off: The Steelers are (still) a Greek tragedy

This week we’re covering soap operas, DIVA receivers, and Chris Hoke

A detailed view of a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet and football during the regular season NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers on December 23, 2023 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to Steel Curtain Sound-Off, where I journey through the irradiated morass of the comments section here at Behind The Steel Curtain dot com, and I return with your takes (...and respond).

Welcome back to “The Days of Our Steelers’ – Yinzer.

The Steelers are soap operatic in the sense that all the purported internal strive feels contrived and profoundly cheesy. And much like “Days of Our Lives,” the Steelers are best enjoyed as innocuous background noise, something that plays on TV not because you sought it out, but because it airs on the same network where you watch the morning news, and you’re working from home and never got around to changing the channel. Sure, their Week 16 win over the Bengals looked pretty, but when the only two games your offense has looked remotely competent this season have both come against the same struggling defense, we can probably call a spade a spade.

Still, I think this current iteration of the Steelers is more like a Greek tragedy. Think back to all the promise that underpinned the lead-up to the regular season: Kenny Pickett played well enough in the back half of the 2022 regular season and 2023 preseason that a second-year leap wasn’t beyond the realm of imagination, the front office made meaningful headway in updating the sieve-like offensive line, the offense had several skill position players with All-Pro upside, the defense was characteristically robust, with a revamped linebacking corps and top-five players on the edge, along the defensive line, and in the defensive backfield, and Mike Tomlin was fresh off arguably his best-coached season, dragging a seemingly hapless and woebegone outfit kicking and screaming to a genuinely miraculous 9-8 record.

To say the Steelers resembled a Super Bowl frontrunner was probably an overstatement, but it was not unreasonable to conclude that they had assembled the component parts of what would ultimately form the foundation of a perennial contender. And now look at them. Pickett—when he’s been healthy—has shown marginal-to-no progress and has possibly even regressed, the skill players are openly disgruntled, the offensive line is a longstanding disgrace, everyone on the defense is injured, and most of the fan base and local media want Tomlin run out of town.

Those things were all largely true three weeks ago, by the way. The only material difference between then and now is that three weeks ago, the Steelers were 7-4 and headed into the easiest part of their schedule: back-to-back games at home against two of the worst teams in the league, then a road game against an average-looking Colts team down its star running back and starting quarterback. It isn’t like anything new occurred during the course of the three consecutive losses that followed; all that’s done is exacerbate issues that have persisted all season.

The tragic irony in all this is that the Steelers are still technically in contention, their late-December fate now pinned to a guy named Rudolph, who may have saved Week 16 but still has plenty of questions left to answer. Their general misfortunes, coupled with a crowded AFC playoff field, renders their appearance in the postseason manifestly unlikely, but remaining in the playoff hunt this far in the season means that a premium draft pick is likely unobtainable. It is football purgatory — a fate nearly as bad as unwittingly killing your own father, taking your mother as your bride, and then blinding yourself as a symbol of self-realization.

“We really need to stop giving Hoke so much attention. He was an above average backup on some amazing teams. Does he know more about the Steelers’ culture than most? Of course, but I don’t understand how his takes are suddenly headline worthy when all he’s doing is saying the most outlandish things he can get away with to generate clicks.

He hasn’t said anything that’s particularly unique or insightful. IMHO he’s seen how much money that people make off of spewing HAWT SPORTS TAKES in the social media era and is just trying to make a buck. I’m grateful for his contributions to two Super Bowls and he was always a decent enough player when called upon but I don’t understand why anyone is taking his very obvious trolling seriously.” – JV2K13

I don’t know if it’s so much trolling as it is pandering, which I think is debatably worse. Trolls plant bombs, but panderers lay seeds. Stephen A. Smith is a troll, whereas certain bigger-name major news networks pander. Chris Hoke is pandering—quite effectively, I might add, because his takes have entered the broader discourse and, hence, we’re discussing them—to a subset of Steelers fans that get angry enough to call into The Nightly Sports Call to chastise Bob Pompeani for not being critical enough of the play-call on 2nd and 8.

Because the Colts game had gotten so out of hand, my wife and I were tending to some other chores and doing some Christmas decorating while the game played in the background, and we didn’t get around to changing the channel after all the post-game stuff wrapped up. Apparently, Pompeani and Hoke have some kind of post-game show on one of the local stations in Pittsburgh, so that started playing.

Anyway, they got to talking and Hoke said something about the game starting to get out of hand after George Pickens “allowed” an interception. I get that dumping on Pickens is presently en vogue ‘round these here parts, but treating Pickens’ supposed failure to prevent an interception as the precursor for what turned out to be a multi-possession loss is flatly ridiculous. He purposely went against the grain—namely, the plainly obvious evidence that Mitch Trubisky could not throw a beach ball into the ocean if he were standing knee-deep in the tide—to help feed a budding narrative about Pickens’ lack of effort.

I understand that I—and nobody who writes for this website—cannot throw rocks here. Although my house is not quite as large as Hoke’s, it, too, is made of glass, and hot takes are valuable currency in sports media. There is a reason why sports journalism is dying while sports “media” is flourishing. Why would the New York Times or a similar outlet pay a full-time sports reporter $80,000 a year when Sports Illustrated (or Vox…) can pay contractors and freelancers a very, very tiny fraction of that amount to produce stories that get a similar amount of web traffic? The myriad venture capital firms and private billionaires who own many major media sources don’t care nearly as much about the content of the stories they produce as they do how much money companies pay to advertise on their websites.

The hotter the take, the more attention that gets paid to it; the more attention that gets paid, the happier the advertisers; the happier the advertisers, the happier the conglomerates that grease the wheels of the entire enterprise. We see this in praxis all the time. Here, blogs that are chided as clickbait invariably have more comments and views than fleshed-out commentary. Rashard Mendenhall has not played in the NFL since 2012 and his mindless Twitter ramblings were apparently newsworthy enough for us to run an article. The entire basis of this column is reacting to your takes that I found particularly compelling. So yeah, Chris Hoke sucks, but he also knows exactly what he’s doing. As long as he continues to peddle half-baked perspectives that fall on the extreme ends of the Likert Scale, he’ll not only have a platform, but it’ll probably grow.

To conclude with a hot take: cheesecake is the most overrated dessert.

Regardless of the current state of this team and the 9% chance to make the playoffs, I do think it’s important that they continue to improve and fight. This is still a young team in certain regards and finding ways to win games and not giving up goes a long way. It almost seems too easy and unprofessional to quit at this point in the season. I think once the Steelers are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, they should still play to win and continue to battle. I’m disappointed like everyone else how this season has unfolded but I’d be even more disappointed if they just flat out quit.” – IronCladTheory

I wrote about this before in a column a while ago, but the 2018 Divisional Playoff against Jacksonville fundamentally altered my perspective as a fan of the Steelers. I had sincerely believed that would be the year the Steelers finally surmounted the proverbial hump—i.e., the New England Patriots—and secured the hardware befitting the level of talent on the roster, that winning the Super Bowl would solidify the Killer Bs Steelers as one of the preeminent teams in NFL history. Over the course of that game, a 45-42 loss that was never really as close as the score line lets on, and subsequently walking out of the stadium, chilled and bereft, I came to the realization that staking my rooting interest on whether the team wins a championship was making it almost prohibitively difficult to enjoy being a fan.

As such, I adopted a perspective similar to the one IronCladTheory proffered here. The fact that the Killer Bs Steelers didn’t win a Super Bowl is disappointing for sure, but this doesn’t take away from how entertaining those teams were. The 2023 Steelers, by contrast, are not only categorically unentertaining but also actively disinterested in doing the sorts of things good teams do. Pickens and Diontae Johnson have received deserved opprobrium for their apparent lack of effort over the past couple of weeks, but it isn’t like other members of the Steelers are beyond reproach (Pickens and Johnson did not, for instance, allow the Arizona Cardinals to engineer a 15-play, 99-yard scoring drive).

So, I agree that I’d like to see the Steelers go down swinging, and I’d prefer if that could be accomplished by maintain professionalism on and off the field. The fact that George Pickens did not block for a teammate is lame and unprofessional, but so is so-called leaders (again, leaders who helmed a defense that has allowed 74 combined points over the past three weeks to teams with a combined record of 14-28) admonishing teammates in front of the media.

I told my friend near the start of the season that if they don’t fire Canada they’ll start coming after Tomlin with pitchforks. They came after Canada with ferosity and he got let go. I now believe and think that we are seeing that if they don’t get rid of Tomlin, they’ll start going after ARII.” – Coast2Coast

Much as I love the idea of a coup against a standing NFL owner, the proletariat has scarce little recourse for ousting Art Rooney II. The only way to force an owner to sell their team is by having all the other owners vote them out, and you’ve gotta be a legendarily monolithic stalagmite of petrified turds (Dan Snyder) for such an idea to even come to fruition. There is zero chance Rooney II gets forced out, and certainly not as a result of a Steelers Nation uprising.

And even if Rooney II did sell the team through compulsion or other means, he’d be replaced by another extremely rich person whose motivations are primarily rooted in capital. The very “best” (I am applying the loosest possible definition to that term) owners respect tradition but embrace modernity and tend to remain relatively hands-off by delegating the football stuff to the football people, and my sense is that Rooney II struggles with at least part of this equation.

I think nearly all of us here agree the NFL has gotten way too soft. Half the time we can’t tell the difference between a sack/QB hit and roughing the passer. Then there are those plays were a ball carrier dances along the sidelines to be hit just as he steps out of bounds and the defender gets called for a PF. But, that doesn’t mean the NFL is always wrong with some of these hits and I’m going against the grain on this one. Kazee launched into him unnecessarily. I hate that “tackling” technique and there was no reason for it here. Is a suspension for the rest of the season fair? Probably not, but the NFL wanted to send a message and Kazee (and his coaches) have themselves to blame for that.” – Crashd726

I think there is a fine line between gettin’ SAWFT and the play where Damontae Kazee liquified Michael Pittman Jr.’s brain matter. I agree that roughing the passer has been legislated to a point of genuine hilarity, where every sack is celebrated with bated breath in case a perfunctory flag gets tossed, but I’m generally in favor of the rules outlawing hits against defenseless receivers.

I don’t think it’s fair to pin any blame for Kazee’s hit on the coaching staff, though. Kazee is a veteran defensive back, with 92 games (62 starts) on his resume. He should know better, and the reason he was suspended is due to repeated infractions, as any repeat violator of established protocol should be.

“Pickens is a legend in his own mind (assuming he has one) he is the type of person the Steelers would never have drafted in the preTomlin era when character mattered,Pickens is cancer on the team and needs to be removed, just like Holmes,Bryant, Brown,Claypool, WTH is it with WRs ?” - DannyNW

“Cancer” is a bit extreme, and especially in reference to several of the guys you mentioned. Holmes and Bryant had substance abuse issues (Bryant actually attended rehab in an effort to address his) and Brown forced his way out over what he understandably perceived as preferential treatment for Ben Roethlisberger and Roethlisberger himself repeatedly putting him on blast in public forums. Everything that’s happened since Brown was traded makes the decision to move on from him look incredibly prudent in retrospect, but that doesn’t entirely dismiss the validity of the gripes that precipitated his ouster in the first place. Claypool, much like Pickens, displayed some occasional lapses in professionalism, but certainly not to the extent that he poisoned the entire well.

The thing all these receivers have in common—including George Pickens and Diontae Johnson—is that they’re readily accessible scapegoats. Wide receivers are already perceived as a particularly high-maintenance contingent, so any time one expresses even the slightest notion of discontent, it lends credence to the idea that they’re just a spoiled diva and correspondingly renders their concerns moot. And for someone like Pickens, a five-star recruit who played for one of the most successful college football programs in the country, to all of a sudden play in an anemic offense in a small city hundreds of miles from his hometown and invite the scorn of arguably the NFL’s most rabid fan base must be absolutely jarring. It would be for any 22-year-old.

I am sure there is some legitimacy to the notion that the receivers mentioned in this comment are maybe a bit temperamental, but it is deeply inaccurate to act as if that was the only factor that contributed to them falling out of favor. Fans had a role in this, as did the local media.

We’ll soon see if Pickens’ 4-195-2 stat line in Week 16 is enough to shift his discourse in a more favorable direction moving forward.