I know the Steelers are still a few weeks away from reporting to training camp, so why am I jumping the gun to talk about preseason football?
Because it’s a slow news day. You got me. It’s early July, and it's a slow news day for football. Quick, go tell the others!
Anyway, I stumbled upon some old Steelers preseason games on YouTube last summer, and for whatever reason, that got me interested in exhibition football for the first time in a very long while. Why? Was it because I wanted to see who clinched those last five or six roster spots? No, silly! Was it because I wanted to see how those camp sensations panned out? Not really, and even if that was the reason, I can’t remember who the 2022 training camp sensations even were (no offense to them, of course).
I was really just fascinated by the notion that the Steelers treated preseason games much more importantly back then than they do in the modern era; this supposedly less-serious treatment is a consequence of higher salaries, guaranteed contracts and the salary cap.
“The starters played a lot more back then,” many had been insisting for a while. “The Steelers have to get back to leaving their top guys in longer so they can develop chemistry.”
First off, are you crazy?
That’s a rhetorical question, and I don’t have a second off.
I watched a couple of games last year—contests from the 1970s and 1980s—and realized that good old Chuck Noll, the wise and all-knowing Emperor, didn’t play a lot of his starters a lot of the time during preseason action.
Noll resting his starters was a thing before the Super Bowl dynasty of the 1970s, during the Super Bowl dynasty of the 1970s and kept being a thing even once the malaise of the 1980s kicked in.
I guess my point is this: Preseason football has always been rather unimportant. Sure, the starters may have played all four quarters of the final game back then, while they only play half of one of the exhibition games, today. But few head coaches have ever been brazen enough to risk a superstar’s health in an August football game for the sake of developing chemistry in time for September football games.
It’s because August football games don’t count, while the ones in September do.
That might seem like a “no duh!” revelation to you, but every NFL fan who’s ever lived has ultimately had to have this explained to them in much the same way one finds out about the deal with Santa Claus. What deal with Santa, you ask? Nevermind.
I found out the truth about Steelers' preseason games rather early in my fandom.
It was on August 23, 1980.
The Steelers, seven months after their fourth Super Bowl victory in six years to close out the football business of the 1970s, fell to the Jets, 20-13, at old Three Rivers Stadium. I had known nothing but success up to that point; my first real Steelers memory was of them vanquishing the Rams in Super Bowl XIV on January 20th of that year.
Pittsburgh then won its first two exhibition games to start out 2-0 in summer football.
But, as far as I was concerned, it was 3-0 for the Black and Gold.
Remember the wrestler, Goldberg, and his streak of 100-plus victories without a defeat? That’s how I felt about the Steelers as a little eight-year-old.
Then came that loss to the Jets, at home of all places.
Fortunately, my mother clued me in right away that preseason games were, in fact, glorified scrimmages that didn’t count in the standings.
“They’re just practicing,” she said.
I understood it all intellectually, but it took me a while to come to grips with it emotionally--I mean, both teams were wearing uniforms and everything. In fact, I was still taking preseason losses to heart—and victories to heart, as well—as late as the early-’90s when Bill Cowher first took over as head coach.
That was a long, long time ago, of course.
I can’t remember the last time I put all of my heart and soul into cheering for a Steelers preseason game.
How about you? When did it first click that preseason games weren’t real?
Or maybe you’re still like that one wrestling fan: