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This era's Steelers reminiscent of the early 80s teams

Some say the Steelers have a chance to get back to the Super Bowl because Ben Roethlisberger is playing better than ever, and the offense is loaded with talent. However, there's a lot of luck involved with going on a championship run, and sometimes even having a franchise quarterback and a world-class offense is not enough.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

I was just a little kid in 1980 when I first started following the Steelers; that means I don't remember anything about the legendary teams of the 1970s, other than Super Bowl XIV.

But, as early as that '80 season, before I knew much about the game of football, I was aware of all those stars, those future Hall of Famers and that what they were able to accomplish with four championships in the just completed decade was truly exceptional and historic. I'd see those signs and bumper stickers all over the place predicting "One for the Thumb," which was that era's version of "The standard is the standard" or maybe "7th Heaven." I'd listen to the adults revel in the team and continue to demand excellence long after Franco Harris had clinched that fourth Lombardi with a one-yard plunge in a 31-19 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Pasadena, California. I remember how the national media would cover those early '80s Steelers teams, when they'd seemingly be on Monday Night Football two or three times a season and part of a marquee Sunday broadcast at least that many times. I can recall the many specials on NFL Films about those Super '70s Steelers, the ones hosted by the iconic Steve Sabol--he and the rest of his top-shelf crew, with the likes of John Facenda and his baritone voice doing the narration and the goosebump-inducing soundtracks, made those years seem mythical  to a youngster like me. I remember how the local media would cover the team with Pittsburgh sports icons like Myron Cope, Stan Savran and Sam Nover doing the heavy lifting and making you realize this team was the biggest deal in town.

No, I wasn't old enough to experience those '70s teams, but like anyone who grows up in and around places like South Bend, Indiana or Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, I was indoctrinated in the belief that championships (in this case, Super Bowls) were the be-all and end-all.

Unfortunately, while all that national and local acclaim was taking place, those adults were demanding that the excellence continue and Yours truly was falling in love with them, those Steelers teams of the early '80s were clearly no longer able to live up to the very lofty standards they helped to create. Meanwhile, other franchises like the 49ers, Cowboys, Raiders, Dolphins and Redskins were the real Super Bowl contenders of the day and were the ones battling for NFL supremacy.

It's no secret why a shift in the NFL's power-structure quickly took place as soon as 1980. Pittsburgh's players got old and many soon retired, coaching philosophies maybe got too predictable, and, just like in any other era, different teams improved and filled the championship void.

I often thought about those early '80s years growing up and wondered what it would be like to experience them again. Thankfully, I basically am experiencing them right now in 2015. I say this because the Steelers are five years removed from a run of three Super Bowl appearances and two championships in a six-year span. The experiences of following  those teams and the memories I will always simply cannot buy that. I didn't know Mean Joe or Jack Splat when they were in their primes and scaring the bejesus out of opposing quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers all over the league four decades ago, but I was quite familiar with Troy Polamalu and James Harrison when they were doing the same things in the 2000s.

Sadly, the one thing about living through such a remarkable run is that your expectations are heightened and they stay that way for a very long time. It seems like the Steelers Super Bowl XLIII victory was only yesterday, but it was seven years ago. It seems like that Super Bowl XLV appearance just happened, but Antonio Brown was a rookie that year and Ben Roethlisberger was still in his 20s.

It doesn't help that the Steelers are one of the most popular teams in the NFL and seem to max-out their prime-time games every season--including 2015, when they again have five. And, being 2015, there's the Internet, and all those sites dedicated to the six-time Super Bowl champions, complete with the war-cry for a seventh Lombardi always at the forefront as part of someone's name or included in the conversation about the team.

The demands for another Super Bowl title haven't stopped since 2010, but the execution certainly has. Over the past few years, while Pittsburgh has only made the playoffs once since 2011, teams such as the Patriots, Ravens, Seahawks, Broncos, 49ers and Packers have either remained in or stepped up to assume the role of true Super Bowl contenders.

This isn't to say the Steelers have totally fallen off the table--far from it. Since Week 1 of 2012, Pittsburgh is 33-26, which eerily mirrors the 33-24 overall mark those early 80s teams had in the four seasons after Super Bowl XIV. A .559 or .578 winning percentage is nothing to sneeze at, and it's just enough to give the fans who remember the really good times hope that things can turn around fast. "Had a few plays gone the other way, we'd be a 12-4 football team." But true Super Bowl contenders don't have to rely on a few breaks over the course of the year. Sure, there are close-call victories and even clunkers that end in defeat, but for the most part, a Super Bowl team looks it on average of about three out of every four weeks. (The Steelers averaged just over 11 wins a season from 2004-2011, when they went to four AFC title games and three Super Bowls.)

Contending teams regularly make it through 11 games with eight or nine victories, but those early 80s squads only did that once during the first half decade, while the current post-Super Bowl team hasn't done so since 2011.

Again, much like the those early 80s teams, it's no secret why the Steelers have sunk back to mediocrity in recent years. Players got old and either retired or were released, and maybe coaching habits got a little too predictable. You throw in the modern monkey wrench that is a salary cap and true free-agency, and it's obviously much harder than it ever was to keep that championship ball rolling in the right direction.

Just like when I was a kid, the symptoms of a post-Super Bowl era are all around me, with former heroes popping up on TV  wearing suits and ties instead of helmets and shoulder pads. Back then, maybe you'd see L.C. Greenwood in a beer commercial or ol' Terry Bradshaw promoting chewing tobacco. Today, there's Hines Ward selling cars or The Bus telling me about his favorite bank.

This isn't to say there's not hope for the near-future when talking about the current Steelers.

Obviously, the offense is world-class, complete with a franchise quarterback still seemingly in his prime, the best group of receivers in the NFL and certainly the most-talented and multi-dimensional running back. And while the defense might be a shell of its once-dominant self, there's defensive end Cam Heyward playing like a superstar and Lawrence Timmons looking as solid as they come at inside linebacker. Heck, if  Stephon Tuitt can keep making strides and Ryan Shazier can just stay healthy, this defense could really be something.

Sadly, Roethlisberger has been hurt so many times over the past few years, it's hard to keep track (he's still not out of the woods for this week's game against the Colts after his coach publicly stated he suffered a concussion in the loss to the Seahawks), Le'Veon Bell will only contribute to five games this year thanks to suspension and injury, and Martavis Bryant can only play in a total of 12 after serving a suspension to start the season. As for that defense led by Heyward and Timmons, well, there's a big difference between being the only two studs on a unit and being two of many--the reality of the previous decade.

And as painful as it is to say, Shazier may never actually stay healthy.

Going back some 30-plus years, the Steelers defense was a work-in-progress after the likes of Jack Ham, Mel Blount and Greenwood retired, but there were some studs to feel excited about like defensive end Keith Willis and outside linebacker Mike Merriweather. And, heck, that Gabe Rivera, drafted in the first round in 1983, sure looked like he would turn into a defensive tackle that may have reminded some fans of old No. 75, who hung up his cleats two years earlier. The offense was still potent in the early 80s, with Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as Bradshaw's targets and Franco Harris toting the rock out of the backfield.

But, Swanny retired following the '82 season, old Brad just kept getting hurt and eventually his surgically repaired elbow forced him to retire after only playing one half of one game in 1983, Stallworth missed a bunch of time that year with injuries and Franco was cut in a salary dispute just prior to the '84 campaign.

Those early 80s offenses may have looked dominant before the injuries and retirements, but they also often looked sloppy and would turn the football over a ton--including a combined 83 in 1980 and 1981. When you turn the football over that many times during your glory days--Pittsburgh gave it away a combined 91 times in 1978 and 1979--you may be able to get away with it if you have one of the best defenses ever built backing you up. But when those guys start to get old and/or retire, it's much harder to compensate with lesser personnel. Sure, Willis and Merriweather were really good players, but there's a huge difference between a couple of really good defensive players and a legendary unit led by four Hall of Famers.

The Steelers haven't given the football away nearly as much in the current era,  but the defense certainly hasn't taken it away at a Super Bowl-worthy rate, with age, injury and retirement taking their toll. Whatever mistakes the offense does make often come back to bite the team, thanks to a defense that is young, less-talented than its predecessor and ill-equipped to stop the bleeding on a regular basis.

A lot of what goes into making a championship run is luck, and the longer the run lasts, the greater the odds that it will come to a halt. In the America's Game episode about the '79 Steelers team, Stallworth talks about the injuries the team suffered that year, along with all the turnovers it committed (52); at a certain point, he wondered if the odds had caught up to Pittsburgh after winning three Super Bowls in five seasons.Thankfully, the Steelers had one more run left before the odds finally caught up to them just one year later.

Timing plays a part, too. People love to comment on the greatness of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and how he's been able to overhaul his roster multiple times and still keep his team playing at a championship level. Of course, it helps to have one of the all-time great quarterbacks as a mainstay in Tom Brady. It also helps to play in the AFC East, a division where no quarterbacks have even approached Brady's talents in recent years, Rex Ryan has been the second-longest tenured head coach (albeit with two different teams), and the 2010 Jets were the only other franchise besides New England to win at least 10 games, dating back to the 2008 season.

The Steelers, meanwhile, reside in the AFC North, maybe the most stable division in football since 2008--at least in-terms of coaching tenure, quarterback play and playoff appearances. Joe Flacco just missed his first game the other night, after playing in every single one all the way back to his  rookie season of '08--the same year John Harbaugh became Baltimore's head coach; since that time, the Ravens have made six postseason appearances (and faced Pittsburgh three times), played in the AFC title game three times and won Super Bowl XLVII. Marvin Lewis has been the Bengals head coach since 2003; in that time, he's taken them to the playoffs six times, has had the benefit of starting quarterbacks the caliber of Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton, and has built what many now consider the most complete roster in the NFL--a team that is headed for its fifth-straight playoff berth. Last season marked the second time since 2011 that Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati all found themselves in the same playoff field.

The old AFC Central Division was very mediocre in the early 80s; who knows what may have happened if Rivera actually did develop into a star as opposed to being involved in a devastating car accident early in his rookie year that left him paralyzed. Or, what if Pittsburgh didn't shy away from Dan Marino like so many other teams did in the 1983 NFL Draft and actually picked him to be Bradshaw's successor? Can you imagine how head coach Chuck Noll may  have changed his approach to the draft in subsequent years if he had yet another all-time great quarterback to build his roster around?

What if Bradshaw's elbow injury was handled differently, and he played another two or three years? Can you imagine the numbers he would have produced in the mid-80s with a young Louis Lipps and a resurgent Stallworth?

Back to the current Steelers. There are many who truly believe this team can get back to where it was and become a Super Bowl contender once again. I'm one of those people who likes to believe it, because that offensive potential is just so tantalizing. But, while Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant are excellent receivers, neither of them has proven they can come through like Hines Ward did during so many playoff and Super Bowl seasons.

If the run is truly over, and all we're left with is a lot of great offense and many more frustratingly close seasons like the early '80s, this should be a surprise to no one; it's just so hard to make it all come together and work once, let alone in two different eras.

I'll leave you with a quote from former Raiders owner, the late Al Davis, following his team's 38-10 thumping of Pittsburgh in a 1983 playoff game--Bradshaw's last as a member of the Steelers:

"They're just not what they used to be. I know No. 12 didn't play, but it wouldn't have mattered. Bradshaw was the most productive quarterback of my time, but we've been able to do O.K. with him. The big thing is that their cast isn't the same. Franco Harris isn't what he was, Stallworth isn't, Jack Lambert is still there, but he doesn't have those same four guys in front of him now. "