Friday, December 21, 2007

Big Ben earlier this season in an old-style Pittsburgh
Steelers' uniform, celebrating the team's 75th year.
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Them Steelers 2007

Last night the Pittsburgh Steelers broke a two game losing streak in St. Louis, winning 41-24, but losing their star running back, Willie Parker, for the rest of the season with a broken leg. It's been that kind of season, in an odd kind of year.

The year is odd because there are several teams with exceptionally good records, and a number of teams with very bad ones. With three games left in the season, Miami became the last team not to have won a game. On the other end, several teams have lost only two or three, and the New England Patriots are undefeated, with a strong chance that they will end the season that way. For the uninitiated, this is pretty unusual.

So the Steelers, in their first year with new coach Mike Tomlin, seemed to be having a very good year by ordinary standards. They in fact led their league in several key categories, Willie Parker being the league-leading runner at the time of his injury. Several players, notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Hines Ward, broke single season and all time team records. They started well and at one time had a 7-2 record and then 9-3.

But their first losses of the season were to weaker teams, which suggested problems in the long run, especially with the dominance of New England, and the near-dominance of Indianapolis in their conference, with Dallas and the surging Green Bay Packers piling up wins in the other. So despite their record and statistical dominance, by mid season I had the feeling they weren't quite up to the standards of at least New England and Indianapolis.

Then they lost to a team that had only one win (the New York Jets in overtime), barely won against Miami when it was winless (though under horrible field and weather conditions), and then the past two games, fell hard to New England, and were outplayed in a close game by Jacksonville.

So their victory last night was important, though it hasn't on its own gotten them into the playoffs yet. The Steelers lost late season games and almost didn't get into the playoffs in 2005, when they became the first wild card team to run the table on the road and win the Super Bowl, defeating New England and Indianapolis to get there. That's less likely to happen this year. At this point in the season, the very good teams with the fewest injuries have the advantage, and in 2005 the Steelers were just getting injured players back in the lineup towards the end of the season, so they were able to peak at just the right time. Now, especially with the injury to Parker, that's not so true. Besides which, New England has been healthy all season, and they still are. It's unlikely anyone is going to beat them in the playoffs this year, as long as they stay that way.

But when they are playing well, the Steelers are still tremendous fun to watch. I could watch only the highlights of this game, since as a Pittsburgh exile sans satellite hookup, I am nowhere near a broadcast. (But it was exiles like me that comprised an estimated half of the crowd in St. Louis--when you hear the crowd roar on the Steelers' big plays, it sounds like a home game.) Big Ben has become a big play threat: backed up and throwing from the end zone in his first play of the game, he threw a pass fifty yards in the air and completed it for an 80 yard gain.

Right now, the Steelers have big time players in the skill positions, but uncharacteristically are weakest in the offensive line and lately in the defense, partly due to injuries. So while you can't count the Steelers out of any game with Big Ben and Hines Ward on the field, they may just have to survive this season with a taste of success and a hunger for it all next year.

Between last season and this, I spent a couple of weeks back in western PA, and even though it was late spring, the Steelers were always a presence. A bus boy in a cafe started a conversation with me about them. I accompanied my two best friends to a bar, where I was the surprised participant in a conversation about the Steelers as I used the urinal in the men's room, with a voice in the one stall, a complete stranger who I never saw. He was probably having a running conversation with everyone who came in. There was also a woman in the supermarket wearing a t-shirt that said, "If you ain't a Steeler fan, you ain't worth s--t."

So I could hardly be surprised when I read on a sports blog the reaction of a young woman who flew in to Pittsburgh for the first time, to see the Seattle Seahawks (the Steelers- 2005 Super Bowl opponent) play at Hines Field. She remarked that the first person she met on arrival was a knowledgeable football and Steelers fan. She doesn't encounter that many in Seattle. But within her first few hours in the 'burgh, she realized it wasn't a lucky coincidence: it is the norm. (And the Steelers won that game, 21-0.)

This season also marks the 75th year of the Steelers, one of the oldest teams in professional football, and a source of local pride and identity for much of that time. I suppose in every place that is a place, there is a point where the vulgar and the exalted meet, and where the present extends the past. For Pittsburghers wherever they may now be, it's the Steelers.

Update 12/26: As a result of games they didn't play, the Steelers are in the playoffs as their division champion, and their first round opponent will most likely be Jacksonville at home, a team they just lost to. But they're pretty evenly matched, and in that case, it's hard to beat a team twice. So it should be an interesting game, and if they win it, New England would likely be next. The Steelers play a now meaningless game this Sunday, while the New England Patriots could break the NFL record for the longest perfect regular season on Saturday. Meanwhile, Big Ben of the Steelers was named NFL Player of the Week on offense, with a "perfect" quarterback rating (whatever that means) in the Rams game.