I got a sudden wave of flashbacks the other night, watching the Steelers strain and contort and muscle their way past Cincinnati. A proud, aging team, behind enemy lines, lashing out and trying to rescue its season.
The visions were from ancient days, distinct ones from the close of the first Steelers dynasty. End times. I saw them very clearly. Another proud team feeling its mortality while fighting off the years.
After seizing a fourth championship in 1979, those Steelers rushed into 1980 with a 4-1 flurry and it was Bradshaw and Rocky and Lambert and business as usual.
Then, a sudden trio of losses. They went down at home to a Bengals team that wound up 6-10 in the standings. They got caught in an air battle with Oakland and couldn’t keep pace. Then in Cleveland the defense fell to pieces and allowed 439 yards of offense to the Browns.
By late October they were 4-4 and the negative chatter was flying. Was the old king really finished?
“I hurt all over,” said Terry Bradshaw, the 32-year-old quarterback. “I’m tired and I’m sore.”
Cracks were emerging. Serious ones. The foundation had shifted and as they called in the engineers the team dropped back to 9-7 and suffered its first playoff miss since 1971.
“By the end of 1980 I was pretty beat up,” said S Mike Wagner, who turned 31 that year. “I had come into the season with some hip problems and I never really got up to full strength or speed. Then in the opener against Houston I cracked two ribs.
“I was thinking, if I can’t play a full season at an All-Pro level then maybe it’s time to get out. Some of the other players probably had similar thoughts. As a group we didn’t play with the same level of intensity that we had a couple of years earlier. The armor was starting to fall off.”
“If you asked everybody on that team if they wanted to win,” FB Rocky Bleier said, “they all would have said, ‘Yes, we want to win.’
“If you asked them, ‘Would you like to win?’ they would have said, ‘Yes, we’d like to win.’
“But if you asked them, ‘Do you want to commit yourself, to go the extra mile?’ the answer probably would’ve been ‘Well … I don’t know. We’ve already done that.’
“That’s when you knew the edge was gone.”
I don’t think the edge, the thirst to win, is gone from this current group of Steelers, but the hourglass certainly has muscled its way into the huddle. Fourteen regulars are 30 or older — proud vets who reach well back into the Bill Cowher years. The restocking program has not gone well. Their recent drafts have graded out someplace between functional and just OK.
Each week you get the TV shot of S Troy Polamalu in his grey sweats, floating around the sideline like a ghost, doing a little coaching and a lot of staring out at the field. We’ve seen more and more of those shots in recent years. The doubt grows — will he ever come back?
“For the first half of his career, Troy played so hard and fast that each week his body was getting almost two games worth of punishment,” a current Steeler executive says. “You wondered how long it could continue. Would he decline twice as fast? Well, I think we now know the answer.”
Injuries also continue to torture the offensive line and RB corps. Ben Roethlisberger screwed up his ankle in practice last week but stood in there as the Bengals worked on his back and shoulders and knees. A pair of rushers smacked him and pried out a fumble which led to a fast Cincinnati score. The brightest part of the roster, the wide receivers, dropped five or 10 or 50 passes the other night.
Still, the Steelers won. They worked out of a 14-3 hole, and Roethlisberger got things going with TE Heath Miller, and they took some sting out of the Bengals' defense by mashing up the middle with a reserve running back named Jonathan Dwyer, a power guy. They tackled in gangs and they shoved people around and played like there was very much something to lose.
They’re now 3-3 but still 1½ games behind Baltimore in the decaying AFC North. And afterward you heard strange, against-the-wall quotes from key people, the kind not so typical of a Steelers locker room.
“We gave it all we had,” said Willie Colon, the 29-year-old left guard. “If you get hurt, you’ve got to keep going. I felt like I was in debt to this team. I’ve been out for two years. I was hungry and tired of losing on the road. If I’ve got to start a fight to get this team going, I’ve got no problem doing it.”
“We dug ourselves a hole,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “The first thing we’ve got to do is stop digging. We did that tonight.”
“That’s the first time,” said Roethlisberger, who threw a TD pass and an interception, “that we’ve done the victory formation this year to end it.”
I expect I’ll be seeing more flashbacks as this year moves on, more messages from the past. These Steelers will tough out games at home and get sloppy on the road, and when injured guys get healthy others will come limping off. Yet, a division title still isn’t a crazy thought, mainly because Baltimore is nearly as old and damaged as Pittsburgh.
I watch this team and I can hear Mean Joe Greene’s words from three decades ago, after the old champs were shut out at Houston and received the sad message they were now part of the “mathematically eliminated.”
“We played a good game,” Greene said that night. “It’s just another experience. There’s always two sides to a coin.
“We’ve been fortunate to live on the good side for a while.”
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.