Okay, so as of this writing, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-4, having just got their first win of the season this past Sunday. A few people like myself pointed out months ago that they were due for a rebuilding period, much to the denial of my fellow members of Steeler Nation.
Oh boy, how they have been proven wrong. After finishing 8-8 last year, the Steelers will be lucky if they finish with that.
Yes, traditionally the Steelers don’t miss the playoffs two years in a row. But that will happen this year, and since the 1970 merger, it isn’t unprecedented. In fact, since the Steelers started winning on a regular basis in 1972 (they did having losing records in 1970 and 1971), there have actually been four occasions where they missed the playoffs two years in a row. In two of those instances, in 1980-81 and 1990-91, the Steelers just barely were on the outside looking in each season.
Now if we are talking three or more years in a row? That’s when things get interesting.
Only twice have the Steelers missed the playoffs three or more years in a row since 1972, and both instances look eerily similar to what is going on right now: they were all rebuilding projects.
Late 1990’s Swoon
Let’s start with the most recent one: 1998-2000, an instance where head coach Bill Cowher almost lost his job and director of football operations Tom Donahue did lose his.
This was an instance where free agency and the salary cap were starting to play a factor in the NFL, and the Steelers success of the 1990’s made them one of the biggest victims. A team that traditionally relies on the NFL Draft and not overspending on its own players (something that in the latter case the team has drifted from in recent seasons) saw many of its more talented players plucked away. Perhaps most famously, Rod Woodson walked after ten seasons due to wanting more money from the Rooney family, and the Rooney’s thought he was on the downside of his career. Woodson lasted another seven years in the NFL as a player and won a Super Bowl ring with the archrival Baltimore Ravens.
In two of those years, the Steelers were contending for a playoff spot. The team was 7-4 entering its Thanksgiving Day contest with the Detroit Lions in 1998 when Detroit’s own native son Jerome Bettis botched the overtime coin toss, giving the Lions possession and winning with a field goal without the Steelers even having possession in overtime. (Due to a rule change just made last season, that is no longer the case unless the team with the first possession scores a touchdown.) The Steelers finished 7-9 that year. Of course, being swept by a Cincinnati Bengals team that finished 3-13 didn’t help matters, either.
The other season was 2000, when the Steelers started 0-3 but managed to finish 9-7. Had the Indianapolis Colts lost just once in the last three weeks of the season, the Steelers would’ve made the playoffs, but the Colts managed to hold off the Black & Gold.
The only year in that stretch the Steelers were clearly a bad team was in 1999, when they finished 6-10. The talent of the future was there, though. Second-year wideout Hines Ward was starting to become the team’s breakout star, with DeShea Townsend and Alan Faneca also being on the up-and-up, and the team had just drafted Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Jerame Tuman, and Amos Zereoue, all players who would be major contributors in the future. (Although besides Porter, all of the first day draft picks–Troy Edwards, Scott Shields, and Kris Farris,–wound up being busts. Most of these were late-round gems.) About the only notable highlight that year besides the rival Cleveland Browns returning to the NFL was when former first-round pick Jamain Stephens was infamously cut in training camp for failing the 40-yard dash the first day of camp.
The Forgettable 1980’s
From 1985-1988, the Steelers finished with one winning record and no playoff appearances. Most of the Super Bowl-era players had retired by that point, and the ones that remained like John Stallworth, Mike Webster, and Donnie Shell, were mixed in with inexperienced players. Although a few of those inexperienced players would go on to great careers on their own, such as Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Gary Anderson, and Webster’s eventual successor Dermontti Dawson, it was time for the team to rebuild once again after the glory years of the 1970’s in which the team won four Super Bowls.
Two of those years, 1985 and 1987, the Steelers were playoff contenders in a weak AFC. Despite finishing 7-9 in 1985, the Steelers finished only one game out of first place in a historically weak AFC Central, a division the Browns won with an 8-8 record while the Denver Broncos finished 11-5 but lost out on the AFC West by one game to the Los Angeles Raiders and the two AFC wild card spots via tiebreakers. It wouldn’t be until the AFC West in 2008 would match such ineptitude (when the San Diego Chargers won the division with an 8-8 record before losing to the Steelers in the playoffs en route to the Steelers winning Super Bowl XLIII), and not until the NFC West in 2010 would exceed it, when the Seattle Seahawks won that division with a 7-9 record and even win a playoff game against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
As for 1987–a year which like 1974 and 1999 would prove to be a pretty good draft year for the Steelers–their 8-7 record in the strike-shortened year was just barely not good enough for a playoff spot. Had the NFL had the current 12 playoff teams that year instead of 10, the Steelers would’ve won the tiebreaker for the last playoff spot that year.
Their 6-10 record in 1986 was a result of bad drafts and the failing Mark Malone experiment at quarterback catching up with the team. It was bad enough that Dan Rooney fired his own brother, Art Rooney Jr., as general manager. And 1988 was the 5-11 season coming off the heels of the death of the Chief just before the start of the season and the last-minute sparing of Hall of Fame head coach Chuck Noll from the firing line.
The current situation seems to have similarities with both past instances of rebuilding. With Mike Tomlin restricting game use in the locker room and fans wanting offensive coordinator Todd Haley fired, you have the turmoil in the front office, just like the last two instances. You have recent bad drafts catching up with the team, just like in the 1980’s. You have free agency and the salary cap catching up with the team, just like in the late 1990’s.
Simply put, it’s the Steelers turn to rebuild after having a Super Bowl-contending team for several seasons, just like the last two instances. This could’ve been seen as far back as 2009. I don’t expect the Steelers to contend again until 2015 at the earliest.
Oh, and did I mention that Ben Roethlisberger will be a free agent after 2015, and will be 33 at that point?