First Take on the End of the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers Season



by Ivan Cole

“I am on record as stating that the standard for success for this particular collection of talent is to make it to the Conference Championship Game. Don’t get me wrong, I will be as disappointed as anyone if the team falls short after traveling so far. Nor am I attempting to inoculate the reader against failure as well. However, I would suggest that we be mindful that given the relative lack of experience in these matters, a winning performance would be a step beyond teams from the 70s and the last decade who needed multiple tries before claiming the ultimate prize.”

This is what I wrote in my last posting, and I am not backing off any of it. The reader may be wondering how I can be such a bleeding-heart optimist considering the events of the last few days. It’s a fair question, so this will be a multiple part post mortem. In the following segments (we have plenty of time on our hands now) I will give my take on where the team is in the larger journey.

I will begin with a meld of some personal and team history. Some have seen portions of this before, about four years ago, but I think it bears repeating in light of the current circumstances.

The late Fall/Early Winter of 1972 was a game changing period for both myself, the Pittsburgh Steelers, indeed, for the entire Pittsburgh community. The Steelers would play in their first AFC Conference Championship Game on New Year’s Eve. How I, and I believe to an extent, the larger community would come to view the game and its outcome has a great deal to do with context.

In mid-November I celebrated my 20th birthday. Less than two weeks later my mother passed away after a long illness. Beyond the funeral, and soldiering my way through the remainder of the first semester of my junior year in college, there is not that much memory of those first weeks of that new reality. There was one bit of good news. The Steelers had made the playoffs, which in those days was man bites dog kind of news.

The day before Christmas Eve, the Steelers met the Oakland Raiders in the divisional playoff game that would come to be known for the Immaculate Reception. By any standard this was an extraordinary, mind boggling experience for fans in the city. But what about FO r me, watching with my father and brother in Philadelphia? I was speaking of context.

The following Sunday had the potential for being the best in a very long time. The Steelers would be hosting the Miami Dolphins in the early game for the right to go to Super Bowl VII. At the game’s conclusion, the plan was for me to hop a train to New York City to celebrate New Years at the invitation of former teammate and roommate George Constantinidis.

The day did not start out well. After dominating the first portion of the game, the tide turned against the Steelers when the Dolphins successfully executed a fake punt. Miami would go on to win the game and eventually have an undefeated season as world champions. Steelers coach Chuck Noll would be criticized as having been outcoached by his former teammate and boss, Don Shula.

Obviously, I wasn’t in town, and we were decades from the infrastructure being in place to keep track of such things, but I can confidently surmise that this setback was probably handled a lot better by those fans than the spoiled, privileged and entitled denizens of Steelers Nation of today. It had been a good run. The good feelings of the Immaculate Reception would sustain us until…well, it still does to a certain extent. We had turned a corner. The future looked bright. I walked a mile up Broad Street to the Amtrak Station, disappointed to be sure, but optimistic about the coming hours of spending New Years in the Big Apple for the first time, as well as the long-term future of Steelers football.

The worst was over, right?

Several hours later as I was riding in a car on Queens Boulevard, the news reported that a plane carrying Pittsburgh Pirates superstar Roberto Clemente and relief supplies for earthquake ravaged Nicaragua had crashed into the sea.

For those reading who were not a part of that time because of age or other circumstances, I confess my inadequacy in being able to convey the magnitude of this tragedy for a kid who had come of age in Pittsburgh in those days, and had spent many a weekend afternoon sitting in the right field bleachers of Forbes Field watching one of the truly great athletic talents of this, or any age ply his craft in the relative anonymity of the national media backwater that was Pittsburgh in the mid-20th century. I would defer to Homer in this regard.

I was speaking of context.

Again, I wasn’t in town personally, so I can’t speak with absolute authority concerning the mood of the community, but personally speaking, the outcome of the AFCCG didn’t quite rise to the heights (Immaculate Reception) or sink to the depths (death and grieving) of what was transpiring both personally and globally in my little corner of Steelers Nation.

As things turned out, impossible to imagine at the time, the Steelers would return to the AFCCG an (astonishing to me) five more times in the eight remaining years of that decade, winning and advancing to the Super Bowl four times. They have made that game nine more times since.

By contrast, many franchises reminisce lovingly upon the one or two times they have been in such a match up, often decades in the past, while for a couple teams like Detroit, such a thing has never occurred.

Context, remember?

Though seventies-era Steelers fans were almost certainly more grounded than the 21st century variety, they have had their lesser moments as well. After making it to the AFCCG for three consecutive seasons in the mid-seventies and winning two world championships, some called for Chuck Noll to be fired after the team failed to make past the divisional round in 1977. They would rebound for two world championships, the next two seasons.

So, is the sky is falling after Sunday? Perhaps. But forgive me if I don’t go there with you. I’ve seen worse.

to be continued 

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