The NFL regular season is over, and we must, as we do every year, come to terms with the fact that teams like the Cowboys are playing football in January, while the Steelers are sat at home, twiddling their thumbs and wondering what could have been. Decent teams missing the playoffs is nothing new to the game; it’s an obvious feature of a tournament designed to whittle down the field of competitors from 32 teams to a mere dozen, but the structure of the NFL, with its somewhat arbitrarily-drawn and uncrossable lines between conferences and divisions, and effective yet often heartbreaking system of handing out wildcards, seems to exaggerate this feeling of injustice, and of hopelessness, particularly if you’re a Pittsburgh fan.
While it would be a stretch to call the Steelers snakebitten while they share a league, and even a division, with the Cleveland Browns of all teams, there has been an element of fatalism to the collapse of this Pittsburgh side. A team whose history is bathed in unprecedented success, whose records and accolades seem all but unconquerable, yet whose recent past suggests an inevitable fragility, of perpetually teetering on the brink of collapse or, worse, losing to a Marvin Lewis-coached team. The Steelers are the NFL’s Troy, whose titanic walls once seemed unassailable, and whose history has been mythologised and romanticised into legend, of arms and men, Bradshaw and Ben, and some really scary defensive players; but now, as the city rots from within, the Greeks breach the walls, and the fickle gods lose favour with their once-favourite playthings, the Steelers may have tumbled into their destiny.
“Oh very foolish, weak and blind are you.”
These quotations, by the way, are from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde¸a work detailing the doomed romance of the titular characters, Trojans during the inevitable last days of the city, that shall be used to illustrate the Steelers’ collapse, which takes place on a similarly epic scale, and conjures similar feelings of predetermined failure.
This first portion deals with the “grief” of the heading, a period that began, for the Steelers, on the morning of February 2nd, 2009, the day after their dramatic victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl 43. While the game was a triumph for the Steelers in every sense of the word – James Harrison’s 99-yard interception return for a touchdown, Ben Roethlisberger implausibly hitting Santonio Holmes in the endzone for the game-winner – its aftermath has been a deflating disappointment for the team. They have only reached one Super Bowl since, losing to the Packers in Super Bowl 45, and while much has been made of Green Bay’s inability to build on that year’s success, and turn an impressive season into a fully-fledged dynasty, a similar criticism can be levied at the Steelers: no Super Bowl appearances in eight years, despite an offence that has featured Roethlisberger, Le’veon Bell and Antonio Brown and a defence that has boasted studs from Troy Polamalu to Ryan Shazier.
In that time, the wheel of Fortune has spun, and the footballing world has moved on; the Seahawks reached consecutive title games, mixing the kind of hard-nosed defence the Steelers were once known for, with a boisterous and outspoken energy, a madcap combination of aggressive on-field play and off-field theatrics well deserving of their supervillain-inspired name; the Eagles improbably won their first Super Bowl through the awesome power of Nick Foles and some plastic dog masks; and the Steelers’ great conference rivals, the relentless winning machine from Boston, has reached three Super Bowls, winning two of them, and both with game-ending plays that make the Holmes catch look relatively uninspiring.
This is a franchise that has creaked under the weight of its own history. This is Sixburgh, the singularly most successful team of all time, with all of the quirks and trimmings that such a legacy comes with; three head coaches in their history, an all-consuming insistence on playing tough, aggressive football, and weird, asymmetrically-logoed helmets.
But these aren’t the days of Bradshaw, nor are they even the days of early-years Roethlisberger. The league is not one of Steel Curtains, or hardly Legions of Boom, outside of Baltimore; this is the league of double 50-burger shootouts, of 5,000-yard passing seasons being considered the new normal, of defence being relegated to an afterthought in the NFL’s relentless pursuit of higher scores, bigger plays, ever more improbably dramatic moments that can be set to montages backed by Dropkick Murphys songs.
And the Steelers, to their credit, have adapted to this new landscape, contorting and twisting themselves into being an explosive, offensive team, to keep pace with the hoards of pretenders and would-be kingslayers encamped around their walls. Brown and Smith-Schuster both had over a thousand yards receiving, and Roethlisberger hit 5,000 yards passing for the first time in his career, posting a career-high in touchdowns in the process; even before this, Bell was operating as the league’s best running back, and it’s eighth-best receiver, for three of four years.
They’ve rallied against their demise as best they can, and as best as anyone could be expected to do, but even that has not been enough. Last year’s game against the Patriots was perhaps the sign from the Football Gods that their fate was sealed, and that no amount of mortal work could heal the grief-stricken franchise. Jesse James scored what would have been the game-winning touchdown, a superb catch that would, had all other variables remained unchanged, have given the Steelers the number one seed, and the overachieving Titans in the divisional round, rather than the troublesome Jaguars, who ultimately dumped them out of the playoffs in shocking fashion. If the score holds up, the Steelers likely breeze into the championship game, where they host a fragile Patriots team fresh off a beating by the Jaguars, or a young and reckless Jaguars team pushed to the limit by the wily Patriots; either way, they would be favourites to win and, in all honesty, favourites against the upstart Eagles in the Super Bowl two weeks later.
But it was not to be, and now the team has slumped so far as to not even make the playoffs this season; although, in typical Pittsburgh, and even mortal, fashion, they railed against the fickle whims of the gods as long as they could.
“That he had such a name and reputation throughout the world, for honour and generosity.”
Troilus’ endlessly awkward wooing of Criseyde is a cute play on the ‘forbidden lovers’ trope so common in fiction; the two do not start as members of rival houses, or fools whose personal love transgresses some larger political framework, but as fellow Trojans, as unmarried woman and unmarried man. It is only through the defection of Criseyde’s father, Calkas, a man who can perceive the twists of fate, and knows that Troy will be destroyed, to the Greeks, and his subsequent desires to bring his daughter with him to what he knows to be the gods-chosen side.
They become impossible lovers, enemies forged by circumstance, after they have established a personal relationship; just as the Steelers, blind to the whims of the Football Gods, forged their own path, only to have it later made impossible by circumstances around them.
Both Smith-Schuster and Brown had stellar seasons; James Conner overcame cancer of all things to be an admirable deputy for Bell in a season in which he played hard-to-get with his employers. The team exorcised the demons of a year ago by squeaking out a win against the Patriots late in the year at home, and then led the Saints, analogous to the Greeks as the epitome of a frenzied, relentless offence, deep at every skill position with so many quarterbacks of quality that one of them has to moonlight as a special teamer just to get snaps, in the Superdome.
Just as Troilus, with a little divine help, overcomes his own aversion to love, and grows into a fearsome warrior and respected knight, by the end of the third book, the Steelers improved their own defence, and were quickly being touted as potential Super Bowl favourites, the new darlings of a league that has always had a fondness for ridiculous offensive numbers, and teams that can overcome injuries and absences – Bell and Shazier spring to mind – to achieve great things.
But their resurgence, their “good” also planted the seeds of their own demise. Much like Troy is implied to be at least somewhat culpable for its own fall, as its dignitaries throw lavish parties amidst an apocalyptic siege, and the very romance that offers hope in Chaucer’s poem is only brought about by an interfering and vaguely creepy uncle whose motives are obscure at best, the Steelers sealed their own fate throughout the season.
“My brother dear, I can do no more. What can I say?”
Scraping out a tie with the Browns in week one, after conceding 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and missing a game-winning field goal in overtime. Suffering a three-game skid in the middle of the season against the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders, giving up points last in all three games, and throwing away leads in two of them. These were the faults of the Steelers, errors that appeared significant at the time, but which became yet greater in scale as the season rattled on, and the playoff picture coalesced.
If Chris Boswell hits that field goal in week one, and the rest of the season plays out as it does, the Steelers finish 10-6, tied with the Ravens for first place in the AFC North, but squeeze into the playoffs by virtue of a better record in the division, finishing 5-1 to the Ravens’ 3-3. If the Steelers don’t give up game-winning touchdowns to two undrafted players, playing for teams well outside the playoffs and with losing records, they make it into the playoffs; even pulling out one win from those gives them a wildcard berth over the Colts, and sets up a tough, but hardly impossible matchup, against the Texans in Houston.
But still, the AFC North is a notably tough division, where each team, including now the Browns, chips wins off each other; the 10-6 Ravens won the division in 2012, and three teams finished with between 10 and 11 wins in 2014, all making the playoffs. Surely the Bengals, lost in a Marvin Lewis-faced quarmire, the Ravens, limping on with Joe Flacco under centre, and the Browns, riding a wave of Baker Mayfield-led euphoria that was inspiring, but ultimately not enough to translate to a playoff berth, wouldn’t trouble the team of Roethlisberger and Brown, of Tomlin and the six rings?
But then the Football Gods spun their wheel; an injury to the lethargic Flacco enable Lamar Jackson to take the reigns in Baltimore, completely transforming the team’s style overnight, and making them an outside bet to go as far as the AFC title game. The Football Gods, cruel masters of us all, then dangled a faint glimmer of hope in front of the beleaguered Steelers, giving Mayfield and the Browns two minutes to overcome a two-point deficit against the Ravens, which would boot Baltimore out of the playoffs altogether, and send Pittsburgh to the postseason. But the young man came up short, his last pass of the season superbly intercepted by Ravens middle linebacker CJ Mosely to end the game; over in Pittsburgh, the Steelers watched on, their own defence hamstrung, now for years, by the lack of their own star middle linebacker, who was selected just two picks ahead of Mosely in the 2014 draft.
“Out of joy”, and out of the playoffs. And with Roethlisberger just a year removed from considering retirement, lingering injuries to Conner and Brown, and Bell still wandering around in the woods and fields beyond the city walls, oblivious to the great battles of Troy as it approaches its hour of greatest need, these are dark times for the Steelers. They have made mistakes, certainly, and elaborate thinkpieces not unlike this one will suggest that this is a season of missed opportunities, of close games and bitter, unyielding disappointment; and while this is certainly true, one has to wonder, as the great wooden horse is pulled into the centre of Pittsburgh, and the Ravens and Raiders and Broncos and Saints nestled within surge forth to sack the six of the six titles, if the Football Gods had planned such a fate all along.
“And to himself he laughed at the woe of those that wept for his death now past.”
For me, the enduring image of Troilus and Criseyde will always be the one right at the end of the poem, after Criseyde has separated herself from her lover, and he has been slain in battle, leaving Troy perched on the precipice of obliteration. The hero drifts up to the heavens and, from his cloud, where he can see all of the mortal world beneath him, cynically laughs at those who cry over his death, suddenly aware of the gods’ plans for the world, and how hilariously futile it is that humans become so emotionally invested in, and seek to change and bend and warp, a divine plan beyond even their comprehension, let alone influence.
But this is where our strung-out metaphor no longer holds water, if it has not already sunk; for all the talk of the fickle Football Gods, and their influence over stunning plays from the Hail Marys of Aaron Rogers to the alliterative miracles of Music City, Minneapolis and Miami, a key distinction between the battles of legendary cities and the realities of modern sports is that whole peoples tend not to be exterminated in the latter. The Steelers’ walls have been breached, their city sacked and their hope crushed, the end of a cycle of seemingly predetermined misery that has been brewing for close to a decade, but the team will survive. Next year, 53 players, neatly trimmed in black and gold and wearing weird, asymmetrical helmets, will do battle with the Ravens and the Browns and a host of other adversaries; touchdowns will be scored, tackles will be made, legends forged and hearts broken again and again, until the Sun explodes and engulfs the Earth, or the NFL stops making money, whichever impossibly distant proposition happens first.
But doesn’t this put us right back in the world of Troy and Chaucer? Aren’t we just strapped to the wheel of Fortune anew, to laugh and love and cry at matters ultimately well beyond our control, until the end of days?
Perhaps this is what we are to draw from this sad saga in the Steelers’ history, and why sports will, perhaps, always thrill and entertain in a way that ‘real life’ cannot: that it will never end. We are not fated to win, or fated to lose, or fated to be screwed over by a hoodie-wearing mastermind and his 41-year-old apprentice; we are but fated to be fated.