At last! After 25 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers finally had one for the thumb.
And they did it the hard way.
Things started badly as both Duce and Bus were hurt in the preseason. That meant starting RB duties fell to a 2nd year undrafted free agent by the name of Willie Parker. Fast Willie introduced himself by rushing for 161 yards in his first game. He added 111 more in his second. The heir apparent to Bettis was finally found.
Still, the team struggled. Big Ben battled injuries necessitating two starts from his backup, Tommy Maddox. The team lost both games with Maddox playing terribly. An overtime loss against Jacksonville saw him throw two interceptions during regulation then fumble a snap in overtime when the team was in game winning FG range. The defense forced a punt so Maddox took matters into his own hands by throwing his third INT, a Pick Six which ended the game.
Steeler fans dumped garbage on his lawn and taunted his two young children after that game in what was the only time I was ever embarrassed to be a member of Steeler Nation.
As of week 13, the Steelers were 7-5 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs. The team then reeled off four straight wins beginning with a defeat of the Bears where Jerome Bettis clobbered supposed All-Pro LB Brian Urlacher. They finished the season 11-5 which was only good for the sixth seed.
I’m sure we all know what happened next. Kimo von Oelhoffen went Kobra Kai on Carson Palmer, sweeping the leg and tearing his ACL. The Steelers beat the #3 seed Bengals to move on to the #1 seeded Colts. They thoroughly outplayed Indy but only Big Ben making The Tackle on Bus’s monumentally ill-timed fumble kept Indy from taking the lead. Karma balanced things out when Indy’s kicker missed the game tying FG. The Steelers then traveled out to Denver and knocked off the #2 seeded Broncos.
In Super Bowl XL, Pittsburgh faced the NFC’s #1 seed, the Seattle Seahawks. The signature play was provided on FWP’s 75 yard TD run early in the second half. However, MVP honors fell to Hines Ward, who caught 5 passes for 123 yards and a TD thrown by the best QB on the field that day, WR Antwaan Randle El. After fourteen long years, Bill Cowher finally won the big one.
Jerome Bettis announced his retirement following the game, a fitting conclusion to the career of one of the all-time greatest Steelers.
The year got off to a bad start when Ben Roethlisberger was sideswiped by some nearsighted old bat while riding his motorcycle. Ben suffered life threatening injuries because he was too stupid to wear a helmet. His entire face had to be reconstructed with screws and Elmer’s Glue. To add insult to injury, a week before the start of the season, he also underwent an emergency appendectomy.
More controversy raged during the preseason when Bettis, in his new role of NBC commentator, mentioned that Cowher told him he wanted to retire after winning the Super Bowl. Evidently he felt he owed it to his players and the Rooneys to come back and defend the title. However, he was burnt out from 15 years of coaching and with a new deal not on the horizon, it became more and more apparent this was his swan song with the Steelers.
The team won their first game with Charlie Batch filling in capably. Then they rushed Ben back for a Monday nighter in Jacksonville. Ben looked horrible and despite a superior defensive effort the team lost 9-0. Between the appendix operation and brain damage from the motorcycle accident, Ben was a shadow of himself most of the season. They also lost to a Raiders team which would only win two lousy games that year. At 2-6 at the mid-season point, hopes for a Super Bowl repeat were gone.
Still, the team rallied like champions and went 6-2 down the stretch. Playing the last few weeks under Cowher’s mantra of “Misery loves company,” they provided a little of that misery to the Bengals in the final game of the season. Cincy needed to win to make the postseason while the Steelers had no motivation but to send their coach out a winner. Which they did thanks to a 67 yard TD in OT by Santonio Holmes.
Little known defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin was introduced as the Steelers new head coach. He immediately established his authority by refusing to let Casey Hampton practice or play until he lost weight. The veterans may not have liked him but he certainly got their attention. After the team faded badly down the stretch, some players grumbled it was a result of such a tough training camp.
The defense lost a ton of swagger when Joey Porter was released during the preseason. Peezy was a controversial and colorful character but he was also a ferocious linebacker in the true Steeler tradition. Of course his replacement, James Harrison, was no slouch either. In fact, had Joey not gotten thrown out of a game against Cleveland in pregame warmups, Silverback may have never gotten a chance to show the NFL what he could do.
The team roared out of the gate to a 9-3 record. Then safety Anthony Smith issued his infamous “guarantee” that they’d beat the Patriots. Tom Brady responded by torturing him for two long TD passes then talking trash. Smith got burned the next week as his big mouth wrote checks his meager abilities couldn’t cash and the team quickly lost two straight.
Things went further downhill when DE Aaron Smith was lost for the season. When he went down, the Steelers run defense went right along with him. Meanwhile, FWP broke his leg in the second to last game of the year. Parker was leading the NFL in rushing at the time and losing him pretty much wrecked our offense.
The team was one-and-done against Jacksonville. They fell behind early but mounted a comeback which was repeatedly sabotaged by Tomlin’s boneheaded insistence on going for 2 pt conversions. Still, who knows what would’ve happened if the refs hadn’t missed about four holding penalties on David Garrard‘s first down scramble that set Jacksonville up to kick the winning FG. The NFL director of officials apologized for the botch job after the game. But I thought the calls always went the Steelers way?
Since we’re only one year removed, I’ll spare you a detailed recap. Suffice it to say, this year featured one of the best single season defensive efforts in history. Dick LeBeau and his men were either first or second in every major defensive category. Time and time again, Blitzburgh would create a big turnover or stop the opposition cold in their tracks. Combined with clutch last-second heroics from Big Ben, the season was about as exciting as any you’ll ever see.
Unfortunately, one very important member of Steeler Nation wasn’t here to see it. The year began on a sad note when the great Myron Cope passed away. The man who invented the Terrible Towel was surely looking down with an emphatic “YOI! DOUBLE YOI!” as the Steelers tore through the hardest schedule given any team in the past 30 years.
In the playoffs, the Steelers faced the Ratbirds for a third time. Three wins against our most hated enemy is nice enough but doing so for the right to play in the Super Bowl made it all the sweeter. In the big game, the Steelers faced the man who was their offensive coordinator in Super Bowl XL. Ken Whisenhunt and his Arizona Cardinals were a surprise entrant but they were a worthy opponent. The two teams played what is widely regarded as the most exciting Super Bowl ever. Only a last minute toe-dragging catch by MVP Santonio Holmes ensured that the season end on a high note. Get it, HIGH note?
Which brings us to this year. Of course, no post Super Bowl off-season is complete without some Ben Roethlisberger drama. This time, it came in the form of a rape accusation by a cowboy hat wearing desk clerk out in Reno.
To further incur the Football Gods wrath, the folks at EA Sports put Troy Polamalu on the cover of their video game. The Madden Curse struck immediately as Troy was injured in the Steelers very first game. He came back briefly but this season has been a total write-off as far as he’s concerned.
Still, this squad got off to an excellent 6-2 start. Then the wheels fell off. Losses to three of the worst teams in the league mixed with a sweep by the Bengals. Ben was concussed in an OT loss to KC. Hines Ward went on national tv and called his QB a sissy. Tomlin issued threats and ultimatums which his team ignored. The defense couldn’t hold a lead while the offense repeatedly failed in the red zone. Ryan Clark accused the 400,000 fans who came to cheer him on just 10 months earlier of being “fairweather.” Losses mounted until the streak reached five straight. Only a slight rebound toward the end of the year has kept the team’s slim playoff hopes alive.
It’s looking like the decade will end much like it began. With the Steelers on the edge of greatness, searching for that missing player or two that will put them back into serious championship contention.
Still, two Super Bowl championships in four years and multiple playoff games made this an exciting time to be a Steeler fan. Without a doubt this was the best decade for the Black and Gold since the 1970’s. I’m sure we appreciate this team giving us memories we’ll carry for a lifetime. Here’s looking forward to more yet to come!
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