Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The 2006 Steelers: A Requiem

It sure is a sign of the times that I had no idea who even won the Denver/Cincinnati game until this morning. It's hard enough for me to watch more football when the Steelers lose, but watching football after the Steelers have been eliminated from playoff contention is something that I'm not used to dealing with altogether. In 2003, there wasn't really any suspense because the team wasn't any good to begin with (but that still didn't stop me from throwing my remote control at Amos Zeroue during a humiliating Monday Night loss in San Francisco). In 1998, 1999, and 2000, #10 was under center. Most of the time, anyway.

But when a team is this talented (and returning everyone but a gimmicky wide receiver and a fat old running back from a Super Bowl team constitutes talent no matter how you break it down), there's no excuse for missing the postseason. What's even more frustrating is that the Steelers outplayed their opponent in at least four of their eight losses, plus the first half in San Diego. The only games they were really shown up were against Jacksonville and the Shitbird debacles.

To prove my point, the crushing disappointment of the Steelers' season can essentially be summed up in five plays:

5. December 24. Ravens @ Steelers - Willie Parker's season-ender
With the Steelers' season already on life support, needing to win their final two games and help from a bunch of other teams to sneak into the playoffs, the second leg of the Pittsburgh/Baltimore derby started out looking a lot like the first leg. The Ravens began at or near midfield just about every time they got the ball in the first half thanks to the inability of the Steelers offense to get so much as a first down and converted this into a 14-0 lead until a gift Steve McNair interception that was tipped by his own receiver finally sparked the Steelers, who converted a gutsy 4th-and-goal from the 2 to go into the half down by only seven.

The Ravens began the second half by driving the length of the field for another touchdown, and after the teams traded several punts and turnovers, the Steelers finally went on a drive of their own, starting at their own two. With first-and-ten from the Baltimore 11, Willie Parker rumbled for eight yards but fumbled on his way down at the three. The Steelers didn't score again and their playoff hopes vanished quietly into the Christmas Eve night. The Ravens swept the season series for the first time ever. Embarrassing.

4. November 5. Broncos @ Steelers - Hines Ward's sickeningly unlucky encounter with John Lynch's helmet
Having lost four of five to fall to 2-5, the Steelers desperately needed a win and racked up 500 yards against the Broncos vaunted defense but found themselves down 31-20 with just under five minutes left in the game thanks to four turnovers inside Denver's 20. On an eerily similar 1st-and-10 at the Denver 11 just before the two-minute warning, Ben Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward on a short route, and Hines juked and jived his way to the one, where, as he he was diving to extend his arm across the goal line, John Lynch stuck his head up and inadvertently dislodged the ball. The Broncos recovered, but went three-and-out and gave the ball back with 1:26 left. Who knows what would have happened if it had still been a one-score game, perhaps only needing a field goal to tie it. The Steelers reached their low point of the season at 2-6, a hole from which they were not able to recover.

3. October 22. Steelers @ Falcons - Nate Washington's flinch
In one of the most exciting games of the season, the Steelers had their first opportunity to get back to .500 after their already severely disappointing start. A back-and-forth affair saw seven lead changes, a quarterback K.O., and an incredible 70-yard Hines Ward catch-and-run for a touchdown in which he accumulated about 35 YALAS (Yards After Losing A Shoe).

Shoeless Hines Ward celebrates his feat.

The Steelers had endured their by-now weekly case of fumblitis, putting the ball on the ground four times and losing three of them, but heroic performances by Ben and the greatest backup quarterback of all time, Charlie Batch, took the game to a 38-38 tie late in the 4th. The Falcons drove to the Steelers' 38 with thirty seconds left to try a 57-yard field goal. The effort from Matt Koenen was well short, but Ron Winter and his crew gave everyone in Western Pennsylvania seizures resulting from Joe Nedney flashbacks by calling a flimsy "running into the kicker" penalty on Troy Polamalu, a call assisted largely due to Koenen's dramatic flop onto Troy's head. This gave the Falcons a mulligan and Jim Mora Jr. thought it would be wise for 80-year-old Morten Andersen to try the resulting 52-yarder. This effort also fell a few yards short.

The Steelers got the ball back, and Batch promptly fired off a 25-yard pass to Hines Ward to the Falcons' 33. With no time-outs left, Batch hurried the team to the line to spike the ball so the much more able-bodied and spry Jeff Reed could try a 52-yarder of his own. Second-year receiver Nate Washington picked the most inopportune moment to scratch his ass, and was flagged for a false start. With the clock running, the consequence was a 10-second runoff, ending regulation. The defense spent overtime curled up in a fetal position on the field, and Senor Mexico gave the Great Dane a much easier 32-yarder. While a 52-yarder is no gimme, Jeff Reed was perfect away from home this season, and I certainly would have liked Skippy's chances there. As it was, the Steelers' woes continued.

2. September 24. Bengals @ Steelers - Ricardo Colclough's gross incompetence
With just over eight minutes left in the game and a 17-14 lead, the Steelers are about to get the ball back from a thoroughly confused Bengals offense, which has been held to a whopping 13 yards on five drives in the second half. In what turned out to be an ominous portent of things to come, Ricardo Colclough muffed the punt with no would-be tacklers in sight and then failed to see the big brown thing rolling around at his feet, instead letting Cinci special teamers dive all over it at the Steelers 9. This was the third of five Steelers turnovers, and the of two that Carson Palmer followed up with a one-play touchdown (the other happened on the Steelers' next possession following a Verron Haynes fumble). Ben also threw two picks inside the Bengals red zone. You do the math.

1. October 29. Steelers @ Raiders - Ben Roethlisberger's Tommy Maddox impression
If I had to pinpoint any one play from this season to show why the Steelers will be missing the playoffs, it would be one from this game. Tommy Maddox was known to lose a game entirely by himself from time to time. His replacement, wunderkind Ben Roethlisberger, was known for his ability not to give games away (a reputation that would be markedly tarnished as the 2006 season progressed). The Raiders, firmly established as one of the sorriest franchises in the NFL today, were not supposed to pose any threat to a team with the aspirations of the defending champs.

The play in particular came with the Steelers down 13-6 already thanks to a 24-yard pick-six courtesy of Ben Roethlisberger's errant right arm. With 9:49 remaining in regulation, the Steelers had driven inside the Raiders 10. On third down, Ben was intercepted once more by Courtney Carr who took it from end zone to end zone to completely debilitate the Steelers. That's a swing of 10 points there folks, in a game that the Steelers ended up losing by 7. Adding insult to injury, the Steelers held that Andrew Walter-led Raiders offense to a massive 98 total yards, bringing up shades of that epic Tommy Maddox vs. Aaron Glenn battle of yore.

If any one of those plays had gone in the Steelers favor, let alone two or even three of them, we most likely wouldn't be having this conversation. But I guess the best teams overcome adversity, and the Steelers weren't quite good enough to climb out of the Mariana Trench-sized abyss they'd dug for themselves after shooting themselves in the foot so many times. I guess booting Cinci out of the playoffs would be fun and all but even that would be predicated on what Denver and Kansas City do. As long as the Patriots or Ravens lose as soon as possible, I don't really care what else happens. Maybe I'll even watch a playoff game or two, but for the most part, the month of January is now...dead to me.

1 comment:

Andy said...

jesus christ nobody cares