And from a fan in Monroeville:
Steel men kneel with heart submission
Show to ashes your contrition.
Look above—to heaven grope,
This alone may be your hope.
Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico? Has the dynasty really collapsed? Must we draw a line through the Steelers and look elsewhere for inspiration in the NFL?
Let's take it one step at a time.
Age. The Packers were an old team when they won their last Super Bowl in 1968. The Steelers were old when they won the Super Bowl in January. But the Green Bay dynasty collapsed when Vince Lombardi quit as coach, when those old fellows no longer had that dynamic force whipping and driving them to give that last little bit of energy. Then, all of a sudden, they were just an old team that was getting tired. Scatch that angle. Chuck Noll has no plans to retire.
How about the emergence of a rival superpower? Well, so far none has surfaced, at least not in the AFC. It's a great, gray mass out there, a tribute to Pete Rozelle's idea of parity among warring fiefdoms. No AFC team is springing away from the pack. Everyone has shown vulnerability. In the NFC, Philadelphia, Dallas and Los Angeles are showpiece teams, with Atlanta close behind, but they've all demonstrated that they can be had, too.
Steeler injuries? This is a problem that rages through the NFL like a plague. Random chance. It strikes the high and the low alike, without regard to race, creed or body build. A good rule of thumb is this: the teams that make it to the playoffs usually are the least injured down the stretch. The Steelers certainly know about this. In 1976 they were gearing themselves for a furious rush at a third straight Super Bowl, and then one morning they found themselves in Oakland for a championship game with only one healthy running back.
But the Steelers have never been hit as hard with injuries as they have been this year. Six players already have been totaled for the season. Three more are on injured reserve, and only two can be reactivated this season. Fourteen others have missed at least one game. When the Steelers lost to Cleveland by a point, they rolled out an offense that was minus its quarterback (Terry Bradshaw), both wide receivers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth), the fullback (Franco Harris) and both starting guards (Sam Davis and Steve Courson). And yet they scored 26 points, a tribute to their depth. In his postgame message Noll finally addressed himself to the injury situation. "We've had 35 players taking medical treatment this week," he said.
In 1976, when the Steelers had to play without Bradshaw for part of the regular schedule, they rallied around the defense and had five shutouts. But that was a different era, a time when teams tried to "establish a running game." Trying to establish a running game against the Steelers was a waste of time and effort; gradually it became clear that you beat the Steelers only by throwing on them, by throwing early and by throwing a lot, especially in this day of freedom in the passing lanes.
So this year the other teams put it to the Steelers: let's see if those old boys still know how to rush the passer, let's see if their engines have rusted from disuse. Which brings us to the big problem, the obvious one: Sad Sack Syndrome.