It snowed in Pittsburgh last Sunday. Heavily. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill had never seen snow, let alone play in it. And yet the Miami Dolphins swam circles around the Steelers, effectively ending their playoff hopes. Now, the watch begins.
- Will the Steelers quit, or will they continue to fight to the bitter end?
History tells us that this is a key question that goes beyond assessing how well the Steelers can fall on their swords. For the first time in the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers enter a 3 game stretch where they know they have no possibility of making the playoffs. (Oh, yeah, the Steelers are still “mathematically” in the playoff race. And you or I might win the Super Lotto.)
- This is uncharted territory for the Tomlin era.
Sure the playoffs were missed in 2009 and 2012, but the Steelers kept their hope alive until very late in the season. This is different. Now not only are the playoffs closed to the Steelers; this team cannot even achieve a winning record.
- Steelers Nation is going to learn a lot in these next three weeks.
While this is new ground for Tomlin and company, this has been seen before – three times in the Cowher era. In 1998 the Steelers were 7-5 after their Thanksgiving Day loss to Detroit, and completely imploded after that. Guys quit on Bill Cowher. They quit badly.
- Dermontti Dawson, Jerome Bettis, and Levon Kirkland fought to the end, but by the final game the list of guys who were mailing it in outnumbered those who were not.
In 1999 the Steelers season effectively ended in mid-November with a home loss to the then expansion Cleveland Browns. Again, the team quit on Cowher and it was far worse than the year before. Lee Flowers, without mentioning names, openly called out his teammates.
2003 told a different tail. This Steelers team started off at 2-6 and ultimately finished at 6-10. A 6-10 record is nothing to be proud of, but that Pittsburgh Steelers squad contested every blade of grass until being eliminated at Baltimore in sudden death overtime in the season finale.
The difference in the reaction between 1998 & 1999 and 2003 revealed a lot about how Bill Cowher had grown as a coach and about how the Steelers had matured as an organization.
No one inside or outside Steelers Nation would ever question Bill Cowher’s ability to inspire his players. Yet that inspiration had a double edge. Over-confidence was Cowher’s Achilles Heal. When his teams came out flat, they came out flat. The 2003 season showed that Cowher had corrected that tendency.
Of course the Cowher-Donahoe feud, oft referenced here, also played a part in in the 1990’s. Football is a brutal support, and players are far less likely to lay it on the line in a “Playing for Pride” game when the Director of Football Operations is undercutting the head coach.
The Pittsburgh Steelers from 2003 to 2013
- No, Mike Tomlin will play to win, as he should.
Steel Curtain Rising has railed against the idea of playing for draft position before, and history backs up the argument (hint – the Steelers could have done this in 1968; they did not and Joe Greene arrived as a consequence.)
Mike Tomlin’s approach is the right one to take. Ben Roethlisberger echoed similar sentiments after the Dolphins loss. So have several other members of the Steelers locker room. Steelers Nation can take Tomlin and Roethlisberger’s words at face value. As for the rest? Well, its very easy to say the words.
So the question remains, Mike Tomlin has vowed to fight to the end. Will is players follow him?
Yes, Steelers Nation will learn a lot in these next three weeks.