Fans of “The Sopranos” were stunned this week by the death of James Gandolfini, who played mob boss Tony Soprano on the HBO TV series.
“The Sopranos” last aired six years ago this month, but Gandolfini’s passing brought the show back to mind and prompted fans to dust off their Sopranos DVDs and watch a few episodes.
No doubt those Sopranos DVDs were next to Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl DVDs on some shelves.
Like the Steelers, Tony Soprano’s minions made their living making hits. Some Sopranos plots were just as complex as any arrangement of Xs and Os Dick LeBeau could draw up on a chalkboard.
There are enough parallels between the Steelers and “The Sopranos” for a Steeler-themed tribute to the show and its departed star.
Each Sopranos season, in one way or another, can be compared to a season in Steelers history. None of the Steelers’ six championship seasons make this list because “The Sopranos” wasn’t a storybook-ending kind of show.
Every Sopranos character was somehow flawed, just like each of these Steelers seasons we’re about to relive.
Season 1: 1992
Steelers fans were in for some lean years in the 1980s after the Steel Curtain faded away. The Steelers made the playoffs just four times in the 12 years following their fourth Super Bowl title in 1979. But in 1992, the Steelers had a new boss in head coach Bill Cowher, just like Tony Soprano became the undisputed boss of the Soprano family in Season 1.
The Steelers made the first of six straight playoff appearances in 1992, losing to the Buffalo Bills, who were on their way to winning the third of four straight conference championships. Even though the game was at Three Rivers Stadium, this home playoff loss wouldn’t be as stunning as others later in the decade. The reigning AFC champions were expected to handle the upstart Steelers in the divisional round.
The Steelers’ 1992 season was most like Season 1 of “The Sopranos” because like the show, the Steelers once again became a must-see. Like the show, the Steelers were beginning a long, ultimately successful run.
Despite the surrounding turmoil, most seasons of “The Sopranos” concluded with a peaceful family gathering. The final scene of Season 1 took place at Vesuvio’s, the restaurant owned by Tony’s childhood friend Artie Bucco. A storm caused a power outage, so everyone ate by candlelight.
During Season 1, Tony survived an attempt on his life. Enemy Mikey Palmice and rat Jimmy Altieri both got whacked. So Tony had some “victories” to celebrate as Season 1 came to a close, but the saga was just beginning. Trouble was ahead.
Likewise, 1992 was the dawn of a new day for the Steelers. Winning One for the Thumb once again became realistic. But Steelers fans had no idea how long and agonizing the road would be.
Season 2: 2012
Not only did the Steelers miss the playoffs in 2012, but they lost James Harrison, Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall after the season.
All three players were valuable, but uncooperative in one way or another.
Similarly, Tony didn’t want to whack Sal “Big Pussy” Bompensiero. He was a friend and a good earner, but he was working for the federal government, so he had to go. He became fish food in the Season 2 finale.
Like Big Pussy, Harrison flipped. He’s now a witness for the Cincinnati Bengals. The salary cap-strapped Steelers would rather have kept him, but had to cut him loose because he wouldn’t take a pay cut.
Mendenhall’s days in Pittsburgh were numbered when he didn’t show up at Heinz Field after learning he was inactive for a game. Wallace held out of training camp and cared only about protecting his body so he could sign a big contract somewhere else.
It was the second year in a row the Steelers reluctantly bid farewell to players after the season. They cut Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith a year earlier.
The difference was that the 2011 departures were revered players who meant so much to the organization. None of them were hurting the Steelers. It’s just that they couldn’t contribute as much because of their age.
On the other hand, Wallace and Mendenhall weren’t the best teammates. Harrison might not have been hurting the Steelers during his days in Pittsburgh, but he will now.
Ward, Farrior and Smith all retired after being released. They never became enemies, so there was nothing Soprano-like about their exits.
The 2011 season, however, is analogous to a Sopranos season.
Read Part II of this series to find out how.
After all, what homage to “The Sopranos” would be complete without a sneak peek to the next article in the series?