Now that Emmanuel Sanders is gone, the Pittsburgh Steelers must retire the No. 88.
Not because Sanders deserves the honor, but rather because that uniform number is cursed. Those digits seem to weave their way into Steelers misfortune whenever they get together.
Isn’t it fitting that Sanders signed with the Denver Broncos, of all teams, on the day tucked between the Ides of March and his 27th birthday?
The Steelers met a Caesar-like demise in Denver two years ago. They have yet to recover from the shock of their 2011 AFC wild-card loss to the Broncos, when Demaryius Thomas – No. 88 – caught an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow in overtime to give the Broncos – the 8-8 Broncos – a 29-23 victory.
In the two years since then, the Steelers have finished nothing but 8-8.
The Steelers’ equipment manager should have sewn a hyphen between Sanders’ numbers.
Losing Sanders leaves the Steelers thin at wide receiver, but he wasn’t worth $15 million over three years.
In a year when the Steelers came all the way from 0-4 to within a hair of the playoffs, Sanders figured into one of the season’s more painful what-if moments. He dropped Ben Roethlisberger’s two-point conversion pass that would have tied the game with just over a minute left in Baltimore. The Steelers lost 22-20. Had they won that game, they already would have had a playoff spot locked up when Ryan Succop missed that field goal in the final seconds at San Diego.
It was one of the many times Sanders sent shoes flying into walls all over Western Pennsylvania.
Sanders didn’t catch more than 44 passes in any of his first three seasons, then broke out for 67 receptions in his contract year. He’s also had his share of injuries. He’s never started more than 11 games in a season.
The Steelers can get more for their money by taking advantage of this year’s deep draft class for wide receivers.
Lynn Swann, drafted in the first round 30 years ago, wore the number 88 with such grace from 1974-1982. He should have been the last one to wear that number.
Except for Ernie Stautner’s No. 70, the Steelers don’t officially retire numbers. However, the numbers of certain Steelers greats just aren’t used after they retire. No one has worn No. 75 since Mean Joe Greene. No one has worn No. 12 since Terry Bradshaw. No one has worn No. 32 since Franco Harris.
That hasn’t been the case with wide receivers. The NFL started allowing receivers to wear numbers in the teens in 2004, according to ESPN.com. Before that, they could only wear numbers in the 80s. With tight ends also wearing numbers in the 80s, uniform numbers were in short supply for wide receivers.That’s why the Steelers couldn’t give Swann’s No. 88 or John Stallworth’s No. 82 the unofficial retirement treatment. Nowadays, they have the numerical flexibility to avoid issuing Hines Ward’s No. 86.
Shouldn’t Swann have the same honor?
Even though the Steelers couldn’t really help it, they have paid a karmic price for handing out the hallowed number of a Hall of Famer to lesser players. Since Swann, the Steelers’ 88 jersey has been filled by the likes of Joey Clinkscales, Chris Calloway and Terance Mathis.
Clinkscales was a scab during the 1987 strike. He stayed on when the strike ended, but only six of his 13 career receptions came in legitimate NFL games. Calloway, a fourth-round draft pick in 1990, caught 25 passes in two years with the Steelers before going on to catch 334 passes in seven years with the New York Giants. Mathis made the Pro Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons in 1994, but didn’t have much left when the Steelers signed him in 2002. He caught 23 passes that year at age 35.
Considering the rotten luck the number 88 has brought, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Steelers’ worst season since Chuck Noll’s first year as head coach came in 1988. The Steelers went 1-13 under Noll in 1969 and 5-9 in 1970. They’ve won at least six games every year since then except for 1988. That also was the year Steelers owner and founder Art Rooney Sr. died. He passed away in August, so at least he didn’t have to witness that 5-11 fiasco.
Twenty years later, the Steelers had the 88th pick in the 2008 NFL draft. They used it on Bruce Davis, a linebacker who appeared in five games. He was among the many busts in the Steelers’ worst draft of this century.
The Steelers could have had the New England Patriots’ third-round pick in last year’s draft, but they decided to match the Patriots’ offer and keep Sanders instead. The Patriots used that third-round pick on cornerback Logan Ryan, who had five interceptions as a rookie. That’s more interceptions than all Steelers cornerbacks combined in 2013.
Sanders has been the Steelers’ most productive No. 88 since Swann. A week and a half after dropping that two-point conversion in Baltimore on Thanksgiving, he could have earned a cherished place in Steelers lore.
The Steelers trailed the Miami Dolphins 34-28 with no time left on the clock at Pittsburgh. Sanders caught a pass from Roethlisberger and set in motion what could have been the most memorable play in Steelers history since the Immaculate Reception.
Sanders latereled to Jerricho Cotchery, who lateraled to Le’Veon Bell, who lateraled to Marcus Gilbert, who lateraled to Roethlisberger, who latered to Antonio Brown, who raced along the Dolphins’ sideline for an apparent touchdown. The extra point would have given the Steelers a 35-34 victory and made the playoffs a realistic possibility at 6-7.
Alas, Brown stepped out of bounds. There would be no miracle. The Steelers recovered from that debilitating emotional blow, won their last three games and would have been in the playoffs had the Kansas City Chiefs reserves hung on to their 10-point lead in the fourth quarter at San Diego. Of course, the Steelers already would have been watching Bengals film when Succop lined up for that field goal if Brown had just stayed inbounds three weeks earlier.
And where exactly did Brown step out of bounds? The 12-yard line. He had 12 yards in front of him and 88 yards behind him.
There’s that number again. Two eights should never again be allowed next to each other on a Steelers jersey.