Tuesday, October 31, 2006
By Chico Harlan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Those arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport walk past twinned, life-sized statues of Franco Harris and George Washington, emblems of Steelers Nation and the nation itself -- positioned as symbolic equals. Which leads to one easy interpretation: People here like their football team, almost as much as they dislike its current 2-5 record.
Anybody dropped into the region yesterday, for instance, discovered a population still trying (with ugly results) to swallow the aftertaste of Sunday's 20-13 Steelers' loss against Oakland. Talk-show callers breathed fire about the quarterback, the coach and the penalties. Fan message board topics ranged from the disturbing ("Thank God for Vicodin") to the very disturbing ("Bring back Tommy Maddox"). Dejection blanketed even the celebratory moments.
"Well, we just had a birthday party for somebody in our office," said the Rev. Jim Farnan, a priest and a Diocese of Pittsburgh education director. "We had these black and gold cupcakes. And it actually brought down the celebration. Everybody looked at the cupcakes with a sigh."
Just nine months removed from Pittsburgh's Super Bowl victory, few fans expected the team's momentum to so quickly reverse. The Steelers returned most key components. They opened the season with a win. And even after the ensuing slump, they at least had the fortune of a date with the moribund Raiders, a team chronically undone by interceptions and penalties.
So Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions. The Steelers committed six penalties, and several undisciplined personal fouls. Pittsburgh, not the Raiders, looked like one of football's poorest teams -- closer to a high draft pick than a playoff spot.
Fans talked yesterday about a team that kept beating itself. But really, it was the fans who'd taken a beating.
"One of those typical Mondays after a loss -- no bounce in your step," said Chris Binaut, president of the Steelers fan club Baltimore chapter.
"It's a shame, because it's such a beautiful day otherwise, but there's a big black cloud that rolled in from Oakland," said Jeff Verscharen, of Eighty Four, voted in January by VisitPittsburgh as Steeler Nation's biggest fan.
Few fans, even stuck in the gloom, dismissed the Steelers' chances for a turnaround. By trade, they rationalize long-shot odds. Last season, the Steelers overcame a 7-5 start ... which will only require a five-game winning streak to match ... which will require victories in the next two games against Denver and New Orleans, with a combined 10-4 record. Indeed, Pittsburghers might shift full focus to football in late April, but they won't shift full focus to hockey in late October.