It's crazy to think that only three months ago there were lots of reasons to think that this year's Steelers team could defend its Super Bowl title. The team brought back almost every key member of last year's team, and even the few free agent defections seemed to have been adequately replaced. The team, while not young, was not old by any stretch, and after a couple of scares, the Steelers were able to bring back their entire coaching staff. Everything was set up for a title defense.
Eight games later, the Steelers are headed towards a top 10 draft pick, not a Super Bowl berth. If the season ended today, the Steelers could have as high as the No. 2 pick in the draft--they are one of seven 2-6 teams, with one more, Oakland, potentially falling to 2-6 tonight.
So with that in mind, it seems safe to call this the most disappointing Steelers team in the past quarter century, and maybe ever. There are other teams in the discussion, but few can match this year's combination of high hopes and poor results. Here's a look at the other most crushing seasons of the past quarter century as a Steeler fan, but this year's team seems to top them all.
: The Steelers seemed to put everything together late in the 2002 season. With Tommy Maddox replacing Kordell Stewart at quarterback the Steelers developed into one of the most productive passing attacks in the NFL, thanks in large part to a very talented receiving corps of Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward. They won a thrilling AFC wild card playoff game with a come-from-behind win over the Browns, then fell in a heart-breaker to the Titans in the second round in overtime. So when 2003 rolled around, there were plenty of reasons to expect another playoff run. Those hopes were quickly dispelled when the Steelers lost five straight to fall to 2-6. In hindsight, the problems in the secondary in 2002 were not fixed for 2003, as first-round pick Troy Polamalu struggled to adjust to the NFL and the corner tandem of Chad Scott and Dwayne Washington had outlived their usefulness. The Steelers running game had also lost its way, with Jerome Bettis and Amos Zeroue splitting time behind one of the worst offensive lines the Steelers have ever employed. The good news was the seeds of the Steelers three-year playoff run (2004-2006) were planted as the Steelers finally turned over its secondary to a new wave of younger, more athletic DBs, while the terrible season helped the Steelers draft Ben Roethlisberger in the first round in 2004. Just remember, if the Steelers had beaten the Ravens in overtime in the final game of the season, Tommy Maddox would have likely been the Steelers quarterback throughout 2004 and maybe 2005.
: Kordell Stewart had an amazing 1997 season that had him taking Hall of Fame and Steelers fans thinking Super Bowl. Even after he suffered a minor meltdown with a three-interception performance in a home loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship game, there was every reason to think that he'd bounce back to continue to be the vanguard of a new-breed of NFL quarterback. But after an 11 TD, 18 INT year, many Steelers fans, and maybe Bill Cowher, began to sour on Stewart. In hindsight part of the problem was a horrific receiving corps that featured Charles Johnson, Courtney Hawkins and Will Blackwell as the top three receivers. Realistically Johnson was an adequate No. 2 receiver and Hawkins was OK as a No. 3, while Blackwell was Lee Mays before Mays arrived. Unlike 2003, this season didn't have a happy epilogue. The Steelers were just as bad in 1999 and it took two more seasons until the Steelers really developed into an elite team again.
: Unlike the two biggest Bill Cowher disappointments, the 1998 team was simply bad. They didn't underachieve, they were just plain lousy. Merrill Hoge became the feature back and Bubby Brister got his first chance to be the team's quarterback, but neither impressed and Louis Lipps was the only Steeler receiver to have more than 22 catches--yes the team was that bad. The defense's pass rush ranked as one of the worst in football, and the secondary, with a second-year Rod Woodson, was too young to make up for the lack of a pass rush. The roots of the 1989 improbable playoff team were set in this awful team, but the Steelers really didn't return to respectability until 1992, when Bill Cowher's first team began a run of six straight playoff appearances.
: If you grew up as a Steeler fan in the 1970s, this was the team that left you numb. I still remember crying on the day they were eliminated from the playoffs. As an eight-year old, I had no concept of a playoffs without the Steelers. John Stallworth got hurt, Lynn Swann lost interest (Theo Bell led the team in receiving yards), Franco Harris' production slipped and the Steeler Curtain got old awfully fast, as the 1970s team began to fade into the sunset. The team struggled through a .500 record in 1981, then was hurt by the strike hitting just when they were playing their best football in 1982, but this team as it was was gone by the time the Steelers made it to the AFC Championship game in 1984.
So if there is any bright news, the 2003 team was a momentary setback on what proved to be an impressive run of playoff appearances, hopefully that's the case again this year