If anything, the Mike Tomlin/Ben Roethlisberger Steelers are men of the people. Class and image don’t matter in their book. They’ll hang around with anyone. One week they’re dining with kings and fine linen in the garden royale; another week they’re dressed in rags and kicking around the gutter. Last Sunday was spent in the gutter.
Another loss to a dog team. Dolphins 30, Steelers 15. Another press conference where Mike Tomlin scratches his head and officially accepts full responsibility and says things like, “When you turn it over and you don’t tackle, you’re gonna lose.”
It’s a very odd trend with these Steelers. They can out-muscle, out-score and out-grind the big-boy clubs on any given day, but they also have this thing about laying down for the stiffs. The benevolent dictators. This time Miami was coming in a sad 1-4. Now they’re 2-4. Steelers generosity. It’s clear they’re in the business to win football games. Just not too many. They don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings in the process.
It started back in 2009, the season after Pittsburgh’s win over Arizona in Super XLIII. The Steelers were making another hard playoff push when they entered a cupcake stretch that featured Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland (combined record: 14-34). The Steelers were double-digit favorites in all three games. They lost all three. After promising to “unleash hell in December,” the somber Tomlin followed up with, “We’ve found new and different ways to not rise up at critical moments,” and the Steelers sat out the postseason.
Since then they’ve lost to a whole array of scrub teams, people like the 4-12 Raiders (’12) and 5-10-1 Vikings (’13) and the 2-14 Buccaneers (’14). Some would call them upsets; the Tomlin/Roethlisburger Steelers call it spreading the love.
Back in time, in another era of Steelers football, this behavior would have been extreme grounds for treason. This was the the 1970s, the all-time height of Pittsburgh’s football power, when losing to the dogs and stiffs and Miamis of the world wasn’t tolerated. Want proof? Here it is: along with the four Super Bowl trophies they collected between 1972 and 1979, the Steelers’ record against losing teams over that stretch was a brutal 50-1.
“There was a period of time – probably from that ’74 period through the next four or five years — that no one could really beat us when we were on,” says Mike Wagner, Pittsburgh’s starting free safety on those teams. “I never saw anybody really clean house on us during that period of time. It was a difficult defense to attack because it was so simple. It was hard for us to make mistakes.
“I talked to [former Redskins quarterback] Billy Kilmer about this once. Kilmer told me, ‘The problem with playing against the Steelers defense is that we knew exactly what you guys were going to do. We would call the perfect play against you, but you guys would just out-execute us.'”
During a violent, nine-game stretch of the 1976 season, the Steelers’ defense allowed only one touchdown. It came on a big bomb, John Hadl unloading to Kenny Burrough in the Houston game.
“It was a short-yardage situation,” Hadl remembers. “Their defense was really coming up on the play, so we went with play-action. Burrough got behind his man and I hit him for a long touchdown. That’s how we did it. We had to trick ’em. It wasn’t like it was third-and-10 and the Steelers were waiting for us to throw it. If that were the case, it never would’ve happened.
“Playing the Steelers was not any fun. As a quarterback you had to go into those games being concerned about your own people. It was a physical mismatch most of the time. Pittsburgh’s front seven played with a lot of reckless abandon because their two corners out there handled one-on-one situations really good. You didn’t have a lot of time to get rid of the ball. Their pass rush was ferocious for a good percentage of the game, and that created a timing problem for all quarterbacks who faced them.”
Wagner says those Steelers years were so gorged with talent that there was a temptation to coast against the lesser clubs on the schedule. It was easy to crank up for the Dallas or Houston or Oakland Sundays, but when the stiffs came to town there was sometimes a bit of a letdown.
“Much to our coaches’ frustration, a lot of players only played half games,” says Wagner. “It seemed that some of them had a switch and would turn it on when they had to, many times in the fourth quarter. If you look at all the victories during that time period you’ll see a lot of comebacks, where the defense had to play tough late in the game and the offense had to put some points on the board.”
The only losing club to beat Pittsburgh during that reign of terror was Cincinnati, in 1979, at the very tail end of the dynasty, when age and mileage were beginning to pile up. The Bengals were winless coming in but a wave of Steelers blunder and that dose of lethargy led to a 34-10 blowout. There were seven Pittsburgh fumbles and two interceptions that day, and after the game some wiseguy asked Terry Bradshaw if he also dropped the soap in the shower.
“Yeah,” said Bradshaw. “Were you watching?” and everybody sorta laughed.
50-1. Fun days in Pittsburgh. Old days. Super Bowl days.
These are good times, too, for the Steelers. In the playoff hunt every year.
But as Tomlin says, if you drop the soap, you lose. The Steelers dropped it again in Miami. Afterward nobody was laughing.