Steelers fans prior to the 1970s chanted the mantra SOS – Same Old Steelers – to reflect a franchise that lost more often than it won and didn’t make the playoffs.
Then, in the 1970s, the Steelers won four Super Bowls and began decades of success during which, more often than not, they were a postseason participant. Same Old Steelers had taken on a much preferable meaning of consistent success.
That brings us to today, the final Sunday on the 2019 regular-season schedule, with the Steelers seeming to be poised on the fence between the two standards – either long-running success, or similarly consistent underperformance.
If, through any combination of variables, the Steelers end up outside the playoff field, this will be the second consecutive year they’ve missed the postseason and the fourth time since 2012 that’s been the case.
The Steelers are tied with the Dallas Cowboys for second place in all-time NFL playoff wins with 35, trailing just New England with 37.
But the cumulative playoff record of the Steelers since 2014 is just 3-4.
Many franchises, including AFC North brethren Cleveland and Cincinnati, can only envy even the relatively modest Steelers success of recent seasons.
Steelers fans, accustomed to better, are not as jubilant.
Today we discuss another SOS – State Of Steelers.
It is a complex discussion, rife with matters of injuries, age and philosophy.
This season-ending regular season game typifies the complexity of the discussion by asking this question: How does a 13-2 Baltimore team, playing at home vs. an 8-7 Steelers team, go from favorite to underdog among the bettors?
The answer is the Ravens have their postseason ticket and No. 1 seeding wrapped up ahead of this game and so will rest many regulars, including star quarterback Lamar Jackson. In his place will be Robert Griffin III, RG3, the one-time phenom, who hasn’t started an NFL game since 2016 and so, in the minds of the oddsmakers, might as well be R2-D2 of Star Wars fame.
It’s more than the matter of which Ravens regulars play; roster limitations mandate some must. It also is a matter of their state of mind. Playing basically for nothing, other than to avoid being injured, means the Ravens aren’t likely to be performing at peak confidence, focus, or aggression.
Arrayed against that is a Steelers team playing dominant defensive football, but meager offense.
The Steelers need to win this game against a less-than-motivated opponent to make the playoffs, but they also need help.
And in one of those ironies of sporting life, the Steelers’ playoff hopes also require Tennessee to lose versus a Houston team that might be playing with nothing to gain regarding the playoffs or positioning.
If Kansas City beats the L.A. Chargers in an early game, the 4:25 p.m. Tennessee-at-Houston game will be meaningless. Houston coach Bill O’Brien has indicated he will play his starters no matter the situation.
Whether or not the Steelers make the playoffs this season, they have serious issues moving forward.
Begin with the quarterback position. Ben Roethlisberger is attempting to come back from an elbow injury to his right, throwing arm. It’s not thought to be a career-ender, but that also was the thinking when Hall of Fame Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw injured his right elbow and saw his career end prematurely in December 1983.
Even if Roethlisberger can return healthy for 2020, he will reach 38 years of age in early March. While it is true that Tom Brady (42) and Drew Brees (40) are older and still productive in the NFL, 38 is getting up there.
If Roethlisberger cannot recapture his former proficiency, the Steelers need to decide whether Mason Rudolph, who has endured a checkered campaign as the replacement, including being benched in favor of a player cut in preseason camp and brought back by necessity, is a long-term answer.
The Steelers also need offensive weapons, badly. Even a healthy Roethlisberger will need more support than the current Steelers offensive cast provides when it is entirely healthy.
A positive is the Steelers defense seems to be set to perform at a playoff level for the near-term future. Too bad the Steelers defense was nowhere near this level when the offense had more firepower in seasons past.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is head coach Mike Tomlin.
This season played to Tomlin’s greatest strength, his ability to motivate players to press on in difficult circumstances.
But the season-opening, 33-3 loss to New England showed Tomlin’s greatest weakness over recent seasons, the inability to prepare a gameplan to get the Steelers over the hump in marquee games. Remember, the Steelers were healthy for that New England game.
Few would argue that Tomlin also has a penchant for odd in-game decisions. At least he’s progressed past that go-for-two-point-conversions stage.
Tomlin also demonstrated in past seasons, particularly 2018, a willingness to cater to stars such as Antonio Brown, at the expense of locker-room harmony.
More recently, critics have questioned Tomlin’s decision to stay with Devlin “Duck” Hodges as the starting quarterback over Rudolph for so long. Now Tomlin has no choice, with Rudolph also hurt.
The bottom line is, no matter whether or not the Steelers slip into the playoffs this season, they will enter the 2020 campaign needing to arrest a slide that has them falling further and further away from legitimate title contention.