Chicago and Green Bay got a jump on the competition a few nights back, but the 100th NFL season opens in earnest on this Sunday, with the customary state of flux created when hope and expectations meet anxiety and results.
The Steelers and New England Patriots play a marquee opener in prime time on Sunday.
The winning team and its fans will be ecstatic.
The losing crew will be in mourning.
This all got me wondering about the predictive power of openers throughout the modern era of the Steelers.
With the current 16-game regular season, one game is slightly more than 6% of the total schedule.
But somehow openers seem like they are more meaningful than that.
Are they? Perhaps.
The Steelers have made it to eight Super Bowls in their franchise history, winning six of them.
Every single one of those Steelers Super Bowl seasons began with a victory on opening day of the regular season.
This seems to make winning the opener a significant indicator, but don’t plan your Super Bowl trip should the Steelers beat the Patriots.
By definition, Super Bowl teams win a lot of games, so the odds of them winning their openers are higher than for an average or below-average team.
And it is inarguable reality that a lot of teams win their openers and don’t go on to make the big game.
By late Monday, 16 NFL teams will have won their openers, barring one of those unlikely ties. Obviously, 16 teams aren’t going to make the Super Bowl this season.
Speaking of ties, in retrospect the 21-21 standoff the Steelers suffered with Cleveland to open the 2018 season does seem to have foretold a struggling, non playoff season.
Recent opening-day history is something of a mixed bag in terms of providing insight regarding Steelers prospects.
Looking at openers in reverse from 2017 through 2010, which is the last season the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl (losing there to Green Bay), the Steelers’ record is 4-4.
Through the years, opening success, or failure, often has provided little indication of the coming season’s prospects.
The Steelers won the opener of the 1969 campaign, the first with future Hall of Famer Chuck Noll as head coach.
That 16-13 win over the Detroit Lions at Pitt Stadium had the locals thinking the new guy was all right.
After all, the Steelers had won just twice in posting a 2-11-1 record in the 1968 season, following which Noll predecessor Bill Austin had been fired.
Enthusiasm faded quickly in 1969 as the Steelers backed up the opening-day win with 13 consecutive losses.
But there was good news.
That miserable record allowed the Steelers to qualify for and win a coin toss with the Chicago Bears for the right to take future Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw with the first pick in the 1970 NFL draft.
In the 1980 season opener, coming after the Steelers had completed a run of four Super Bowl wins in six seasons, all seemed to be going according to plan in the pursuit of one for the thumb when the Steelers pummeled the Houston Oilers, 31-17.
Instead, by season’s end the Steelers were 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the first time since the 1971 season.
There was fool’s gold for the Black and Gold in the 1988 opener, too.
The Steelers beat Dallas, then lost 10 of their next 11 games on the way to a 5-11 finish, the franchise’s worst record since 1969.
On the other extreme, sometimes opening-day results have produced gloom that has proved to have been overdone as the season unfolded.
The Steelers won their 1995 opener over Detroit, but lost star cornerback Rod Woodson to a knee injury suffered when his foot caught in the turf as he tried to tackle Barry Sanders.
The mood was bleak, despite the win.
However, the Steelers went on to make Super Bowl XXX, losing there to Dallas.
But Woodson was able to play some in that game, becoming the first player in league history to have reconstructive knee surgery and return that season.
The greatest misdirection offered by a Steelers opener came in 1989, an historic 51-0 blowout loss to rival Cleveland at Three Rivers Stadium.
It was a stunningly bad performance and the season generally was considered lost, a sentiment backed up when the Steelers absorbed a 41-10 pounding the next week at the hands of Cincinnati.
Despite this most dreadful of starts, those 1989 Steelers rallied to finish 9-7, made the playoffs, won a wild-card game in overtime against the Oilers, and lost by a single point, 24-23, in the next round at Denver.
In the final analysis, it seems openers are what any cliche-dispensing coach would tell us they are, just another game on the schedule. No more or no less.
Sam Ross Jr. is a freelance journalist who writes a weekly column for The Tribune-Democrat.