Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Pittsburgh Steelers: A season in review

The DJs at all my favorite bars are as thankful that the Super Bowl is finally here as I am
so that I will finally stop requesting Wiz Khalifa's "Black & Yellow" three to seven times a night.


In case you're wondering, I was up until 4AM last night, and here I am wide awake at 9AM. Nothing wakes me up before noon on the weekends... unless, of course, that morning just so happens to be Christmas or the morning of the mother of all football games and the Steelers are playing. A recent Yahoo Sports poll found that men look forward more to the Super Bowl than their anniversaries. You can chalk me up to being one girl who fits that bill, then replace "anniversary" (how is that even in the same realm??) with "Christmas".

And seriously praise the sports gods for giving me a Pittsburgh Penguins / Washington Capitals NHL game at noon so I have some sort of intensity outlet before kickoff this evening. There's a probable chance I might explode otherwise.

I've been in a frenzy since the Steelers defeated the Jets to win the AFC Championship two weeks ago to send Pittsburgh to its eighth Super Bowl appearance, tying the Dallas Cowboys for most ever Super Bowl appearances. Fun fact: with 6 Super Bowl rings, the most of any NFL team in history, that makes our record 6 of 8 in the big game. I even made a Super Bowl countdown calendar at work. I printed out a new "_ days until the Super Bowl" page every morning and proudly paraded it by the desk of my Patriots fan coworker and Ravens fan boss like a ring girl in a boxing match. I wore nothing but black and gold to work for the past two weeks until this past Thursday when I ran out of work-appropriate black and gold outfits.

This hasn't been something I've been preparing for for just the past two weeks either. As every Steeler fan knows, every year could be the year. This year, however, I've been calling a definitive Pittsburgh Super Bowl appearance since the preseason on every social media platform I use.

The season got off to what some would call an inauspicious start for the Steelers. Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was facing accusations (differentiate from charges) of sexual assault. To those who would continue to bring the allegations up, I would say simply this: the man was never even charged and so he never had his day in court. There was a lack of evidence to bring any charges. If you have a dispute about the lack of evidence, you should take issue with the police work in the case, not with the accused.

Even at the last game of the season, as I sat, freezing in the stands at the Steelers / Browns game in Cleveland, I heard a nearby Cleveland fan (one of the few who hadn't left the stadium after the first quarter), undeterred by the fact his team was trailing by no less than 30 points, yelling "Ben Rapelisberger". It was then that a trash-talking guru, a boy of about 10-years-old, bedecked in Steelers gear, yelled back "He's raping Cleveland right now!" Indeed.

While Roethlisberger never faced any legal action for the charges, he was suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the season. He also faced criticism from Pittsburgh fans who were none too happy about his behavior threatening to tarnish the Steeler brand and franchise, long one of the most respected in the NFL.

Roethlisberger spent the better part of the past year rebuilding his image on and off the field. At Steelers training camp in August, fans, myself included, watched the team practice in the heat, then eagerly crowded along the fences in hopes the players would stop over to sign a few autographs of the hats/shirts/helmets/dolls/calendars/photos/magazines/footballs/bobbleheads we thrust forward as far as our arms could reach. Sweat-drenched and exhausted, all of the players except two headed back to the locker room after practice. Roethlisberger and linebacker James Harrison stayed and headed toward fans. Harrison stuck around signing for about ten minutes. Roethlisberger stayed for the better part of an hour. He stayed until it started raining. He stayed past when the staff suggested he head back in. He stayed until he signed my Steelers baseball hat, and just about every thing every other fan held out for him.

Roethlisberger owed a debt of gratitude to Steeler Nation, who was hesitant in supporting him after his off-season antics. As he took to the field in week six, after facing a four game NFL-imposed suspension and a week five bye-week, Steeler Nation gave him another chance and cheered him on. Commentators questioned if Pittsburgh fans would boo him in his first return appearance, which I knew wouldn't happen. I knew Steeler fans had a deal of sorts with our QB; this is it. You get one more shot at redemption and we will stand behind you and you will show us that you're worth it.

He spent the rest of the season racking up wins despite a broken nose and broken foot, none of which prevented him from playing, proving himself worthy of that support. The Steelers went 12-4 in the regular season, locking up the 2-seed and homefield playoff advantage.

Because of Roethlisberger's suspension, most sports commentators didn't consider Pittsburgh a contender for this year's Super Bowl, or even playoffs. Not me. I knew Pittsburgh was going to the Super Bowl, and said as much on various social networking sites since the preseason. We still had the rest of an incredible team, including one of the best defenses in the NFL, an incredible runningback in Rashard Mendenhall, and sure hands and speed in wide-receivers like Hines Ward and Mike Wallace. Also, I knew that with Roethlisberger being one of the most-sacked QBs in the NFL, missing a few games would mean a QB with fresh legs and a fresh arm on someone who would otherwise be a battered and bruised at that point in the season. All those hits take their toll, and this year, a suspension simply meant that many less of them. I knew all the Steelers had to do was even go 2-2 to keep themselves in the running before Roethlisberger's return to give ourselves a fair playoff shot.

The team went an impressive 3-1 sans Big Ben, with speedy Dennis Dixon who was reminiscent of former QB Kordell Stewart, and Charlie Batch at the helm. Pittsburgh would have been 4-0 but for a meager 3 point loss to the Ravens, thanks in part to two missed field goals by kicker, Jeff Reed. Reed, inconsistent throughout the season, was let go in November and replaced with former Redskins, Cowboys kicker, Shaun Suisham.

The team faced more road bumps along the way, including injuries to key defensive player, safety, Troy Polamalu, defensive end Aaron Smith, and first-round draft pick, center, Maurkice Pouncey. Pouncey, who helped shore up the Steelers offensive line problem, important with a QB who takes as much time in the pocket as Roethlisberger does, and Smith will not be playing in the Super Bowl.

The only question in my mind was who Pittsburgh would face from the NFC in the big game. I had my answer as soon as the injury-plagued New Orleans Saints were eliminated in the wild-card week of the playoffs. On January 10, after watching the first round of playoffs and sizing up the competition, I called a Steelers / Packers Super Bowl, announcing my prediction on a few social networking sites with no uncertainty about it.

Needless to say, that is the match-up I'll be watching today, stressed out and living each and every moment of the game as if I were on the field with the team. I ended the last Steelers Super Bowl, in 2009, an elated mess, happy beyond words after praying into my terrible towel (now all the dirtier after yet another season's wear and tear and my superstitious refusal to ever wash it) on my knees as the refs reviewed Santonio Holmes' game winning catch in the endzone with just seconds left in the game. The truth is, Pittsburgh fans really do feel like we are out there on the field. Our hearts and souls, and the spirit of our city is out there on the line with our team.

Pittsburgh is synonymous with its sports teams. That's the reason we expect so much out of them and the reason the Roethlisberger situation mattered so much to fans. That is why I felt the need to rehash it and, in my mind, lay it to rest here. No matter how much crap anyone ever gives us for any perceived shortcomings of our city, and believe me, there are always uninformed (to put it nicely...) individuals who do, we know that when it comes to sports, there is no doubt that Pittsburgh reigns supreme.

Pittsburgh sports teams are the "My kid beat up your honor student" bumper sticker on the black stripe, yellow paint, blue-collar beater car that might not look luxurious, but never fails to get you where you need to be and get the job done. Today, our city is counting on our football team to do just that.

We are the city of champions. We have the best sports teams and the best fans. We are Pittsburgh. We are Steeler Nation. Now throw your towels up, Nation! Throw em up!!

1 comment:

  1. It's now Monday. Where is your followup posting apologizing for being so completely wrong?