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5 Most Disappointing Seasons in Pittsburgh Steelers History

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IIJanuary 14, 2017

5 Most Disappointing Seasons in Pittsburgh Steelers History

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    Image Courtesy of The Baltimore Sun
    Image Courtesy of The Baltimore Sun

    For Pittsburgh Steelers fans, November 12, 2012 holds a special and peculiar significance. The Pittsburgh fan base has experienced far more golden years than black over the last four-plus decades, enduring only seven losing campaigns in the last 41 seasons. For a community of ardent loyalists to truly understand the importance of the specific calendar date above, they need only journey back through time.

    It was a crisp autumn day in the Steel City, a mild chill in the air coupled with a feverish anticipation for Monday Night Football. The Steelers had overcome a slow 2-3 start and rallied to a 6-3 record. It was the perfect time to host the Kansas City Chiefs, a lusterless squad mired in a lost season.

    Conversely, the Steelers were finally firing on all cylinders. Optimism reigned supreme after a fourth-quarter rally over Eli Manning and the New York Giants resulted in a 24-20 win the week before. The defense played well but, perhaps most importantly, the ever-magnified and supremely scrutinized Steelers offense, under the guidance of new coordinator Todd Haley, seemed to be firing on all cylinders. The effort included 147 rushing yards from Isaac Redman.

    This was a vision of Steelers football that seemed to embody the best virtues of Pittsburgh pigskin: solid defense, great run support, timely playmaking, extreme physicality, and all for the sake of finding a way to WIN

    In 2013, the word "win" is as absent in most Western Pa. homes as winning lottery tickets.

    W. I. N.   A.W.O.L.  (Absent without leave OR "Ain't winning, only losing!")

    So, what was Monday, November 12, 2012?  In short, it was the fulcrum. It was the decisive turning point when things began to go painfully awry. The Steelers narrowly defeated Kansas City in overtime that Monday night, but suffered a far more devastating loss when Ben Roethlisberger injured his shoulder on a takedown by Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. 

    In the aftermath of that fateful evening, the squad has been mired in a losing stretch so foreign to fans it feels filthy. Since November 12, 2012, the Steelers have gone 2-13 (including exhibition), which includes a 1-7 regular-season record in games started by Big Ben. 

    Disappointing?  Yes, to say the least. 

    So, where does the team's current slump rank among the most disappointing seasons in Steelers history? Let's continue our journey through time, looking back at the team's five most disappointing campaigns.

What Makes for a Disappointing Season?

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    It's certainly not rocket science. A season that is disappointing is a "disappointing season." 

    And, well... heh, if you're drowning your sorrows in an Iron City beer, that's a sure fire sign things aren't going as well as you'd like. 

    However, as passionate fans, sometimes it can be difficult to temper our expectations and be objective. Or, in other words, it can be incredibly easy to blur the line between a season that ends disappointingly and a full-on disappointing season.

    Though we may wish that the contrary were true, not every great season ends with a Super Bowl victory. Nobody questions that the '95 squad got off to a disappointing 3-4 start, nor do they fail to realize that a Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys was heartbreaking. However, it was still a season filled with successes, one that ended on the verge of the ultimate prize and only built upon the team's rich history.

    Additionally, heart pangs became a "Pitt-pandemic" whenever receiver Hines Ward mourned tearfully at the conclusion of the 2004 season, citing his disappointment that Jerome Bettis didn't earn a ring. Yet, how can one view 15 consecutive wins by a rookie quarterback and a trip to the AFC Championship Game—particularly off the heels of a 6-10 season—as disappointing? On the grander scale, the foundation was laid that year for two more championships.

    Examining history with realistic criteria, it's far too outlandish to label a Super Bowl season as a disappointment. In fact, it's also improbable to select a playoff campaign as such, though not impossible.

    To measure disappointment, one must attempt to weigh the expectations for the team headed into a particular season against the end result.  

    So, while a losing season is a bitter pill to swallow, it doesn't rank so high on the disappointment scale if expectations were low. Conversely, if the team is built for a championship run, but falls short (whether or not it makes the postseason), it could be even more eligible for this countdown than the surprisingly small list of losing squads.

    Only seasons from the modern era will be considered, in keeping with the four-decade time frame that was previously mentioned, while maintaining relevancy to 2013's current disappointing start.

Heartbreaking Endings and Honorable Mentions

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    As always, there are a few honorable mentions that didn't quite make the countdown. Here are some of the most disappointing campaigns in terms of "finality" or "futility." In other words, the following list is a mish-mash of heartbreaking endings to great seasons and terrible campaigns from start to finish.

     

    1972

    One week removed from the "Immaculate Reception," the Steelers fell to the Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game. Larry Seiple's fake punt turned the tide of a contest being dominated by Pittsburgh, leading Miami to victory en route to a perfect 17-0 season.

     

    1976

    The unparalleled Steel Curtain anchored a defensive unit that surrendered only 28 points during a nine-game winning streak. After rallying from a 1-4 start to the season, the Steelers returned to the AFC Championship Game for a third straight bout with Oakland. However, the Raiders took Pittsburgh to task, 24-7, in a contest that did not feature Franco Harris or Rocky Bleier.

     

    1985-86 and '88

    Sandwiched between the dynasty of the 70's and the Cowher Power era of the 90's, the Steelers of the 80's were anemic by comparison. Some of the great players of the dynastic decade played into the next 10 years, such as John Stallworth and Jack Lambert. Likewise, many of Cowher's best players were Chuck Noll draftees, including Greg Lloyd and Rod Woodson.

    Yet, the universe didn't bring the collection of supreme talent together in one place at one time in the '80s, much like two solid circles that don't quite merge into a Venn diagram. 

    In reality, the team had a winning record during this decade, much to the shock of those who perceive this as a losing era in Steelers history. By comparison to what precedes and succeeds these years, these campaigns come up short, thus explaining this misunderstanding. In fact, the squad made the playoffs in three straight seasons (1982-84) before returning in 1989. 

    Talented players like linebacker Mike Merriweather and receiver Louis Lipps simply came too late or too soon, a.k.a. the wrong time.

    However, with names like Brister, Malone, Woodley, Bono, and Blackledge under center, the departure of the final vestiges of dynasty play and just a general mediocrity at certain key positions, it was no surprise the team endured three losing seasons in four years. In fact, the 1988 campaign was the only time in the past four decades the team has failed to win at least six games, a REMARKABLE achievement.

     

    1989

    They lost 51-0 to the Browns on opening day at Three Rivers Stadium, following up with a 41-10 loss to the Bengals. Combined score: 91-10. 

    This was a squad that was a long shot to make the playoffs, but overcame the odds in legendary head coach Chuck Noll's last great hurrah.

    In the playoffs, the Steelers beat the Oilers in the "House of Pain," costing Jerry Glanville his head-coaching job. Then, they had John Elway and the Broncos on the verge of elimination at Mile High Stadium, right up until the time No. 7 got the ball back in the fourth quarter and...

    The paragraph above does not require completion.

     

    1993

    The following succession of words tells the entire story of heartbreak to end 1993: Wild Card Playoffs. Arrowhead Stadium. Joe Montana. Fourth down. Fourth quarter. Game on the line. Overtime. Joe Montana (again).

     

    1994, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2010

    The hottest fire tempers the strongest steel. If this is indeed the case, Pittsburgh fans became well tempered over the last two decades. Thankfully, they've gotten to witness two Lombardi Trophies being raised to counteract a surplus of huge playoff heartbreaks.

    Whether in the AFC Championship Game or the Super Bowl, these are examples of seasons that ended with bitter disappointment at the highest stages. However, the most-supreme heartbreaks do not necessarily constitute the most disappointing seasons. 

     

    2011

    Nobody wanted to get "Tebow'ed." It's embarrassing.

No. 5: Tommy Gun Backfires in 2003

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    He was the XFL's only MVP. If that doesn't say "journeyman quarterback," what does?

    Winless through two games to start the 2002 season, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher wasn't so patient with the "Kordell Stewart reclamation project" as he was with the initial grooming. On the verge of an 0-3 start, Tommy Maddox went under center and replaced the artist formerly known as "Slash." He was cooler and bolder than the Marlboro Man, and apparently came sporting a gun, too.

    "Tommy Gun," as he would become affectionately dubbed, immediately led the Steelers to a fourth-quarter comeback and overtime victory against the hated Cleveland Browns. In a season of passing proficiency, the likes of which Steelers fans hadn't seen for ages, Maddox became the apparent quarterback of "the next few years," a wily veteran whose second NFL stint was wildly more successful than his first.

    For years, the team had the pieces to go all the way, sans one... the one... the most important one. For a snippet in time, it appeared as though that piece had once been disguised as an insurance salesman and Los Angeles Xtreme all-star. For one beautiful season, Tommy Maddox enjoyed a sort of sequel to "The Kurt Warner Story," only with a far less exaggerated script.

    Unfortunately, instead of that storybook ending that placed Warner in three Super Bowls and hoisting a Lombardi Trophy, Maddox quickly skipped ahead to the chapters where Kurt struggled. Effectively, his story ended right there.

    With such fanfare following an exhilarating 2002, that big burdensome question permeated the landscape of Steelers Country: "Can Maddox lead us to...you know where?" 

    The air deflated from the balloon in 2003.

    For five quarters, it sure didn't seem like the Cinderella ride was coming to an abrupt end. Going 21-for-29 with three touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 134, Maddox and crew slaughtered the Baltimore Ravens on opening day, 34-15, before an enthused crowd at Heinz Field. Then, in the first quarter at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 2, Maddox continued to explode. He led the offense to 10 quick points before extending the Steelers lead to 17-7 on a 33-yard pass to Plaxico Burress. 

    Five quarters into the season, the invincible Steelers, led by their gun slinging quarterback, couldn't be stopped. Then, the stop sign...

    Three interceptions ended the Steelers dominance in a 41-20 loss to the Chiefs. The rest of the season was a long struggle for No. 8.

    While Maddox's infusion of production into the offense sparked so much of the expectation for success, it was not his performance alone that sealed the team's fate in '03. The team struggled in all phases of the game at inopportune times.

    Who can forget the defense being dominated by the incomparable (incomparably bad) Browns quarterback Tim Couch en route to a 33-13 defeat before a nationwide audience on Sunday Night Football?

    Failures occurred across the board. Each unit, offense, defense and special teams, showed some glimpses of their potential, but they never seemed able to perform in unison.

    The major issue with this squad was its transition to a new way of playing, which resulted in a confused identity (sound familiar, Steelers fans?).  After years of defense coupled with ground-and-pound, the Steelers weren't quite ready to turn the page on decades of strategic success, but they felt compelled following Maddox's early burst. Unfortunately, the ex-XFL (aren't all XFL players just that?) quarterback couldn't meet lofty expectations, and a game plan tailored around his right arm spelled doom.

No. 4: Cowher Power Goes Sour in 1998

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    The Steelers lost so many prized players in the early "Cowher era."  Rod Woodson, Neil O'Donnell, Leon Searcy, Barry Foster and a slew of others moved on for varying reasons, yet the team always persevered.

    The reason was no more complicated than the players taking on the image of their fiery, focused, no nonsense head coach. Bill Cowher's success was labeled "Cowher Power."  In his first six years, he tied the record for consecutive playoff seasons to start a head-coaching career.

    This included 1997. It was a season of change, most noticeably at quarterback. Kordell dashed his "Slash" persona and put on his signal-caller's hat. Despite obvious hiccups, like throwing into triple coverage in the AFC Championship Game, the kid grew as the season went along and electrified fans that hung on his every action.

    After rallying from a 1-2 start, Stewart's blissful 1997 season carried on with great acclaim...and gushy kisses (on the cheek, obviously, and from Cowher, not so obviously).

    Kordell slashed. And he dashed. Then, he crashed.

    It was in 1998 when the deficiencies in his play began to fully surface amidst a painful 11 touchdown, 18 interception campaign.

    Still, Cowher Power appeared to be keeping the season afloat. Jerome Bettis rumbled for nearly 1,200 yards and the defense made splash plays (including 41 sacks) to keep opposing offenses stymied (and from outplaying Stewart).

    Pittsburgh romped two-time defending NFC Champion Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre on Monday Night Football. Then, Dewayne Washington's interception touchdown off Mark Brunell secured a huge victory over AFC Central rival Jacksonville

    The team was 7-4, and a seventh straight playoff campaign for Cowher seemed imminent. 

    Then, it happened. A tidal wave of five straight losses destroyed 1998, ending the head coach's bid for a standalone record for playoff appearances.

    Some fans cited that the defense could not be expected to carry the full load amidst the waves of offensive anemia. Others claimed that the Steelers had simply gotten lucky up to that point in Kordell's tenure under center.

    Whatever the explanation, nobody debated the precise moment the dam broke: Thanksgiving Day at the Silverdome in Detroit, overtime, controversial coin toss and defeat. On a holiday where you're supposed to be thankful, it was tough for Steelers fans to get into the spirit, considering the cornucopia of bad vibes.

    Five straight losses followed, as the team finished 7-9, earning Cowher his first losing season.

    The nuclear destruction of Stewart in '98 reached critical mass as he shed tears upon being pulled in a 16-3 loss at Tampa Bay. Fans in the Steel City surely remember the Kordell dolls around town. You pulled a string in the back of the doll and water came from the eyes. "Pull him and he cries." Get it?

No. 3: Cowher's Final Season in 2006

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    Doug Benc/Getty Images

    Bill Cowher's career was defined by an uncanny ability to consistently win, particularly impressive coming at the start of free agency/salary-changed era that made retaining great players difficult. Indeed, the "homegrown" days of the NFL, when teams who won together stayed together, were no more. 

    Cowher won anyway.

    Sadly, "the Chin" went out with more of a whimper than a bang, his team falling apart in a championship defense that was over almost before it began. 

    However, fans that recall Cowher's last campaign will also remember a 2-6 Steelers team rallying back to .500. They completed their rise from the ashes by knocking the rival Cincinnati Bengals out of the playoffs in the final week. This was particularly satisfying considering the heated animosity between the two squads, born in the wake of Carson Palmer's knee injury during a Pittsburgh Wild Card playoff win at Cincinnati.

    In the week leading up to the game at the same site nearly approximately 51 weeks (almost a full year) later, Cowher commented on his team sending the Bengals home with them for the postseason:

    Let me just say this, misery loves company.

    Misery got the company that it sought. Certainly, sharing the finality of a lost season with an Ohio rival provided some solace to those in Steelers Country. 

    Yet, compared to the exorbitant expectations that winning "One for the Thumb" mustered, a damning 2-6 start will always stick in the craw of the most ardent fans. In fact, it was not uncommon for fans in the Steel City to half-jokingly point out, "We always won back-to-back Super Bowls... until now."

    The bad omens started in the days before the team's opener against Nick Saban (those were tougher days for Mr. Saban) and the Dolphins. The news hit the Steel City like a whirlwind:

    You remember it vividly, I'm sure: Big Ben, motorcycles, appendectomies, yada, yada, yada.

    Ring a bell? 

    Despite the circus nature to start the season, Charlie Batch led the Steelers to an exciting 28-17 opening night win, capped by Joey Porter's interception touchdown off of Daunte Culpepper. All seemed right in the Steel City; even Jerome Bettis came back to Heinz Field to celebrate the festivities, driven onto the field by...well, you know!

    In Week 2, the Steelers played the Jaguars in Big Ben's return to action. Pittsburgh lost 9-0, beginning a torrential downpour of bad breaks (all self-produced), resulting in six losses over seven games. Game after game, the Steelers showed brief glimpses of the Super-squad that brought home a ring "for the thumb," but things ultimately returned back to helter-skelter throughout the first half of 2006.

    As poorly as the team played in the first half (2-6), they rebounded in a 6-2 second-half finish. Despite their valiant effort, the Baltimore Ravens represented the two final losses.  The modern day "purple people eaters" outscored the Steelers 58-7 in two games, putting a final death nail in their championship defense.

    Bart Scott's emphatic sack of Ben Roethlisberger during the Ravens-Steelers contest in Baltimore served as a sort of microcosm regarding Pittsburgh's frustrating campaign: falling flat when it counted.

No. 2: The End of a Dynasty in 1980

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    Fans tend to not recall this season so bitterly in retrospect. Four rings makes like a lot of ointment in context, the perfect historic tonic. Yet, in the moment, missing the playoffs after winning their third and fourth Super Bowls stunned the 'Burgh. We now know the Steelers of this era as "the dynasty of the '70s."  However, 33 years ago, the dynasty was going to "last forever."

    After all, didn't the football Gods anoint Pittsburgh the chosen ones with that whole "Immaculate Reception" thing?

    No player serves as a better illustration of the gap between high expectations and lesser final results than John Stallworth in 1979 and '80. At the end of a fruitful decade, Stallworth had once reflected on his relationship with receiving peer Lynn Swann:

    A lot of times we weren't competing against the opposing team. We were competing against each other to see who'd catch the most passes. To see who'd make the great move to get open, that we could look at later and say 'Oooooh.'

    For John, "Oooooh" would become "Ouch" in 1980.

    On the NFL highlight video of Super Bowl XIII, you can hear the voice of God (John Facenda) describing Stallworth as being "like a combination of sipping whiskey and white lightning—smooth, with a strong finishing kick." Never did he show off this prowess on a grander stage than in Super Bowl XIV, catching 3 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown. Pittsburgh won its fourth ring at the conclusion of that '79 season.

    Enter: New decade. Exit: Old dynasty.

    For Stallworth, who would have productive days in the future, a fractured fibula and broken foot limited his play to three games. His absence was certainly one in a series of factors that deflated the team in 1980.

    The city had bonded with the men: Greene, Lambert, Greenwood, Webster, Bradshaw, Swann, Stallworth. After a fourth Super Bowl win in six seasons, there was no immediate sign that the team's dominance would end. 

    End it did.

    The expectation entering 1980, fueled by a decade of dominance, was not "One for the Thumb." It was "One for the Thumbs... and then some." By season's end, it was apparent some of the squad's swagger was absent, and both thumbs remained naked for 25 years.

    Defensively, the Steelers struggled for the first time in years. The unit couldn't get pressure on the quarterback and saw its brick wall break a bit against the run. They fell from fifth (in '79) to 15th in points allowed. The aging defense wasn't as effective as it had been in its heyday, falling from second in the NFL to 15th in total yards surrendered. Indeed, the curtain had dropped on the Steel Curtain.

    Meanwhile, the offense suffered through key injuries and was maligned with mental mistakes (i.e., turnovers).

    Worst of all, the team's penchant for "finding ways to win" became the opposite. This was mostly due to turnovers. One look at the stat line at the start of the video above demonstrates such issues of squandering the opportunity to win.

    After a 4-1 start, the team lost four straight games, including two single-digit defeats to Ohio rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati. Though they did rebound to finish 9-7, the outlook (or should I say invincibility complex) changed dramatically in four months.

    Sadly, the Black and Gold lost four of those contests by a combined 10 points, either winning or possessing the ball with a chance to win in each. With all three division champions in the AFC winning 11 games, had the Steelers won three (or even the correct two) of those games, they could have earned home field advantage. This puts into perspective how easily they could have just made the playoffs.

No. 1: The Steelers Self-Destruct Between 2 Super Bowl Seasons in 2009

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    The Steelers have won six Super Bowls. Following three of those championships, the team made the playoffs, and twice they defended with another ring. Thrice, the team has failed to make the playoffs altogether.

    Is it any coincidence that those three seasons top our list of disappointments?

    With the naturally heightened expectations a championship elicits, one can be understandably disappointed when their throne is relinquished. Plenty of world champs have had to suffer the bitter fall from grace that comes with losing in the next postseason.

    However, unless dramatic changes occur to the team's roster or general dynamic, it's hardly excusable to follow up a championship without making the playoffs. 

    What puts 2009 atop the list is three factors:

    Firstly, the Steelers fell apart in this campaign BETWEEN two Super Bowl seasons. Having the ability to make it to the big game just one year after this implosion shows that the team didn't lose its swagger altogether. Instead, they had a bitterly disappointing campaign sandwiched between two historic playoff runs. This was a Super Bowl-caliber roster that fell short.

    Secondly, like his predecessor, the team had showcased a fiery will to win under sophomore head coach Mike Tomlin. To that point, he knew nothing but success and was a great ambassador for "the Steelers way," pushing all the right buttons and saying exactly what needed to be said ever so eloquently. Failure was not part of the Tomlin-era lexicon in early '09.

    Lastly, this was the year in which the fall from grace was most sudden. The Steelers looked like gangbusters in five straight victories, peaking with a dominant 28-10 defensive performance against a 6-1 Broncos team at Invesco Field. It was apparent that the pieces were in place for another championship run. The team was 6-2, and only complete and utter meltdown in the second half would unhinge their grasp on the playoffs. 

    The Black and Gold were "Back n' Bold." Or, were they? As quickly as it takes to turn off lights, well... the lights went out.

    Following a disappointing home loss to the Bengals, which dropped the team's record to 6-3, the Black and Gold lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (and, for that matter, backup Charlie Batch) in an overtime loss at Kansas City.

    Suddenly, the Steelers were only two games over .500, preparing to travel for a key AFC North battle with the rival Baltimore Ravens on Sunday Night Football. Enter: Dennis Dixon? And... Hines Ward?!

    Locker room murmurings about whether or not Roethlisberger should play began to surface in the media, causing more distraction to a championship defense that was becoming more unstable by the moment. In addition, despite a valiant effort, Dennis Dixon's overtime interception was emblematic of a rookie quarterback, costing the Steelers a winnable contest at Baltimore.

    A week later, the team officially fell to 6-6. The offense struggled to produce against the Raiders for three quarters, but the defense held stout as Pittsburgh led 10-6 headed into the fourth frame. In the final quarter, the defense (absent Troy Polamalu, as it had been most of the season) fell apart.

    This malfunction came just in time to negate the offense's sudden production, galvanized by 103 rushing yards from Rashard Mendenhall. The Steelers were suddenly scoring. James Farrior, Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor and the normally reliable eleven-man unit gave up three touchdowns in the final 15 minutes, two of those to Raiders receiver Louis Murphy.  The final 11-yard scoring dagger came with 15 seconds to play.

    For the Steelers, a season that couldn't sink any lower proved that it could sink another game. Following the loss to Oakland, the message in Pittsburgh was uniform across the masses: AT LEAST THERE IS ALWAYS THE BROWNS.

    The very lowest point came in Cleveland. After defeating the Browns in 12 straight contests, the recent victims of the rivalry stepped up with 171 rushing yards. Despite failing to complete one-third of his passes, Brady Quinn and the Browns won 13-6.

    Amazingly, even after the most utter implosions, the Steelers still had an opportunity to make the playoffs. In fact, they gave themselves a shot at that miracle, winning their final three games. 

    The winning streak began with an epic 503-yard passing performance by Roethlisberger, whose 19-yard touchdown pass with no time left ousted the Green Bay Packers, 37-36. It concluded with a win over Miami with the playoffs still at stake. Ultimately, the Steelers still missed the postseason.

    Nevertheless, it was a valiant final surge by a proud franchise in a bad (or, should I say disappointing) season. Here's hoping the team can rebound in a similar fashion in 2013.

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