Dec. 23, 2019
Any decade that ends without a championship is a decade gone wrong for the Steelers. One that also includes playoff losses to Tim Tebow and Blake Bortles — and very nearly AJ McCarron — is something else altogether.
The 2010s are headed that way, pending this season’s outcome. It has been a tumultuous decade, to say the least, for Mike Tomlin’s team. It began with star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sidelined by a four-game suspension. It will end with Roethlisberger sidelined by the worst injury of his career.
In between, there was plenty of winning. The team’s .650 regular-season winning percentage is second best in a decade in franchise history, behind only the dynastic 1970s crew, and in 2010 the Steelers appeared in their eighth Super Bowl.
But when the biggest games arrived, they fell short, often with key players injured. If they fail to make the playoffs this year, it will be the fourth time in eight years.
If a word could describe the decade, it might be the same one the NFL chose for that infamous Jesse James play: Incomplete.
In the course of 10 years, we witnessed the decline of a dominant early 2000s defense, the emergence of the “Killer B’s” on offense, the departure of legendary figures such as Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward and Dick LeBeau, the opening of the team’s Hall of Honor and the deaths of franchise icons Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll.
We also witnessed the very public meltdown of star receiver Antonio Brown, a bitter contract dispute with star running back Le’Veon Bell and a national anthem debacle in Chicago, where the Steelers sought to avoid the storm but instead became the center of it.
In the end, there was way too much bad news and way too many bad endings. Maybe this year’s team will write a different one, though it seems likely no one will remember the 2010s as a great decade in Steelers history.
That does not mean it failed to captivate.
Click a category below.
In a sport with so many phonies, so many opportunists and charlatans, so many seriously unreal people, Dan Rooney, for all his life, agitated for humility, diplomacy, sincerity, intelligence, innovation, simplicity and most of whatever else is still right about the game. So yeah, this hurts. Really hurts. And now I won't worry about him any more on the sidelines at Latrobe. But boy, I'll worry about the rest of us.
— Gene Collier, upon Dan Rooney's death, April 14, 2017
There were only a few more seconds remaining the previous time Ben Roethlisberger beat the Baltimore Ravens with a harrowing, nail-biting pass at the goal line. Like that time, this one also came from the 4.
And, like that time, this one clinched the AFC North Division title for the Steelers.
There was only one difference: Antonio Brown's 4-yard catch and stretch to beat the Ravens, 31-27, with nine seconds remaining wasn't debatable. Not like in 2008 when Santonio Holmes beat the Ravens with a 4-yard touchdown at the goal line that is still being protested as a non-touchdown in Baltimore. This clearly broke the imaginary plane.
"This reminded me of that," Roethlisberger said.
— Gerry Dulac, Dec. 16, 2016
Polamalu is a legend at Children's Hospital because of the time he has spent with young cancer patients. He has cut back his visits since his boys were born but still goes when he can and when he is asked by hospital officials.
"I hope you understand [talking about] this is incredibly uncomfortable for me," he said.
Mike Shulock, a child-life specialist at the oncology clinic at Children's Hospital, had no such hesitancy.
"I was thinking that this could be Troy's last year and I was like, ‘Holy cow, what are we going to do without him?' Who else can fill those shoes? There is no one like him. I just wish I had a better vocabulary to put into words what he means to this place."
Normally, Polamalu slips into the hospital unannounced and will go from one patient room to another.
— Ron Cook, Dec. 28, 2014
"His soul may belong to God, but his ass belongs to me."
"If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it. I hate him and will never respect him."
"People in this league understand there is a fine line between drinking wine and squashing grapes. Obviously, last weekend we were grape squashers."
"We're going to play [the Patriots] again. We can play them in hell, we can play them in Haiti, we can play them in New England. We're gonna win."
"We need volunteers, not hostages."
"I want mines, period."
"I have three things: old, slow, and it's over."
"Here's a guy who doesn't give a damn."
"Please don't ever ask me about him again."
"It was a bush league, total coward move on his part."
"I got a pretty boring life," Casey Hampton says. "But believe me, I love it."
Most of it, anyhow.
Living with his girlfriend in a Seabrook, Texas, lake house and fishing for trout whenever he pleases? Amazing. When Hampton was anchoring those great Steelers defenses of the early 2000s, he always imagined himself returning to his beloved home state one day.
Firing a stogie in his cigar room or cruising in his '66 Lincoln? Priceless.
Watching his son, Casey Jr., play safety two hours away at Trinity University? That's pretty sweet, too.
What's not so sweet is the simple act of walking. Hampton doesn't do much of that. Too painful. If it's not his knees, it's his ankles or elbows or especially his back.
"Exactly what you'd think for somebody who played nose tackle for 12 years," he says. "It's bad, man."
But not bad enough for Hampton to turn to heavy medication.
"I don't want to get addicted," he says. "I don't like taking stuff. I took a lot of stuff when I played."
Would he do it all over again, given the chronic pain he endures?
"Oh, absolutely, ain't no question. I mean, that's what you signed up for. I got to do what I loved and take care of my family. I can never look back and say I wouldn't do it again."
Hampton, 42, started 164 games as a conservatively estimated 325-pound nose tackle. He won two Super Bowl rings. Teammates cherished his strong, steady presence — and his baritone belly laugh.
He desperately misses the competition. Nothing could ever replace it. But the blues tend to fade when the fish start biting. Does the man they called "Big Snack" keep those trout or throw 'em back?
The question jump-starts the belly laugh.
"No fish gets thrown back," Casey Hampton says. "Believe that."
— Joe Starkey
Quarterback. General manager. Coach. Those are the key issues entering the 2020s.
The Steelers have won six Super Bowls with Terry Bradshaw or Ben Roethlisberger playing quarterback, none with anyone else. That is not a coincidence.
Is Mason Rudolph the guy for the next decade? Too soon to tell, but this much is certain: The stage is set for a whopper of a story if Roethlisberger returns, as planned, for spring workouts. If he starts next season, he will become one of the few quarterbacks in NFL history to start a game for the same team in three decades.
Meanwhile, GM Kevin Colbert, who turns 63 in January, has taken a year-to-year approach on his contract. That could mean a job opening at the top of the team's organizational depth chart sooner rather than later.
As for Tomlin, think about this: If he coaches here the entire decade, he will be exactly where Chuck Noll was when he retired — 23 years on the job. Tomlin would still only be 57, by the way, so he could well have some coaching in him beyond that.
Will he want to stay that long?
Will the Steelers want him to?
Let's pick up the conversation in 2029.
— Joe Starkey