Much more disappointing than the 31-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens Sunday and clearly more insulting than the two big touchdown passes the Steelers' defense gave up, the five sacks their offensive line allowed, the two interceptions Ben Roethlisberger threw and the killer fumble Willie Parker lost was this after the game:
"When we were 2-6, and everybody wondered what was going to happen, we told everybody that we weren't going to quit," Roethlisberger said. "That's why I'm so proud of these guys. Offensively, defensively, special teams -- no one quit."
Did the man really say he was proud?
Of a Super Bowl-winning team that failed to make the playoffs the next season?
Big Ben should have said he was embarrassed.
All the Steelers should be.
Sorry, it's impossible to put any kind of a happy face on this Steelers' season, a lost season filled with lost fumbles, lost interceptions and -- most painfully -- a lost opportunity to make a piece of NFL history as a repeat champion. Certainly, starting 2-6 and fighting back to 7-7 before that trouncing by the significantly superior Ravens is nothing to be proud of. Not for this Steelers team. Not when it started the season with such high expectations.
Give center Jeff Hartings credit.
In his anguish after a game that officially extinguished the Steelers' flickering playoff flame and fully realizing that he might just have played for the final time at Heinz Field, Hartings stood taller than any of his teammates.
"I don't know if I ever felt like I was playing really good football. I could have played better this year and given the team a better chance to win."
Hartings is far from alone.
Most of the Steelers haven't played nearly as well as they did in 2005.
Start with Roethlisberger. It's bad enough that he has thrown 22 interceptions -- more than twice as many as last season -- with the game at Cincinnati Sunday still to play. He has thrown them in bunches. Three in the home loss to Cincinnati. Four in the ridiculous loss in Oakland. Three in the loss to Denver. A total of 18 in the eight losses.
The offensive line hasn't done much to help Roethlisberger, allowing him to be sacked 45 times, almost twice as many times as last season. It isn't just Hartings, who could retire. Tackle Marvel Smith might have regressed more than anyone if only because he played at such a high level in 2005. Guard Kendall Simmons was benched for Chris Kemoeatu for a couple of games midway through the season.
Though Roethlisberger is the season's biggest disappointment, cornerback Ike Taylor is a close second. On Sept. 3, he agreed to a five-year, $22.5 million contract, including a $6.4 million signing bonus. At Thanksgiving, he lost his starting job. On second thought, Taylor -- not Roethlisberger -- is the team's biggest disappointment. At least Big Ben has played well in a few games.
So have outside linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, just not nearly enough. Porter's most important statistics -- seven sacks and nine quarterback hurries -- are down from a year ago when he had 101/2 sacks and 15 hurries. The same is true of Haggans (six and six after nine and 10 last season).
Even safety Troy Polamalu is having something of a down year despite being named a Pro Bowl starter again. He wasn't the same impact player, his spectacular performance in the win at Cleveland aside. Sunday, he was just flat-out bad, getting beat twice for 35- and 25-yard touchdown passes.
The Steelers who are having a big season make for a much shorter list.
Running back Willie Parker should be named the team's Most Valuable Player this week, even if his season has been maddeningly inconsistent. He has had four 100-yard rushing games and two 200-yard games. He also has had three games with fewer than 30 yards and four more with fewer than 65. And don't forget that fumble he lost at the Ravens' 3 Sunday.
Hines Ward is having another solid year. Does any wide receiver do a better job turning up the field for extra yards? Is there a tougher player in the NFL? How much better would his numbers be if Roethlisberger was more accurate? If he had another receiving threat opposite him earlier in the season, before rookie Santonio Holmes emerged?
The defensive line has been the Steelers' best unit. Nose tackle Casey Hampton deserves his Pro Bowl recognition. Defensive ends Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith have been superb from day one and done a better job getting after quarterbacks than Porter and Haggans. They have combined for 10 sacks and 38 pressures.
That's about it.
A much shorter list, for sure.
It's not hard to explain why the Steelers are 7-8.
What's incomprehensible is that some of 'em are actually proud.