Gene Collier: Steelers on wrong side of NFL's fine line

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So now, finally, is it time?

Given everything that has happened, and more importantly, everything that hasn't, is it time for a change Sunday at Heinz Field?

On careful consideration, I say no, you don't have to alter your traditional home game ensemble and wear a bag over your head. If you must, however, remember to say "paper" when you get the paper-or-plastic question. Just another consumer protection tip from your friends here at the Post-Gazette.

But if you've got a bag handy, you might want to put it in front of your mouth, especially if you've fallen victim to the pandemic hyperventilating in progress as a result of the Steelers' 2-5 record. I'm not here to reassure you that the Steelers lost five times last year and still won the Super Bowl, or that the playoffs are still not off the table, but a quick review of the original precepts might provide a useful overlay on the insane overreaction to everything the football team does, productive or otherwise.

Let's look again at the product, the game as sculpted and packaged and marketed by the National Football League, the undisputed champion of sustaining interest and even passion in what is, no matter how you regard it, still just a game.

Fifty thousand times in 15 years, Bill Cowher has correctly posited that "there's a fine line in this business," and the axiom he describes most is of the narrow distance between competence and incompetence in the NFL, where 32 teams with the same payroll draft from the same talent pool on roughly the same widely available intelligence.

So look around.

The New York Giants come from 17 points behind in the fourth quarter to win at Philadelphia and the next week fall behind, 42-3, at Seattle. The Jacksonville Jaguars lose by 20 at home to the Houston Texans, then beat Philadelphia on the road. The team the Steelers beat by 38 points two weeks ago, the Kansas City Chiefs, beat the team the Steelers beat in the Super Bowl this weekend, but only after falling behind with six minutes left despite putting up 499 yards of offense and 42 minutes of possession time.

None of it makes much sense, and none of it is supposed to.

Is there a real good team out there? Possibly the 7-0 Colts. The last team to beat them?

The Steelers.

So the defending Super Bowl champions go to the West Coast and the quarterback throws four interceptions leading directly to a seven-point loss. Can't happen? I refer you to your Steelers history book, the glory days chapter, and to Nov. 18, 1979, at San Diego. Chargers 35, Defending Super Bowl Champion Steelers 7. See Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw -- five interceptions.

Not only can it happen, it's designed to happen. When this season ends, 30 percent of all Super Bowl champions will have failed to even make the playoffs the following year. The NFL has not been able to command $24 billion in television revenue because the Oakland Raiders have no chance to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This isn't college football, where Ohio State beats Minnesota pretty much because it's supposed to. The surprise is not that the Steelers are 2-5; it's that given their proclivity for throwing the ball away, they are actually closer to 6-1 than they are to 1-6. By the sum of two plays in four or their losses -- two plays at Jacksonville, two in Atlanta, two in Oakland and two against Cincinnati at home -- eight plays that went against them rather than for them, this team would be 6-1.

But this is the NFL, where anyone can beat you, most especially yourself.

Less than half the teams in this league have so much as outscored their opponents, and the Steelers are among them. Of the 15 teams that have outscored their opponents, only one has a losing record.

So again, the fine line, the narrow distance between Super Bowl Champion and a 2-5 team bumping ugly with the Cleveland Browns.

Maybe you came into this season with the idea that the Steelers won the Super Bowl by beating everybody 50-0. Truth was, they won it because a lot of things went their way, including the ligaments in Carson Palmer's knee and Nick Harper, who, on his way to an Immaculate Reception-like touchdown in January in Indianapolis, somehow decided to cut back and get tangled up with Big Ben.

Ten months later, things aren't going their way. That's life in this NFL. You take your licks, you leave the bag at home, and you keep going.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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