Those arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport walk past twinned, life-sized statues of Franco Harris and George Washington, emblems of Steelers Nation and the nation itself -- positioned as symbolic equals. Which leads to one easy interpretation: People here like their football team, almost as much as they dislike its current 2-5 record.
Anybody dropped into the region yesterday, for instance, discovered a population still trying (with ugly results) to swallow the aftertaste of Sunday's 20-13 Steelers' loss against Oakland. Talk-show callers breathed fire about the quarterback, the coach and the penalties. Fan message board topics ranged from the disturbing ("Thank God for Vicodin") to the very disturbing ("Bring back Tommy Maddox"). Dejection blanketed even the celebratory moments.
"Well, we just had a birthday party for somebody in our office," said the Rev. Jim Farnan, a priest and a Diocese of Pittsburgh education director. "We had these black and gold cupcakes. And it actually brought down the celebration. Everybody looked at the cupcakes with a sigh."
Just nine months removed from Pittsburgh's Super Bowl victory, few fans expected the team's momentum to so quickly reverse. The Steelers returned most key components. They opened the season with a win. And even after the ensuing slump, they at least had the fortune of a date with the moribund Raiders, a team chronically undone by interceptions and penalties.
So Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions. The Steelers committed six penalties, and several undisciplined personal fouls. Pittsburgh, not the Raiders, looked like one of football's poorest teams -- closer to a high draft pick than a playoff spot.
Fans talked yesterday about a team that kept beating itself. But really, it was the fans who'd taken a beating.
"One of those typical Mondays after a loss -- no bounce in your step," said Chris Binaut, president of the Steelers fan club Baltimore chapter.
"It's a shame, because it's such a beautiful day otherwise, but there's a big black cloud that rolled in from Oakland," said Jeff Verscharen, of Eighty Four, voted in January by VisitPittsburgh as Steeler Nation's biggest fan.
Few fans, even stuck in the gloom, dismissed the Steelers' chances for a turnaround. By trade, they rationalize long-shot odds. Last season, the Steelers overcame a 7-5 start ... which will only require a five-game winning streak to match ... which will require victories in the next two games against Denver and New Orleans, with a combined 10-4 record. Indeed, Pittsburghers might shift full focus to football in late April, but they won't shift full focus to hockey in late October.
Many spent yesterday trying to diagnose the problems. Mr. Binaut received e-mails from friends suggesting a quarterback change. Mr. Verscharen plotted out the team's schedule, realizing remaining games against division frontrunners Baltimore and Cincinnati enabled the Steelers a chance to catch up. Father Farnan, in jest, thought back to the quiet blessing he'd performed earlier this year during a wedding reception at Heinz Field. Those prayers paled in comparison to his actions a year earlier, when he'd recited "Salve Regina" over the PA system and asked the Lord to look out for the team.
"They have stretches where they just play brilliantly," said Ron Vergerio, a die-hard from Springdale. "I don't think it's a question of talent. I don't think it's schematic. It's really hard to put a finger on the problem."
Of course Mr. Vergerio meant that figuratively, because were he to point blame at any of the players, he could simply consult his left arm, tattooed with images of Mr. Roethlisberger, James Farrior, Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu. (Ten years of earlier body art had covered his chest with images of the '70s stars.)
Among those players, Mr. Roethlisberger faces the greatest scrutiny. This season, he's thrown 11 interceptions, already matching the total from his 2004 rookie season. He's been twice-concussed, and now merely cussed.
Now, some hope a flawed team can suddenly become flawless, led by its talented quarterback. The wider mass has focused, in the short term, on more modest hopes -- say, breaking out of that last-place tie with the Cleveland Browns. For retired Steelers' broadcasting legend Myron Cope, that distinction alone prompts another comparison with American history.
The Thursday before the Oakland loss, Mr. Cope had been reading a book by author Dan Jenkins. As a writer himself, Mr. Cope already thought about the narrative trajectory of the Steelers' season. He realized its ugly course, and thought of words like "crash" and "downfall." But Thursday night, while reading, Mr. Cope determined that Pittsburgh would lose Sunday's game. The parallel between Steeler Nation and the nation itself was, for Mr. Cope, too stark to ignore.
"What popped into my head was the stock market crash of 1929," Mr. Cope said. "I'm a child of the Depression, and if you are one, you never forget it. So Dan Jenkins, low and behold -- he gives the date."
Same as Sunday's date.
"So I call this another great crash," Mr. Cope continued, "because they lost to this lousy, stinking team ... I had the conviction this would happen, an extrasensory perception. But I took not one bit of pleasure, I'll emphasize, in watching them. Because today I'm in an awful mood."
Chico Harlan can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1227.