Blame it on this current group for reviving the Spirit of '68, another terrible Steelers season in what most everyone else knew as the decade of the Swinging '60s but known by pro football fans in Pittsburgh as the Stinking '60s.
The Steelers had played 44 seasons since then without losing their first four games until now, dredging up the memories of '68. It was a forgettable season that nevertheless provided two invaluable gifts to the franchise, delivering Chuck Noll and Joe Greene in 1969.
"I remember '68," said Andy Russell, a seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker whose career spanned the franchise's gory and glory years.
"No matter what we did, we just couldn't quite win. We'd be in the game in the fourth quarter but we'd lose the game consistently."
Back then, there were no pool tables or pingpong in the locker room for coach Bill Austin to remove as the losing continued. The players did not even have lockers. They lost their first six games and, like now, players began searching for solutions, looking within.
"We had a lot of good guys who cared and were concerned," Russell said. "We had a lot of player meetings: Do we have failed psyches, are we not trying hard enough, what's the problem? We didn't know and we never solved the problem."
The answers came the next year after their 2-11-1 season helped get Austin fired. An outsider, Noll, explained to those players what the real problem was.
"Next year, coach Noll comes and makes his famous speech: 'I'm going to tell you guys why you've been losing.'
"You could hear a pin drop in that room: 'The reason you're losing is you're not very good.'
"Those aren't his exact words. That's what he meant. You're not big enough, strong enough, fast enough, you're technically flawed, blah, blah, blah.
"Then he said, 'I'm going to have to get rid of most of you.'
"Five of us from that room made the Super Bowl in 1974."
When he's not traveling for business, where he's had great success in investment banking, Russell attends games at Heinz Field, but he calls himself a fan, not an expert, when assessing talent. He will admit that the Steelers have much more talent at 0-4 than that '68 team.
"I'm not worried about this team breaking our record of 16 straight losses," Russell said of a streak that included the final 13 games of 1969 and the first three of '70.
"It was agony. I played on very good teams in high school, won every game. In college at Missouri under Dan Devine, we were a top-10 team. My rookie year in 1963 with the Steelers, we almost won the NFL championship. Losing was difficult to deal with."
At least those Steelers of '68 were accustomed to it; they had not had a winning season since that '63 team that would have played in the NFL championship with a victory in its final game. The Steelers of '13 have not experienced a losing season in a decade.
Still, an even better comparison to what this team has experienced through the first month of the season might be made to that of Russell's last season, in 1976. They were in the midst of the Super Bowl Steelers, having won their first two the previous two seasons. But in '76, they were stunned by a 1-4 start. That team had some of the greatest talent in the history of football, so there's no comparing it to today, for the most part. But some situations may be similar, including the shock of not being used to losing.
"The reason we got beat is that we were trying to help out our fellow players," Russell said, referencing the old adage of players trying to do too much. "Guys would get away from what their job was and try to help their buddy make a play.
"We just gave up big plays. We didn't let anybody dominate the sticks, they just made huge plays and it was always when someone made a mistake and almost all the time it was someone trying to make a play somewhere on the field where he should not have been -- he was guessing, not doing his job.
"The coaches finally figured it out and said you're going to do exactly what you're supposed to do every single minute."
The record will show that they did, winning their next 10 games before -- without the injured Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier -- losing the AFC title game in Oakland.
Somewhere in between the Spirits of '68 and '76 lie the Steelers of '13, who are still writing their story.
What he said ... and could have said
Ben Roethlisberger, off to a record-setting pace throwing the ball, has not won any awards from the NFL this season but he earned one from the Steelers -- Teammate of the Week.
Told he should tone down his improvisational play by Ryan Clark -- not once, but three times -- Roethlisberger responded by saying he didn't hear his teammate's comments. He held his tongue rather than stir the locker room pot even more.
His response to his fellow team captain could have been something in the line of, "If certain defensive players would learn how to tackle, or produce a turnover now and then, or put some pressure on the quarterback, maybe we would not have to try to pass so often in an attempt to catch up, and thus I would not be put in a position to improvise as the protection around me collapses.''
Instead, Roethlisberger took the high road.
What's in a line?
Don't look now, but the Steelers offensive line has, as Mike Tomlin might say, an arrow pointing up and it's improving from the interior, the center and two guards.
Pro Football Focus rates guard David DeCastro a "stud." The ratings service ranks the Steelers as the 15th best overall line in the NFL. That's not bad. Consider the bottom two lines are Seattle at No. 31 and Baltimore at No. 32.
From PFF: "From snap to whistle there's been no real dropoff with Fernando Velasco on the field as the interior of this line has done a nice job. It's as good a Steelers line as we've seen in a while, which admittedly isn't saying much."
First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM