I've always thought it was kind of neat that there have only been two teams with 9-7 regular season records that went on to appear in the Super Bowl(the Los Angeles Rams in 1979 and the Arizona Cardinals in 2008)and the Steelers were the opponent in each contest. And the fact that the Steelers struggled to win each game despite being huge favorites only added to the intrigue.
But witnessing how last year's season imploded, I'm beginning to wonder if we may be repeating history. The history of the 1980's.
In 1980, the Steelers were trying to win a 5th Lombardi trophy, but their team was aging rapidly, especially their legendary defense which had 7 members over the age of 30.
The 1980 season marked the first time the team failed to make the postseason since 1971. They missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record. Seven losses that included some very un-Steeler-like 4th quarter collapses to the likes of the Bengals and Browns.
Last season, the Steelers were trying to repeat, and win their 3rd Lombardi trophy in 5 seasons. They could never truly get over the hump, however, and finished out of the playoffs with a 9-7 record. They, too, saw 4th quarter leads vanish time and time again, most notably against the likes of Cincinnati, Kansas City and Oakland.
The only reason why I bring up this comparison is because, much like the early 80's, the Steelers' defense is also aging pretty fast with 8 members that are at least 30 years old.
I know physical fitness is way more advanced today than it was 30 years ago, and this defense was the best in the league two seasons ago, but the teams of the late 70's were also pretty dominant despite their age and the new rules, but once their age caught up to them in the early 80's, it caught up to them big time.
The one great thing about the NFL is players can come in right out of college and make an immediate impact.
Chuck Noll was no dummy and knew the hand-writing was on the wall and tried to replenish that defense with the likes of Robin Cole and Keith Gary. Unfortunately, he didn't find nearly the same success with those players that he did in the 70's.
The offense wasn't aging as fast as the defense, but unfortunately, Lynn Swann retired early, and Terry Bradshaw was also forced into retirement by his ailing elbow. Had Bradshaw been able to play a few more years, who knows? Maybe he matches Marino pass-for-pass in the 1984 AFC title game and the Steelers go on and get that "One for the thumb."
Instead, by the mid-80's, the Steelers had evolved into quite a mediocre football team and would remain in that state for many years.
Today, the team is trying to restock that great defense and get younger. In recent seasons, they've drafted Lawrence Timmons, Lamarr Woodley, and Evander "Ziggy" Hood.
Woodley is an all-world outside linebacker and Timmons looks to be finally coming into his own. The jury is still out on Hood, and it remains to be seen whether or not the franchise can survive the inevitable retirements of James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke and Casey Hampton. Ike Taylor will be a free agent after this year and may be in his last season here, and Polamalu? Let's hope that Troy has five or six great years left in him, but he's also approaching the 30 year milestone, and you never know with him. He strikes me as the kind of guy who could give it all up in a heartbeat and not think twice.
Fortunately, the team is fairly young on offense. Other than Hines, there isn't another starter over the age of 30 with the exception of The Hotel, who is just filling in for one season.
Roethlisberger, Miller, Mendenhall, Wallace, and Pouncey are either in their primes or still a few years away from reaching that point. Maybe the offense can be the strength of this team until the defense can reload.
Another thing in the Steelers favor is the structure of the NFL today compared to the early 80's. With a salary cap and free agency, teams are conditioned to turn over their roster at a quicker pace than in Noll's heyday.
The Steelers of the late 90's saw their six year playoff window close, but Cowher was able to revamp the roster in just three years and turned them into a perennial Super Bowl contender once again.
Here's hoping this current regime can do the same thing and the 10's won't resemble the 80's.