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The Steelers annual goal isn’t a non-losing season

Don’t you just hate it when someone expresses an opinion as if it’s a fact?

You might say that about the title of this article, but I’m much more confident in that being a fact than I am of the rather strong opinion that has grown legs recently–the Steelers’ annual goal is to avoid a losing season.

Why do you think that’s their top priority? Because they keep doing it?

Just because they keep doing it, doesn’t mean it’s their goal. The Steelers’ streak of non-losing seasons–one that actually began under head coach Bill Cowher after the Steelers’ dreadful 6-10 campaign in 2003–is a byproduct of trying to win and compete each and every year.

The streak has taken on a life of its own as of late and has been more associated with Mike Tomlin, the team’s head coach since 2007 and a man who (say it with me) has never had a losing season. It’s Tomlin’s portion of the streak, specifically the period between 2011-2022, that’s the most fascinating.

The NFL is set up for downtrodden teams to rebuild through the draft and free agency. After they build talented rosters, starting with young franchise quarterbacks, they’re then in a position to compete for a Lombardi trophy (or several). After the championship window is closed, the NFL then expects those teams to go away and bleed for a while.

Let other teams–franchises who were building themselves up while the marquee squads were fighting for and winning titles–have their time in the sun.

The Steelers never did read that memo.

They kept trying to win, even when NFL history told them they should have fallen to the bottom of the league.

The 1980s Steelers eventually did. The fans of those Super Bowl teams of the 1970s probably spent the majority of the following decade expecting that One For the Thumb.

Not only did Pittsburgh fail to capture a fifth Lombardi trophy, but it only won two postseason games between 1980-1991. The Steelers were one of the worst teams in football by the end of the ’80s, and Chuck Noll eventually gave way to Cowher.

That’s generally the standard for life in the NFL after a championship run.

It is true that, unlike the post-’70s dynasty, the Steelers had the benefit of a franchise quarterback–Ben Roethlisberger–under center (or in the shotgun) for 11 years following their second Super Bowl era.

But Pittsburgh also had to pay Roethlisberger the going rate for modern-day franchise quarterbacks.

That took up a lot of salary-cap space. And while Roethlisberger’s presence made the Steelers respectable, his salary, along with the Steelers drafting in the 20s on an annual basis, made it much harder to build a complete roster.

Throw in free agency and massive player movement, and it may be even more difficult to remain relevant after a championship run in modern times than it was in Terry Bradshaw’s day.

We all know this because it’s been discussed a lot over the years.

Yet, it’s just as true now as it was the first time it was mentioned as an “excuse.”

The NFL simply wants a team to lose after it’s spent a lot of time winning, and vice versa.

The Steelers refused to go along with this philosophy. They denied it. They tried to buck the system. They never fully committed to a rebuild. Did it work? No and yes. No, it didn’t work in terms of championship success. Yes, it worked in always helping to keep the Steelers competitive and somewhat relevant.

You might say a gutting of the team may have been warranted, but could you have handled it? I know fans who can’t even handle massive changes at a Steelers fan site. Imagine how the organization’s supporters would react to a couple of 3-14 seasons.

The Steelers likely know this, which is why they’ve always tried to offer up the best roster their resources can put together.

Admittedly, it has been a while since the Steelers were on the same level as the true contenders of the NFL; in that regard, they’re not much different than those late-’80s squads who were kept off of Monday Night Football for four years.

But while history suggests that Noll’s teams gave up the fight many times throughout his final years as head coach, there has been no evidence of Tomlin’s players ever throwing in the Terrible Towel.

So what, though, right? After all, the goal is still to win championships.

Who says that’s changed? The Steelers’ approach has probably delayed their next championship window, but it’s not because their goal has been non-losing seasons.

If anything, the Steelers have hurt themselves by refusing to give in to the NFL’s inherent parity structure.

In other words, they refuse to go away and bleed for a while.

That might not necessarily be smart, but it’s something to be applauded.

After all, they did it for you.


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