While I didn't show it last night, the Steelers losing yet another AFC championship game has me in a bit of a funk today. I'm coping by getting through the aftermath as quickly as possible. I've read all the stories in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, most of ESPN's coverage, and I'll skim if not avoid entirely the Sports Guy's inevitable gloating. I'm also wallowing in a little self-pity by listening to Mozart's Requiem, my old salve for breakups, deaths, and now football playoff disappointment. If I don't feel sad enough, hearing his "Lachrymosa" always makes me feel like crying.
All season long it was hard for me to believe that my team was putting up a 15-1 record, the first AFC team to do that. That's just not something the Steelers do. Even their Steel Curtain teams in the 1970s managed to lose at least two games a season, even en route to the Super Bowl. Last night I said I didn't think the Steelers were ever a dominant 15-1 football team, but James argued that if you go 15-1, you're dominating. I just never got the sense that the team was out there crushing their opponents. They took advantage of mistakes, covered up their own weaknesses as long as possible, and never suffered any key injuries. That kind of season is difficult, if not impossible, to put together again. Next season they won't be overlooked by anyone, least of all the NFL schedule-makers. This year they had the benefit of a schedule that came out of their 6-10 record in 2003. Next year, they're going to have a much tougher schedule to contend with, along with trying to avoid injuries and the added pressure that will inevitably come from within and without to get to the Super Bowl.
Then there's Ben Roethlisberger. As a Steelers fan, I've suffered through so many crappy or mediocre quarterbacks since Terry Bradshaw retired: Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O'Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox. In 2002 I wrote that Maddox was the first quarterback in years who didn't make my heart stop every time he threw the ball. Then in 2003 he proved to be just as crappy as the rest of the guys who preceded him. So far, Roethlisberger has been a major improvement over those other guys, but he had a great offensive line and two excellent running backs to take the pressure off him this year. In the past few games, when he had to throw the ball, he didn't remind anyone of John Elway. Whether it was an injury, improved defenses, or just rookie jitters, he looked lost out there at times. That's to be expected of a rookie, although I wish he'd played like that back in September and October and possibly gotten it out of his system. I'm reminded of Kordell Stewart's 1997 season, when he led the Steelers to the AFC championship against Denver (where he threw a few costly interceptions and the Steelers lost). Stewart established himself as a full-time quarterback that season, and in the offseason took full advantage of his newfound fame. He showed up in all sorts of ads. I can see Roethlisberger doing the same thing this offseason. He already appeared in a Campbell's Chunky Soup ad that ran DURING the AFC championship. I can't blame him if he cashes in, but I hope he doesn't do it at the expense of his offseason training. Kordell Stewart came back in 1998 and did not play as well; the team went 7-9 and missed the playoffs. Stewart endured all manner of boos and taunts from Steelers fans for the next three years, and only his and the team's resurgence in 2001 helped quiet them. That's another thing: Steelers fans are notorious boo-birds when the team's play goes south, and they will not hesitate to let Big Ben hear it if he keeps throwing interceptions. (For a good laugh, read some of the e-mails to the Post-Gazette. Along with the cheerful "we had a great run" messages, there's a healthy dose of "Fire Cowher!" and "play Tommy Maddox instead!" e-mails. I'd argue about the intelligence of those writers, but it's just not worth the energy.) I hope Roethlisberger spends more time in the offseason staying in shape, learning the playbook, and working with the coordinators and coaches to get more comfortable with the offense. I don't think John Elway was John Elway his first year out there.
Aside from the Super Bowl, which I will still watch, football season is over. In the absence of hockey, it's time to get into college basketball. Georgetown had a great last-second dunk to beat Notre Dame yesterday, and Mississippi State is still playing well in the SEC. Baseball season is not far off, and the Pirates are likely to contend for at least the first month or so. And then we have the NFL draft and another football season in less than nine months. But for now, on the most depressing day of the year, I'll just be sad.