In one of the most Super Bowls of all time, the Pittsburgh Steelers managed to grab the last upswing of emotions. In so doing, they beamed a ray of hope on the Atlanta Falcons.
The Steelers beat the Cardinals, 27-23. It could just have easily turned out the other way. Maybe should have.
But should have doesn’t get its name etched into the Lombardi Trophy. Did does. And now the Steelers have their name engraved a record six times on Vince’s hardware.
It wasn’t easy. It never is. Not for the Steelers, ever a hard-working team that’s the perfect fit for its hard-working city. But you don’t expect such hard-working teams to spend entire games riding emotional roller coasters.
They took the opening kickoff and zipped right down the field for a touchdown. Or so it appeared.
Upon further review, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was deemed to have fallen just shy of the goal line. The opening drive looked a lot better when it ended with seven points instead of three.
So much for the first swing of emotions. A quick stop of the Cardinals, and the Steelers were off on a seven minute drive. This one resulted in seven points.
Then the Cards swung emotions their way, driving the length of the field to cut the gap to 10-7. And they weren’t done.
Karlos Dansby picked off a deflected Roethlisberger pass near the end of the half, setting up the most critical play of the game.
That’s when James Harrison stepped in front of Anquan Boldin on the Steelers goal line, intercepted Kurt Warner’s pass, and set off on the most interminable play in Super Bowl history.
Half an hour and 100 yards later, Harrison lay flat on his back in the Cardinals end zone, gasping for breath, unable to savor the havoc he had wreaked.
Surely, that would be the final swing of emotions. The Cardinals couldn’t come back from that devastating turnaround, could they? Would they?
Could. Would. Did. All in the final quarter.
They went the length of the field again for a touchdown. They pinned the Steelers back and scored a safety. And then they finally broke Larry Fitzgerald loose for a 64-yard touchdown.
Surely, that would be the final swing of emotions. The Steelers couldn’t come back from that devastating turn-around, could they? Would they?
Could. Would. Did. All in the final 2:40.
Pittsburgh won because Santonio Holmes great touchdown catch came with only 42 seconds left on the clock, not enough time left for another emotional swing.
A game which swung from good to bad fit the Steelers’ history. No team in the NFL can claim such a vivid history of ups with dark decades of downs.
Last week some pundits went so far as to ponder whether the Steelers might be professional sports’ greatest franchise.
Over the past 35 years, they rate pretty high. The record six Super Bowl wins. A record 24 playoff appearances since 1972. A record three coaches since 1969, each of whom won a Super Bowl.
But prior to 1972, the Steelers made exactly one playoff appearance. In 1947, they tied the Eagles for the Eastern Division championship. They managed to lose the playoff game to the Eagles, 21-0.
And that was it.
Art Rooney brought the Steelers into the NFL in 1933. It was 1942 before they fashioned a winning record. Those first nine years, their record was 25-71-6.
They amassed three winning records in the ‘40s, two in the ‘50s and two in the ‘60s. They never lost fewer that four games in a season until 1972.
From 1933 to 1969, the Steelers had 16 head coaches. Two had winning records: Jock Sutherland went 13-9-1 in ‘46 and ‘47, and Buddy Parker went 51-47-6 from ‘57 through ‘64.
Parker was actually a great coach by Pittsburgh’s modest standards. He coached for four years before fashioning a losing record. In ‘62, his team posted a franchise record nine wins. They finished three games behind the Giants.
In ‘63, the Steelers came into Yankee Stadium for the final game of the season with a 7-3-3 record. The Giants were 10-3. Under the NFL’s rules regarding tie games, if the Steelers won, they’d win the division.
Ed Brown’s passes sailed all over the field, the Giants bottled up John Henry Johnson, and Frank Gifford made a classic, one-handed catch of a Y. A. Tittle pass. The Giants won, 33-17.
Sound remotely familiar? It should. The Steelers first forty years didn’t differ all that much from the Falcons’. At least there’s a precedent for a complete makeover of a franchise.