I don't know about you, but I'm starting to think the Steelers may not make it to the Super Bowl this year. The Pitt Panthers may have been a bit overrated too.
I don't come to these conclusions hastily, which is one thing that separates me from a lot of fans. Last season, I went to the Steelers game against the expansion Houston Texans, and two plays into the Steelers' very first possession, a guy three rows behind me started speculating loudly about the sexuality of offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. Less than 100 seconds into a scoreless game, this guy was shouting, "I paid too much for these tickets to watch this crap!"
As it turned out, his complaint wasn't premature so much as slightly ahead of its time. Less than 100 seconds later, quarterback Tommy Maddox gave up an unforced fumble that Houston ran back for a touchdown. The next drive, Maddox threw an interception was also run back for a TD, part of a 24-6 goring that proved one of the most embarrassing defeats in modern Steelers history.
The thing about Pittsburgh sports fans -- Pittsburgh in general, maybe -- is that we're never surprised to get the ass end of the stick. We expect it. That's why we're so quick to disappointment, why we start booing so soon after things go sour. We knew it would happen.
It's a lesson we learned off the field. For decades we got pushed around by steel companies, railroads, coal companies -- and a few years after we got a little of our own back, they pulled up stakes. And there you have it: The CEOs piss on us and tell us it's raining. We saw it in the 1980s. We're seeing it now, as the city totters on the verge of bankruptcy after decades in which our largest employers enjoyed huge tax exemptions and subsidies. We've come to expect disappointment, especially at the hand of tight-fisted ownership, during the workweek and on Sunday afternoons, too.
In the old days, my stomach sunk when I saw an opposing receiver catch a deep pass. Nowadays, my stomach sinks as soon as the ball is thrown. You can't tell where the ball is headed on TV -- but the Steelers fan in me just knows that, wherever it's going, it's going to be caught. Even -- no, especially -- on third-and-long.
The worst part is being haunted by memories of better days. Until the 1970s, Steelers fans had the consolation of history: They never had been any good, so why worry about the fact that they're bad today? The four Super Bowls changed all that.
Sure, it was 25 years ago and there's been a lot of losing since, but hey, this is a town that still revels in being rated the country's "most livable" city -- in 1986. We're supposed to stop clinging to the past as far as the steel industry goes, but when it comes to sports, we're told over and over that the glory days are coming back. You've just gotta believe!
Cynicism results when belief repeatedly proves false. And since the team's performance is so unsatisfying, we find entertainment value in being cynical instead. That's why we like to hear ourselves boo, why we curse the TV screen but watch it anyway.
This sense of betrayal is an old one in Pittsburgh, and it began not in the city's failure but its success. In 1920, social commentator H.L. Mencken looked out the windows of his train as it rattled through the region's gritty industrial base. Around him, he knew, was an industrial center that had made America the "wealthiest and proudest nation ever seen." But what he saw was a place "so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a...depressing joke." Mencken concluded that such wealth could produce such hideousness only if people liked it -- an appetite he called "the libido for the ugly."
The mill towns have been sold for scrap, and the coal patches have all been mined out. But if our "libido for the ugly" has weakened, we still have what might be called the Eros of defeat...the grim delight in daring to hope for a football team you know is beyond hope, and then relishing in your anger when it disappoints you after all. If you live in a place where human aspiration was reduced to a joke, you quickly learn to make a joke out of human aspiration from the start.
If you watched the Steelers/Bengals contest or the Pitt/Miami game this weekend, you saw the choice local football fans face: Die fast, or die slow. Is it less painful to watch a long drubbing like the Pitt game -- where you can start preparing for the smirks of Penn State fans by the third quarter -- or to have hope right up until the last minute? Up until a few weeks ago, I would have answered the latter. But after the Steelers fell apart in the second half of their Monday night game against the 49ers, I've reduced my expectations: All I ask anymore is that, if you're going to stink up the joint, do it early so I can get a decent night's sleep.
What really hurts is that both teams have weaknesses in areas that should be strengths: the ability to stop the run, gut it out in the trenches, and play blue-collar, in-your-face ball.
If the teams' plight isn't a metaphor for Pittsburgh today, I don't know what is. The blue-collar jobs went the way of the single-wing offense. So we try desperately to recruit young people in what are called "skills positions" in football -- receivers and quarterbacks, IT guys and biotech geeks. As if jamming an offensive line from the nose-tackle position, or being able to tell when a heat of steel was finished by its color, wasn't a skill.
But the old jobs went anyway: Pittsburgh workers are less likely to work in manufacturing than those living in Cleveland or even Erie. We've tried to invent a New Pittsburgh instead, and for a few years in the 1990s, it looked like we had a shot on and off the field. But now we find that all the glitzy trimmings of the New Economy -- from glossy buildings and upscale "amenities" to the West Coast-offense -- are no substitute for the fundamentals: a sound tax base all our employers contribute to, a right tackle who can pass-protect.
We're trying to play a new kind of game -- not just on Sunday but every day of the week. But it's not the one we grew up with, and we don't really know the rules. Whether you care about football or not, the Steelers' losses are our own.
That's why I'll be watching next week.