“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” is a quote from sixth century philosopher Lao Tzu and aptly describes the performances of many professional football teams throughout the decades of the NFL. In 2018, the flame belonged to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Reeling off six consecutive wins after tripping to a 1–2–1 record to open the season, the Steelers became the Super Bowl picks of many. Then came abysmal performances against the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders, and the inevitable slamming shut of the playoff door.
Joining the ‘Pitiful’ Party
While the 2018 Steelers did collapse, the team’s six-game turnaround created a false sense of success. A season opening tie with Cleveland, which had yet to become the strong NFL participant after management sacked offensive coordinator Todd Haley and head coach Hue Jackson, was followed by dismal outings against Kansas City and Baltimore. The steel town Fall of ’18 is just the primer to this discussion. There have been far greater descents from NFL glory.
A Second Vikings Disappearance
Historians generally are in agreement the original Vikings halted the plundering of neighboring lands circa 1066. The gridiron Vikings of 2003 served as a microcosm of the storied lore of Nordic past with the plundering coming in the form of wins for first-year head coach Mike Tice. Minnesota stomped on, ran through and passed over its first six regular season foes. Just like their namesakes, the Vikings surprisingly stopped plundering NFL opponents. Losing four straight games, the Vikes eventually rowed slowly into the season’s finale with a horrible Arizona Cardinals team. One more win for ‘Mike of Tice’ and the Vikings could plunder once again as a wildcard playoff squad. With a fourth quarter 17–6 lead, Minnesota had its raiding ship sunk by two late touchdowns. The 18–17 win by the Cards meant no playoffs for the Vikings.
Oh, When the Saints GO MARCHING OUT!
The 1993 New Orleans Saints were looking great with a 5–0 record, including wins over division rivals Rams, Falcons and 49ers, heading into the team’s bye week. Talk about a cooling off period! The Saints entering Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium was akin to Christians entering the Roman Coliseum. The Steelers defense recorded five sacks and scored a touchdown via a 63-yard Rod Woodson interception return, staking Pittsburgh to a 37 point lead and an eventual 37–14 loss for New Orleans. Coach Jim Mora would never get the team back onto the playoff course, only managing three more wins the rest of the season.
Riggins & Theismann Pre-Hogs
1978 was a dickens of a time for the Washington Redskins, as in Charles Dickens. It was the ‘best of times’ early in the season. It was the ‘worst of times’ for the latter part of the year. It would be a few years before quarterback Joe Theismann and running back John Riggins would have Mark May, Russ Grimm and the rest of the ‘Hogs’ blocking for them but the two would have early success in leading he Redskins to a 6–0 record. This included a win over New England, the eventual AFC East champion, as well as a rough-and-tumble 9–5 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys.
One game after Theismann led Washington to a come-from-behind win over Detroit with two fourth quarter touchdown passes, he and his Redskins teammates would come crashing down to the artifical turf of Veteran’s Stadium. Washington lost four fumbles and the game, 17–10. The following week Theismann’s three interceptions led to a 17–6 win for a bad New York Giants team. Coach Jack Pardee replaced Theismann with the aging Billy Kilmer. The master of the wounded duck passing attack, along with three interceptions by the defense, vaulted the Redskins over the woeful San Francisco 49ers. Within two weeks, Kilmer limped his way back to the bench as Theismann was back as the starting quarterback. The losing ways continued with the ’78 Redskins finishing 8–8.
‘Heads…uh, I mean Tails…uh’
Nothing says turkey like the 1998 Pittsburgh Steelers. The team seemed to be plodding along through the season, but a big win over AFC Central Division rival Jacksonville put the 7–4 Steelers in the driver’s seat for the division title and the playoffs. Four days later Pittsburgh faced Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. Call it the Luckett of the Draw, a mistake, or miscommunication — Referee Phil Luckett heard team captain Jerome Bettis call ‘Heads’ on the coin toss to determine possession heading into overtime. However, ‘Tails’ was claimed to be called by Bettis. The flip was ‘tails’ and despite a prolonged discussion, the Lions were awarded the choice. A few minutes later, Pittsburgh left the field a three-point loser. The turkey theme stuck around like Thanksgiving Day leftovers…for the rest of the season. The Steelers offense would score just one touchdown in the remaining five games, losing them all.
Here We Go a ‘Carrolling’
1999 would be Pete Carroll’s final season as the head coach of the New England Patriots. Carroll started his stay at Robert Kraft’s caretaker as an example of a square peg in a round hole scenario a few seasons earlier. The positive thinking coaching nature exuded by Carroll was a polar opposite to the previous head coach, Bill Parcells. By his third season, the veteran players had collectively grown to understand there is more than one way to accomplish winning NFL games. The team jumped out to a 6–2 record despite losing 1,000-yard running back Robert Edwards prior to the season’s start.
Consecutive losses to division rivals New York, Miami and Buffalo put a halt to the charging Patriots. A 13–7 win over Dallas would end the losing streak but New England’s losing ways returned for three more weeks. A last game win over the over the Baltimore Ravens was little consolation as the 8–8 Patriots finished last in the AFC East. Carroll would be fired, making way for Bill Bellichick.