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Labriola On

Labriola on a history of ugly losses

Ready or not, here it comes:

Start with this: There is no disagreement here with the assessments of the Steelers' performance last Sunday against the Bengals in Cincinnati. Not with what Cam Heyward said after the game ("We sucked out there"), or with what Coach Mike Tomlin said during his Tuesday news conference ("We just stunk the place up"), or with any of the other blunt assessments coming from inside the organization.

But in keeping with the modern penchant for overreacting, the penchant for a complete lack of perspective, for an ignorance of history, it has become somewhat annoying to read and listen to assertions made with absolute certainty that 41-10 vs. the Bengals last Sunday was "the worst" or "the most embarrassing" or "the most damaging" or "a definite referendum on" the coaching and/or the caliber/character of the players on the roster or the direction of the franchise.

I've seen a lot of Steelers football, some of it great, some of it emotional, and on more than a few instances, absolutely awful. It happens, or as is said nowadays, "It is what it is." What follows are just a few examples:

OCT. 14, 1979

The three-time Super Bowl champion Steelers, and in 1979 the defending champions, took a 5-1 record to Cincinnati to face the 0-6 hapless, helpless, hopeless Bengals. Or so it seemed they were hapless, helpless, and hopeless. But at the conclusion of a sunny, seasonal autumn afternoon at Riverfront Stadium, those adjectives described the Steelers.

The Bengals raced to a 27-3 halftime lead on the way to a 34-10 victory that really wasn't as close as that final score indicated. Terry Bradshaw, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, threw one touchdown pass, two interceptions, and finished with a rating of 62.0.

Compounding the problems created by the interceptions were nine Steelers fumbles, seven of which they lost to the Bengals. Cincinnati returned two of the seven fumble recoveries for touchdowns – one by Howard Kurnick for a 12-yard touchdown off a special teams fumble, and the other by Jim LeClair for a 27-yard touchdown off an offensive fumble.

The Bengals finished the 1979 season at 4-12 but 1-1 vs. the Steelers.

NOV. 18, 1979

Sticking with the 1979 season, the Steelers rebounded to win four in a row following the debacle in Cincinnati, and so it was that they took a 9-2 record to San Diego for a showdown with the 8-3 Chargers.

The 1979 Steelers would go on to win Super Bowl XIV for their fourth championship over a six-season span, but this particular group of Steelers was a mediocre team (4-4) during the regular season on the road. And at the start of this game against a San Diego team that would finish the regular season with a 12-4 record and as the No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs, the Steelers weren't even mediocre.

Once again, they imploded.

The Air Coryell offense was kept in check largely by the Steelers defense, with Dan Fouts completing 11-of-24 (45.8 percent) for 137 yards, with two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a rating of 57.1. Rookie tight end Kellen Winslow didn't have a catch, and veteran wide receiver Charlie Joiner had only one for 5 yards, but the Steelers had trouble with the other wide receiver – John Jefferson, who finished with five receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown.

Where the Chargers won this game was on the line of scrimmage while they were on defense. The right side of the San Diego defensive line – tackle Gary Johnson and end Fred Dean – dominated the Steelers offensive line throughout the game. Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier combined to rush for 63 yards on 28 carries (2.3 average), and Bradshaw (three times) and Mike Kruczek (once) were sacked a combined four times.

Bradshaw had an awful game. In addition to the three sacks, he threw five interceptions, and things got so bad with the Chargers pass rush dominating the game that at one point Noll met Bradshaw as the quarterback was coming off the field after another unsuccessful offensive series and screamed at the reigning league MVP, "Change the (bleeping) count."

The Steelers would go on to win the Super Bowl, but it's also fair to point out they got more than a little help from their AFC Central Division rivals, the Houston Oilers. Because the Steelers and Chargers both finished 12-4, and because San Diego owned the head-to-head tiebreaker, a possible AFC Championship Game matchup between the teams would be staged on the West Coast.

But after defeating the Denver Broncos in the Wild Card Round, Houston went to San Diego and upset the Chargers, despite having to play without starting quarterback Dan Pastorini, running back Earl Campbell, and No. 1 wide receiver Ken Burrough. That sent the Oilers to Three Rivers Stadium (where the Steelers were 8-0 during the 1979 regular season) for a rematch of the 1978 AFC Championship Game.

AUG. 31, 1997

Two years removed from an AFC Championship and an appearance in Super Bowl XXX, the Steelers prepared to open the 1997 regular season with a showdown against the Cowboys, who had defeated them in that Super Bowl. But if Super Bowl XXX was a close game that turned on a late interception by Neil O'Donnell, one of the three he threw in the game, the 1997 opener was not close by any means.

The Cowboys led, 17-0, at halftime; 34-0 at the end of three quarters; and 37-0 until Mark Bruener caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Kordell Stewart to account for the 37-7 final.

Dallas managed little-to-nothing on the ground, but their passing attack – or at least the Troy Aikman-to-Michael Irvin aspect of its passing attack – was unstoppable. Aikman completed 19-of-30 (63.3 percent) for 295 yards, with four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a rating of 135.4. Irvin caught seven of those passes for 153 yards (21.9 average) and two of the touchdowns.

The Steelers converted just 1-of-11 on third downs, and their longest offensive play was a 15-yard completion from Stewart at Yancey Thigpen.

The 1997 Steelers split their next two games to drop to 1-2 but then rolled off 10 wins in their next 12 games to finish 11-5 and win the AFC Central Division and enter the playoffs as the No. 2 seed. The Steelers lost that AFC Championship Game, at Three Rivers Stadium, to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

DEC. 24, 2006

The defending Super Bowl XL champion Steelers came into this game at 7-7 but still alive in the AFC playoff picture and smarting from a 27-0 spanking from their AFC North rivals a month earlier in Baltimore. If anything, this rematch was worse for Coach Bill Cowher's team.

The Ravens led, 14-7, at halftime, but they outscored the Steelers, 17-0, in the second half to win handily, 31-7. That allowed Baltimore to sweep the season series by an aggregate margin of 58-7.

In the category of team statistics, the Ravens finished with leads in first downs, 23-16; total net yards, 359-251; third-down conversions, 6-of-12 (50 percent)-2-of-14 (14.3 percent); and time of possession, 35:22-24:38. But with this series, it was all about winning the battle of the hitting, and in the home-and-home series in 2006, the Ravens dominated that aspect. If the 62,224 paying customers who had decided to spend Christmas Eve at Heinz Field "felt" the pain of this defeat, Ben Roethlisberger FELT the pain of this defeat.

The Ravens beat him up all afternoon, and when it was over Roethlisberger had completed 15-of-31 (48.4 percent) for 156 yards, with one touchdown, two interceptions, and a rating of 47.2. He was sacked five times and hit five other times, and the fact the sacks were divided among seven defenders had to maximize the amount of punishment dished out because on a few of the occasions there were a couple of Ravens meeting at the quarterback. And with Roethlisberger finishing with 33 of the Steelers' 63 total yards rushing, the Ravens got some extra licks in while tackling him as a runner as well.

The Steelers finished with 13 offensive possessions on the day, and they ended this way: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, touchdown (halftime) punt, turnover on downs, fumble, interception, interception, end of the game. Five of the seven possessions that ended with punts were three-and-outs.

Eliminated from the playoffs, the Steelers defeated the Bengals the following weekend in overtime to finish 8-8 in 2006, which turned out to be Cowher's final season with the Steelers and his last as an NFL coach.

This sad, short history lesson shows that bad losses, giveaway losses, butt-kicking losses can happen to teams coached by Hall of Famers, teams loaded with Hall of Fame players, teams on the way toward another championship, teams trying to defend a championship, or teams trying to establish, or re-establish, themselves.

This kind of thing happens, and it's never as dramatic or devastating as it may seem initially. What's really significant in the big picture is how the players respond, how the coaches respond, and then how management, at the appropriate time, responds to those responses.