It was a different era, and it happened in a stadium that no longer exists, but there were undeniable similarities between what happened almost 40 years ago inside Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and what happened on Friday night in Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
The score of those two preseason games were different, but how the outcome was achieved was similar. When a team is outclassed the way the Steelers were against the New York Giants over 30 years ago and then again against the Carolina Panthers on Friday night, the margin on the scoreboard when it mercifully ends becomes secondary.
Over the course of his Hall of Fame career, Chuck Noll developed a reputation for being a difficult interview, for being vague or disinterested or both during what he seemed to perceive as a tedious ritual of questions and answers with the media. But every now and then, Noll would let down his guard and give it to you straight. Blunt, candid, raw, and on that occasion in the bowels of Giants Stadium he was all of that.
His team had just offered a performance that stunk worse than the swamps of New Jersey. With a mandatory cut-down on the immediate horizon, Noll was asked if such a stinker of a performance would make the job of cutting the roster more difficult.
Steely-eyed, Noll looked at the questioner and said, "Cutting won't be a problem. Stopping will."
It would be totally understandable if Coach Mike Tomlin walked off the field following Carolina's 34-9 TKO of the Steelers with the same thought.
The Steelers took a 3-0 preseason record to Charlotte for Friday night's finale, and while preseason records are worthless, the manner in which they had achieved theirs seemed to be reason enough to pay attention, not so much to the final score necessarily, but to the way some of the individuals would close out the summer and by extension what that could mean for the fall.
Instead, it turned out to be an exercise in tedium because just about every individual who had an opportunity to make a case for himself failed to do so. And in some cases failed dramatically.
"You know, just really disappointed in our performance tonight," said Tomlin. "I was excited about the opportunity for the guys, especially given Carolina was playing a lot of their regulars, I thought it would be a great platform for them to display varsity skills, and just succinctly we didn't.
"Didn't take care of the ball. Didn't win possession downs on offense. I thought the defense started strong, but then fatigue set in because we couldn't maintain possession of it (on offense). There were mental lapses, physical lapses, as fatigue set in with them. We turned the ball over on special teams, and so all in all it was a junior varsity performance. We accept that. We understand what that means, but we also understand where we are in this journey collectively. I am appreciative of their efforts not only tonight, but throughout this process and now we begin the decision making time. I am sure we will get started with that when we get back (to Pittsburgh)."
It might be assumed that such a lousy performance will make Tomlin's decisions more difficult, but in some cases what happened against the Panthers made those decisions simple and obvious.
Take Dwayne Haskins for example.
Haskins was given the start against the Panthers, with the job to be Ben Roethlisberger's backup up for grabs to a degree, and the reason the backup job was up for grabs was simple: From the start of training camp to the day the Steelers boarded their charter flight to take them to Charlotte, Haskins was the Steelers best quarterback not named Roethlisberger. To supplant Mason Rudolph, though, Haskins was going to have to light it up against Carolina's first-team defense.
But alas, his performance against the Panthers was the opposite of "lighting it up." Haskins played the whole first half, and he quarterbacked an offense that ran 19 plays, was 0-for-4 on third downs, managed 64 total net yards, never penetrated the Carolina 44-yard line, and ended its six possessions this way: punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, end of half.
Tomlin gave him the first series of the third quarter, likely in an effort to allow Haskins to dig himself out of a hole, and the hole just got deeper. By the time Haskins was replaced by Joshua Dobbs, he was 3-for-9 for 24 yards, with no touchdowns, one interception, and a rating of 2.8. Those numbers made a dramatic statement that Haskins is not ready to be more than what he had been all summer – a No. 3 quarterback.
"Like the rest of us, I didn't think it was enough varsity work from him," said Tomlin. "It wasn't the type of performance he wanted or we wanted. Such is life."
More disappointing than the egg Haskins laid was how many of his teammates with similar opportunities also failed to take advantage.
Mathew Sexton was looking to secure a roster spot based on his punt returning, but he turned the ball over when he muffed one that the Panthers recovered, and then he muffed a second punt but managed to get the ball back before it became a second turnover. Tre Norwood got a chance to throw his hat into the ring to be the starting slot cornerback, but he dropped a potential interception that hit him in the chest and then shortly after missed a tackle on a running play that ended up being a 12-yard gain.
Wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, potentially competing with Sexton for one roster spot, dropped a third-down pass and later was flagged for offensive pass interference. Running back Kalen Ballage cost the offense field position with a holding penalty during a Carolina punt. Cornerback Mark Gilbert doubled a 15-yard completion with a personal foul penalty on a drive that ended up in the end zone on the next play and upped the Steelers' deficit to 31-3.
There are other examples likely to be discovered by grading the video, and there's always the possibility some good news could be discovered the same way. But Tomlin wasn't in the mood to look for silver linings.
"Based on the performance that happened in the stadium, we are in general disappointment," said Tomlin. "But there will be disappointments in ball and in life."
And sometimes what starts out looking like a difficult roster cut-down ends up being something totally different.