For Chuck Noll, it happened on Sept. 24, 1989. For Bill Cowher, it happened on Sept. 6, 1992. And for Mike Tomlin, it happened on Sunday, Oct. 16.
The Steelers have had only three coaches since 1969, and each man who has held the job has had at least one instance where his team was expected to play the role of the Christians in a matchup vs. the lions in the Roman Colosseum. The reasons behind such an expectation may have varied, but the final result supposedly was never in doubt. Until the opening kickoff, anyway.
In Noll's case, the Steelers had opened the 1989 season with a 51-0 loss to the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium and followed that up with a 41-10 defeat in Cincinnati. As Noll said to Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe on the walk from the floor of Riverfront Stadium to the visitor's locker room, "We either played the two best teams in the (AFC Central) Division, or we're in for a long season."
In Cowher's case, Sept. 6, 1992, was the date of the opening game of his inaugural season as an NFL head coach, and it happened to be in the Astrodome vs. the defending AFC Central champion Houston Oilers who were coached at the time by a guy named Jerry Glanville, whose hatred of the Steelers was as passionate as his love for wearing all black on the sideline during games.
In Noll's case, the national media had swarmed Pittsburgh after the Steelers had lost their first two games of 1989 by a combined 92-10, and the storyline was unanimous – that the game had passed Noll by. That the guy whose teams had terrorized the NFL during the decade of the 1970s no longer could relate to the way the game was played at the professional level, nor to the men who now were playing it.
In Cowher's case, the media didn't really know what to make of the young guy who was born and raised less than 10 miles from Three Rivers Stadium, nor about the team he was taking to the place Glanville had dubbed the "House of Pain." There had been a newspaper strike in Pittsburgh throughout the summer of Cowher's first training camp and preseason, and what little was known about the 1992 Steelers didn't engender much confidence they were going to flip the switch on a previous season where they had started 3-3, then lost 6-of-8 before limping across the finish line at 7-9.
In Tomlin's case, 2022 was expected to be a season of transition for the very simple reason that Ben Roethlisberger had retired, and the team was to be quarterbacked full-time by someone new for the first time since 2004. What figured to be a period of adjustment by the offense was to be balanced by a defense that held the potential to be dominant. Seven sacks and four interceptions in an upset victory in Cincinnati in the opener cost the defense the services of T.J. Watt for a period of at least four weeks, so when the offense seemed to stagnate/regress the defense became somewhat toothless and the losing streak began.
The losses to New England, Cleveland, and the Jets at least were competitive, but then the bottom fell out on Oct. 9 in Buffalo, which was when the vultures came out and began circling what was assumed to be a carcass. It was difficult to refute the contention because to do so would be to deny what the Steelers had been putting on video even as franchise history was screaming for some combination of patience and trust and belief, but after 38-3 all of that felt mostly like wishing on a star.
The Steelers don't always win and they don't always contend for a championship and they don't always qualify for the playoffs, but they also don't fold up their tent in October and finish out by going through the motions. And Steelers coaches don't always make the right decisions and they don't always devise the best plan and they don't always call the right play, but they don't quit on their team or on a season, and they fight like hell to prevent their players from doing that, too.
The "fighting like hell" is what Noll did in September 1989 and what Cowher did in September 1992. It's what Tomlin did on Oct. 16, and as happened for Noll and Cowher, the players responded.
The Steelers walked out of the tunnel at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday to face Tom Brady still uncertain of what to expect from their offense and with a cast on defense that had the same feel as the fourth quarter of a preseason game.
Four of their top five defensive backs were out. Their reigning Defensive Player of the Year was on injured reserve, and it had been announced the day before this game that their rookie No. 3 pick who arrived as a defensive lineman by trade back in April but then displayed the speed, athletic ability, and the knowledge to stand up and play the edge would join him on IR. Their rookie quarterback who had provided a jolt of energy to the team and the town a fortnight before left the game with a concussion and was replaced by the veteran whose play had cost him the starting job the rookie had taken. Even their robotically efficient placekicker had shown human tendencies during the rout in Buffalo when he missed 2-of-3 field goal attempts.
But just when it seemed so certain the Steelers could count on absolutely nothing, they discovered they could count on themselves.
Mitch Trubisky relieved Kenny Pickett and played like a guy deserving of once being the second overall pick of a draft. He was accurate, decisive, and in command. He completed 75 percent for 144 yards, with one touchdown, and a rating of 142.4 while also judiciously using his legs for a couple of critical runs at the two-minute warning to ice the outcome. Maybe it was only for a brief time, but he outplayed Brady in every facet of the position and was integral in the Steelers' victory.
Also integral was Chase Claypool, who played big all afternoon. Four of his seven receptions either converted critical third downs or rang up the scoreboard, and there wasn't a single instance where he wasn't able to do what was necessary to help his team. Cam Heyward was his typical All-Pro contributor, and Larry Ogunjobi played to the level of the big-time free agent acquisition he was billed as being. Devin Bush was solid when he had to be and provided splash in the form of a pass defensed that foiled the tying 2-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter when it was needed.
And maybe you never heard of Josh Jackson or Quincy Wilson or Elijah Riley, or maybe you had forgotten about Arthur Maulet or James Pierre or Tre Norwood, or maybe you had given up on Terrell Edmunds or Robert Spillane, but every one of them – plus a bunch of others – put their hands in the pile and contributed in some way during an afternoon that could one day be viewed as a defining victory.
"Man, it was a great opportunity for a lot of those guys," said Tomlin. "First opportunity in some instances. Redemption in some instances. Guys getting an opportunity to get back in the fold. Guys who hadn't been a part of us like Josh Jackson being one. Just can't say enough about what they were able to do collectively."
In Noll's case, the victory over the Minnesota Vikings that directly followed 92-10 saved a season that ended with a playoff berth and a sweet upset of the Oilers in a Wild Card Round Game but little more. In Cowher's case, the victory in Houston set a tone for his inaugural season that ended in a division title and restored the Steelers to a position in the upper echelon in their conference that lasted through the 1997 season. For his part, Tomlin wasn't about to make any predictions about what 20-18 might mean to this group.
"It just says we got it done today," said Tomlin. "We're not looking to make any more statements than that. We realize that it's more than one day, one good plan, one winning performance as we work back to respectability."
It was one step. But as Noll knew and Cowher learned, every journey must begin with a first step. It feels like Tomlin and the 2022 Steelers took their first step on Sunday against Tom Brady's Buccaneers.