Forum Spin Doctor
PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers may have played a worse game under coach Bill Cowher, may have been more overmatched at the line of scrimmage, may have given their quarterback less protection, may have mounted less offense.
Just don't ask them to name specifics, not after a 27-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday not only ended any faint hope they had of repeating their Super Bowl championship but exposed the very reasons why they won't.
"This was maybe our worst game - ever," wide receiver Hines Ward said.
These Steelers have never begun to play the way they did in winning their final eight games and the NFL championship last season. Even if they do play well in their final five all-but-meaningless games - and there is nothing about a team with a 4-7 record to suggest it will - it is much too late to save this season.
Repeat as Super Bowl champions? This team never gave itself a chance.
Maybe it was all the bad karma following Ben Roethlisberger's helmet-less and seemingly unnecessary motorcycle crash injuries in June. Or maybe it was the questions raised and the confusion caused by coach Bill Cowher's refusal to clarify his status past this season.
Or maybe, as running back Willie Parker presciently suggested a few weeks back, maybe this team simply wasn't as hungry to win as last year's team was.
Whatever the reasons, the Steelers will have plenty of time to assess how much could go so wrong so quickly only 10 months after this almost identical cast did almost everything right.
"We didn't show up," Ward said of the Steelers' worst shutout loss under Cowher since a 27-0 defeat to the Rams in 1993. "We fell behind and guys had their heads down. That's very uncharacteristic for us. When we fell behind, we started pressing and we couldn't get anything going."
It kind of describes their season, too.
Even a five-game winning streak to end the season would get them only to 9-7, a record that probably wouldn't be good enough to make the playoffs.
Now they're playing for next season, for draft position, to figure out what their biggest trouble areas are, and how to address them. Maybe they're also playing for their coach to decide if this was his final season with them.
"These next five games should mean a lot to the guys on this team," Ward said. "We're going to find out who will be here next year. We will find out who will keep practicing hard and keep working hard. We have to keep working and keep fighting."
The only immediate goal is to avoid the embarrassment of going from a Super Bowl champion one season to last in its division the next. The Steelers lead the Cleveland Browns (3-8) by one game for that distinction in the AFC North.
The Steelers must win three of five, a pace they haven't kept yet, merely to finish 7-9 and avoid matching their worst record under Cowher, the 6-10 marks of 2003 and 1999.
There were negatives aplenty in the Ravens loss, one that ranks with a 37-7 defeat to Dallas in the 1997 opener as the worst of the Cowher era. The difference is that 1997 team came back to reach the AFC championship game and fell four points short of making the Super Bowl.
Their 21 rushing yards were their fewest since 1982, and their nine sacks allowed matched the most they've permitted since the NFL officially recognized that statistic, also in 1982. They had three more turnovers, increasing their league-worst total to 30. For comparison's sake, that's 21 more than San Diego's league-low 9.
For the rest of the season, many Steelers may be playing merely to assure themselves a spot on the team in 2007.
"You are not going to get any quit out of any of us," Roethlisberger said. "Every single player is going to give it their all every time we step on the field."
Of course, if that had happened until now, they might not be in the mess they're in now.
"We're going to find out a lot about the character of this team," Ward said.