There are four or five teams whom fans can claim as NFL monoliths, as yearly playoff contenders.
But with all due respect to the old and new guards, there are two teams with biblical fan bases, whose colors, logos and legacies are immutable.
Those two teams played each other yesterday. Just as they have in three Super Bowls. And just like those three jousts for the Lombardi Trophy, an epic football game spilled into Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field yesterday.
The Dallas Cowboys (8-1) entered the game with a better record than that of the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-5). But the Steelers were a slight favorite because of pedigree, reputation and talent (on offense, anyway).
And the Cowboys proved, again, that they are not a joke, fluke or figment of their fans’ imagination.
Time to tip the reporter’s hat of and just say it. This one hurt.
Not just because we — yes, I still speak in the collective — had the lead several times, including a narrow margin with 30 seconds left. But also because of how the Steelers lost. A terrible defensive scheme, with players routinely out of place. Awful tackling. Lack of discipline. A face mask penalty in the final 30 seconds.
And, frankly it speaks to coaching. You won’t find a bigger Mike Tomlin apologist than yours truly. But he was hired not only as a young, bright coach who could continue the team ethos of picking and sticking with a a head coach for decades, but also as a fine defensive mind who knelt at the altar of Tony Dungy, another former Steeler who once bled black & gold.
I’m not sure how much juice Tomlin has on draft day, but the Steelers have made some odd decisions on college talent. In the first round of the 2014 draft, they plucked LB Ryan Shazier. Two picks later, the hated Baltimore Ravens took C.J. Mosley. But you can forgive the front office for missing on Mosley. How could you find film on someone who played for such an obscure college (Alabama), under an obscure head coach (Nick Saban).
Take Dallas’ final play from scrimmage. Ezekiel Elliot moonwalked into the end zone with nary a tackler in sight. Elliot would have scored if it were flag football or even two-hand touch.
He scored on another long run with little resistance, along with an 83-yard screen pass where tacklers were equally allergic to contact. It was the longest TD reception by a Cowboys running back since 1986, when Herschel Walker scampered for 84 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Elliot entered the game as runaway rookie of the year, and left Heinz Field as an MVP favorite. Sure, Elliot is a fine talent who deserves the back page and the bold ink. But he’s not 209 yards and three touchdowns good, on the road, no less.
When your quarterback — that would be Ben Roethlisberger — completes 37 of 46 passes for 408 yards and three touchdowns, you should reasonably expect to win. The prevailing logic entering 2016 was that if Pittsburgh’s wildly talented triumvirate — Big Ben, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell — were healthy, the Steelers would play football in January, if not February.
But after a 4-1 start, the Steelers are unraveling, spiraling down the drain of mediocrity. Big Ben is calling out coaches, and the defense may as well be taught by Mike D’Antoni. Or Don Coryell. Or Chip Kelly.
Not to dismiss or detract from the Cowboys’ performance. They won the game as much as the Steelers lost it. Heinz Field is not an easy place to play, and the Cowboys were indeed underdogs.
Indeed, if anyone told you, after Tony Romo was injured, that the Steelers and Cowboys would be 8-1 and 4-5, the entire football cognoscenti would have assumed the Steelers were the former.
And no matter how you feel about the Cowboys, or their dubious moniker as America’s Team, it’s good for NFL business when they are this good. It stinks when the Steelers are this bad.
And we know the Steelers are not only a model, monolithic NFL franchise, they are historically consistent, with a granite totem pole that has changed three times since 1969. I’ve known three head coaches — Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Tomlin.
Tomlin seemed cut from that old-world cloth, a football boss who embraced the NFL virtues of violence, took no guff from his players and wholly understood the Steelers’ glittering history. “The Standard is the Standard” is Tomlin’s corporate coda.
But while the team’s poor play speaks to talent evaluation and development, it also speaks to coaching. If Tomlin wants to add more hardware to that bulging trophy case, he needs to spend less time obsessing over two-point conversions and tackle the fundamental problem of tackling.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.