PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered a historic loss on Sunday, with their 35-point drubbing at the hands of the Buffalo Bills serving as their worst defeat under head coach Mike Tomlin, and the worst in franchise history since 1989.
That 1989 team infamously started the season with a 51-0 loss to the Cleveland Browns, and followed it up with a not-that-much better 41-10 defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Somehow, those Steelers steered their way out of the skid. The team scratched out a win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3, and despite a 4-6 start to the season, rallied to win five of their last six games, earning an AFC Wild Card playoff spot.
The Steelers beat the Houston Oilers on a Gary Anderson field goal in overtime to advance in the playoffs and nearly upset the Denver Broncos in the second round. The younger players on that Steelers team went on to form the nucleus of the squad that won five AFC Central titles in six years under Bill Cowher and reached Super Bowl XXX. For players like Dermontti Dawson, John Jackson, Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd and Rod Woodson, the 1989 Steelers were their first taste of success at the NFL level, and it came on the heels of the incredible adversity of the start of the season.
There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the 1989 and 2022 Steelers that go far beyond their historic early season defeats. In 1989, Chuck Noll was more than a decade removed from his last Super Bowl win, but was still one of the most respected and feared coaches in the National Football League. The players that had led the team to its past Super Bowl glory were finally gone, with the final holdout, center Mike Webster, departing the year before. You can insert Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger into those sentences to neatly transition to 2022.
So how did the Steelers recover from their catastrophic start to the 1989 season, and how do those lessons apply to 2022? I reached out to current Steelers radio color analyst Craig Wolfley, who played on the offensive line for the Steelers from 1980-89.
For Wolfley, the key is to start with a big helping of humble pie. Every NFL player is really, really good at what they do. But sometimes, a big heaping dose of being reminded that someone else is better can be good for a team as a collective.
“Well, anytime you play in a game where the game gets totally out of hand within the first couple of minutes, then you have to suffer for the next 58 minutes or so of playing time, it’s a humbling experience,” Wolfley said.
“You remember that feeling and you keep reminding yourself that you never want to experience that, ever, ever again,” the late Tunch Ilkin said to NFL Films back in 1989.
Wolfley said the hardest part about coming back from those losses was holding onto the belief that the team was good enough to do it. Even back in the 1980s, the team could hear the media noise and talk show callers that the team didn’t have it, and there was speculation that the game had passed by Noll.
“You might have heard this story about the pool illustration that Chuck used,” Wolfley said. “One of the things he believed in sincerely was that you can pollute your brain with listening to the noise. …
“He started describing a pool. He started saying you’ve got to have so much hydrochloric acid, and this and if you have too much of that, and as he’s talking about all of this, he could be very professorial. And he looks around and he sees he’s losing guys, this is all going over their heads. He finally got frustrated and said, ‘What I’m saying is, don’t let anybody pee in your pool.’”
What Noll was trying to instill in the players was his belief that he had put together a locker room and a coaching staff and an organization that was good enough to win, and that the only change that was going to come was going to be from within.
When Tomlin talked this week about being resistant to making change for change’s sake, that’s exactly what he was talking about. Noll’s Steelers did make some changes. Rookie Tim Worley, who fumbled three times in that Cleveland debacle, was minimized in favor of Merril Hoge at running back. Tomlin has already made some, going to rookie Kenny Pickett ahead of the Buffalo game.
But the overall messaging from the head coach was the same, that help is not coming from the outside.
“There’s nobody coming in from the east to save you guys,” Wolfley recalled Noll saying. “All the answers to all the questions you got are in the locker room. … He was putting the onus on the players.”
That locker room had some vets like Wolfley, but it was really that young nucleus that became the core of the early 1990s Steelers that needed to be the ones to lift the team to success.
“The younger guys started to catch up and understand what was necessary to be a winner in this league,” Wolfley said. “There’s always that group of young guys that comes in and it was something that they needed to understand: how to practice, how practice was conducted, and quit moaning because it’s three padded days a week — those days it was on artificial turf — and you move forward. They were the nucleus of what transpired in the future.”
Whether the Steelers can repeat the success the 1989 team in rebounding from historic defeat remains to be seen, but these Steelers do have two similar advantages. The AFC Central was weak in 1989, with 9-6-1 Cleveland taking home the division crown and the Steelers and Oilers making the wild card at 9-7. There was not a great team in the six divisional games on Pittsburgh’s schedule.
The Steelers also had a front-loaded schedule in 1989 that lessened greatly in the season’s waning weeks. After losing to Houston in what seemed to be a season-killer at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 3, Pittsburgh finished the year with the New York Jets (finished 4-12), New England Patriots (5-11) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11).
The Steelers are currently in the toughest stretch of their schedule, but the AFC North appears up in the air with the Baltimore Ravens in first place at 3-2 and the only team above .500. The Steelers also have plenty of winnable games down the stretch. After the team’s bye in Week 9, the two games against the Ravens are the only two on Pittsburgh’s schedule against teams that currently have winning records.
Although maybe this look into the past is a fool’s errand, after all. Tomlin talked this week about having a bigger windshield than a rear-view mirror, echoing Noll’s words from 1989:
“You can’t do anything about history, that’s done. Whether it’s good or it’s bad, it’s over with. What’s happened in the past doesn’t do anything for you. What’s now and what’s coming up is where the focus has to be.”