As Steelers Nation affixes the storm windows and latches the shutters on a season of such promise gone awry, the closure of the decade eerily mirrors the opening:
* In 2000, the Steelers, finishing with 9 wins, 7 losses, had a pair of 3-game losing streaks bookending a 5-game win streak.
* In 2000, the Steelers sacrificed fourth-quarter leads in four of their seven losses:
-- They took a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter of the season's second game at Cleveland. The Browns drove 87 yards in 11 plays for the tying field goal, following that up with an 8-play, 95-yard drive for the winning kick. The clock ran out, erroneously, on the Steelers when Kent Graham was sacked after the Steelers drove to the Browns 6-yard line.
-- The following week, the Steelers had taken a 23-20 lead at Three Rivers when the Titans took possession at their own 37 with 3:14 remaining. Neil O'Donnell, subbing for Steve McNair, was injured on the final Titans possession. Enter McNair, who threw the winning touchdown pass with 1:25 remaining. A 50-yard field goal attempt to tie by Kris Brown was short.
-- Seeking to extend their winning streak to six games, the Steelers scored with 4:22 remaining to take a 7-6 lead in Tennessee. On their way to driving 62 yards for the winning field goal, the Titans converted a 4th-and-8 pass to Derrick Mason, who drew single coverage on the play despite being the only receiver on the field at the time to have ever caught on an NFL pass.
-- The following week, against the Eagles at Three Rivers, the Steelers extended their lead to 10 points with 3:42 remaining and the Eagles having spent all of their timeouts. A quick touchdown drive led by rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb, followed by an illegal onside kick recovery allowed the Eagles to tie. The Eagles won the overtime coin flip, and soon thereafter, the game.
* In 2000, the Steelers finished with a flurry, winning four of their last five games, but needed help to qualify for the tournament. Their playoff aspirations expired on Christmas Eve in yet another sham in Indianapolis when the Vikings, locked into their playoff position, placed Bubby Brister under center, allowing the Colts an unencumbered ride into the playoffs.
Fast forward to the here and now. In this week's season finale in Miami, the Steelers series of fourth-quarter abominations very nearly reached new heights. Whereas it was journeyman Bruce Gradkowski engineering three fourth-quarter touchdown passes in the Raiders Debacle, this time it was the Dolphins No. 3 quarterback (No. 4 if you count previously injured Chad Pennington), Tyler Thigpen, who was about to do in the Steelers. After tossing a pair of touchdown passes to reduce the Steelers' 17-point fourth-quarter margin to a scant three points, he was poised to take the lead when set up at the Steelers 13-yard line, thanks to a Steelers turnover. This time though, the Steelers stepped up, with Ryan Clark making an interception on his own two-yard line, in contrast to the Joe Burnett drop vs. Oakland. The offense then marched methodically down the field, largely on the legs of Willie Parker, perhaps making his final appearance in a Steelers uniform, exhausting all but 40 seconds of the clock to preserve the victory.
In some order of severity, and with some overlap, a Requiem for the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers:
* In three consecutive games (Kansas City, Baltimore, Oakland), the Steelers took the lead mid to late fourth quarter, and backed their opponent up to its 10-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. In all three games, the opponent then drove for the tying or winning score.
* In the home-and-home matchups versus the AFC North Champion Cincinnati Bengals, each team had four possessions in the fourth quarter. The Bengals leveraged their four chances into two touchdowns and a pair of field goals. The Steelers, conversely, managed one cumulative first down.
* In four of the losses (Chicago, both Cincinnati games, Oakland) and two of the wins (Green Bay, Miami), the Steelers' defense took the field 14 times in the fourth quarter and allowed 14 scores (eleven touchdowns and three field goals). This dubious streak was not broken until the Dolphins' third possession of yesterday's fourth quarter, when their bid to score a third fourth-quarter touchdown was finally thwarted.
* Troy Polamalu; the defense simply is not the same without him, and they were without him for the better part of 12 games.
* Ill-timed interceptions and sacks plagued the Steelers.
-- Red zone picks against Kansas City and Oakland while vying to extend their lead to two scores.
-- Pick for six at Paul Brown Stadium
-- Dennis Dixon's overtime interception in Baltimore
-- Sacks on the potential game-winning drive vs. Chicago, and while trying to exhaust the clock in Cincinnati
* In eight consecutive games, three of them losses, the Steelers' allowed a touchdown via a return, four of those eight touchdowns via kickoff return.
* Jeff Reed's two lone misses inside of 50 yards this year were in the fourth quarter in Chicago, the first of which would have extended the Steelers' lead to 10 points, the second of which would have put the Steelers ahead in the game's final minutes.
* The now infamous Joe Burnett drop. If No. 27 catches the softie interception, the Steelers are preparing for a playoff game this week.
* James Farrior in fourth-down coverage. Had he succeeded in covering Brian Leonard in Cincinnati and Ray Rice in Baltimore, both would have been Steeler victories. (He did succeed the second time against Baltimore as his coverage helped LaMarr Woodley sack Joe Flacco.)
* Less quantifiable, the Ben Roethlisberger Concussion Controversy likely cost the Steelers the Kansas City game, very well cost them the first Baltimore game, and may have adversely affected their play versus Oakland and Cleveland.
NOTE: Pittsburgh's No. 1 Scapegoat, Bruce Arians, isn't on this list.
This writer's lone recommendation going forward is that the Steelers keep those players most vital to their Steelers' success, those who will be most difficult to replace. That would be Casey Hampton, Jeff Reed and Willie Colon.
* The play of the nose tackle in the Steelers' 3-4 defense is integral to its success, to keeping the linebackers clean. Hampton is still among the best in the business in that regard, especially when his ire is drawn.
* Jeff Reed, in spite of his pronounced capacity for boorishness, is a money kicker, particularly at Heinz Field. That's no small feat. He's basically had one bad day in eight years.
* Colon may not be an all-star, but the last thing this offensive line needs is more upheaval in spots that are well enough managed currently. All this said, the contract demands of both Hampton and Reed will likely exceed the Steelers' willingness to pay.
Finally, I'm not buying the belief that this team quit during its November/December losing streak, or that they thought merely making an appearance would yield September victories. While I remain a believer in Mike Tomlin, his exceedingly well-developed silver tongue is both a blessing and a curse. It casts him as an effective leader when his team is winning ("grounded, selfless, humble," "it's not what you're capable of; it's what your willing to do"), but portrays him as full of baloney when they're not ("unleash hell"). Some of his in-game decisions are still suspect, and the buck really does stop with the coach, not the respective coordinators. I wish I believed that a change of offensive coordinators would vastly improve the Steelers as a football team. I'm not yet ready to make that pronouncement.
For more by Dave Villiotti, check out We're From the Town with the Great Football Team: A Pittsburgh Steelers Manifestoas well as We Cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers: The ‘70s, available at both www.amazon.com and www.lulu.com