Joe Starkey: Steelers open camp as one of NFL's biggest mysteries

Joe Starkey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH — It might be helpful, before we dive into a new season, to remember just how horrifically the last one ended.

You already know the Steelers gave up 48 points to the Cleveland Browns. That's not news. But honoring the true nature of the defeat — maybe the most embarrassing defeat in the Steelers' 88-year history — seems like the right thing to do as training camp opens Thursday at Heinz Field.

It could be cathartic. It definitely prompted major change in an organization sometimes too set in its ways, although it also prompted an unusually lengthy contract extension for the head coach.

The Browns didn't have a head coach that night, remember? Kevin Stefanski was in COVID protocol. His team practiced once all week on account of virus issues. It had barely beaten the Steelers' JV squad a week earlier. Quarterback Baker Mayfield literally introduced himself to a new lineman ("a guy named Blake") in the huddle.

The Steelers proceeded to play like the Buffalo Bills in a Super Bowl. Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball to Station Square on the first play. Roethlisberger kept throwing to men in brown helmets. The defense wilted, like always in playoff games of late (not that there have been many).

No team in modern times had fallen behind 28-0 in the first quarter of a playoff game until those Steelers. The Browns — THE BROWNS — wound up celebrating on Pittsburgh turf, having secured their first playoff road win since 1969. Soon their fans were wearing "The Browns is the Browns" T-shirts, mocking JuJu Smith-Schuster's game-week slight.


The whole thing was a bloody nightmare. An 11-0 start became a 1-5 finish, completing the Steelers' third straight late-season collapse under Tomlin, who was lavished with a three-year extension in April.

"We were a group," Tomlin said, "that died on the vine."

Tomlin's extension, combined with a less-than-enthusiastic decision to retain the 39-year-old Roethlisberger, had people thinking the Steelers were in steep denial and an even steeper free fall.

And you know what? Those people might be right. This could be the year the Steelers crumble.


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