The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t won a game in more than two weeks, and have plunged through the standings like a boulder that forgot to strap on its parachute.
The Steelers are coming off their best Sunday in a long time, mostly because the NFL was merciful enough to give them an open date.
And video of the Pirates’ most recent run of extended success should be available for public consumption in the near future. As soon as technicians complete the process of colorizing the film.
If these are not the worst of times for fans of this city’s professional sports teams, they will do until something even more dismal comes along.
Which won’t be easy.
OK, so the region has gotten numb to the Pirates’ incessant struggles — they’ve had four 100-loss seasons in this century — but this whole futility thing is fairly new to Penguins and Steelers partisans.
It’s been well-documented that the Penguins have qualified for the playoffs for 16 consecutive seasons, and that the Steelers never have had a losing record since Mike Tomlin was named coach.
The Steelers’ prospects for breaking even in 2022 — something for which they’ve had to settle only three times since Tomlin took the job in 2007 — aren’t particularly promising, given that they’ve lost six of their first eight games.
And while the Pittsburgh Penguins still have time to escape the tar pit of despair in which they’ve spent the past few weeks, they shouldn’t be scouting prospective playoff opponents just yet. Not until they figure out how to win a game or two, anyway.
It’s hard to say whether fans who focus on pro teams based in other cities have paid much attention to the struggles of the ones here, but if they have, their knee-jerk reaction probably isn’t to sympathize.
Do you think that someone who follows, say, the Detroit Lions feels badly that the Steelers haven’t won a championship since 2009, and presumably will sit out the NFL playoffs this winter?
That an individual devoted to the Buffalo Sabres is distraught at the thought of the Penguins struggling to qualify for the playoffs?
Or that someone who lives and dies with the Houston Astros … OK, bad example.
Regardless, if all of this losing is hard for Steelers and Penguins partisans to process, well, that’s completely understandable.
Six Super Bowls and five Stanley Cups will do that to you. Fans of the Steelers and Penguins don’t necessarily see winning records for their team as a birthright, but it’s not surprising if they’ve come to view them as something of a given as their respective seasons approach.
It wasn’t always that way, of course.
While the Pirates had some spectacular highs — like their World Series victories in 1960, 1971 and 1979 — and some lows along the way, which is fairly typical of many teams, fans of a certain vintage might recall that the Steelers didn’t win anything during their first four decades.
Nothing. Except maybe a little grudging respect for the physicality that always seemed to be part of the franchise’s DNA.
The Pittsburgh Penguins? For most of their first 20 years, they were almost an afterthought for much of the sporting public here. And the fever dream of their most passionate followers involved qualifying for the playoffs and maybe — gasp — actually winning a round.
If anyone mentioned a “Stanley Cup” in those days, they likely were referring to a piece of protective gear worn by Stan Gilbertson.
Those trying times for both teams largely have been forgotten. Maybe because many of the fans who lived through them no longer are around. Or perhaps the intense psychotherapy they inspired paid off, after all.
While multiple factors have contributed to the issues the Steelers and Penguins are dealing with, it’s worth remembering that success in pro sports — at least the ones in which the leagues have a salary cap — is designed to be cyclical. The worst teams are supposed to get the best draft choices and, in turn, better players, so they can become competitive.
Overcoming the intent of that setup is about as easy as defying gravity, but the Penguins and Steelers have done it for a lot of years. Lucky breaks have something to do it with — the Penguins ended up with Sidney Crosby because they won a lottery, and Ben Roethlisberger was drafted after 10 other players had been claimed — but good management and quality coaching have played a major role, too.
The Penguins, for all of their miserable luck through the early years of the franchise — for a long time, their most glorious moments came in defeat — have been breathtakingly fortunate.
They’ve had four once-in-a-lifetime talents — Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Evgeni Malkin and Crosby — on the payroll since the mid-1980s. That’s Powerball-winning caliber luck, and a good reason why so many hockey fans here have become spoiled.
Crosby and Malkin are still playing, and perhaps they’ll lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to greatness again. And maybe the Steelers’ transition from the squad built around Roethlisberger for so many years will be quick and relatively painless.
But for now, fans of both teams are finding out what it’s like to back a club that’s struggling. Which is something about which so many people, in so many other places, know all too much.