Tim Benz: For Steelers, the 'standard' is now ... pretty standard TIM BENZ | Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023 6:16 a.m. AP Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin walks the sideline Dec. 4 during the game against the Falcons in Atlanta. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a 9-8 team in a league that wants everybody to be 9-8. There are 32 teams in the NFL, and 16 of them finished with win totals between seven and nine games. There are 16 teams in the American Football Conference. The Steelers finished eighth, one spot out of the playoffs. In terms of draft order, of the 31 first-round picks based on overall standing (the Miami Dolphins pick is forfeited), the Steelers will select 17th. By all definitions, the Steelers are average. “Average” means unspectacular. Nothing extraordinary. Not special. The Pittsburgh Steelers are no longer special. In case you’ve been asleep for five or six years, that’s been the case for a while now. The Steelers’ average win total over the past five seasons is 9.4. They haven’t yielded a playoff victory in the last six years, a record-long drought in the post-Immaculate Reception era. In fact, in 10 of the past 12 seasons, the Steelers have failed to win a playoff game. For perspective, the Steelers are now 12 full years removed from their last Super Bowl appearance. The rudderless amount of time between Super Bowl XIV and Chuck Noll’s final season was also 12 years. Early in his tenure, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin coined the phrase, “The standard is the standard,” to describe the definition of success for the franchise — a credo alluding to the team’s rich history of six Super Bowl Championships and 36 playoff victories. Now, it appears the Steelers standard is just … standard. It’s a middle-of-the-road, basic, cookie-cutter franchise. It has been for quite a few years. The team’s history is rich, flush with a championship legacy and chock full of Hall of Fame luminaries. But the recent iteration of this organization has been merely OK. Strangely, though, the recently concluded 9-8 campaign of 2022 forged by Tomlin and his players has been deemed a “wild” success by many fans, media and Steelers bloggers. Especially since the team rallied from a 2-6 start to close by winning seven of nine after the bye week. Not to mention, by finishing above .500, Tomlin managed to extend the franchise’s streak of non-losing seasons to 19 — the last 16 of which have come under his guidance. It “doesn’t matter” that the team got knocked out of the playoffs? Really? Why were all those teams trying so hard to get in then? I can’t think of a concept that would offend Tomlin more. If they did qualify because the Jets managed to beat the Dolphins on Sunday, should they have just declined the berth? Are the NFL playoffs a mid-tier college bowl game now? I suppose the Steelers now have a participation trophy to go along with their six Lombardi trophies. To me, that much praise for a 9-8 non-playoff season is an insulting pat on the head for a team that has such allegedly high “standards.” I mean, the Steelers are drafting between the Washington Commanders (16th, 8-8-1) and Detroit Lions (18th, 9-8) this year. Is that the kind of company the Steelers should be keeping? Let alone celebrating? To a degree, in the vacuum of what 2022 was all about, I appreciate what the team did. It’s noteworthy to finish above .500 with two new quarterbacks, a first-time general manager, a different defensive coordinator and new starting players at wide receiver, guard, center, defensive line, cornerback and inside linebacker. Had such a season occurred at a different point in this extensive streak without a losing year — one that was at least closer to another season that had a little bit of playoff success — maybe I’d be more embracing of it. But it didn’t. So I’m not. All this season did was extend a swath of time without a playoff victory the likes of which we haven’t seen in Pittsburgh since the Immaculate Reception. Only 10 franchises have a playoff-win drought longer than Pittsburgh’s. They are the likes of Denver, Carolina, Arizona, the New York teams, Washington, Chicago, Vegas, Miami and Detroit. Not exactly the NFL’s elite. You might say that makes this fan base greedy. I say it makes it special. Or at least it used to be. Now we seem plenty happy with being invited to the dance, but not actually allowed on the floor. “There are changes and complexities to the evaluation process every year,” Tomlin said of trying to get better in 2023. “There’s big-time urgency every year. This is a ‘now’ business. There are changes every year, players, coaches, etc. Nothing stays the same. Even those that remain, their roles change. They evolve. People ascend, people descend. It’s always different.” Yet the Steelers’ results have largely been the same since the kickoff of their loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in their first game of the 2017 postseason. They are good enough to be relevant at the end of the regular season. Not good enough to be relevant once the playoffs start. “My agenda is getting in the single-elimination tournament and pursuing the confetti game and winning it. That agenda will never change,” Tomlin said of the Super Bowl. “Talking about accolades and trivial things and streaks and things of that nature, if it’s not useful to me in terms of assessing our next battles, then I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it or focusing on it.” Neither should Steelers fans. In the absence of the occasional playoff win, “non-losing-season” streaks are being offered up as collateral. The Steelers track record of consistency is impressive. But to constantly laud this non-losing streak as if it’s the ultimate arbiter of success is counter to everything Tomlin claims to stand for. Note, at no point in this post was there ever a call for Tomlin’s job, a smear of his name by calling him a poor coach or an attempt to discredit his resume by assessing he “only won with Bill Cowher’s players” or that “he was just lucky to have inherited Ben Roethlisberger.” I didn’t write those things because I don’t believe them. I do, however, believe that the ongoing absence of the Steelers’ postseason success is a bigger deal than its current streak of moderately above-average play. The longer we applaud that mediocrity, the more “standard” it’ll become.