For such a small city, Pittsburgh has had an enormous imprint on the sporting world over the past three decades with eight world titles since 1974. Of course, being born in 1975, I really was only a part of three of those titles. I've mainly been on the low side of the ledger.
Because Pittsburgh doesn't have the literary heritage of Boston (except for you, Michael Chabon!), our crushing losses haven't been memorialized over and over again in books, novellas, extended newspaper columns, TV appearances, Steven King's summer pulp reading and movies. And also because, unlike Boston, we realize that nobody else cares about our losses.
If in ten years, we're looking back and wondering why the Penguins haven't been to the Cup finals since '07-'08, then losing to Detroit will make the list. To make this list, it's not just the loss, but the circumstances. The position the team was in at that moment in history. What the loss ended up meaning as the future revealed itself. The '07-'08 Penguins don't qualify and hopefully they never will. But for now, here are the worst losses of my Pittsburgh sports fandom:
Super Bowl XXX - 1996
The 1994 season ended with a ridiculous loss to the Chargers, which we'll be hearing more about later. The 1995 season started with a loss to the Lions in which Barry Sanders faked Rod Woodson so hard that Rod blew out his knee. But they still ended up winning the divison, then crushed the Bills in their first playoff game. At the same time, the Colts were upsetting the Chiefs in Arrowhead to set up the second straight AFC Championship Game in Three Rivers Stadium.
If you ever see it on NFL Network, allow me to suggest watching the highlights from the Steelers' win over the Colts. I did so earlier this year and apparently I had blocked out my memory the Steelers trailing late and converting a 4th and 12. And also Willie Williams making what was literally a shoestring tackle on a 3rd down that prevented Lamont Warren from running for a 116-yard gain. The left side was that open.
In 1995, the Dallas Cowboys were considered to be a little better than the Indianapolis Colts, so Steeler fans spent the next two weeks hearing about how our team was going to get killed in the Super Bowl. Which was odd, because we had the best offense in the NFL that season. Neil O'Donnell played the five-wideout system to perfection and we were basically unstoppable. And even with Woodson out, it may have been our best defense of the decade. Hey, whatever happened to Ray Seals, anyway?
So of course Dallas scores twice while we go 3-and-out and it's 10-0 before most people are even pleasantly buzzed. Going in to halftime down 13-7 practically felt like a lead after that start. It began to feel like we could actually play with Dallas. And then the third quarter featured O'Donnell's first interception. The receiver read in and O'Donnell read out and Larry Brown took the ball that hit him in the gut and ran it back inside our 20. It was 20-7.
And then...Cowher called for the gutsiest onsides kick in human history. Bam Morris flat out ran over somebody at the goal line and suddenly it was 20-17. Levon Kirkland leaped over the line on the next possession, sacked Aikman and forced a punt and oh my god, we were going to score on the next drive and take the lead in the Super Bowl.
We were supposed to get blown out, we were getting blown out, we came back and the #1 offense in the league was firing on all cylinders. This thing was going to happen. And then the receiver again read in and O'Donnell again read out and Larry Brown ran his second interception even farther back. The practice on the first one must've helped. Game over. 27-17.
That offseason, the Jets offered O'Donnell the then ridiculous amount of 5 years/$25 million and Steeler fans were happy. With O'Donnell out of town, the temptation for murder would be lessened. I, however, didn't blame O'Donnell. I blamed our preposterous Ron Erhardt offense that relied on quick reads by both the receiver and quarterback, rather than solid routes. In a 5-receiver set, with three possible routes per man, the quarterback had 15 possible places to throw the ball. And O'Donnell actually managed to run that offense flawlessly for two seasons. After Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh couldn't find a decent quarterback until O'Donnell. And he was followed up by Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham, Jim Miller, your uncle Rick, a comeback attempt by Terry Hanratty, a 6-year contract offer to Mark Malone that was turned down and Tommy Maddox. If Ben Roethlisberger didn't fall into our laps a few years back, who knows where we'd be right now. If we kept O'Donnell, with us winning the division again in 1996 and 1997, maybe things are different.
Instead, a Super Bowl was ripped out of our hands and the next ten years were filled with either regular season struggles or more playoff heartbreak. All from one pass. One missed read. And if that's not enough for you, this game gave Dallas five Super Bowl wins, one more than Pittsburgh. For the time being.
AFC Championship Game - 1994
Which is the more resounding image from this game? A linebacker diving over Barry Foster to swat away O'Donnell's final pass, or Alfred Pupunu scoring a late TD and pretending the ball was a coconut, ripping it open to drink the juice inside? Ugh. Alfred Pupunu's career going nowhere was about the only satisfaction Steeler fans can take away from this debacle.
Bill Cowher came to town in 1992 and immediately took the Steelers to the playoffs for six straight years. The 1993 season ended with a tough loss to Joe Montana and the Chiefs in Kansas City, but everything came together in 1994. Barry Foster was running wild and the defense was incredible with Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd combining for 24 sacks. Chad Brown was coming on, Carnell Lake and Darren Perry anchored the back line. This season was really the start of the Steelers becoming a dominant force in the league under Cowher.
I still distinctly remember a Monday night win over the Bills that symbolized the end of Buffalo's run through the AFC. This was our conference now. I'll never forget Don Beebe going for a catch along the sidelines thirty yards downfield and being absolutely destroyed by somebody. Darren Perry, I think. He ran through Beebe like he was a pylon.
After we beat Cleveland for the third time that season to open the playoffs, the Chargers were basically going to be a warm up for Super Bowl XXIX. The Steeler defense against the 49er offense was going to be a sight to behold. So why not record a Super Bowl rap song the week before the AFC Championship? That way, the disc can go to market that Monday morning! Great!
You can look this up if you don't believe me, but the Chargers actually beat Pittsburgh. Then they got crushed by San Francisco in the Super Bowl even though they had Stan Humphries. To this day, a good Steeler fan will tell you our defense could've stopped Steve Young and Jerry Rice in the Super Bowl. Or at least held them to less than 49 points.
Losing in the AFC Championship Game at home. Good thing we'd never have to live through that again.
Wales Conference Finals - 1996
The was the first really devastating Penguins moment for me. "But what about 1993?!?! David Volek!" you scream. "We'll get to that," I calmly reply. Go write your own post if you don't like it. The Islanders in 1993 was a body blow and it's definitely on this list, but the Penguins were also coming off of back-to-back Cup wins, so the reaction was a little more placid.
But by 1995-1996, we had been reminded that the Penguins did not actually have a standing reservation for the Cup finals and could not actually be expected to win year after year after year. A long playoff run was properly appreciated again, and when the highest-scoring team of the 1990s rolled through Washington and the New York Rangers, the upstart Panthers, the #4 seed, seemed like the '95 Colts. A lesser team that would be a mere pebble in the road to the finals. Instead, they were more like the '94 Chargers. A lightning bolt that came out of nowhere and knocked our jet from the sky. God, it just all comes full circle, doesn't it?
In the regular season, the Penguins had 102 points, one short of Philadelphia for the conference title. It was one of those weird seasons where we were actually in the Northeast division, away from all of our typical Eastern seaboard rivals. Lemieux notched 161 points, with six hat tricks and two Lemieux hat tricks (4 goals). He even had five in a game against the Blues. Jerry Jags (boo!) had 149 points, Ron Francis had 119 and Petr Nedved had 99. Hell, Tommy Sandstrom had 70 points in 58 games. Only Joe Sakic's 120 points kept the Penguins from having the three highest scoring players in the league. Three!
So we beat Washington in the first round. Whatever. We always beat Washington in the playoffs. Although Nedved's backhander in the fourth overtime was a nice flourish. (Side note: Thanks to the Pens, I've seen a 3 0T, 4 OT and 5 OT game. Back to regular programming.) Then we beat the Rangers without much fuss and started wondering if Detroit or Colorado would be a tougher matchup in the finals.
And so Florida opened up the series by beating us 5-1 on our ice. And then 5-2 in Game 3, which was our first introduction to the rats. The fucking rats. You know...the octopus is bad enough. Like everything else in this day and age that used to be a quaint tradition, it's been overblown and overhyped to the point where it's become a complete sideshow. But at least Detroit has been doing it forever. The expansion Panthers had no tradition. They barely had a reason to exist. But hockey fever was sweeping Miami and they needed a tradition in a hurry. Hey, what if you stole Detroit's? That would be good! Except...no octopus. Yellowtail? Stone crabs? Oh, Scott Mellanby allegedly killed a rat in the dressing room! How about a rat! So here come the rats. The fucking rats.
The Pens finally righted themselves, won Game 5 3-0 and took a 3-2 lead in the series. We were scared, but we were back in charge and we were thinking about Colorado since they were also up 3-2. And in Game 6 in Miami...we got more of the rats. The fucking rats. I will never, ever forget Florida scoring a late goal - wasn't it from Mellanby even? - and Barrasso ducking back into his own cage to protect himself from the rats. The fucking rats. They absolutely covered the ice. It was at least a 15-minute delay to clear the ice. New fans with limited hockey knowledge, supporting a out of nowhere fluke team, were ruining our experience.
And then we lost Game 7 3-1 on our own ice. I have no idea how. I don't remember anything from this series except Barrasso hiding in his net. I've blocked the series from my mind like some kid who blocked out his uncle's inappropriate touching during a swim party one summer. Without exaggeration, this loss did such a number on me that I stopped watching hockey for three years. I completely dropped out of the system. I couldn't take it any more. 1993 and 1996 were simply too much for me to handle. The Penguins missed a chance to become the team of the '90s. The franchise that would define the decade.
You may have heard that the Panthers went on to get swept by Colorado in the Finals. They were outscored 15-4. The next year, the league decreed that throwing stuff on the ice was no longer a thing. A hip, fun thing to do at the hockey match. That was the end of the rats. The fucking rats.
How good would a Colorado/Pittsburgh finals have been? Well, it would've featured the top five scorers in the league that season. Lemieux, Jagr and Francis going against Sakic, Forsberg and Roy. You tell me how good it would've been.
AFC Championship Game - 2001
The Steelers went 13-3 this year, the #1 seed in the AFC for the second time in Bill Cowher's reign of terror. They lost 21-3 in Week 1 to Jacksonville, but the only other losses were 13-10 to Baltimore and 26-23 to Cincinnati in overtime. This team was 5-1 and 12-2 at points in the season. Kordell Stewart had a great year despite numerous insinuations about the type of people he enjoyed sleeping with and his ability to throw a football.
It was classic a Bill Cowher team. Incredible defense, allowing the third fewest points in the league, an offense that was surprisingly potent and poor special teams. Please remember that third one for later.
We killed the despicable Ravens in our first playoff game and happily welcomed the Patriots and their rookie quarterback to Heinz Field. Sure, at this point we were 1-2 in home championship games in the last eight years, but they had a rookie quarterback! For you 12-year olds in the audience, this was seen as an advantage before everybody realized that this rookie quarterback, Tom Brady, was actually quite good indeed.
I hinted at our bad special teams earlier, so now let's be more specific. Our kick coverage was so bad that when we punted, it was without question the most frightening thing Steeler Nation could witness. It really felt like every single punt we kicked could be returned for a touchdown. So when we were punting from our own endzone late in the first quarter and tackled Troy Brown around the 50, it was a glorious, glorious moment in the game. Except...one of our coverage guys went out of bounds and didn't get back in quickly enough. We had to rekick. Our coverage was tired. They weren't that good to begin with. It was an AFC title game in Pittsburgh. Troy Brown took the second kick back for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Another thing I'll never forget from this game is beforehand, Bill Simmons of ESPN.com jokingly predicting that Tom Brady would be knocked out at some point and Drew Bledsoe would come back in as the QB like he was before he himself got injured and Brady took over. Bledsoe would lead the Pats to the win and they would have a full-blown QB controversy leading in to the Super Bowl. And that is exactly what happened. Except, actually, Belichick immediately declared Brady the Super Bowl starter during the bye week. But Bledsoe did come into this game and throw a touchdown and put New England out to a 21-3 lead.
As was the way in the Cowher years, we made a comeback, got the game to 21-17, then gave another late score to seal the loss. This loss was devastating in any number of ways. We dropped to 1-3 in AFC Championship Games under Cowher. All at home, all within a seven year span. Think of how many franchises would be thrilled to make four title games in seven years! The one Achilles' heel we knew we had did actually fell us. And Steeler fans refused to accept that the Patriots were better than us in 2001, increasing the vitriol between the two fanbases and making it that much worse when the Patriots would beat us again in 2004. Just a terrible, terrible loss, both between the lines and in the after effects on life. Good gosh.
Pittsburgh Piranhas - 1995
Jarvis Basnight. Brian Davis. Jo Jo English. Abdul Fox. I had to look up every one of those names except for Brian Davis, and still the 35 Piranhas losses that year stung like a knife. Each one worse than the last and because the team only lasted one season, we were robbed of any later vindication. Crushing.
Wales Conference Semifinals - 1993
Okay, here it is. Game 7. The Islanders. Fitzgerald. Volek. The Penguins had 119 points during the regular season and captured the only Presidents Trophy in franchise history. I'm sure it's prominently displayed somewhere at Mellon Arena, unless Craig Patrick threw it away in a rage after the Islander series.
The Penguins won 17 straight games in the regular season - still a record - before tying New Jersey to close the season. Having swept Boston and Chicago in 1992, they came into the playoffs with an 11-game playoff winning streak, then won the first three against New Jersey, pushing the streak to 14, still a league record.
Mario was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease in the middle of the season and only played 60 games. He was gone for so long that Pat LaFontaine finally caught him in the scoring race, but then Lemieux returned, passed LaFontaine and won the Art Ross 160-148. Lemieux's scoring pace over 82 games would've given him 218 points.
Kevin Stevens had 111 points and 177 PIMs. Rick Tocchet had 109 points and 252 PIMs. Did you hear what I just said? Rick Tocchet had 109 points. Rick Tocchet! In short, the team that had won the last two Cups was probably better than it had ever been in every facet of the game.
The fact that the Islanders won two games in this series, let alone four, was stunning. They weren't complete hacks, but they weren't on a level with Pittsburgh. The Campbell All-Stars would've had a tough time with Pittsburgh. Pierre Turgeon led the team with 132 points. Tom Fitzgerald had 27 points in 77 games. David Volek had 21 points in 56 games. Naturally, those two would score the two biggest goals in the series. The Islanders would need them, since Turgeon was shelved after the remarkable and memorable cheap shot Dale Hunter put on him in the first round.
Even going into Game 7, Penguin fans were confident. How confident? Well, my high school had its Kennywood Day the same day as Game 7. I went to Kennywood, fully assuming the Penguins would win easily and move on to the Wales finals. I remember later in the evening, in the darkness, passing the Coal Miner ride, which was by Raging Rapids. We walked past a carnival game booth that had the Pens on the radio and asked what was happening. It was impossible to believe that the game was in overtime. As OT went on, the crowd grew and grew. When Volek scored...people dispersed with no rage, with no heartbreak. Only empty shock. If George Romero ever wanted to set a zombie movie in an amusement park, he had 200 extras wandering around aimlessly that night. Finding out the next day that Kevin Stevens shattered his face on the ice only made things worse.
Montreal won the Cup that year on the strength of something like 11 overtime wins. There's no guarantee that the Penguins would've beaten the Habs, but if they had, and such a thing was certainly possible for the best team in the league, it would've set up the dream Cup finals matchup of Lemieux versus Gretzky.
As time passes, this loss gets tougher and tougher, but at the time, it was just a shock. The assumption was the Pens would be right back in '94. It wasn't crushing. Yet.
Not only did this loss symbolize the end of the Penguins run atop the league and the end of Kevin Stevens as a dominant player, it was also the last year to really feature out of control, run and gun offense across the league. Here are the leading scorers from '92-'93: Lemieux - 160, LaFontaine - 148, Oates - 142, Yzerman - 137, Selanne - 132 (with 76 goals), Turgeon - 132, Mogilny - 127, Gilmour - 127, Robitaille - 125, Recchi - 123. It took 123 points to crack the top 10 that year. It took 87 this year, and 112 to be the leading scorer. In my day, it was easy to score! You crazy kids and your defense!
On another note, the 1992-1993 Penguins and 2001 St. Louis Rams will tell you from experience, never, ever, ever change your uniform after a title season.
National League Championship Series - 1992
The '80s were a vast wasteland for all Pittsburgh sports. Sure, there was the 1984 Steeler loss to the Dolphins and of the course the Pirates' cocaine trials, but it was basically a 10-year holding pattern. Then the Pirates started having little flickers of life and all of a sudden, lo and behold, lord have mercy, hot mamma jamma, they won three straight NL East titles. And then lost three straight NLCS matchups. So what makes this this one worse than 1990 or 1991? Well, in 1990, we lost to the Reds and they won the World Series, so hey, not so bad. In 1991, we were still good. In 1992, everybody in town could somehow sense that this was our last chance. We possibly could sense that because Barry Bonds' was in the last year of his deal and there was no way he was coming back.
It wasn't just Sid Bream beating Bonds' throw from left. Or just the fact the Francisco Cabrera hit the ball as hard he as possibly could and only reached the middle of left field. It was both of those facts combined with Stan Belinda not noticing that Bream's lead off of second stretched halfway to third. And when you take those three things and mix them with three straight falls of our best players - Bonds, Bonilla and Van Slyke - averaging something like .206 at the plate, it's just all too much to take.
Pittsburgh fans sensed 1992 was the end of an era and boy howdy were they ever right. The Pirates now have more consecutive losing seasons than any team in sports. In the Buccos' best season since 1992 - their best! - they won 79 games. Eight times since 1992, the Pirates won fewer than 70 games. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, only vast blackness. Hey, when are we calling up Scott Bullett from Buffalo? I hear he's really lacing the ball down there in AAA.
Wales Conference Finals - 2001
This one might be a bit of a surprise and it might not be on every Pittsburgh fan's list, but it killed me. Keeping this one shorter than the other novellas I have written today, Mario announced his comeback to NHL, stunning everybody who wasn't named Mario Lemieux. And, actually, probably even himself. It's entirely possible he announced his comeback when full of cabernet and woke up the next morning thinking, "Oh Jesus, what did I do?"
Jaromir Jagr lead the league with 121 points. Kovalev and Straka tied for fourth with 95. Lemieux had 73 points in only 41 games. In the first round of the playoffs, we dispatched Washington as per usual. The second round featured a stunning Game 7 overtime win over Buffalo. Darius Kasparaitis, he of the series-clinching goal, slid across the ice and swam like he was doing laps in the pool. And here's something I had forgotten until I just looked it up: Games 5, 6 and 7 of the Buffalo series all went to overtime. Oh, and also, 3 of our 4 wins in this series came in Buffalo. Neat!
So things were looking pretty good. The Penguins were back, the offense was flying, the Czeching line of Straka-Lang-Kovalev was basically ridiculous. Then we played the Devils, and they just mauled us 4-1 to go to the Finals. After winning Game 2, Jersey won the next two games 3-0 and 5-0. It wasn't any one particular moment or game from this series. It was the fact that we never looked like we even belonged on the same ice.
Jagr was traded in the offseason and our second leader scorer in '01-'02 was Jan Hrdina with 57 points. Lemieux only played 24 games, and although he did bounce back in '02-'03 with 91 points, and era was officially over for the Penguins. It was not the 1990s anymore and we were not in the playoffs anymore.
So that's that. As a Pittsburgh fan, I've definitely felt bad more than I've felt good. There were other losses that didn't make the list. Like, say, the 2004 AFC Championship game. Yeah, we were 15-1 that year. Yeah, that dropped us to 1-4 in home title games. Yeah, it was another big loss to the Patriots. But it was Roethlisberger's rookie year and the Steelers bounced back to win the Super Bowl the following season. Circumstances, circumstances. My word, am I hoping the 2008 Stanley Cup to Detroit never sees its way on to this list. I'm basically a good person! I don't deserve this!