This afternoon when the Steelers take on the Browns to close out the 2012 season, they will be playing for absolutely nothing other than pride, their paychecks and to avoid becoming the first Mike Tomlin-coached team to finish under .500.
In other words, the 2012 Steelers will head into a true lame duck game -- one in which they haven't already secured a playoff spot or have no chance to earn one. The title of this post isn't a potshot at the Steelers for that dubious distinction, but rather to point out how infrequently it occurs.
Consider that since Chuck Noll was hired in 1969 -- 44 seasons ago -- the Steelers have only been in a true lame duck situation 13 times (29.5% of seasons). The other 70.5% of the time, they either made the playoffs (25 times) or had a shot and missed heading into the final week of the season (6 times).
Try telling that to annual lame duckers like Cleveland or Oakland (although both teams contributed mightily to Pittsburgh's lame duck status this year.)
Eight lame ducks came under Noll, but even three of those (1969-71) came in his first three seasons when he was trying to resurrect a moribund franchise from scratch. The 1981 was the first in a decade. Then a handful came during the lackluster late 80's -- 1985, '86 & '88. Finally Noll's last season, 1991 was a lame duck.
Cowher had two true lame ducks in a row in 1998 and 1999, and another in 2003. His last season, 2006, was also a lame duck, but came after a Super Bowl win.
This is the first lame duck game under Mike Tomlin.
The majority of the lame duck games were, as you might imagine, total stinkers. But a handful were notable.
A run down of some of the more memorable ones ...
Dec. 18, 1988 vs. Miami
What still stands as the Steelers worst season since 1969 -- a 5-11 finish -- did end on a high note for the club with a 40-24 thrashing of Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins before an astounding 22,000+ at Three Rivers Stadium no shows on a bitter cold day (kickoff temp. 23 degrees, wind chill minus 8).
Marino had previously tortured the Steelers, winning all four prior meetings against the hometown team that famously passed on drafting him. Marino threw two interceptions picks was replaced by an aging Ron Jaworski late in the game, and it sealed the first losing season of his entire life. Marino was outdueled by Bubby Brister (!!!) who was an effective 13 for 26 for 99 yards with no interceptions and the Steelers ground game mowed over the Dolphins to the tune of 305 yards, their highest output in seven years.
It would be Mike Webster's final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Read Bruce Keidan's column on Frank Pollard who became, during that game, the Steelers third all-time leading rusher (at the time).
Dec. 22, 1991 vs. Cleveland
As the Steelers slogged to a lousy 7-9 year, there had been open speculation that legendary head coach Chuck Noll would retire at season's end, possibly making the season finale against Cleveland at Three Rivers Stadium the last game he would coach for the Steelers.
That is exactly what happened. Noll stepped down four days after his team sent him out with the 209th win of his 23-year reign as the "Emporer" of the Steelers.
Noll and the Steelers bested their arch-rival Browns -- and their rookie head coach Bill Belichick -- 17-10 behind three second-half interceptions from cornerback Richard Shelton, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Read Ed Bouchette's game story.
Read Bruce Keidan's column on Noll.
Change was in the air for the Steelers.
Dec. 31, 2006 @ Cincinnati
Though they were the defending champions, the Steelers Super Bowl hangover was apparent early on in the season as they bumbled to a 2-6 start. Their play in the second half of the season was markedly improved, but it was too little too late. A 31-7 drubbing at home by the Ravens on Christmas Eve knocked the Steelers out of playoff contention.
However, the Steelers had a chance to go on the road and play spoiler to division bitter rival Cincinnati -- who they had upset the previous year in the Wild Card -- en route to an improbable Super Bowl win. Regulation ended deadlocked at 17-17 and the tie was broken on the third play in overtime when Ben Roethlisberger zipped a pass to rookie Santonio Holmes who galloped 67-yards for the game-winning touchdown.
Prior to traning camp there was speculation that head coach Bill Cowher would step down after the season, as he had not negotiated a new contract and spoke little on the matter as the year progressed. Indeed, that's exactly what he did, announcing his retirement at the end of that week.
It was also Jeff Hartings and Joey Porter's last games as Steelers; the former retiring in the offseason, the latter a salary cap casualty.
Read Ed Bouchette's game story.
Gerry Dulac on Holmes' big play in the Buckeye State.
Ron Cook: Cowher goes out a winner