The 1980s were good for a few things. Hair metal. Karate. Tom Cruise movies. Acid wash jeans.
Just a few things that leap to mind.
However, they weren’t a great time for the Pittsburgh sports scene. No titles were won in Pittsburgh from 1979 (when the Steelers and Pirates both won championships) until 1991 (when the Penguins won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup).
I’ve heard it said quite a bit recently that we may soon be entering another 1980s downturn for Pittsburgh’s professional sports teams.
I’m here to tell you that it has already started.
In the 1980s, the Steelers missed the playoffs six out of 10 years. And they won just two playoff games the entire decade, beating the Denver Broncos in 1984 and the Houston Oilers in 1989. They got to 10 wins just once (1983) and finished below .500 three times.
The Penguins lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1980-82. They failed to qualify the next six seasons, finishing in last place of the six-team Patrick Division four times and fifth twice.
Their only playoff series victory of the 1980s was a four-game first-round sweep of the New York Rangers in 1989. That was followed by that painful seven-game Patrick Division Final loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
As for the Pirates, they were about as competitive in the 1980s as the Democratic presidential tickets. Those teams under Chuck Tanner and Jim Leyland finished with an average win percentage of .467. They never qualified for the postseason and finished in last place three times (four if you count the second half of the strike-altered 1981 season).
Here’s why the current editions of our three local sports clubs are trending in the same negative direction.
We may not have a nice, clean turn of a decade like 1980 to start our analogy. But let’s begin with the 2017 NFL season since the Penguins won Pittsburgh’s last championship that previous June.
Since then, the Steelers have missed the playoffs twice (2018, ‘19) and lost embarrassing postseason upset defeats at Heinz Field the other two years (2017, ‘20). Mike Tomlin’s players have yet to bottom out below .500 like Chuck Noll’s clubs of ‘85, ‘86 and ‘88.
However, given the trend of losing five of six to end 2020 and the wave of subtractions expected in 2021, don’t be stunned if next year yields the first NFL losing season in Pittsburgh since 2003.
That’s what I’m expecting anyway.
Then, with a change at quarterback from Ben Roethlisberger and a subsequent rebuild likely to begin in 2022, who knows how long it could be before the Steelers taste postseason success again.
After all, we’ve already gone through a decade similar to the 80s in terms of seasons featuring postseason victories. Much like 1980-89, Tomlin’s Steelers only saw playoff wins in two years (2015, ‘16) between 2011 and 2020.
As for the Penguins, they followed up 2017’s Stanley Cup championship with a first-round playoff elimination of the Flyers in 2018. But then they were knocked out in a hard-fought six-game second-round loss to the Washington Capitals, followed by a first-round defeat to the New York Islanders in 2019 and qualifying-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens in 2020.
Given the reformatted 2021 playoffs, tough Eastern Division depth, shaky goaltending, the resignation of general manager Jim Rutherford and non-stop injuries on defense, a postseason berth for the Penguins this year is no guarantee.
That has seemingly been the case every year since 2007. But don’t count on it moving forward with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang continuing to advance through their mid-30s and little help forthcoming from a thin farm system.
Then there’s the Pirates who are … the Pirates. You could argue they are currently even worse off than the 1980s teams. Their ineptitude dates back to 2016, with a 323-383 record (.458) over the past five seasons. They’ve finished last in the NL Central in each of the last two seasons, have been stripped to the bone at the Major League level for 2021 and may challenge the organization’s 1952 record of 112 losses (113 if you want to date back to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys of 1890).
There’s no reason to predict a playoff push over the next four or five years. And such hopes for a significant run from the other two Pittsburgh clubs are flickering, too.
For better or worse a lot of 80s trends and fads have come back again. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the hottest selling concert for the summer of 2020 was Motley Crue, Poison, Def Leppard and Joan Jett. A “Top Gun” sequel is planned for July. “Cobra Kai” is one of the biggest shows on Netflix. Damaged denim is a thing again.
Sadly, so is sports frustration in Pittsburgh. And it’s up to franchise management at Heinz Field, PNC Park and PPG Paints Arena to stop our “Crying in the Rain.”*
*Whitesnake. Originally released on the 1982 “Saints and Sinners” album. Track No. 5. Later re-recorded for the self-titled “Whitesnake” album in 1987.
Figured I’d save you the time of looking it up.
Penguins/NHL | Pirates/MLB | Sports | Steelers/NFL | Breakfast With Benz