With the Pittsburgh Steelers reporting to training camp this week and the Pittsburgh Pirates ... well ... becoming the Pittsburgh Pirates again we wanted to take a page from our friends at Winging It In Motown and Second City Hockey and take a look at which of the big three professional sports teams is in the city closest to winning another championship.
In all honesty, it is probably a two-team race at this point.
But let’s take a quick look at all three anyway.
Most recent championship: 1979
Most recent championship appearance: 1979
Playoff appearances since most recent championship: 6 in 40 years
Current status: The most consistently futile and inept organization in professional sports. In the 40 years since the Pirates’ most recent championship appearance, the franchise has managed just 11 winning seasons and, even worse, only five 90-win seasons. That is almost impossibly bad, and it almost takes more effort to be that consistently bad than it would have taken to be consistently good. Other than a wild card game win in 2013, the Pirates have not won a postseason series of any kind since 1979 and had it not been for the good fortune of lucking their way into Barry Bonds and Andrew McCutchen this team would have had even less success.
As the team approaches the 2019 MLB trading deadline the Pirates are in last place in the worst division in the National League and have the second worst record overall in the National League, ahead of only a Miami Marlins franchise that is a major league team in name only.
In the era of home runs and strikeouts, the Pirates’ braintrust (which has somehow remained in charge for 12 years despite having never won anything of consequence) has assembled a team whose hitters are 27th in baseball in home runs and whose pitching staff is 16th in strikeouts. It is impressive at how badly these geniuses missed the mark on where the game was headed.
Other than maybe Josh Bell there is no young cornerstone player in which to build around (and the jury is still out on Bell in this regard) and almost nothing that should inspire any excitement or confidence in the coming seasons. The Pirates are a consistently bad team that currently needs to get worse before it even has the slightest of chances to get better.
If it is going to get better it might need a new front office. Neal Huntington is one of just two general managers in MLB history that has run a team for at least 12 seasons and never won a banner (division, league, World Series) of any kind. Impressive run!
Contending Status: Non-existent.
Most recent championship: 2008
Most recent championship appearance: 2010
Playoff appearances since most recent championship: 6 in 10 years
Current status: The Steelers are as consistently competitive as any team in professional sports, having finished with just four losing seasons in the past 30 years (only three in the past 25). Because it has been a decade since the most recent championship, and because the team has fallen short in the playoffs in recent years, there is a sense that the Steelers are “content with mediocrity” or “rewarding mediocrity” because they have not made wholesale changes to the coaching staff or front office. But if you are a Steelers fan younger than, say, age 55, you literally have no idea as to what it is like to cheer for a mediocre football team.
Actually winning a championship is rare, but there is a lot to be said for always having a chance and for the better part of four decades now the Steelers have entered pretty much every season with a legitimate chance.
That includes this season.
The Steelers do not have the same level of individual talent that they have had in recent years (losing Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will do that) but they are banking heavily on “addition by subtraction” being a real thing. I am not sure how that is going to work out, but it’s not like the team is lacking in talent. They still have a good quarterback, they still have an outstanding running back, and they still have a superstar No. 1 wide receiver.
Their season will be defined by what happens in two areas: How good the defense can be, and whether or not Ben Roethlisberger reduces the number of turnovers he has been guilty over the past few years, a much bigger and more significant problem than most people in Pittsburgh care to admit. In all of those “bad losses” the Steelers have over the years the common denominator in a lot of them is turnovers, mostly from the quarterback position. Can not do that. Can not lead the league in interceptions again. Have to keep that number to single digits, or at least under 15 for the season. One thing I will say is that if he does not feel the need to keep forcing the ball to Brown (something I think he did a lot) it might open the offense to be more balanced.
The additions on defense (Steve Nelson, Mark Barron, trading up to select Devin Bush) are also encouraging.
This is still a good team that plays in a wide open division where I am not really sure how good anyone else actually is (not buying what the Cleveland Browns are selling until they actually do it).
Contender status: Likely playoff team that still has a chance as long as the quarterback plays at a high level over the next few years.
Most recent championship: 2017
Most recent championship appearance: 2017
Playoff appearances since most recent championship: two in two years.
With three championships in a decade and five since 1990 the Penguins have been the most successful organization in the city over the past 30 years as it relates to banners.
Even though they have won two more within the past four years, there is still a sense of disappointment following the most recent playoff exit when they were swept in four games by the New York Islanders. That resulted in a significant change to the roster and a few new faces coming in.
The question is if those changes have put the team back on track to win a championship.
There are reasons to have some doubts. Even before the Penguins won their most recent championship in 2017 there were signs that general manager Jim Rutherford was going to take the team in a different direction, and he has had a few rough offseasons since then that have done more to hold the team back than move it forward. Overall he has done great things for the Penguins, the city, and the fans, but there is reason to believe the front office has not put the team in the best possible position to win over the past two years and this upcoming season.
That is the criticism.
There is still a lot of reason for optimism, though.
That optimism is that the Penguins still have superstars, and a lot of them. I have recently started to buy into the idea that “championship windows” are a tricky thing to measure, especially in the NHL where each of the past four Stanley Cup winners (well, excluding the 2017 Penguins since they actually won the year before) were teams that were thought to have had their “championship window” closed at the start of each season.
As long as you have multiple superstars and high-level players, you have a chance. Those are the most important pieces as well as the most difficult pieces to acquire. The Penguins have them. A lot of them. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are still among the best in the world at what they do. Jake Guentzel is becoming a star. Matt Murray can carry a team at the most important and valuable position when he is at his best.
That gives you a chance every year.
Do I like the Penguins’ depth on defense? Do I like all of their forwards? Do I like the way the team has shifted in terms of style and roster construction? No I do not.
But those are areas that can be fixed, and fixed relatively quickly. The important thing is they still have the superstars in the right places. That has always been, still is, always will be most important part of any championship recipe.
Contender status: Still legitimate championship contender, can get even closer with right complementary moves around core of superstar players.