After four straight losses and the worst start in 45 years, you probably haven't noticed it yet, Steelers fans, but you're already changing.
With every embarrassing performance, with every turnover, every incomplete pass, every rushing yard surrendered and every toothless threat from your increasingly desperate head coach, slowly but surely you are mutating, transforming, changing … into an entirely different kind of fan.
The problem is, as a Steelers fan you've experienced so much success and winning that you really have no way of knowing just what's happening to you, or how in the world to cope with it. Even with the Steelers mercifully on their bye week, unable to lose yet again to another winless team in a faraway place, stuck in the AFC cellar below the Browns (for God's sake), for at least another week, maybe two, maybe three -- the symptoms persist.
Lethargy. Depression. Disorientation. Your world has stopped making sense. Your bad-ass Towel? It is no longer Terrible but, instead, just a yellow hand towel, soaked with tears and Primanti Brothers sauce from all that stress eating.
The worst part? You probably don't even know it, but scientists say that as the failures of your beloved football team continue to pile up, so does your consumption of saturated fat (by a whopping 26 percent) while at the same time testosterone levels plummet -- in male fans, of course.
Do you feel that, Steelers fans? With every unprecedented loss most of you are becoming fatter, softer, sadder, less manly and more and more, well, average.
You've lost four straight, eight if you count the preseason, 13 out of 15 if you go back to the middle of last year. It's so bad you have to go back to 1968 for historical context. That season you finished 2-11-1.
Your best defender is better known as a shampoo spokesman. Your best player on offense is missing two knee ligaments. Heck, even your quarterback says "we're the worst."
So, it's pretty much official. Might as well stop denying it and come clean.
And you know what the rest of the sports world -- places like Detroit, Cleveland, Oakland and Jacksonville -- would really like to say to Steelers fans right now?
Hey yinz, welcome to the club!
Sure, becoming a loser is a big change for Steelers fans.
But, fear not, the FlemFile is here during your bye week to help you with your transition into Loserdom with a list of helpful coping tools. (Or, if you have your own, feel free to hit my Twitter account -- @FlemESPN #SteelersCoping).
In the meantime, I've also solicited some advice from Eric Simons, author of the outstanding book "The Secret Lives of Sports Fans." He's not only an expert in the science of sports obsession, his wife went to grad school in Pittsburgh and he's a long-suffering fan of the Sharks, a team, 22 years later, still looking for its first Stanley Cup. So, he understands what you're going through.
"Don't break anything," Simons says, "you'll regret it later."
OK, so, after the loss to the Vikings or that Julius Peppers sack-fumble-touchdown at the end of the Bears game, it's probably too late for that bit of advice.
But put down the Iron City, splash some cold water on your face and fear not you sad, lovable buncha Steelosers: we're gonna get through this together.
Abandon all hope: Let's be honest, with so much to celebrate over the years, you may have, on occasion, talked some trash or acted superior to your friends in Cleveland or Philadelphia. These people have been waiting for decades to rub this 0-4 start in your face. Don't you dare give them the pleasure. It's gonna sting a little, but the best tactic is to beat them to the punch by accepting, fully, what is happening to your Steelers. Basically, says Simons, you need to "Accept losing: If you can enter a Zen state in which you abandon all hope and really, really expect them to lose every game, you'll have a fun, happy season."
Deny, deny, deny: Or, just refuse to accept reality. It works for Congress. Put on your One for the Thumb T-shirt and repeat after me: "We're fine, really, we only need to win, like, 10 of our last 12 games -- that's it. Piece of cake. What's everyone so worked up about? I mean, we just signed Levi-freakin'-Brown, our problems are solved, Baaaabeeee!!!! Hello, ever heard of a little hockey game called MIRACLE ON ICE?"
Find someone to blame: At this point, the Steel Curtain defense looks more like flowery drapes and is ranked near the bottom of the league against the run. Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, has the fifth most passing yards in the NFL. So you know exactly what this means: It's time to distract yourself from all the real issues -- injuries and an overall lack of talent, speed, explosiveness and innovation -- by becoming irrationally obsessed with a cause that actually will hurt the team in the long run, like, a campaign to get offensive coordinator Todd Haley fired.
Take a chill pill: "New research shows that emotional pain is processed in the same brain regions that physical pain is," Simons says. "One implication: Tylenol might work as well for watching the Steelers lose a football game as it does for, like, actually being a Steeler player and having to recover from spending all day being trod on by Adrian Peterson."
Teeeboooow: He can't throw the football or read defenses, but he did manage to beat you in the playoffs. The one thing the guy has proved is he's very effective at is being a major, major distraction. One highway billboard, one fourth-quarter chant, one airplane banner and you'll be so engrossed in the messianic mélange of faith, football and fame that is Tebow-mania you'll barely notice your Steelers have fallen to 0-8 and the Browns have mercilessly taken out their starters at the beginning of the third quarter in Heinz Field.
It could always be worse: You're not the Jags. Let that sink in for a moment. There are fans in Oakland who dress up in Halloween costumes every week and shout things like "Commitment to Excellence!" even though the team is probably headed for its ninth double-digit losing season in the past 11 years. Lions fans? Those poor bastards have won ONE playoff game since 1957. So, please try to keep one bad month in perspective. "If you're going to whine to someone," Simons suggests, "don't make it Cleveland."
Focus on the Pirates: This team makes the playoffs once every 20 years and that incredible scene at PNC Park just happens to take place at the same time the Steelers fall flat on their face? Coincidence? I think not. Like Mike Tomlin, who started his news conference with "How about those Buccos!" you need to get on the Pirates' bandwagon, pronto, and make that team your sports version of a rebound relationship. "A number of studies in rats and mice show that chronic losing -- what the researchers call 'social defeat' -- leads to loss of interest in food, sex and play -- basically, defeat-induced depression," Simons says. "So roll with the Pirates or the Penguins, too -- their good vibes will keep you from going down (emotionally) with the Steelers."
Iron City: Open. Drink. Repeat.
Start planning your draft party: Don't do what the Panthers, Lions, Browns and Raiders always seem to do, which is go on a late run when the games are meaningless and completely blow draft position. The only benefit of tanking a season is the rare, high draft pick waiting for you next spring. Some people still laugh at the Lions for going 0-16. Not me. Anyone can go 2-13 or 3-13. You guys are the Steelers, remember? If you're gonna be bad, be the best at being bad. Follow? Look, you guys have picked in the top 15 only once in the past 13 years of the draft. Get a high pick and fleece the Browns in a trade. You'll feel so much better. Or, think of it this way -- for once you'll finally be at the center of one of the sports world's most meaningless made-for-TV events: the NFL draft!
Paint your face: It's really the best way to hide your identity (and humiliation) at home games.
Gardening: Maybe this is the year you fix the leak in your garage or plant that herb garden you've always dreamed of, finally get past Page 8 of "Infinite Jest" or spend your Sundays with the TV off really reconnecting with your loved ones. Naw. Naw. Sorry. Sorry. Just playing. I almost had ya, though, didn't I?
Change uniforms: This bit of misdirection is straight out of the loser franchise playbook: distract fans with new merch. The rule of thumb with a uniform change is the worse you're playing, the bigger the transformation. So I have one word for you: Nursing. That's right. The whole Steelers thing is so 1970s. Technically, I don't think there are any more actual working steel mills inside the city limits of Pittsburgh. But Pittsburgh has become one of the leaders in male nursing. So, we either totally rethink the traditional black, gold and white combo with, say, tungsten, brushed nickel and rust (Think: "Hunger Games" meets Andy Warhol), or we go with a total makeover that looks like nurse scrubs: sky blue, baggy pants, with a V neck jersey and Crocs.
Savor the small victories: As far as I can tell the only actual highlight from the season so far is the somersault TD against the Vikings by Le'Veon Bell. Take this and run with it. I'm talking T-shirts, posters, screen-savers, parody songs, YouTube re-enactments, nicknames (Immaculate Rotation?), you name it. As far as highlights, this might be it.
Think outside the box: Maybe it's finally time to innovate, fellas. When I worked on my ESPN The Magazine story about the analytics revolution in the NFL, I wasn't all that surprised to find out that while the science of stats has taken off within the NFL, one industry insider told me the Steelers have shown no "interest or curiosity" in analytics. Look, I love nostalgia and the quaint, old-fashioned feel of the Steeler Way as much as anybody. But one of the reasons you guys are suddenly staring up at the Browns in the standings is that the rest of the NFL is using iOS 7 while the Steelers are stubbornly sticking with their flip phones.
When all else fails: Buy Eric's book and use this lost Steelers season to expand your horizons and better understand yourselves. Or, if that doesn't work, just send an angry tweet or email to that doofus from ESPN. You'll feel better. At least until 1:15 next Sunday, when the Jets are up by three scores.