Steelers-Bengals rivalry is not fun anymore

Jan 9, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) hits Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) during the fourth quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Paul Brown Stadium. Burfict was called for a personal foul on the play. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 9, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) hits Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) during the fourth quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Paul Brown Stadium. Burfict was called for a personal foul on the play. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

The Steelers and Bengals have emerged as the best two teams in the rough and tumble AFC North. So naturally a rivalry developed. But unlike the rivalry with the Ravens and Browns, this one is not fun.

We’ve seen these two epic teams collide a number of times. The games are intense, physical, even bitter. But this is not the typical rivalry. It’s been distorted and twisted into something gross and it’s just not that fun anymore for fans.

This observation comes following a statement by Bengals defensive lineman Domata Peko. He told Simon Chester of USA Today, “The Steelers are pieces of bleep.”

He literally said bleep. We should make that clear so you don’t confuse him with someone who lacks class. It’s not going to hurt anybody’s feelings. But it’s important because it’s a symptom of what the Steelers-Bengals rivalry has mutated into. It’s dumb and ugly, and in that way it is boring. Unlike most rivalries, the NFL is worse off for it.

We’ll come back to that but let’s first look at the current Steelers rivals, their AFC North opponents, which represent the range of possible rivalry types. These rivalries break down into the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The good – The Steelers-Ravens rivalry is everything a sports rivalry should be. The teams are ferocious. They want to crush eachother. It’s the most important game of the year for each team. They’re evenly matched and it’s always great games. There is trash talk that even when talking about hate still feels fun, professional, and safe. Players respect each other and want to beat the other team with a passion.

It’s a good rivalry because it’s everything a rivalry should be. It’s the most fun and exciting contest in all of sports. They’re both good franchises who dislike eachother as much as any sane person can considering we’re talking about a game, a game mostly played by people under 18.

The bad – The Steelers-Browns rivalry is an unfortunate circumstance. As anyone in western PA or eastern OH will tell you, Browns fans don’t like the Steelers or Steelers fans. If the Browns win and the Steelers lose, a Browns fan will be on social media talking about the Steelers losing, not the Browns winning. The Browns, due to their front office, are hopeless. Despite that, the organization itself is not classless.

It’s a bad rivalry because it’s one sided. What prevents it from being good is simply the ability of each team is out of balance.

The ugly – The Steelers-Bengals rivalry is ugly. The games are not enjoyed, they’re endured. They’re not played, they’re survived. The trash talk isn’t fun, it’s pathetic. You don’t love to hate players, you’re bored by it. The teams are evenly matched in skill but Marvin Lewis has lost control of his team, if he ever had it, and the players are just being ridiculous. The rivalry itself is tedious.

It’s an ugly rivalry because it’s not fun or entertaining, not nearly as much as it should be. It’s not something to look forward to. It’s not like a good horror movie that thrills you and makes you jump and worry. It’s like a bad one that just makes you grossed out, confused, and bored.

I’ll tell you what I mean. Take some trash talk from the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, and let’s look at the Ravens side just so I’m not being a homer. Shannon Sharpe once upon a time playfully referred to Plaxico Burress as plexiglass. His reason being that Burress dropped so many balls it was like throwing at a wall of plexiglass. They just bounce off him.

Ok, it’s not Oscar Wilde but it’s kind of clever. It’s a dig at Burress’s drops, which were a problem at that point in his career. It was a taunt. It was a show me. It was a fun, funny statement that as a Steelers fan did kind of burn a little bit, it burnt far more than “pieces of bleep.” Yawn.

Now take Tomato Pico’s statement about bleep. How much brain power do you think it took to come up with that? It’s not clever. It’s not funny. This is not a new rivalry. This guy has had years to think up sick burns on the Steelers and “pieces of bleep” is the best he came up with? It’s not entertaining. It’s just one guy disrespecting some other guys. That’s not interesting.

"Q: Did Muhammed Ali ever call Joe Frazier a piece of bleep?A: No, he did not."

Even more gross were the statements of video game character turned football player and occasional criminal Pac-Man Jones following Antonio Browns concussion, which we will get into more later. Pac-Man accused Brown of faking a concussion in order to … I don’t know, he didn’t really make that clear. He said he wouldn’t believe Brown was really injured unless he missed the next game.

And since the rest of us exist in reality, Brown did miss the next game.

You’ve heard of Ms. Pac-Man? Jones is Dr. Pac-Man. Apparently Dr. Pac-Man was not satisfied with the evidence. Real doctors were not enough, Brown was not enough, the Steelers organization was not enough.

Except, it is enough. And Jones knows that. But he said what he said anyway. He wasn’t being a detective, he was kicking a player while he was down. Compare that with plexiglass. Shoot, compare it with my sarcastic “Dr. Pac-Man.” Walking over someone on the ground calling them a faker? That’s not fun. Again, it’s just gross.

If you’re reading this article you may be a Steelers fan, your may be a fan of another team, but unless you’re a Bengals fan I bet you’ve never had a player on your team talk to ESPN for a week about how an opposing player is faking injuries. The reason you haven’t had this experience is because after the first tweet the coach of your team would tell that player to have some class.

In fact, we don’t need to speculate about how other coaches would be. Mike Tomlin banned Mike Mitchell from twitter a few years back because he didn’t like how he was projecting himself publicly and how that was influencing the locker room. And it’s not because Tomlin’s special. It’s because he’s a coach. That’s his job.

So where is Marvin Lewis? Publicly at least, usually making excuses and dodging the question.

Before his team’s meltdown in the playoffs last year announcers were openly talking about how the Bengals sideline looks out of control, particularly Burfict. Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith quoted Lewis after the game as saying, “He’s trying to go over and defend the play. There were a lot of plays out there and calls went different ways. They deemed that to be a hit to the head I guess, and others not today.”

If you didn’t catch that, Lewis said, “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” He had a player make a needless hit that cost him a playoff game, and he was annoyed at the refs. I can’t imagine any NFL coach having that reaction.

Marvin Lewis has lost control of his football team and it has made the NFL a worse place to be, particularly for any team facing the Bengals. It’s not just the numerous legal troubles or the classless statements to the media. Lewis has lost control of the game too. He’s become more of a play-caller than a coach. A coach doesn’t just calls plays but he dictates the attitude of the team.

Lewis is a classy guy. He is a smart guy. So how does his team go around doing things as dumb and classless as “pieces of bleep” or “I’ll believe you’re injured when I see the coffin?” It’s because Lewis does not dictate the attitude of the team. The team is out of control.

It caused them to hurt themselves before, notably in last years playoffs, but that’s deserved. If you’re going to be dumb enough to give up 30 yards of penalties at the end of a close game, you deserve to give up 30 yards of penalties at the end of a close game.

But the Bengals don’t just hurt themselves with their lack of class etc. They hurt other teams. Literally. This is perhaps the main reason these games are no longer fun. It’s the reason many teams in the NFL don’t want to play the Bengals. It’s not because they’re good. It’s because they seem to be trying to injure your star players.

Now, full disclosure. I did grow up in the NW PA region. And the Steelers are the Bengals rival. So one might conclude both the Steelers and I are coming from unfair places. Maybe the Steelers are just reading into it. Maybe they’re making excuses.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers /

Except, it’s not just the Steelers who have accused the Bengals, particularly Burfict, of intentionally injuring players. He was fined for punching a Green Bay Packer in the groin. Last year Cam Newton accused him of trying to twist his ankle. Teammate Greg Olson did the same. How dirty do you have to be to unite the Steelers and Ravens? Well, the Ravens did accuse Burfict of intentionally trying to take out Maxx Williams.

That is by no means an exhaustive list. In fact, there’s a fun video out there of Dr. Pac-Man straddling Amari Cooper and slamming his head against his helmet after a play. Again, I’m questioning his skill with medicine here, as well as basic human decency. But even despite a lot of the NFL recognizing this, there are a couple other reasons I don’t think the Steelers are just being sore losers, or winners, whatever.

First, because the Steelers do not do that with other teams they are in rivalries with. The Steelers and Ravens, as well as the Browns have been longer existing rivalries than the one with the Bengals, yet I don’t recall a time when the Steelers accused a rival of trying to injure them, or rivals doing that to the Steelers. Certainly not every single game.

Second, the Steelers don’t make excuses. Most teams don’t. Unlike the Bengals, most teams and their coaches take a one week at a time approach publicly. You know, focus on next week, we have to control ourselves, and all the clichés and Tomlinisms. The Steelers organization doesn’t blame refs or do things like that. Most NFL teams don’t, ever.

This can’t be a boy who cried wolf situation because the Steelers don’t claim any other team is trying to injure them, just one. Also, as previously mentioned, there is more than one metaphorical boy here.

And isn’t it a little too convenient that it’s All-Pro players the Bengals accidentally injure every time we play? It’s not the third WR or the second tight end. It’s not nickelbacks. It is the best player on the field they accidentally injure in what doesn’t look that much like an accident, every time we play.

Now, the obvious criticism is that the Steelers and many of the other teams the Bengals face are just weak. They’re wimps or whatever. But here’s the thing, football is a game. It’s not just people smashing into eachother. No one would pay to see that. They pay to see football, great football. And you can’t watch great football if all the best players are being driven off the field.

Imagine you like to play chess. Now imagine you have a rival. You talk some mess, you play some chess. It’s fun. It ups your game to play against such a skilled player. Now imagine your rival drove through Cincinnati one day and now he’s calling you a “piece of bleep.” That’s not fun.

Now when you reach for a piece he accidentally slams his fist onto the table and breaks your fingers. Woops. Then it happens next time you play. And then the next time. You’re not going to want to play that guy anymore, not because you’re scared of his chess abilities, but because he’s unhinged.

It’s a little ironic for grown men who play a children’s game to be taking themselves so seriously. And that’s ultimately why this rivalry is no fun anymore. The Bengals players are under some kind of delusion that they’re gladiators and this is a blood sport. When in fact, it’s the 21st century and they’re adults playing a game for a living. And they get to do that because it’s entertaining. This has ceased to be entertaining.

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The Steelers are a good enough team that we can lose to the Bengals twice and still make the playoffs. As a Steeler fan, I personally do not care about the Bengals record. I don’t care if we beat them. I just want them to not injure any of our players.

After all, Ben only has so many years left. The Bengals take out Bell last year, Brown this year, maybe Ben next year, back to Bell? Pretty soon, that’s it. Dynasty gone because Marvin Lewis can’t get his team to act like adults like every other coach in the NFL.

And it is that simple to lose a dynast. The Cowboys won 3 rings in 4 years. What if Smith went down one year, Aikman the next, then Irvin? One of the greatest teams in NFL history is gone. That’s no fun.

What’s my point?

This is not a good rivalry. Steelers-Ravens is a good rivalry. Ike Taylor once said his favorite Raven was no one. That’s witty, it’s a dig. It’s not just some goon excreting his real hatred for people because they sometimes carry a ball over a line more times than people wearing his shirt do. It’s not that serious.

A rivalry is something both teams look forward to, and all fans love watching. How many fans enjoyed the end of that Steelers-Bengals playoff game? How many were disgusted? Show of hands … ok … the disgusted win in a landslide.

Anyone find “piece of bleep” or taunting an injured player fun? Do you even think it got under the skin of anyone? It’s boring.

A rivalry should not be something you endure or find tedious. If you do dread it, it should because you think the other team might win the game, not do physical harm to your players, either on purpose or on accident that looks like it’s on purpose.

The improvement can come from outside or in. The NFL under Goodell is about entertainment. They react to public reaction. Take the Ray Rice suspension-reaction-suspension again saga. A lot of people are tired of the Bengals, the NFL may do what Marvin Lewis can’t, eventually. It only took them 15 years to react to everyone accusing the Pats of cheating.

But maybe the Bengals can change. But let’s start slow. We’re not expecting the Bengals to have class tomorrow. Let’s just aim low and improve the trash talk.

So in conclusion I propose two things. From a descriptive standpoint it is commonly thought that the Steelers-Bengals rivalry is a good one. It’s not. It’s not fun or entertaining, not for either team or for the NFL. It sucks, and I’m saying that as a fan of the team who wins more.

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Second, and from a prescriptive standpoint, isn’t anyone with the Bengals funny, or clever at all? If so, let them write the trash talk for everyone else. Or just sign Shannon Sharpe.

Really, even Bengals fans, is this fun? Was losing a playoff game due to needless penalties fun?