I will tell this story backwards, because the first act of this story, condensed into a single image, is a rocket ship full of manhole covers at 25,000 feet and falling, its engines burning and whipping it into a tailspin and toward the ocean of a cursed, deserted Earth.
We will start with what happened Sunday at Heinz Field.
I. HEINZ FIELD, SUNDAY, OCT. 26, 2014: THE REBIRTH OF OFFENSIVE FOOTBALL, WHICH WAS NECESSITATED, BECAUSE IT HAD DIED THE DAY PRIOR.
Ben Roethlisberger, statistically speaking, gave the greatest passing performance in the history of the NFL. That statement is completely arguable, of course, but I place it at the top. Here are his numbers:
- 522 passing yards (tied for third-most in NFL history, 5 yards shy of the record)
- Six touchdowns and no interceptions (which had previously been done only 10 times in NFL history)
- Completed 40 of 49 passes (81.63 completion percentage)
The completion percentage is key. Take a look at this thing, if you would.
Those dots represent the 275 most prolific performances in the history of NFL quarterbacking. In terms of quantity -- passing yards -- Roethlisberger is third-best. [UPDATE: fourth-best, actually. I somehow missed Norm Van Brocklin's 554-yard game.] And in terms of quality -- completion percentage -- he's also third-best!
The quality of the Colts' secondary could be debated, certainly, but by definition, any defense that allows 500 yards on 49 throws is going to look sorry. This entire Sunday afternoon was a celebration of offensive football, and Roethlisberger wasn't the only one celebrating.
Andrew Luck countered with exactly 400 passing yards of his own. This was only the 12th game in the history of the league to see at least 400 yards of passing from both quarterbacks.
The story of the NFL is one of sea changes, and this is a big one. As you can see, there was a scattering of 800-yard shootouts throughout the 1980s and '90s. And then, between 1995 and 2010, it never happened once. And now, within a five-year window, it's happened eight times.
It was a stunning display. And yet, in its wake, Heinz Field is by no means a cathedral of offensive football. Sunday's game was merely an attempt to settle a debt that, in fact, still may not be paid in full.
II. HEINZ FIELD, SATURDAY, OCT. 25, 2014: THE DEATH OF OFFENSIVE FOOTBALL.
The day before, on that same field, Pitt hosted Georgia Tech. At large, there was plenty of offense in this game: Georgia Tech won 56-28, and both teams finished with more than 500 offensive yards.
But the way this game started for Pitt ... I had never seen this in my entire life. It wasn't frigid. It wasn't raining. I would never expect such a thing to ever happen in this level of competitive football.
PITT'S FIRST POSSESSION (SECOND OFFENSIVE PLAY).
This fumble is a story of defensive ability. On the opening possession, Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik runs right on a keeper, and Tech safety Isaiah Johnson masterfully rips away the ball.
PITT'S SECOND POSSESSION (THIRD OFFENSIVE PLAY).
This fumble is a story of stupid, unfair rules. It looks as though Pitt is turning things right back around. On the first play of their next possession, running back James Conner busts loose for a 74-yard run. Tech's D.J. White catches up to him right at the end, and Conner loses his grip on the ball about a foot away from the goal line. The ball bounces out of bounds in the end zone.
Now, if the ruling here reflected any level of intuition, maybe the officials would give Pitt the ball at the 1. Maybe they'd call it a touchdown. Something like that. Instead, the officials were bound to ruling consistently with one of the dumbest rules ever devised in the hearts of humans: if you fumble the ball out of your opponent's end zone, they get the ball at the 20.
Pitt's first two possessions: fumble, and fumble.
PITT'S THIRD POSSESSION (FIFTH OFFENSIVE PLAY).
This fumble is a story of collapsed fortifications. Pitt's offensive line can do absolutely nothing to stop or slow down linebacker Paul Davis, who sprints right into the backfield and causes yet another fumble. And look at Tech's No. 36 up there. Georgia Tech have marshaled so many men into Pitt's backfield that he's hardly even needed. He looks like he's playing contain on the dang running back.
Pitt's first three possessions: fumble, fumble, fumble.
PITT'S FOURTH POSSESSION (SIXTH OFFENSIVE PLAY).
This fumble is a story of what happens when you don't lie down. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd takes a screen pass a couple yards downfield, is rolled up, manages to roll over his tackler without touching the ground, and keeps his legs moving. Once again, it seemed that for Pitt, things went right only as long as they needed to in order to then go wrong.
I switched over to watch this game seconds before this play, because everyone on Twitter was hollering about Pitt and their three fumbles in five plays. There was no way this had happened again. It was surreal.
Pitt's first four possessions: fumble, fumble, fumble, fumble.
PITT'S FIFTH POSSESSION (13th OFFENSIVE PLAY).
This fumble is a story of fate. Up to this point, the fumbles had followed all sorts of different themes. There was the strip fumble, the unfair rule fumble, the collapsed-line fumble, the "you did it to yourself" fumble. And now, at last, we had an economy-grade invisible dogpile fumble.
On this fifth possession, Pitt managed to string several plays together without fumbling. I knew it would happen again, and that's not because I'm any manner of football expert. I just listen when the fates are screaming, and so, probably, did many of you who were watching. As this play unfolded, the ball was completely obscured, and there was no way we could have known for sure that it was a lost fumble. Neither could Tech's No. 6, Chris Milton, who certainly didn't see a damn thing. But he signaled that Tech had it, and I had no trouble believing him.
Pitt's first five possessions: fumble, fumble, fumble, fumble, fumble. This was a mathematical catastrophe.
Again, there is a lot of foolin' around to be done with those numbers. Due to confidence issues of the ball carrier, or an opportunistic defense emboldened by its last fumble recovery, or any other thing, I'd believe that one fumble makes a second fumble more likely. Regardless, I doubt it moves the needle far enough to make this anything but a miraculous event.
If either of these events -- the Steelers game or the Pitt fumbles -- had happened independently of one another, they would still have been so remarkable that I would have written about them. But they happened on the same field, on the same weekend. It is a gift-wrapped story of a series of high crimes against the ideas and dreams of offensive football, a sunset, a sunrise, and an attempt to atone for it and restore honor to that cursed ground.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards. I don't think that was enough. Five fumbles in five possessions. For this we require a priest or a bulldozer.