May 28, 2024

ZACH GAZELLE WALKED through the gates of an NFL stadium wearing a black Troy Polamalu jersey, carrying a homemade sign that read “FIRE MATT CANADA” in bold, black letters.

But Gazelle wasn’t in Pittsburgh. He wasn’t even watching the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was sitting in an end zone seat at FedEx Field for a game featuring the Washington Commanders and Buffalo Bills.

The Steelers and offensive coordinator Matt Canada, the target of Gazelle’s sign, were 2,400 miles away preparing to play the Las Vegas Raiders on “Sunday Night Football.”

“I’ve been very disappointed with Canada, obviously since last season,” the 23-year-old Steelers fan said. “I just thought it’d be a good, funny little movement to start. I heard the chants in Pittsburgh and wanted to continue the legacy of it.”

Gazelle didn’t exactly start the movement that has been festering on social media for at least two seasons, but by bringing the signs to an unrelated NFL game last month, he helped catapult fan outrage toward the offensive coordinator to a national stage.

With the Steelers’ offense ranking outside the top 20 in points, total yards, rushing yards and passing yards through the first seven games, many have joined him in an escalating malcontent chorus.

In addition to three home games at Acrisure Stadium this season, there have been loud “Fire Canada” chants at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season opener at PPG Paints Arena, two stops of “The Pat McAfee Show” on location at Ohio State and Utah, and on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery following the Penguins’ win against the Washington Capitals. The same message has been spotted on signs at an All-Elite Wrestling match in Stockton, California, a Penguins-Blues game in St. Louis, the back of a custom Steelers jersey and on cookie cakes at Pittsburgh grocery stores.

But the crusade is more than disgruntled fans expressing their displeasure with the offensive coordinator. It’s a living meme that’s morphing from a hyperlocal phenomenon to a movement crossing the barriers of sports, leagues, states and countries thanks to a perfect storm of social media trends and a massive fan base with a history of grievances toward their team’s offensive coordinator.

AS GAZELLE PUTS it, his active involvement in the Fire Canada movement started “probably about after the 50th jet sweep last season.”

“His offense is so bland, and offense is dominating football right now,” Gazelle said. “You look at the Chiefs, Eagles, all those teams, even the Dolphins, too, they move the ball at will whenever they want. For us, it all comes down to the defense.”

The Steelers have posted fewer than 400 yards of offense in 55 consecutive games, dating back to the 2020 season, tying the 2006-10 San Francisco 49ers for the second-longest streak of sub-400 yard games. Canada’s offenses have also only scored 30 points or more twice in three seasons.

As offensive futility escalated, ire toward Canada went from occasional, light-hearted South Park “Blame Canada” memes to a viral #FireCanada hashtag, signs and stadiumwide chants directed at the coordinator.

“If it was just ‘Fire Smith,’ you can’t really chant that, or ‘Fire Thomas,'” former Steelers offensive lineman Trai Essex said. “This actually has a perfect amount of syllables. It’s Can-a-da. It’s kind of unique because it’s the country right above us, and they’re making all kinds of jokes about sending him back to a different country and whatnot. So it’s like the perfect storm, and I feel bad for the man, actually, at this point.”

In Cincinnati, journalism professor and lifelong Steelers fan Jeff Blevins is committed to posting photos of his homemade Fire Canada signs on X until the Steelers’ offense has a 30-point game. He made his first sign and posted it after the 30-6 loss to the Houston Texans in Week 4. Prior to the 20-10 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Blevins posted a “Say Anything”-inspired photo of himself holding his sign.

“Our offense was just so ineffective, and it was running the same schemes, the same predictable schemes as last year,” Blevins said. “It felt so disheartening. There was just no hope of change. And I thought, ‘Hey, if I could be part of the public pressure to get [coach Mike] Tomlin or [team owner Art] Rooney [II] to make a move on this, I’m happy to do it.'”

But those who are familiar with the inner workings of the Steelers organization don’t anticipate social media movements and stadiumwide chants forcing the decision-makers’ hands.

“No way in hell,” Essex said. “You can’t change your mind at a whim or make a move just because the fan base is acting out. … They’re not going to move in any type of direction one way or the other because of what the noise is outside. That’s just not what the Steelers have done.”

Canada’s contract is up after this season. The Steelers have rarely parted ways with coordinators and assistants during the season. If they move on from him after the season, it will likely have more to do with Canada’s contract expiring than the organization bending to the will of loud, aggravated fans.

But the fan outrage has been effective, at least somewhat, in other Pittsburgh sports circles. In February, angry Penguins fans, many of whom also support the Steelers, started a “Fire Hextall” chant about general manager Ron Hextall during a 7-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Less than two months later, the organization fired Hextall after two seasons.

Canada also isn’t the only target of stadiumwide boos at Acrisure Stadium this season. In September, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi renamed Pittsburgh “Boo City” after Panthers fans relentlessly booed the offense and quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who eventually was benched.

Essex, who played for the Steelers from 2005 to ’11, is active in Steelers social media circles, frequently posting his observations about the current state of the team. He couldn’t help but notice the chants targeting Canada, who was also a former offensive coordinator at Pitt, and signs spreading across the country.

After the Fire Canada chant at Ohio State, Essex posted on X, wondering, “Has chanting “Fire Canada” become synonymous for all fans to show their displeasure when exposed to any bad offensive showings?”

Blevins agreed with Essex: “I could definitely see where Canada could end up being a verb for poor offense.”

AFTER WATCHING A frustrating offensive performance in the Steelers’ win against the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh real estate agent Luke O’Brien turned his anger into creativity as he wrote the listing description for a home in Pittsburgh’s North Hills neighborhood.

“This home features a half bath on the first floor, living room, updated kitchen with stainless steel appliances and a dining area,” he wrote. “This leads out to a private level back yard equipped with a fire pit to enjoy these cool fall nights. Or if you prefer you can use the wood-burning fireplace in the family room to keep warm as you watch Matt Canada and the Steelers score 12 points a game. … Many updates including new roof, windows and AC have occurred over the past several years making sure you’ll love this home almost as much as the Steelers love the jet sweep.”

O’Brien, 40, doesn’t call into sports radio shows or vent on social media. But he needed an outlet after the Steelers were outgained 335-289, punted six times and rallied from a 10-3 deficit to score 14 points in the fourth quarter on a safety, two field goals and a single touchdown.

“It was something I thought was funny and clever that would grab attention and put it on the listing because it’s such a common feeling throughout the city,” O’Brien said. “That’s kind of how I express this obvious disdain for Matt Canada, who’s running one of the most historically terrible offenses in the history of the NFL. I mean, you average 12 points a game (actually 16.1) and you’re the only team in the NFL that hasn’t had a 400-yard game — I mean, the stats speak for themselves.”

A Pittsburgh native, O’Brien comes from a family that has had Steelers season tickets since the 1950s — “whenever no one gave a s— about them” — and remembers going to Three Rivers Stadium to watch his favorite players of the 1990s Steelers — Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd and Rod Woodson — wreak havoc on offenses.

“It’s just embedded,” O’Brien said. “We grew up from Pittsburgh as Steelers fans. We’re an Irish family, We’re a Catholic family. It’s that kind of identity where if you say, who are you? It’s Irish Catholic, Pittsburgh, that’s it. That’s who I am.”

As in O’Brien’s family, the identity of the franchise and of the people in the city it plays for are intertwined, welded together in part by the steel industry. When the industry collapsed and scattered steel workers around the country looking for work, it created a Steelers fans diaspora and helped establish a nationwide fan base. The team’s four Super Bowl titles, won as the NFL’s national television reach exploded in the 1970’s, didn’t hurt the brand either.

“So much of our identity as a city is wrapped up in this football team,” O’Brien said, “Like it’s a hard-nosed gritty team, and it kind of fuels you. It became part of your life.



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“When the city was struggling, and we had nothing and we were going bankrupt and losing jobs, the whole city looked to this football team. It’s like a source of hope and kind of took their minds off everything that was going on, and then you see that spread throughout the country. Everybody who relocated over the years, there’s still Steelers fans, there’s still this burning, ‘Once a Pittsburgher, always a Pittsburgher.”

Though Steelers fans have a particularly strong tie to their team, being defined by a sports team isn’t unique to Pittsburgh.

“Teams become part of our identity,” said Robert Fisher, a professor at the University of Alberta school of business who researches social expectations on managerial and consumer decision-making. “They become part of who we are. I think if you look at people who are sports fans, whether it’s English Premier League football or NHL or NFL or NBA, and you ask them to describe themselves, they’ll say, well, I’m a mother, a father, son, brother, I’m a professor. I’m a sportscaster, but eventually what they’ll come to is, and I’m a Steelers fan.”

And through that integral part of their identity, Fisher said, people form groups or tribes, and their actions are informed by what the group or tribe expects.

“Not everybody acts badly, but certainly there are lots and lots of examples of fans of sports teams — or celebrities going to a concert not approving of what the playlist is,” he said. “And so you throw something at Beyonce or you throw something at Harry Styles. Or you yell something out because they’re not acting in the way that the tribe is expected to act. And I think you see that with Fire Canada. It’s that ‘This is so important to who I am. The only way that I can kind of maintain my identity is by criticizing, by showing my displeasure, by showing that I’m not willing to tolerate this, and I’m also better than that.'”

And for a team like the Steelers that had unprecedented success in the 1970s and added two more Super Bowls in the 2000s, the backlash from fans can be even greater in what Fisher and one of his doctoral students coined the “Love Becomes Hate Effect.” In his research, Fisher found that consumer brands with the most loyal bases have the most extreme backlash when they don’t live up to expectations. The same can be true for sports teams and their fans.

“I think these winning sports teams, franchises,” Fisher said, “when they do fail to live up to expectations or when you are a very, very strong fan where you’ve painted your house black and gold and you have the Steeler flag on your car, when things go badly, those are the people who are going to attack your franchise and attack you and hate you or be very, very angry, at least because they’re the ones who feel the most betrayed.”

But why target Canada? Why not direct the ire toward quarterback Kenny Pickett, who has been inconsistent in his second season as the team’s starter with a 35.5 QBR? Or running back Najee Harris, a first-round pick averaging just 3.8 yards per carry over three seasons?

Sure, Pickett and Harris catch some flack on social media or in a stadiumwide blanket of boos after a three-and-out, but there’s a psychological reason Canada is the main target.

“It’s pretty rare that a fan base will direct their anger toward players, because that’s directing it toward the team.” Murray State psychology professor Daniel Wann said. “And for these highly identified fans, the team is an extension of themselves. So if they blame the team, now they’re blaming themselves. It’s an easier way to cope, to blame something else, the refs or the weather or whatever, including the assistant coaches.

“They’re just choosing a scapegoat that seems most logical to them.”

And because the Steelers’ decades of success were largely defined by stalwart defenses like the Steel Curtain, the offensive coordinator has often borne the brunt of fan frustration.

“The defense is our identity,” O’Brien said, “and it’s easy to see whenever the offense struggles and makes it harder for our beloved defense to work, that makes us angry. Because we got players like T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith and Joey Porter Jr. And they’re picking up the slack. They’re scoring their points. We have this great defense that doesn’t look great because our offense can’t move the ball.”

TODD HALEY KNOWS all about being the primary target of Steelers fans’ dissatisfaction.

The Steelers offensive coordinator from 2012 to ’17, Haley was almost universally despised by fans during his first two seasons, when the Ben Roethlisberger-led offense ranked 21st and 20th in total yards and 22nd and 16th in points scored.

The son of former Steelers director of player personnel Dick Haley, the younger Haley was taught from an early age to insulate himself from the critics. He remembers his dad stopped his subscription to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette each September, and when Haley became a coach, he took his dad’s advice and avoided reading the paper or checking social media.

“My only issues were with friends that were well-meaning, texting you things that you didn’t even know were said or being talked about,” Haley said. “So I’d in turn yell at them and say, you want to talk about regular stuff? Let’s do it, but I don’t want to know what somebody’s saying or any of that. And I worked very hard at that compartmentalization.”

But even though he worked hard at it, Haley couldn’t completely avoid the criticism. Haley remembers attending a Pirates game one offseason when a fan approached him as he looked at the river from the concourse.

“A guy acts like he knows me, and goes, ‘Hey, Todd Haley,’ and puts his hand out and then screams obscenities at me,” Haley said. “I was totally unprepared. … He snookered me, put his hand out, then pulled it back and started yelling stuff.”

Despite the heckling, Haley said he still loves Steelers fans.

“I wouldn’t change anything about the Pittsburgh fan base,” Haley said. “I’ve driven through Philly and listened to talk radio at times, and that’s no fun to be if you’re not winning. Chicago was no fun to be if you weren’t winning. And in most places, that’s why the stadiums are filled up. It comes with the territory.”

Sometimes that means taking heat from international celebrities with millions of fans.

In August 2014, Snoop Dogg, a big Steelers fan, posted an Instagram rant about Haley.

“Man, the Pittsburgh Steelers need a new f—in’ offensive coordinator, this guy sucks,” he said, in audio that has since been deleted. “Coach Tomlin, this is Snoop Dogg man, fire that mother f–ka and get us a real offensive coordinator.”

Almost a decade later, Snoop Dogg’s comments about Haley made the social media rounds again after the Steelers put up 243 yards in a 17-10 loss to the Patriots in Week 2 of the 2022 season. This time, though, fans applied his words to Canada.

“I don’t know Matt at all, but I root for him every single week,” Haley said. “Because of my background and growing up in Pittsburgh and my dad playing for the Steelers, then work for the Steelers, have Super Bowl rings from the Steelers, his pictures on the wall. I’ll always deep down root for the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

And as Canada’s offenses have continued to struggle, calls for Haley to return have intensified among fans.

“There was a time where Todd Haley was a popular scapegoat, but I mean, that was just the usual rhetoric,” O’Brien said. “‘We got Ben Roethlisberger, we have Le’Veon Bell. We should be winning championships.’ Todd Haley was an easy guy to blame. At this point, give me Todd Haley back. I love Todd Haley. Todd Haley is my favorite coordinator of all time right now.”

Haley, who was most recently coaching in the USFL, declined to say whether he was interested in returning to his old post.

“I’ve been in the seat, and one thing that I have great respect and scruples for is somebody that has a job, and I know how hard everybody’s working at their job,” Haley said. “So I could never even entertain that thought right now.”

SEEMINGLY LOST TO fans in the deluge of criticism is the person, the human behind the job title, receiving all of the hate.

“You almost are making him a sympathetic or empathetic figure now,” Essex said. “Because it’s gotten kind of ridiculous as many places that it’s been chanted so far, and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.”

“… Are people just blindly doing this at this point and not realizing there’s a person behind this, somebody’s family? I hope he doesn’t have kids at school that have to hear this.”

The rise and anonymity of social media is a significant factor in spreading fan movements and escalating the rhetoric being used, Wann said, because it allows people to feel “deindividuated” as they join in an online movement of their peers. It’s like moving a stadium full of angry fans to an online forum and multiplying them tenfold.

“All of a sudden they’ve lost their individuality, and they’re like, well, no one’s going to know, so I’m really going to let this person have it,” Wann said. “So you are combining ease of communication with a more hidden, anonymous form of communication, and it just lets people vent that much more frequently and that much more fervently.”

Blevins, though, uses his full name on his X profile, and frequently includes photos of his face in his tweets calling for Canada’s firing.

If the constant calls for his job are taking a toll, Canada isn’t showing it. After the first Fire Canada chants of the season during the Week 2 game against the Cleveland Browns, in which the Steelers eked out a 26-22 win thanks to a T.J. Watt fumble return, Canada said he understood the jeers.

“The fans want us to win,” he said in September. “They want us to play better, so there is nothing wrong with their passion and those things.”

In the six weeks since, Canada hasn’t publicly acknowledged the fan disdain, but on Tuesday, he cracked a joke when an iPhone fell off the mic stand in front of him during his weekly news conference that suggests he’s plenty aware.

“I didn’t touch that,” Canada said as he reached down to pick it up. “But somehow somebody will find a way to say I did.”

To Blevins, the movement is “good-natured, in a way.” Canada’s family might not agree with that characterization, but Blevins insists he would throw his support behind Canada if he got things turned around.

“It’s like, yes, although we’re frustrated, it’s not like we’re not rooting for him,” Blevins said. “I want to be wrong. I want to take the sign down. I would love for our offense to miraculously turn around and Canada to be the coordinator here for the next five years, if it’s successful. It just doesn’t feel like that’s ever going to happen.”

While Blevins admits he says things on social media that he wouldn’t say in real life, he’s firm that he draws the line at “someone making personal threats.” That also includes the X account made to appear as if it was a burner account belonging to Canada by posting responses defending Canada to tweets criticizing him.

“I think we’re all braver in digital form than we would be face-to-face,” Blevins said. “For me, it’s like I don’t want to hide behind the mask of anonymity. To me, that seems cheap and unfair … but there’s no chance that I’m going to bump into Matt Canada going to the grocery store or anything like that. People do feel a little more protected even when they’re not anonymous.”

And if he did see Canada in the frozen food section?

“I would probably just ignore him,” Blevins said.

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