PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers left no doubt last spring.
As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger healed from right elbow surgery, the organization he's helped lead for the better part of two decades dismissed the idea of finding his eventual heir following an 8-8 finish, adamant the franchise's Super Bowl window with Roethlisberger at the controls remained open.
They used free agency to bring in tight end Eric Ebron and veteran lineman Stefen Wisniewski. They spent nearly $10 million on fullback and special teams ace Derek Watt. They drafted wide receiver Chase Claypool in the second round. They placed the franchise tag on outside linebacker Bud Dupree.
Nearly every decision pointed toward the Steelers returning to prominence in 2020. And for three months, it worked. Roethlisberger played flawlessly at times during an 11-0 start.
The defense continued to wreak havoc in opposing backfields, leading the NFL in sacks for a fourth straight year in the process. Claypool looked very much like one of the best rookies in the league.
Still, the signs of weakness were there during that giddy stretch. Narrow wins against teams led by Jeff Driskel (Denver), Garrett Gilbert (Dallas) and Robert Griffin III (Baltimore). An occasional issue with giving up the big play. A running game that started off adequate before disappearing almost entirely.
Then, it all fell apart. Four losses in the final five games to end the regular season followed by an embarrassing 48-37 beatdown at home by Cleveland in the wild-card round. While the numbers look good on paper — a 12-5 final record and an AFC North title — the misery of the last six weeks erased all the good vibes that came before.
“We were a group that died on the vine,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
A loss Roethlisberger and good friend and longtime center Maurkice Pouncey mourned on the bench late Sunday night, wondering if their highly successful partnership was in its final moments.
“I hate that it ended the way it did,” Roethlisberger said. "I just wanted to apologize to (Pouncey) that I wanted to win it for him."
Roethlisberger stressed he was just talking about the season. Still, it's fair to wonder if the era of remarkable success that began when he jogged onto the field in Baltimore to replace an injured Tommy Maddox on Sept. 19, 2004, is over too.
The 38-year-old Roethlisberger's current deal lasts through the 2021 season. While the two-time Super Bowl winner will take the offseason to weigh his options, he has frequently pointed out that he has played through the entirety of every contract he's ever signed.
“I hope the Steelers want me back, if that’s the way we go,” he said. “There will be a lot of discussions.”
Not all of them will center around the future Hall of Famer.
SALARY CAP COMPLICATIONS
After kicking the can down the road financially for years, the bill may finally be due.
The list of pending free agents includes Dupree, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, left guard Matt Feiler, defensive back Mike Hilton and defensive tackle Tyson Alualu.
While Smith-Schuster insists he wants to stay, there's a very real chance he may have priced himself out of the market for a team that's already an estimated $13 million over the projected 2021 cap with Smith-Schuster and company off the books.
Restructuring big-dollar contracts such as Roethlisberger's and defensive tackle Cam Heyward's might ease a bit of the pain. Still the Steelers would have to get extremely creative to find a way to pay Smith-Schuster what he likely would command on the open market, particularly while the team also finds a way to work out a long-term deal with All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who will command a massive raise after leading the NFL with 15 sacks.
RUNNING IN PLACE
In mid-November, Tomlin boasted Pittsburgh's offense “could give it to you however you want it.”
Not really. The Steelers finished last in the NFL in both yards rushing and yards per carry. That imbalance allowed opponents to basically ignore Conner and Benny Snell Jr. and focus their attention on disrupting the timing in the short-passing game. It's not a coincidence that Roethlisberger threw four picks over the first 10 games and 10 over the last seven.
Conner continued to have injury issues pop up. Snell was wildly erratic. The offensive line appeared overwhelmed when asked to mash instead of drop back into pass protection.
There is no heir apparent at left tackle for Villanueva and the idea of the line developing cohesion in the running game — something it hasn't really had since the first half of the 2018 season — seems a stretch. There's no money to splurge on an established veteran in free agency, making adding talent and depth in the draft a priority.
THE STANDARD IS THE STANDARD
The Steelers haven't endured a losing season since 2003, the longest active streak in the NFL, a remarkable achievement considering the salary cap is designed to create parity. That sustained success is part of what sets Pittsburgh apart.
Yet the Steelers also play in a conference where the four teams playing during the divisional round are led by quarterbacks 25 and younger. Three of them — Buffalo's Josh Allen, Cleveland's Baker Mayfield and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson — are still on their first contracts, which gives their respective teams money to build around them.
If Roethlisberger and his $41 million cap hit return, that likely won't be the case in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers went all-in this season and still haven't won a playoff game since Barack Obama was president. They've allowed 37 points or more in each of their past three postseason defeats, losses in which they never once led.
They've been good for a long time. They haven't been great since falling to Green Bay in the Super Bowl a decade ago. That's not the ultimate standard in Pittsburgh. And they know it.
“Our record is our record,” Tomlin said. “Our performances are our performances. Don’t run away from that.”
Maybe, but it might be time to accept it.
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