The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the year out at 8-8 after an… up and down season. The .500 record for many of the other teams across the league would have been considered a blessing (just ask the Kansas City Chiefs), but for a franchise that has a well documented tradition of success, stability and… well… more success, the record represented a failed season.
They missed out on the playoffs, they lost to the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field, and finished the season 2-5 after a 6-3 start. Again, a poor finish is something that occurs to many teams, but Pittsburgh has always made a living on finishing strong, making a deep run into the playoffs and challenging for the Super Bowl. That wasn’t this team and now some are beginning to wonder if this is the start of something rather than a mere anomaly.
Adam Schein, a columnist for NFL.com, has recently written about that prospect. In his article (linked at the top of this post), he essentially brings attention to the fact that the Steelers not only failed to achieve their goals this season, but also that they seem, now, to be falling short of the “Model Franchise” moniker. In fact, he even compares the Steelers to the present day New York Jets who have been the example of disfunction in the NFL.
Let’s be careful with that comparison.
However, Schein brings up some interesting points. As both Schein’s article and the one from CBS Pittsburgh (above) bring up, the Steelers are having some uncharacteristic behavior as of late. First, an unnamed player called out star LB, LaMarr Woodley, calling him “awful” because he “wasn’t in shape” (the player told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), which, as the player says, are linked to Woodley’s poor work ethic. Then S Ryan Clark commented to NFL Network that the unnamed player was “cowardly”. Top it off with WR Antonio Brown saying the locker room was divided last season and Schein has plenty to work with. All those factors are “New York Jet-esque” after all.
Heck, even former Steeler WR Hines Ward has offered his input to what has happened to his former team and it doesn’t paint a very positive picture.
Ward isn’t necessarily saying there were problems – since he wasn’t there – but does happen to shape this entire issue up rather nicely saying that this sort of drama is not the “Steeler way”.
What does this mean though?
Well, for a couple years now there have been rumblings of a falloff for the Steelers. They are, after all, one of the older teams in the NFL, specifically on defense where they are the 5th oldest in the NFL as of just a week ago (Feb. 17, 2013) and their offensive line has widely been considered below average and a major weakness on offense. Even with all of those factors, Pittsburgh continued to dominate the AFC North and make the playoffs by playing sound, physical, top-5 defense and continue to make Super Bowl runs. At some point the fountain of youth had to run out, and it seems that this season could be the beginning of the unraveling.
Putting this past season into perspective, Pittsburgh had a multitude of factors against them. That “leaky” offensive line actually played pretty well considering the injuries they had to deal with (the main one being to G David Decastro), but it still wasn’t a good year for the hogs up front. It was and is still an issue. QB Ben Roethlisberger was injured for a couple games and the 38-year old Charlie Batch had to fill in. WR Mike Wallace sat out training camp for more money, the offense was breaking in new offensive coordinator Todd Haley and that created conflict with Roethlisberger. The run game was pretty awful finishing 26th in the league behind RB Jonathan Dwyer because starter Rashard Mendenhall couldn’t hold on to the ball or get healthy… and he was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team.
Are those all chemistry issues?
Not necessarily, but most are. Maybe a lack of focus? Maybe a lack of talent? So many have thought age would be responsible for the Steelers downfall, but the Pittsburgh defense still finished 1st in the league in total defense and pass defense and finished 2nd in rush defense. The fact of the matter is that there is some disconnect in Pittsburgh right now. Head coach Mike Tomlin needs to get everyone back on track and playing the “Steelers-way”. There are plenty of teams that deal with chemistry issues and how it is managed can be the difference between wins and losses.
The problem is that they don’t have a lot to look forward to at this point. Wallace is on his way out, considering how much he is asking for, LB James Harrison and Mendenhall are also on their way out, TE Heath Miller may be in the same boat and that doesn’t necessarily solve their ongoing salary cap situation. Whether there were problems last year or not, there are key things that need to be changed within the team dynamic and with the roster as it continues to face cap issues. While it is easy to chalk last season’s 8-8 record as an anomaly for a Steelers organization that normally wins 10+ games, Schein brings up an interesting story to watch. For a franchise that has been the epitome of stability, and success, the Steelers have their work cut out for them if they are to avoid a decline in the highly competitive AFC North.