Rooney gives his state of the Steelers
Over the course of 30 minutes Tuesday afternoon, Art Rooney laid out plenty of information and his own opinions about the Steelers of 2011 and where they are headed in '12.
It included his statement that the Steelers find themselves in their stickiest salary-cap situation in the past 20 years, his idea that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger needs to "tweak" his style in order to get sacked less, that his offense needs to score more and that some tough decisions will have to be made on venerable veteran players that might include Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith.
He also predicted his father, Dan Rooney, will step down as Ambassador to Ireland this year and return in some capacity to the Steelers.
The Steelers are about $25 million over their individual salary cap which should be around $124 million next season and are deciding how to shed about 20 percent of that payroll by the March 13 deadline.
"I would say it's probably as big an issue as we've had to face," Rooney said. "There will be some tough decisions. There will probably have to be some contracts that get restructured and things like that. No question, there's a lot of work to be done."
Rooney would not say which players might have to either go or have their salaries scaled back in order for them to stick around. When asked specifically about Ward and his status for 2012, he was noncommittal.
"Hines is a great player. He's one of the all-time Steelers. Hopefully, he's a Hall of Famer. All of those things, you want it to end the right way whenever it ends. But it's a two-party decision. We'll evaluate how we feel about it over the next few weeks, we'll talk to Hines -- I've already had one conversation with Hines, so the communications are already started. We will all get to our decision in due time."
Among the many topics Rooney broached Tuesday:
• Despite the bloated payroll that must be pared, "it's not a situation where we're looking to sort of tear things apart and start over. There are a lot of key pieces to the puzzle and young players on offense that I think will get better, the receivers being a particular bright spot. We have a couple good young offensive linemen. We have our franchise quarterback. So, I think the pieces are there to get better. We just have to do what we need to do to build on that."
• Roethlisberger needs to take fewer sacks as he turns 30.
"I'm not sure if I'd say change his style of play. He may need to tweak it a little bit, but Ben is Ben, and you wouldn't want to try to convince him to completely change his game. A lot of what he does is the reason he is successful. On the other side of the coin, he is turning 30, and we do need him to stay healthy, and taking fewer sacks would probably help that equation."
• He expects Dan Rooney to step down as Ambassador and return to the Steelers this year.
"I think he'll come back and be a key player, let's put it that way. He obviously enjoys being part of the team. We'll look forward to having him back whenever he decides he's coming back. He hasn't given me a date yet."
• No question, Rooney said, that signing wide receiver Mike Wallace "will be one of the priorities" this year. Wallace becomes a restricted free agent March 13.
• The Steelers will add 3,000 seats to Heinz Field after the 2012 season. They will be in the open end zone, where the temporary seats were installed for the Penguins' Winter Classic. They will turn to their season-ticket waiting list to sell them.
• Rooney said a few coaches are considering retirement, but would not say who they might be. (Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has told them he wants to return.)
• He called the Steelers' 29-23 loss on the first play of overtime in the wild-card playoff game at Denver "the worst ending to a playoff game" he has experienced. He said, however, that injuries were not to blame.
• "We didn't reach our ultimate goal," Rooney said. "But, on the other side, there are positive things we can take out of it." Among those: A good mix of younger and older players, including younger players they signed to long-term deals last year who they hope will become a new core for the future.
• As for some of the negatives: "We need to take fewer sacks," need to be more consistent on offense, need to do better than No. 21 in scoring, need to come up with more sacks and turnovers on defense. "Those are areas we want to try to be better at next year," Rooney said.
• The positives: "We have a good mix of younger players and veterans on this team." And they have their quarterback signed long-term.
• He thought Mike Tomlin and his coaches "did a good job," especially because the lockout put "more pressure" on the coaching staff.
• Under normal circumstances, the Steelers make no splash in free agency and, with their cap the way it is, that will hold true again.
"It's unlikely that we'll be a big player in the free-agent market, I think that's fair to say. I think it will be similar to how we pursued it in the past. Our key interest will be to keep the players we have, to see if we can sign some of our younger players to longer-term contracts, that will be our key goal. If we have an opportunity to fit in a piece here and a piece there, we'll look at it."
Rooney also said he was "optimistic" about the ultimate recovery of Kirby Wilson, the Steelers running backs coach severely burned in a home fire Jan. 6. Later, Wilson's family released the following statement:
"Mr. Kirby Wilson remains in critical condition in the Trauma Burn Center at UPMC Mercy in Pittsburgh. In addition to burns sustained over 45 percent of his body, he has suffered a smoke inhalation injury and will require multiple operative procedures in the future."
Tyler Grisham, a popular receiver on the Steelers practice squad the past three seasons, was signed by the Denver Broncos. ... Doctors are still evaluating Brett Keisel's groin injury in the playoff at Denver to determine if he needs surgery. ... Rashard Mendenhall has had surgery on his ACL
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Thank God the old man is coming back. Maybe, just maybe he can talk some sense into the other owners about Adolf Badell and the (wrong) direction the leage is heading. Doubtful but if anyone has a chance, it's Dan.