Since 2004, Steeler Nation has waived its Terrible Towels in three Super Bowls and more divisional playoff games and conference championships than any team other than the New England Patriots. But a price has to be paid at some point for this level of success to continue.
What that price entails will be based on what course of action the Steelers organization chooses to take and will make this off-season unlike any other off-season that many, if not most, in Steeler Nation have ever experienced.
To answer the question, we must understand what is being asked.
To "Re-Load" means the Steelers front office believes it has the core players necessary to make a serious run at its seventh Lombardi trophy in 2013.
To "Re-Build" means the Steelers front office believes the core players that have given the Steelers its fifth and sixth Lombardis have passed their prime and no longer can contribute to a Super Bowl run or justify the salaries they are making.
"Afford" has a double meaning: the first is quite obvious in this salary cap intensive age; can the Steelers find the right mix of existing players to produce a Super Bowl contending team given the constraints of the salary cap and existing salaries?
The second meaning of "Afford" itself has two levels of meaning.
1) Can the Steelers "afford" to only
re-load in an attempt to wring out of the remaining core players responsible for their recent past successes the last few drops of top level performance they may (or may not) have left in them? Is there enough "juice" left in Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Willie Colon and Casey Hampton to justify carrying their salaries for another year? For just as sure as a Harbaugh will win the Super Bowl this year, the window on the Steelers' Second Dynasty is closing.
2) Can the Steelers "afford" the time it will take to re-build after its mediocre 8-8 performance this past season, and the less-than-stellar performances of its more recent draft picks such as Evander Hood, Chris Carter, Stevenson Sylvester, Jason Worilds, Jonathan Dwyer, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and UFDA Isaac Redman? Can they wait the years it takes to re-build given the evidence of recent cracks in the invulnerability of the Steelers' franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who for the third year in a row couldn't avoid an injury that seriously hampered his ability to play at the elite level this team needs to win its seventh Lombardi trophy?
As General Manager Kevin Colbert's recent public statements specify, the Steelers' 8-8 finish in 2012 does not lend support to any logical assumption that its current roster of players gives hope that next season will be any better. If the Steelers decide they can "afford" to just re-load, isn't that just delaying the inevitable? And if they're wrong, they've wasted another of their franchise QB's limited number of years he has left playing at a high level.
If the Steelers decide they can only afford to re-build, what confidence do we have that the next few draft years will be better than the previous ones, which pound-for-pound have not produced players comparable to those they were drafted to replace. And can they re-build the defense using the same scheme, or do they have to consider changing that as well?
All facets of the Steelers' performance were found wanting to one serious degree or another. The running game was inconsistent and given the questionable future of Rashard Mendenhall, there is little evidence to place much faith on the ability or durability of Dwyer or Redman to become the feature backs.
Can the current defensive scheme afford the loss of Harrison, Hampton and/or Keisel and continue to operate as schemed? Can the secondary under Carnell Lake continue its impressive growth without a Polamalu, Lewis, Taylor or Clark? Given the structure of vaunted defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's "bend but don't break" scheme with the imperative mission of his D-line to contain the run and his linebackers to get to the quarterback quickly to break the offense's tempo and effectiveness, failing to garner much in the way of interceptions and sacks means little or no pressure was consistently brought to bear and teams with QBs like the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo, San Diego Chargers' Phillip Rivers or even the Oakland Raiders' Carson Palmer and Tennessee Titans Matt Hasselbeck were able to carve up the Steelers defense and steal victories.
So, what can the Steelers afford to do? Can they afford another mediocre season that most likely will occur if Colbert and the Rooney's declare it's time to re-build and terminate the services of many of its highly paid veterans? Can Roethlisberger, after a second off- season of deciphering Todd Haley's offense, re-emerge as one of the premier quarterbacks of the NFL behind an offensive line suddenly infused with youth but lacking experience and still be able to score enough points to compensate for a defense whose sudden youth-by-subtraction brings its continuing dominance into question?
Or can the Steelers afford the gamble that re-loading would represent? It's a gamble that Colon can stay healthy for the majority of a season, that Kelvin Beachum has what it takes to be a true starter, or that DeCastro and Adams will perform together at a level to justify their being selected in the first and second rounds (respectively). It's a gamble that Polamalu will play more than half the season given his track record since 2009; it's a gamble that the Steelers can afford to keep Harrison and
guard Ramon Foster and
re-sign CB Keenan Lewis, and
find a receiver to replace the production of free agent Wallace.
If the Steelers gamble on a "re-load" by shifting the current contract monies of some/many of the players mentioned out to future years, are they not gambling the salary cap will rise sufficiently to cover the extra monies that will turn into dead money should either the gamble in 2013 not pay off and, even if it does, the eventuality that these core players' careers must come to an end?
And if the Steelers elect to "re-build" by shedding many of the high-priced players currently under contract, are they not gambling that their current crop of young players will be affordable in a few years, but more importantly, will be performing at a post-season worthy level?
All of this then begs another question: For Steeler Nation to remain the standard by which all other fan bases are measured, what can Steeler Nation afford to have the Steelers do, and maintain its position as the most loyal of all fan bases?