Can Steelers avoid mediocrity?
There's little to suggest they'll avoid trap that snares even the best franchises
Originally Published: August 18, 2013
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com
There are a few reasons to believe the Pittsburgh Steelers will bounce back from a mediocre 8-8 season in 2012: history, determination, pride. Then there is the reality: None of that will to help this team this coming fall.
The closer we get to this regular season, the more the Steelers look like they could be even less competitive than when they finished 8-8 last year. It's simply their time to struggle through the same stretch of futility that hits every organization eventually.
Optimists like to point to how Pittsburgh historically has played after missing the postseason -- the Steelers have made the playoffs in the season that followed their past three years without a postseason appearance. But it's hard to see the positives in this bunch. The offense has quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a ton of questions. The defense is old and missing key performers from a unit that led the league in total yards allowed in 2012. Head coach Mike Tomlin remains among the best in the business, but even he doesn't have the ability to create miracles.
The Steelers' best hope may be that Le'Veon Bell emerges as a bruiser in the Jerome Bettis mold.
The Steelers, always a model of consistency, are basically facing the same challenges that all storied franchises must deal with sooner or later. Nobody stays dominant forever. The NFL is filled with too many roadblocks, too many traps for even the smartest of franchises. For a team like Pittsburgh, it's apparent that they don't have the goods to rise above those potential pitfalls.
The team's age is a major issue. Even after losing notable veterans such as James Harrison and Casey Hampton, there is still a lot of mileage on the defense. Star safety Troy Polamalu isn't nearly as disruptive as he once was, and cornerback Ike Taylor and free safety Ryan Clark are both 33 years old. There is young talent at linebacker -- where pass-rusher LaMarr Woodley and inside force Lawrence Timmons still roam -- but more help is needed.
The offense offers just as many questions. It has been years since Roethlisberger has taken snaps behind an offensive line that could be described as sturdy and it's anybody's guess as to how well he'll coexist with offensive coordinator Todd Haley this season. Those two were so disconnected by the end of last season that Roethlisberger was openly critical of Haley's play-calling after a loss in Dallas. Given Haley's fiery personality and Roethlisberger's stature, more fireworks are likely.
Roethlisberger should be more focused on helping the supporting cast around him mature in a hurry. The Steelers had an abysmal rushing attack last season (when they ranked 26th in the NFL), and they're hoping rookie Le'Veon Bell can headline a committee of running backs. The same uncertainty surrounds the passing game. Speedster Mike Wallace left for Miami during the offseason, putting pressure on Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown to be major difference-makers in the coming months, especially after Plaxico Burress recently sustained a shoulder injury that could be career-ending.
The Steelers basically resemble every other legendary franchise that hits hard times. The San Francisco 49ers had their struggles in the mid-2000s. The Dallas Cowboys bottomed out in the late 1990s. Before the arrival of Robert Griffin III last year, the Washington Redskins had been a train wreck for most of the past two decades. The only thing that separated those franchises from the Steelers was the common denominator in their problems: gross mismanagement.
Pittsburgh has been the best-run organization in the NFL for the past 40 years, and the proof is in the hardware. No franchise has won more Super Bowls during that time (six) and few can match that consistency. The Steelers have suffered through only seven losing seasons in the past four decades. They've had only three coaches -- Tomlin, Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll -- during that run.
That level of success is the major reason it's so hard to envision their impending demise now. They've always beaten the odds. They've rarely stayed down for long. Just when it seems they've lost one too many key performers, another unheralded contributor steps up his game. This team seemingly can do no wrong at finding players to fit most pressing needs.
The Steelers have been so good in this department that they've never had to go on a spending spree in free agency. The coaches simply waited for their draft picks to grow up, step in and live up to expectations. But that formula will not be as reliable this coming fall. There are too many holes for the Steelers to fill. It's hard to believe they can be that fortunate at every position requiring an upgrade.
This team actually needs to get back to its roots before it ever can become championship-caliber again. Iconic Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward once said Pittsburgh is at its best when it has a strong running game and a dominant offensive line. Neither of those qualities has been seen around this organization in a very long time. As talented as Roethlisberger is at throwing the football, he'd be better off if Bell emerged as a bruising banger in the mold of Jerome Bettis.
It's anybody's guess as to whether that will happen quickly, if at all. The safe bet right now is that this is the third best team in the AFC North, a squad that might be lucky to reach .500 again. It's not that the Steelers don't have some potential. It's just that they don't have enough to sell the notion that their struggles will be easily resolved.