BY WILL GRAVES
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the NFL’s most stable franchises for years, opting for small tweaks rather than drastic makeovers. It’s a formula that’s worked with unparalleled success, as evidenced by the team’s six Super Bowl victories.
Still, it might be time for a change.
Following an 8-8 season that included a second-half collapse, general manager Kevin Colbert said Wednesday the gap between the Steelers and the four teams still alive in the playoffs is “significant” and needs to be addressed over the next six months.
“Are we close to those teams? No, because we haven’t played since the first week of January,” Colbert said.
Colbert insists he’s not overreacting. Sure, the Steelers could have salvaged a postseason berth with a play here or there. Only they didn’t. And he’s not sure that’s a bad thing.
“When you’re 12-4 and a playoff team, you get mesmerized by your success and maybe you’re a little reluctant to change,” Colbert said. “Not that you don’t try to upgrade every year. We were 12-4 (in 2011) but we were eliminated in the first round. In reality we went just one week deeper than we did this year.”
It’s the kind of downward trend the Steelers have largely avoided over the last two decades, though Pittsburgh has been through a very regular pattern this millennium, missing the playoffs every three years: 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012.
If the pattern holds, the Steelers are locks to play into January and beyond in 2013 and 2014. Colbert doesn’t expect it to just happen organically. At a place that goes by the motto “the standard is the standard,” it certainly was not met in 2012 by the players on the roster, the coaching staff or the front office.
While there are no plans to make any major moves within the organization – though offensive coordinator Todd Haley and assistant general manager Omar Khan are up for jobs with other teams – expect to see some familiar faces move on during the offseason.
“If we don’t change 8-8, if we don’t change the roster that produced 8-8, we’d be silly to expect a better result if we’ve got the same group of guys,” he said. “We can’t box ourselves in and limit what we potentially could do.”
Colbert stressed the issue was not effort or preparation, but results. The Steelers were 3-5 in games decided by a field goal. They needed to sweep Cincinnati and Cleveland at home in the final two weeks of the season and only earned a split.
The defense struggled early in the season. The offense struggled late. Save for a three-week stretch in the middle of the year – wins over the Bengals, Redskins and Giants – Pittsburgh was very much an average team. While defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s unit was No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed, it created just 20 turnovers, four in a meaningless season finale win over Cleveland.
“We weren’t great in takeaways but we were No. 1 in a lot of different areas,” he said. “Was it good enough? No.”
Though injuries cost Pittsburgh starters 52 games, which Colbert said was 11th-most in the league, he’s not using it as an excuse. He pointed out four playoff teams had starters miss more playing time. Pittsburgh’s staff will meet on Thursday to evaluate the injury situation to see if anything can be done from a preventative standpoint but Colbert knows they’re simply a part of the game.
So is the salary cap. The Steelers have just started the process of accessing where they’ll be when the cap is officially set and Colbert anticipates to be somewhere around the $121 million mark. He declined to comment specifically on Pittsburgh’s impending free agents – including wide receiver Mike Wallace – but doesn’t expect to place the franchise tag on anyone.
“When you’re 8-8, I don’t think we had too many franchise players,” he said.
Colbert has some sense of what the free agent market will look like, but the Steelers have rarely made a splashy signing in the spring. They prefer to build through the draft, and Colbert said there are no positions that are off limits. That includes perhaps looking for someone early in the draft to serve as a backup to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed three games this season with a sprained shoulder and dislocated rib.
“We won’t close the door on any position in any round,” Colbert said. “We can’t.”
Yet he understands the team can ill afford to make the kind of errors it made last spring. The Steelers took nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu in the fourth round and running back Chris Rainey in the fifth.
Ta’amu was suspended, cut then re-signed to the practice squad following his arrest on multiple felony charges stemming from a chase through Pittsburgh’s South Side district in October. Rainey was released last week hours after being charged with domestic battery during a confrontation with his girlfriend in Florida.
Colbert said Rainey lost the trust of the organization, which is why he was let go.
“We understood the risk and took it and quite honestly in a couple of situations it didn’t work out,” he said.
After narrowly escaping the franchise’s first losing season in nearly a decade, Colbert knows the Steelers need to find some help in the draft. And in free agency. And wherever else they can get a boost.
“It can change very quickly,” Colbert said. “It has to change for our sake.”