After a season in which the Pittsburgh Steelers began as a potential Super Bowl contender, started 7-2-1 and somehow managed to miss the playoffs, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a positive vibe.
“I don’t think our window is closed,” Roethlisberger said.
That comment seemed dubious as Roethlisberger said it on Sunday night. Then it became practically laughable when we found out Monday what was going on behind the scenes last week.
The Steelers, who have trademarked locker room drama the past couple years, had star receiver Antonio Brown get in a heated argument with Roethlisberger in a Wednesday morning walkthrough, then basically go AWOL the rest of the week and show up Sunday looking to play. He was deactivated for a must-win game. If a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is true, the Steelers lied about Brown having a knee injury on the injury report. One player told the Post-Gazette it was “embarrassing” and “the worst I’ve seen.”
Where do you even start to fix these Steelers? There are plenty of big issues …
Mike Tomlin: As of Monday evening, there was no sign Tomlin wouldn’t be back on the job next season. He’s scheduled for a regular press conference on Wednesday, according to NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala. It might upset some fans who want a change, especially after a bad season, but the Steelers don’t fire coaches. And they’re very unlikely to find anyone in this thin candidate crop who is better than Tomlin. But some of the Steelers’ coaching decisions through their late collapse were questionable, to be polite. And that was before the Brown fiasco came to light. For multiple years, Tomlin hasn’t been able to calm down a locker room full of drama. Maybe that’s not all his fault, but he has to get a handle on it, somehow. That might include getting rid of …
Brown: Maybe there’s another side to the story of what happened last week that would change the perception of Brown. As it stands now, Brown basically bailed on his team when they had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. It’s not the first time the Steelers have had issues with Brown. It’s hard to believe Brown could come back to that locker room, but can the Steelers be better without him? He’s still a great player. According to Pro Football Talk, the Steelers would have to live with $21.12 million in dead money if they trade or cut Brown, though they could spread it out with about $7 million in 2019 and $14 million in 2020 by cutting him a post-June 1 designation. There’s no great answer here. Either the Steelers bring back a player who abandoned his team before a must-win game, or they lose a future Hall-of-Fame player and take a massive cap hit to do so. What fun.
Age: Roethlisberger will be 37 years old next season. Brown will be 31. Four-fifths of the Steelers offensive line will be 29 or older (though one of those players, left guard Ramon Foster, will be a free agent). Both of the Steelers’ starting cornerbacks this season will be in their 30s, as will Pro Bowl defensive lineman Cameron Heyward. There are some good young players on the roster, but there are also some key stars who could see a quick decline.
Flexibility: How can the Steelers improve? They were too good this season to get a great draft pick. They’ll pick 20th, the last pick before the 2018 playoff teams get their turn. They’re among the 10 teams with the least amount of projected available cap space, according to Spotrac. The Steelers can continue to tweak the roster, but they’re not going to make wholesale improvements. Also, even though it has been a foregone conclusion since he didn’t play this season, it’s worth noting the Steelers are going to lose an All-Pro player in Le’Veon Bell.
The 2018 collapse: To think the Steelers can contend in 2019 ignores the last seven weeks of this season. It started when the Steelers played terribly against the Jaguars but got lucky that Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone choked away the game. Then over the last six weeks of the season the Steelers went 2-4 and that included losses to the Broncos and Raiders. They looked bad in a tight win against the Bengals in Week 17, though it now appears the Brown situation affected them. To believe the Steelers — who don’t have the wiggle room to revamp the roster, are suddenly pretty old in key spots and have a mess of a situation to deal with when it comes to Brown — can return as Super Bowl contenders next season overlooks that they weren’t anywhere near that level for almost half of this season.
The Steelers will be one of the teams we focus on all offseason. They always are, because they’re a marquee team. And now they have some incredibly difficult questions to answer. Roethlisberger said he doesn’t think the Steelers’ window is closed, but it can’t be open by much anymore.
Here are the power rankings at the conclusion of the NFL’s regular season:
32. Arizona Cardinals (3-13, Last Week: 32)
No matter whether you agree with the Cardinals firing Steve Wilks or not, it does seem a bit odd he’d get no patience while general manager Steve Keim doesn’t seem to be under much pressure at all. It’s not like the roster Keim has put together is very good.
31. Oakland Raiders (4-12, LW: 31)
It’s not that Mike Mayock definitely won’t work out as Raiders general manager. Perhaps it will, because he’s a sharp guy. But the move will be received with more enthusiasm than it should because fans are familiar with Mayock’s TV work (which was consistently good) and the media likes him. But there’s obvious risk in hiring a 60-year-old with zero front-office experience. There are a lot of sharp people in front offices around the league waiting for a chance, they’re just not on your televisions.
30. San Francisco 49ers (4-12, LW: 29)
Year three for Kyle Shanahan will be a big one. He has gotten a lot of leeway for two terrible seasons. It’s hard to blame Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury for everything, including the 49ers giving up 48 points in the finale. I like Shanahan and think he’ll be a good coach, but there has to be progress in year three. Blind faith can only last so long.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11, LW: 28)
Of course you’d want to retain the entire power structure of the most disappointing team in the NFL this season. But hey, rip a couple players for sitting on the bench, that’s the real problem.
28. Cincinnati Bengals (6-10, LW: 30)
Marvin Lewis is finally out and unfortunately he became a punch line for his playoff record. And yes, 0-7 in the playoffs is unfortunate. But in the big picture, Lewis took over a job that was beyond toxic and made the Bengals respectable. He did a good job overall, though it was clearly time for a change.
27. Denver Broncos (6-10, LW: 27)
Vance Joseph didn’t do enough to keep his job so the move to fire him made sense. But here’s the problem: The Broncos job is a lot less attractive than the team or its fans will want to admit. I’m not even sure what you sell to a candidate. Case Keenum (maybe) at quarterback? John Elway, and his terrible recent track record, as your overlord GM? The most chaotic ownership situation in the NFL?
26. New York Jets (4-12, LW: 26)
Of all the coaches fired at the end of the season, the one I’d be most confident in succeeding elsewhere is Todd Bowles. I get why he was fired, but I still believe he can succeed in a better situation.
25. New York Giants (5-11, LW: 24)
Saquon Barkley’s 2,028 yards from scrimmage led the NFL. He was the only consistent part of a terrible offense. I get why someone would vote Baker Mayfield as the offensive rookie of the year, and I’d rather have Mayfield than Barkley on my team going forward due to quarterback value, but I’d still vote Barkley as OROY.
24. Detroit Lions (6-10, LW: 25)
Good of the Lions to finally show up this season, even if it took until Week 17. Maybe that shows the players are still buying what Matt Patricia is selling.
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11, LW: 23)
No surprise that Dirk Koetter got fired. But what has GM Jason Licht done to earn another season? Was it him passing on Derwin James (and others) in the 2018 draft for Vita Vea, or drafting Ronald Jones in the second round? Is it the Bucs’ 27-53 record since Licht became GM? It must be something that isn’t obvious, because there’s no clear answer.
22. Miami Dolphins (7-9, LW: 19)
The Dolphins are another team that had to make a coaching move — I can’t really think of one reason the Dolphins would have kept Adam Gase that doesn’t involve blaming Ryan Tannehill’s injuries — but they don’t have much to sell a good candidate. I’m also not sure why general manager Chris Grier survived, but a lot of teams decided to give GMs the type of patience not afforded head coaches. It’s a strange trend.
21. Buffalo Bills (6-10, LW: 20)
It’s not like Josh Allen had a great rookie season, but there seems to be something to build on. Everyone knew it would take time for him. Putting up three passing touchdowns and two running scores in the finale is a great way to enter the offseason.
20. Green Bay Packers (6-9-1, LW: 18)
If you had even a moment’s thought about interim Joe Philbin being a long-shot candidate for the permanent job, that should be gone after the Packers utterly rolled over in Week 17. Still though, I don’t get why any team would entertain the Josh McDaniels thought after what went down with the Colts a year ago.
19. Carolina Panthers (7-9, LW: 22)
It really never made sense why Ron Rivera’s job security was an issue. The Panthers weren’t going to hire a better coach, especially with this weak crop of candidates. Being patient and not just reacting to a bad season by firing a good coach is OK.
18. Washington Redskins (7-9, LW: 17)
The fiasco with dumping all of the business office executives but keeping the football people that are responsible for the messes on the field underscores that the Redskins will never be good as long as Daniel Snyder is owner. I’ve never seen another professional sports team have so many fans disavow it and change favorite teams.
17. Atlanta Falcons (7-9, LW: 21)
It’s an interesting offseason for the Falcons. Coaching-wise, they made their big move by firing their offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators. On the personnel side they have to look at their roster and feel the talent is still very good, despite the 7-9 season. But most teams don’t mostly keep things the same after a losing year.
16. Minnesota Vikings (8-7-1, LW: 14)
The Vikings aren’t making a move at coach or GM, and that makes sense despite a very disappointing season. It’s hard to run it back and expect more favorable results, but I don’t see a better option for the Vikings.
15. Cleveland Browns (7-8-1, LW: 16)
I don’t think Gregg Williams would be a good hire. But the Freddie Kitchens part of the equation is challenging. Kitchens did a very good job at offensive coordinator after Todd Haley was fired. Clearly the Browns should want him back. But I’m not sure making Kitchens the head coach would be the right move. Yet, it might cut down your pool of candidates to force an offensive coordinator on them. I’m not sure how the Browns navigate it all while retaining Kitchens as offensive coordinator.
14. Tennessee Titans (9-7, LW: 12)
We can give the Titans a pass for playing Week 17 without Marcus Mariota, but that’s part of the problem with the Titans. Mariota hasn’t stayed healthy yet. The term “injury prone” can be overused, but it’s getting more difficult to believe it’s bad luck with Mariota. And it’s hard to go into a season not knowing if you’ll get more than three-quarters of the season from your quarterback.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6-1, LW: 11)
When you think about what the Steelers will do about Antonio Brown this offseason, they’ll also consider how lost they looked without him in Week 17. The Steelers won, and because the Ravens won too it didn’t even matter, but that performance against the Bengals was troubling.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, LW: 15)
Doug Pederson did a great job down the stretch, after all seemed lost. On a day with so many firings, many pointed out that of the seven coaches hired in 2016, only Pederson remains.
11. Indianapolis Colts (10-6, LW: 13)
I wonder if Frank Reich will get coach of the year votes. Probably not because the Matt Nagy train seemed to leave the station long ago, but what Reich pulled off, getting the Colts to the playoffs after a 1-5 start, was remarkable.
10. Seattle Seahawks (10-6, LW: 10)
I really don’t get why the Seahawks and Cowboys played their starters an entire game. A week of rest would have been great for either. Was a meaningless last-second Week 17 win over the Cardinals really that important?
9. Baltimore Ravens (10-6, LW: 9)
The one issue the Ravens might have in the wild-card round is they won’t have the element of surprise. That has been a big edge since Lamar Jackson got the starting job. The Chargers just saw this offense two weeks ago. Still, that doesn’t make it easier to move the ball on Baltimore’s defense.
8. Dallas Cowboys (10-6, LW: 8)
Something to keep in mind: The Cowboys are a different team at home. They were 7-1 at home and 3-5 on the road. That’s great for the opener against the Seahawks, which will be in Texas. Might not be so good for subsequent rounds, if Dallas advances.
7. Houston Texans (11-5, LW: 7)
It was a bit surprising to see Deshaun Watson have 13 rushing attempts in Week 17, his most of the season. He had 10 rushing attempts on Oct. 7, and hadn’t reached double digits in any other game. It gives the Colts something to think about before their wild-card matchup against the Texans.
6. Los Angeles Chargers (12-4, LW: 5)
Perhaps lost a bit among all of Monday’s coaching news was that ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported tight end Hunter Henry, considered lost for the season to an ACL injury, is expected to play in Sunday’s wild-card game. Expectations should be too high, but even if Henry can be a factor for a few red-zone snaps, that’s a huge boost for the Chargers.
5. New England Patriots (11-5, LW: 6)
It’s a little scary to trust what you see in Week 17, with so many teams struggling to find motivation. Maybe the Patriots’ 38-3 win on Sunday was a product of the Jets checking out early. But that was as good as the Patriots have looked all season. It was Tom Brady’s best game of the year, rating wise, all season. Maybe the Patriots are just turning it on at the right time?
4. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, LW: 4)
Not that the Raiders’ offense is great, but the Chiefs defense looked very good in a 35-3 Week 17 win. It’ll be a lot tougher facing the Ravens, Chargers or Colts in the divisional round, but if the Chiefs get anywhere near that level of performance by the defense in the playoffs, they’ll be just fine.
3. Chicago Bears (12-4, LW: 3)
Good teams can’t keep top assistants forever. Still, it would be a huge blow for the Bears to lose defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to a head-coaching job. In the big picture, Fangio leaving the Bears would be as important as any other coaching news this offseason.
2. Los Angeles Rams (13-3, LW: 2)
Aaron Donald finished with 20.5 sacks. That’s the new record for a defensive tackle in a season and that record (which had stood for almost 30 years) might last a long time … unless Donald breaks it himself.
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3, LW: 1)
While Week 17 was meaningless to the Saints, you’d have liked to see a little more effort, especially since New Orleans did play a lot of starters. Instead, they were blasted by Kyle Allen and a Panthers team that had nothing to play for. We’ll chalk it up to Week 17 apathy, but it’s not the way you want to go into the playoffs.
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