With all due respect to the Pittsburgh Steelers, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, general manager Kevin Colbert, head coach Mike Tomlin and all of the Steelers faithful, you've had a good run, but now it is time for some disappointment.
No more "restocking," "refocusing" or "resetting."
It's time to rebuild.
I get that this is a hard reality to swallow. Big Ben said so himself, via Alan Robinson of TribLive.com:
I hate it when people say you're rebuilding because to me that's a slap in the face to the people that are out there playing. You sit there and say, ‘They're young, they're rebuilding,' but what about the guys that are out there playing?
Well, um...Big Ben, the guys who are out there playing kind of stink.
The Steelers are 3-6 this season after going 8-8 in 2012. That record includes losing three of their last four with Roethlisberger back from this three-game absence due to injury. Common wisdom suggests that, maybe—just maybe—had Big Ben not gotten injured, the Steelers could have snuck into the playoffs last season.
With heralded rookie additions like running back Le'Veon Bell and linebacker Jarvis Jones, the excitement around this team was palpable this offseason. It was supposed to be a bounce-back year. Three out of the four "Around the League" bloggers for NFL.com picked the Steelers to win the division. Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller did as well. Heck, Mike Freeman picked them to go to the Super Bowl!
Instead, here we are, talking about rebuilding.
The Decision-Makers Are Probably Going to Stay, But They Need New Faces Around Them
When we talk about rebuilding, we have to start at the top.
Typically, rebuilds also include a regime change. New general managers and head coaches are brought in to shake up stagnant personnel and bring new perspective. Sometimes it works; other times, teams are left constantly overhauling their team every few years and never actually get better (see: Oakland Raiders).
For better or worse, that isn't the Steelers way.
Based on their history, the Steelers clearly believe (and I agree) that consistency in decision-making is more valuable than constantly reaching for the next biggest name on the market. This team has had three coaches in the last 44 years, and that isn't going to change while the Rooney family is in charge.
Chuck Noll had lean years. Bill Cowher had disappointing seasons.
Expect general manager Kevin Colbert, who has been with the team since 2000, and head coach Mike Tomlin, who has been in charge since 2007, to be given full authority to turn this ship around. They've both had success in the past, and this ownership believes in them.
That doesn't mean they can't shake things up a little bit, though.
I'm of the personal opinion that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is one of the finest defensive minds the game has ever seen. If he wants to keep coaching, you let him.
However, at age 76, it's worth discussing whether or not he's going to be around to see this thing through. The man should enjoy retirement at some point—even if he can still keep up with the rigors of the position. You don't simply get rid of him, but you at least must have that conversation with him.
On the offensive side of the ball, the discussion is much easier with coordinator Todd Haley: "Goodbye, enjoy your next job in college, Canada or wherever else you find yourself." Haley has been terrible for this offense and continues to be mired in offensive philosophy from a decade ago.
Earlier this month, B/R's AFC North Lead Writer, Andrea Hangst, called for Haley's head in a column, noting how his offense doesn't properly utilize Roethlisberger and also that a running philosophy doesn't jive with how this line was constructed.
Tomlin, it's time to shake up your coaching staff.
Bring in a fresh offensive mind who promises to allow Roethlisberger to do what he does best—someone like Kansas City Chiefs quarterback coach Matt Nagy, New Orleans Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi or Dallas Cowboys receivers coach Derek Dooley. Give the players you have the best chance to succeed.
On defense, whether or not LeBeau stays, some fresh blood needs to be brought in. Bring back former Steelers player and coach Kevin Greene (currently the outside linebackers coach for the Green Bay Packers), either as defensive coordinator or DC-in-waiting. If Greene isn't available, go for someone like Houston Texans defensive backs coach Vance Joseph or Detroit Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.
You know how you get coaches like that—even if it's just a "lateral" move while they wait for LeBeau to retire? You get rid of assistant head coach/DL coach John Mitchell, who has been with the team longer than anyone, but hasn't gotten anything out of countless draft picks along the team's defensive front.
The front office needs new blood as well.
Maybe whoever got up on the table and demanded that Larry Foote be given a new three-year contract before this season should be shown the door. Perhaps the scouts who liked players like offensive linemen Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert and Chris Scott need to go too. Decision-making in the NFL isn't quite as simple as that, but mistakes have been made, and someone has to answer for them.
OK, Maybe Big Ben Stays, Too, but He Needs New Help As Well
If you believe NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (I do), Roethlisberger isn't happy with the road this team is going down, and people around him think he might be disgruntled enough to want out if changes don't happen.
Publicly, Roethlisberger is saying exactly what needs to be said—things like: "I want to be a Steeler for life," according to Ed Bouchette of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
That very well may be true, but it doesn't mean that the discussions won't be had. Also according to Rapoport, the team listened to trade offers for Big Ben last season, and if the Steelers are shaking things up, they might again.
Whatever happens, the Steelers must hold out for a sweetheart deal—maybe they could get the ol' "Herschel Walker deal." I mean, they most likely won't, but they could always try.
They must also ignore Roethlisberger's public statements, because they're just that—statements. I believe wholeheartedly that he wants to retire as a Steeler, just like I can tell that he's excited about playing wherever he goes if he's moved.
This might be the year to move Roethlisberger. There's a great quarterback crop coming out of the college ranks in 2014, with names like Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and LSU's Zach Metterberger.
Is a first-round quarterback a sure thing? No, absolutely not, and neither is a 31-year-old quarterback. While fans like to pretend that every single quarterback will play well into his 40s like Brett Favre, that doesn't always happen—especially when said quarterback has an injury history like Roethlisberger's.
Still, the Walker trade doesn't come along very often—especially for an aging quarterback that may not have that much magic left in him. Even with all of the speculation, the likelihood is that Roethlisberger is either going to pilot this ship through the storm or he's going down with it.
With the quarterback in place, get the man some help.
Maybe the switch back to a power-rushing scheme (rather than zone blocking) will liven up the careers of aforementioned disappointments like Adams and Gilbert. It will certainly help center Maurkice Pouncey when he returns from injury, and it will also help guard David DeCastro, who entered the league with a ton of fanfare but has been up-and-down, even while being the Steelers' best lineman this season.
Even with a scheme switch, more talent is needed.
In the receiving corps, it's time to see Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders for what they are—great complementary players. Neither one of those guys is a true No. 1 option, and neither is 2013 draft pick Markus Wheaton. It's a good group of guys to have, but there needs to be an improvement at the top of that pack.
I mean, they're leaning on Jerricho Cotchery, for goodness' sake!
If the 2014 NFL draft were today, the Steelers would have the No. 7 overall pick. In a quarterback-loaded draft class (at least, as it looks right now), there should be plenty of talent available on the offensive side of the ball—Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins or Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans are a few names that come to mind.
Even if you go defense in the first round, rebuilding the offense needs to be a priority this April.
Yeah, the Defense Needs Some Fresh Faces as Well
Going defense in the first round isn't a terrible idea.
As much as the offense lacks punch (currently the No. 12 passing offense and the No. 28 rushing offense), the defense has fallen far short of their "Steel Curtain" mentality.
Statistically speaking, they're clearly a mixed bag (currently the No. 4 passing defense and the No. 27 rushing defense). More importantly, however, is that they've simply lost their "swagger." They're not scary any more. Opponents see the Steelers on the schedule and mark it up as a win rather than shaking in their proverbial boots.
This is more of a personnel problem than a coaching problem, as the Steelers have missed on a few players in recent years.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the worst Steelers defender this season so far is linebacker Jason Worilds—a 2010 second-round pick.
And who is the runner-up for worst overall? That would be Ziggy Hood—a 2009 first-round pick and someone Steelers fans have refused to admit can't really play football as well as they think.
The list of defensive disappointments is just as long as those along the offensive line. Linebacker Sean Spence (third round, 2012) hasn't played in the NFL because of an injury that he suffered in the 2012 preseason. Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu (fourth round, 2012) is playing well in a reserve role...for the Arizona Cardinals. Defensive end Cameron Heyward (first round, 2011) is having a decent season for the first time in his NFL career, currently ranking 17th in PFF's rankings (subscription required) for all 3-4 defensive ends.
A decade ago, the Steelers defense was composed of players who seemed to ooze the tough mentality that made their brand of football great. Whoever lined up across from them had to be ready for a battle, because they weren't going to be beat. If they were, they sure as heck weren't going down quietly.
Think back to the heyday of nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Aaron Smith, along with linebackers Joey Porter, James Harrison and James Farrior. Remember the younger days of defensive end Brett Keisel (who has aged remarkably well) and cornerback Ike Taylor (who has not).
Most importantly, remind yourself that safety Troy Polamalu didn't used to be just a good player, he used to be a paradigm-shifting enigma of what a safety had to be. He was one of the prototypes (along with the late Washington safety Sean Taylor) of the modern-day safety.
The defense still has talent—linebacker Lamar Woodley, cornerback Cortez Allen, as well as the aforementioned Keisel and Polamalu, who are both still playing at a high level—but they team has replaced a lot of the players that made the Steelers defense feared with decent talent or complete downgrades.
That brings us to the 2013 first-round pick, linebacker Jarvis Jones. He just recorded his first sack of the season against the Buffalo Bills in Week 10 and has been demoted from his starting role in favor of Worilds—you know, the worst defender on the team. He played in a pro-style 3-4 defense at Georgia, so his learning curve should have been advanced, but he's been overwhelmed.
There's plenty of time left, but so far, Jones has fit solidly in the "OK" range and has looked like less of a foundational player than Steelers fans had hoped.
"OK" drafts and players are not enough for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When you replace greatness with "OK," the team is going to stop winning football games, and that's what's happening right now.
It's time to stem the tide.
It's time to rebuild.