It still stings, and it's right that it does. Not making the playoffs represents failure on a lot of levels to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in the end they just didn't have enough. Whether it was Antonio Brown drifting six-inches out of bounds on that final play against the Miami Dolphins, or Kansas City kicker Ryan Succup hitting it six-inches too far to the right against the San Diego Chargers, or every member of Bill Leavy's officiating crew being incapable of counting to six on that decisive play, the Steelers finished out of the playoffs.
But if their season was unfulfilled, it doesn't deserve to be seen as worthless. The following are nine reasons to be looking forward to the Steelers' prospects for 2014:
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE OFFENSE
Through that four-game losing streak in September, the Steelers' offense was awful, the most significant contributor to 0-4. Below the line in third-down conversions, only seven touchdowns vs. 11 turnovers, couldn't run the football, 15 sacks allowed.
But over the second half of their schedule – in compiling a 6-2 record – the offense developed into a reason the Steelers won. Over the course of those final eight games, the Steelers offense consistently was converting third/fourth-down situations at 40 percent, had scored 26 touchdowns vs. seven turnovers, was averaging 99.3 yards rushing per game, and had allowed only 11 sacks.
BEN ROETHLISBERGER'S PLAY
A good bit of any of the successes enjoyed by the offense are directly related to the play of the quarterback, and Ben Roethlisberger had a great year. His final statistics are somewhat skewed by his participation in the 0-4 disaster, and besides, with this team at this time Roethlisberger's contributions cannot be measured by numbers alone.
There is a difference between playing quarterback, and being the quarterback. In fact, among the definitions of the word 'quarterback' provided by Merriam-Webster are: "one who directs and leads," when used as a noun; and "to lead or organize (something) by making important decisions," when used as a verb. Roethlisberger did those things for a team in need of them, and he also threw for 16 touchdowns and five interceptions over the second half of the season.
ANTONIO BROWN ESTABLISHING HIMSELF AS A NO. 1 RECEIVER
It was the summer of 2012, and the team's most productive receiver was on the cusp of free agency. But instead of Mike Wallace, it was Antonio Brown who got the lucrative, long-term extension. Seen as a gutsy move at the time, what it seemed to reflect was a belief within the Steelers that Brown, although one season younger than Wallace and with 22 fewer receiving touchdowns, was the better player.
Brown's 110 catches were second in franchise history, and his 1,499 receiving yards were tops, but beyond those exemplary numbers is the manner in which they were achieved. The only player in NFL history to catch at least five passes for at least 50 yards in each game of a 16-game season is Antonio Brown. Being a player opposing defense cannot take out of a game is the definition of a No. 1 receiver.
LE'VEON BELL BEING THE RIGHT FIT
Football isn't like baseball. In baseball, a great third baseman can play on any team in either league, and he can move from one to another seamlessly, with no noticeable drop-off in performance. Not so with playing running back in the NFL. There, a player's skill-set must match the particular style of offense, or it's a waste. Maybe the guy is a good player, but if he can't give the team what it needs from the position, the team made a bad pick.
The Steelers invested a second-round selection in Le'Veon Bell, which therefore identified him as their prime candidate for the vacant role of feature back. Bell missed a good hunk of the preseason plus three weeks of the regular season, but he still had enough time to show himself to be an every-down back. Run it, catch it, block for Ben, whatever. He has patience to wait for a hole, the acceleration to hit it when he sees it, and once into the secondary he can hurdle you or run you over. Eddie Lacy is a good player, but that has nothing to do with the Steelers getting the right guy for them. Because they did.
THE EMERGENCE OF SOME YOUNG OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
It wasn't all smooth sailing, not by any means. The loss of Maurkice Pouncey on the eighth offensive play of the season was a stunning blow, but by the evening of Dec. 29, the Steelers had a number of up-and-comers among their group of offensive linemen.
David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum emerged from opposite ends of the Draft Class of 2012 to take hold of two of the starting spots, and Marcus Gilbert improved over the course of his 16 starts in what was his third pro season. Mike Adams didn't quit mentally when he was demoted after a disastrous game vs. the Vikings, and when he was needed to start against the Dolphins on Dec. 8 he turned in an above-the-line performance. Entering 2014, the Steelers will have four offensive linemen with NFL starting experience who are 25-or-younger.
CAM HEYWARD AND JASON WORILDS COMING INTO THEIR OWN
In the brand of 3-4 alignment played by the Steelers, there are never enough outside linebackers who can get pressure on the passer, and a special talent on the defensive line can be a significant asset.
During his time with the Steelers since being their No. 2 pick in 2010, Jason Worilds has either been biding time behind James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, or fending off the challenge of reigning No. 1 pick Jarvis Jones. What emerged at the end of 2013 was a player who had become a quality NFL starter, with eight sacks, 29 pressures, and two forced fumbles on this season's resume.
That Heyward contributed as he did and is only scratching the surface of his abilities as a player/leader/presence for the Steelers might be the most exciting development with respect to an individual in 2013. His 60 tackles led all defensive linemen on the team by 21, his four sacks was third on the team, his 28 pressures was one fewer than Worilds, his five passes defensed was the most of any non-defensive back. Heyward will be 25 in May.
THE JOB MIKE TOMLIN DID OVER THE SECOND HALF OF THE SEASON
Mike Tomlin never blinked, and as a result his players never did either. When an NFL team falls to 2-6 after a game in which it gave up more points and more yards than in any of the franchise's 80-plus seasons, the risk of losing the locker room is real. That didn't happen. Neither the players nor the coaches quit, and some individuals improved, and some of the usage of some individuals improved, and the wave of positivity built to the degree where it's doubtful any of the teams already in the playoffs were rooting for the Steelers to join them. All of that starts with the head coach.
KNOWING THE LOCKER ROOM IS POPULATED BY THE RIGHT KINDS OF PLAYERS/PEOPLE
This goes hand-in-hand with the previous entry, because good leadership is a direct function of a willingness to be led. The players allowed themselves to be coached, and led, and gradually the tide turned and the team began playing consistently competitive, if not always necessarily winning, football. The veterans can show the younger players the way, but the younger guys have to be willing to be shown. This locker room is solid.
SPECIAL TEAMS BEING SOMETHING OTHER THAN A PHASE TO BE OVERCOME
Franchise history is pock-marked with instances of special teams costing regular season games and playoff games, and there were the occasional blunders in 2013 as well. There were five returns (one punt, four kickoffs) of 40-plus yards, one blocked punt and another where the punter dropped a snap that hit him in the chest. But the Steelers also had nine returns (five punts, four kickoffs) of 40-plus yards, twice they drew the defense offside on field goal attempts to extend possessions, and there were far fewer penalties nullifying returns. A big improvement over 2012.