Every year, following the end of another football season, Steelers President Art Rooney II sits down for some sessions with the media, and from them springs a message. In the past, these sessions have sown the seeds for a more consistent running game, for more protection for Ben Roethlisberger, for an improved pass rush, for better play by the secondary.
To varying degrees, all of these issues have been addressed by the team in different ways, and while some certainly remain works in progress what's clear is that when Art Rooney II says something in these sessions, it's more than just lip service. He's doing it to send a message. He's doing it to chart a course.
With that in mind, one of the recurring themes this time was the issue of consistency.
"I think I can start by saying that we didn't accomplish our ultimate goal this year, but we certainly had some positives to take away from the season," said Rooney. "We won the division, which is always a first step. We advanced to the AFC Championship Game, so, there were a lot of positives that hopefully we can build on for next season."
The outcome of the AFC Championship Game, that 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots, stuck in the craw of Steelers Nation and spoiled the entire 2016 season for many of them, and Rooney indicated that consistency of performance is what's going to be necessary to contend for a championship again in 2017.
"I think, certainly, there were things in that New England game that you could probably also say about other games, where we didn't quite get to where we wanted to be," said Rooney. "I think getting pressure on the quarterback more consistently is something that we strive to do. While I thought we made some improvements over the course of the season, we weren't always where we would want to be. That's a piece of the puzzle that I think we can identify we want to improve on.
"At times, we were strong against the run, and there were games we weren't so strong against the run. Being consistent, I think, is something you have to identify where you would like to be. On offense, obviously in the playoffs, we need to be better in the red zone. We had opportunities that we didn't capitalize on there, and we had some of those games during the season. Like I said, there are certainly things we can identify that we want to work on and be better at. There are certainly more positives than negatives."
The Steelers did enter the 2016 playoffs with Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown all healthy for the first time in the four seasons all three have been members of the team. As the Steelers enter their 2017 offseason, though, all three of those players also have issues to be addressed moving forward.
Two days after the loss in the AFC Championship Game, Roethlisberger told a radio audience, "I'm going to take this offseason to evaluate, to consider all options, to consider health and family and things like that, and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season, if there's going to be a next season. All those things. I think at this point in my career, at my age, that's the prudent and smart thing to do every year."
Rooney said he has since talked to Roethlisberger, and he believes his quarterback will return, that he doesn't believe there was frustration at the root of his comments on the radio, and that quarterback might be a position to be looked at by the team in the upcoming draft.
"I talked to Ben. We had a good conversation," said Rooney. "He's, I think, at the stage of his career that those are thoughts I think you have. Personally, I expect he will be back. But that's going to have to be his decision. I think (what he said) is mostly a reaction to his age and where he is in his career, and just coming off a disappointing loss. I think all of those things would probably be a key to it. But I think in terms of the specifics of our conversation, I will leave it between the two of us."
Bell finished with 1,268 yards rushing (4.9 average) and 75 catches for another 616 yards, and nine total touchdowns in 12 games this season, but on March 9 he can become an unrestricted free agent. Over four seasons, Bell has played in 47 games as a result of a couple of suspensions and a few injuries, but Rooney didn't hesitate when asked about his future with the Steelers.
"No. 1, Le'Veon had a great year," said Rooney. "He certainly is one of the top running backs in the league, if not the best back in the league. He is somebody we hope to have around for a little while longer, that's for sure. I wouldn't say we have a big concern about Le'Veon's physical abilities or stability. He is a strong, young player. I think he will keep getting better. He certainly is a player, as I said before, that we would like to have on the team for a while."
And then there is Brown, a player who set an NFL record with 622 catches in his first 100 career games, a player who joined Marvin Harrison as the only receivers in NFL history to post 100 catches in four straight seasons, a player who played a big part in the Steelers defeating the Baltimore Ravens and clinching the AFC North Division title on Christmas Day with a spectacular effort to get the ball over the plane of the goal line for the game-winning touchdown with just seconds remaining.
But Brown also is the player who was penalized and fined more than once for excessive celebrations following some of his 12 touchdown catches in 2016, and he also is the player who was fined by Coach Mike Tomlin for that Facebook Live incident in the visitor's locker room following the Divisional Round win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
With his current contract entering its final season, Brown now qualifies for an extension under the Steelers' rules for such negotiations.
"I would call them little annoyances. Emphasis on little, as far as I am concerned," said Rooney about Brown. "Antonio is a good guy, a good person. I enjoy our personal relationship. His teammates like to have him on the team. He is a hard worker. He is another player I would hope we would address his contract and have him here for the long-term."
That shouldn't be taken to mean Brown has carte blanche to behave however he chooses.
"Well, it's one of those things that as long as they stay 'little' annoyances, you can always live through little annoyances," said Rooney. "By and large, AB is a big contributor to our success, has been for several years now, and I think he's capable of continuing to be that kind of player. I think he's someone who wants to be a great player and works hard to be that. Hopefully, he'll continue to evolve as a player and as a person."
After the 2015 season ended with a loss in Denver to the Broncos during the Divisional Round, one of the Steelers' goals was to fashion a better regular season record so as to qualify for home games in the postseason. By winning the AFC North in 2016, the Steelers earned the right to host Miami in the Wild Card Round, but the team's 11-5 record wasn't good enough for one of the top two seeds in the AFC, and so it was back on the road for the Divisional Round and then the AFC Championship Game. The thing that sabotaged the Steelers from having a chance to host those games was a four-game losing streak that dropped the team to 4-5 in mid-November.
"Again, one of the words I would use is that we do need to strive to be more consistent," said Rooney. "Not to make excuses, but we did have some injuries here and there that certainly didn't help the situation. So that's always a part of it in terms of, like I said, getting through the journey of a season. There are ups and downs. There are injuries. So we'd like to finish with the first seed, obviously, and it's something you have to strive for every season. I think we made some progress this season. Hopefully, take another step next season."