They now have gone back-to-back seasons without qualifying for the playoffs. The franchise quarterback will celebrate his 38th birthday in the first week of March, and he's coming off surgery on his right elbow that caused him to miss all but six quarters of the 2019 regular season. The way the arithmetic is expected to work out, they're looking at having to make some roster moves to get the salary cap to a level that will allow them to keep one of their best defensive players as he's heading toward unrestricted free agency. Injuries wrecked their depth chart last season, not only at quarterback, but also at running back, tight end, and to a lesser degree at wide receiver. And they have no first-round draft pick for the first time since Chuck Noll was coaching defensive backs in Baltimore when the NFL team in that city was the Colts.
So why is General Manager Kevin Colbert so optimistic?
"I think when you have a quality player, those quality players should be quality players no matter what," said Colbert during a media session today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "We can talk about this as, well, they had an off-year because we didn't have our great quarterback available to us, but we can't use that. We have to find ways to win without our guys. Coach (Mike Tomlin) always says, 'Let's go' instead of 'Oh no,' and so we have to find a way to be better (in the face of injuries). Those (quality) players have to find a way … Collectively, individually, they have to meet that challenge. Did they meet that challenge? I can say this. We're all disappointed at 8-8, but I feel better moving into 2020 than I did moving into 2019 coming off 9-6-1."
"Just the way I feel about the group that's coming back," said Colbert.
One calendar year ago, the Steelers had missed the playoffs and won nine games on the strength of an offense that was triggered by Ben Roethlisberger, who joined an elite club of NFL quarterbacks by passing for over 5,000 yards in a regular season. Their defense ended up as a middle-of-the-pack outfit despite being tied for first in the NFL with 52 sacks because the unit was awful in the critical category of taking the ball away. The franchise was founded in 1933, and the 2018 defense tied a franchise low with eight interceptions, and finished tied for 29th in the NFL in total takeaways in 2018.
"I think our defense was really good in 2019, and it kept us in a lot of games," said Colbert. "We always talk about that when Ben was healthy and we held a team to 21 points, his career record (in those kinds of games) is 121-20. When we lost Ben, we knew we had to hold teams to fewer than 21 points because we probably weren't going to get 21 points. We took that to 17, and how do you make your team better? Well, we had a way to make the defense better by trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick, and in doing that we think we improved our defense. Then we said, 'OK, now with Ben out, we have to hold teams to 17 points.' When we were able to do that, we were 4-0 with Mason Rudolph as a starter. When Devlin Hodges was the starter, we dropped it down another notch, and we said we have to hold teams to 14 points to win. And when we held teams to 14, we were 1-0.
"I think our defense is better moving into 2020 than our defense was moving into 2019. I feel optimistic we will have Ben back. I hope the health kicks back in for James Conner, for Vance McDonald, for JuJu Smith-Schuster. But that remains to be seen. But I am more optimistic about 2020."
A lot of that is tied to the expected return of Roethlisberger, and Colbert echoed what has been said by Coach Mike Tomlin and by Steelers President Art Rooney II.
"He still is in rehab. He visits with our doctors. He goes out to Los Angeles on Feb. 21, where he'll be checked out (by Dr. Neal ElAttrache) and see where the progress is. (Head athletic trainer) John Norwig is in constant communication with Ben, along with Dr. (James) Bradley. All signs are good at this point, and we're hopeful that he can make a complete recovery. As of right now, he's on schedule for that. Where it goes from here remains to be seen."
Roethlisberger is the last man standing from the top of the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft that brought him, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers into the league. Manning already has retired, and Rivers and the San Diego Chargers have agreed to part ways. Colbert doesn't view that as an omen.
"The only correlation is all three players were drafted in the same year," said Colbert. "Whenever one player moves on or becomes injured, it varies by player. We're just really focused on where Ben is at this point. Unfortunately, he had a season-ending injury that we think he can and will recover from moving forward. It's just a wait-and-see."
And when it comes to all of the players on the quarterback depth chart, Colbert is in agreement with the opinions previously shared with the media by Tomlin and Rooney.
"We have to be realistic," said Colbert. "(Ben) is a great quarterback who suffered a season-ending injury to his right arm. Optimistically, he is on schedule to return, and we hope, to return a better Ben than he was previous to the injury. In the meantime, we understand who those backups are. We are comfortable with who those backups are. I thought they did a representative job in 2019 under the circumstances. Mason Rudolph as a starter was 5-3. Devlin Hodges as a starter was 3-3. Collectively, they were 8-6, which was part of our 8-8 finish that wasn't good enough. But I thought those two did a representative job. I know they are both young players, and I think they can still get better. We also don't want to dismiss a young man like Paxton Lynch who was a former first-round pick by the Denver Broncos. We haven't seen the best of what he can do. With those three young guys, that's a good group. We feel comfortable with that. We also added a guy in J.T. Barrett to the practice squad, and J.T. is a National Championship-caliber college quarterback but played in a different type of system. We feel comfortable with those four guys as we enter camp. How we feel in August, we'll see, but we are comfortable with them right now."
Colbert also is comfortable with the player he calls the Steelers' 2020 first-round draft pick.
"Minkah Fitzpatrick is going to be a third-year player," said Colbert. "He was All-Rookie in his first year with the Dolphins, and he was an All-Pro and Pro Bowler with us last season. So we are very comfortable that we made the trade for Minkah and with what Minkah has produced. He is our first-round pick as we enter 2020 because he is still a young, ascending player. In his first game with us, he came in as a starter after one week of work and had an outstanding game. I don't think we have seen the best of Minkah yet."
And lastly, Colbert is comfortable with his employment status after signing an extension that binds him to the team through the 2021 NFL Draft.
"When I signed the contract previous to this, I asked Art if he was comfortable that if I got to the end of that contract then we could go year-to-year," said Colbert. "Very fortunately he was, and the reason (I wanted to do that) is that's where I am in my career. Quite honestly, we're two years in a row not being in the playoffs, and I'm not comfortable with that. I have to do a better job.
"I can say this without any hesitation: as long as the Rooneys and the Pittsburgh Steelers want me to be a part of this organization and it's a good thing for our family, we'll be here. I'm not looking to go anywhere else."