(First of a series)
General Manager Kevin Colbert never has been one to tap-dance around issues during his annual postseason assessment of the team, and his session on Wednesday looking back at 2012 was no different.
Remember, it was Colbert who said, after the Steelers lost Super Bowl XLV to the Green Bay Packers, "We were good enough for second, but second isn't good enough."
When asked about the Steelers performance in 2012, Colbert said, "I don't want to say we're close. I know (Steelers President) Art (Rooney II) used the term 'frustrated.' I'm going with 'disappointed.' I'm disappointed in myself, that those 61 (players on the roster) were 8-8. Like I said, I'm at the head of the class."
Then when asked about the possibility of changes during the offseason, Colbert added, "If we don't change 8-8, if we don't change the roster that produced 8-8, we'd be silly to expect a better result if we have the same group of guys … We're not married to any of these guys."
And so, while the NFL is trumpeting a weekend in which it will crown its two conference champions and set the matchup for Super Bowl XLVII, the Steelers find themselves in full offseason mode. The first objective of every offseason is to come up with an accurate appraisal of the team that produced the most recent result, and throughout Wednesday's session, Colbert's remarks were peppered with references to 8-8.
But hasn't parity has become an accepted way of life in today's NFL – or as former coach Bill Cowher always put it: "There's a fine line …" – and didn't the Steelers lose six games in 2012 by six points or fewer? And they beat the Ravens by three points on the road and lost to them by three points at home, and Baltimore will be playing in the AFC Championship Game this Sunday in Foxborough. So is the gap between the Steelers and the teams still playing really that significant?
"I think it is significant because they're playing and we're not," said Colbert. "That's the significance of it. Can that change? Yes. It can change very quickly, and it has to change for our sake. Are we close to those teams? No, because we haven't played since the first week of January and they're still playing."
But what about all of the close losses? What if the Steelers had defeated the Bengals on Dec. 23 – instead of losing by 13-10 – and finished 9-7 and made the playoffs? What about the gap then?
"I get it, but we weren't (9-7 and in the playoffs)," said Colbert. "That's the reality. You can't look at the hypotheticals. You have to deal with the realities. The reality is that we were 8-8."
The realities don't get any more palatable for the Steelers as they begin the process of dealing with the roster that produced 8-8. The first issue is compliance with the 2013 salary cap, which is expected to be right around $121 million and compliance must be completed by March 12. Colbert said the Steelers will get themselves under the cap through terminations, possibly some extensions, and maybe through the restructuring of some existing contracts.
"I don't think it's out of the norm," said Colbert about the team's cap issues. "We've got to go through the final paces of doing that, but it's not out of the norm from a numbers standpoint. It's just a matter of what we want to do. Again, if you terminate somebody, you better have a replacement. If you extend somebody, you better have confidence that the player will (play) it out. If you restructure somebody, you have to be confident that, going forward, you don't hurt yourself cap-wise, because that's just borrowing against your credit card."
The Steelers have the ability to use the franchise tag on one of their free agents, but Colbert's view of that possibility was "very doubtful."
"Again, in my mind when you're 8-8," said Colbert, "I don't think we have too many franchise players."
The first avenue available for the Steelers to re-tool their roster is free agency, and teams will be able to sign other teams' unrestricted free agents starting on March 15. Typically, the Steelers have not been big players in free agency, and Colbert was asked if that might change based on the unacceptable nature of 8-8.
"I think that we've signed significant players here and there. It's been few and far between, so we have to be open to that, but at what cost?" said Colbert "It will be an addition and subtraction equation, where if we think we need this player to help us win, but then it's going to cost us these other two. Will we benefit? It's really too early, because a lot of the guys we are projecting to be free agents will either get franchised or they'll get re-signed (by their current teams). So we don't know. We have an idea what that market looks like, we have an idea what the draft looks like."
In the wide-ranging interview, Colbert also said the Steelers will not reverse the decision to waive Chris Rainey regardless of the outcome of the recent incident in Florida; he defended the decision to use first-round picks on 3-4 defensive ends; he said Rashard Mendenhall not showing up for the game against San Diego was "unacceptable;" he said the running backs "didn't produce like we had anticipated them producing;" and he said that any time the team waives a player for a character indiscretion it is because "that player has lost the trust of the organization."
TOMORROW: Drafting players who come into the NFL with character issues on their resumes.