By BOB LABRIOLA
Steelers.com Coach Mike Tomlin said he is still in the early stages of evaluating the 2009 season, that he will spend the next few days meeting with players on an individual basis, and then the next few days after that meeting with his staff.
And so, Tomlin didn't have a lot of specific answers at his news conference yesterday about the changes he believes need to be made to get the Steelers back to the status of championship contenders, but he did show that he understands where that process must start.
"The central point that I made to the football team in regards to evaluation of this season – this thing is going to have so many layers – but first and foremost, we're a team that was 2-4 in our division," said Tomlin. "To me, to us, it starts there. That is the only guaranteed ticket to this dance that we're not participating in. If you want a team to be championship-caliber, it starts with division dominance."
In his first two seasons as the Steelers coach, Tomlin's teams were 12-1, including playoffs, in games against teams from the AFC North.
In 2007, the Steelers and Browns both finished 10-6, but the Steelers were the division champions and made the playoffs because they swept Cleveland on the way to a 5-1 record within the division. The Browns, even with the same overall record as the Steelers, didn't even make the playoffs as a Wild Card.
In 2008, the Steelers were 6-0 against AFC North teams during the regular season, and they then defeated the Baltimore Ravens for a third time in the AFC Championship Game to earn a spot in Super Bowl XLIII.
But this past season, the Steelers saw their supremacy within their own division erode to a frightening degree. They were swept by the Bengals, and they split the series with Baltimore and Cleveland. Cincinnati won the AFC North largely on the basis of being 6-0 against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland.
"We were 2-4 in our division (in 2009), we were 0-3 on the road in our division," said Tomlin. "If you're going to be a world championship-caliber team, you've got to be able to go into hostile environments vs. known competitors and win. We weren't able to do that. You could talk about the 0-5 stretch that we had, well, I look at that 0-5 stretch as I sit here today and we were 0-3 in the division during that stretch. More disturbing than the 0-5 was our 0-3 during that stretch in division games."
It long has been an accepted fact within the Steelers organization that every path to success begins with beating the teams within the division.
When Bill Cowher was hired in 1992, one of the first things he and his new staff worked on was finding a way to deal with the run-and-shoot offense employed by the Houston Oilers, the AFC Central Division champions in 1991.
The Steelers opened the 1992 season in the Astrodome, and they upset the Oilers, 29-24. Within a couple of seasons, the Steelers defense had showed the rest of the NFL where the weaknesses of the run-and-shoot were, and the offense has not been used in the league since.
Cowher's teams won eight division titles in his 15 season, and Tomlin's teams now are 2-for-3 in that pursuit. It's clear that one of the areas to be focused upon during the offseason evaluation process will be how to return to the top of the AFC North.
How much change will be necessary over the upcoming months to return the Steelers to the status of championship contenders?
"We're in the process of discovering that, or finding that out," said Tomlin. "I'd like to think that we have enough quality people and top-notch players and coaches that we'll perennially be in the fight. That's my feeling, but I'm going to let the videotape talk to me and guide me as we prepare for 2010. One thing I acknowledge is that, like I always say, things rarely stay the same.
"You have to proceed with that assumption in mind."
Division record at root of the problem
By BOB LABRIOLA