Making his first public comments since the end of the NFL regular season, Steelers President Art Rooney II characterized his team's 8-8 finish as frustrating, but he said he had no issues with the jobs Coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley did in 2012.
"It was clearly a frustrating season, mostly because we had so many opportunities that we didn't take advantage of," said Rooney. "It was one of those seasons when a play here or a play there would have made a difference in a lot of those games. So you keep running through that in your mind, and that's what makes it frustrating – to be here watching teams (in the playoffs) you think you might be as good as. Not to oversimplify it, clearly one statistic that stands out as a problem was turnover ratio. If you look at the playoffs, teams that are on the negative side of the turnover ratio are not in the playoffs. It's really as simple as that. That was an area on both sides of the football where we fell short, and certainly it's something we can improve upon and something we need to improve upon."
Before any of that will have a chance to take place, the Steelers first will have to get themselves in compliance with the 2013 salary cap, which will go into effect at 4 p.m. EST on Tuesday, March 12. At that time, every team's top 51 player contracts must be below the 2013 salary cap that tentatively is slated to be at or just below $121 million. As to one report that has the Steelers currently $10 million over the cap with 30-plus players under contract, Rooney said, "That's probably a little on the lower side of where we might be," with the implication being that the situation actually is worse.
"We're tight, similar to where we've been the past few years," said Rooney. "We've got work to do there. That will be one of the challenges of this offseason, really trying to figure out how we're going to put this jigsaw puzzle back together."
Because he said Tomlin is still in the process of evaluating individual players, Rooney declined to speculate on whether players might have to be released in salary cap moves, or whether players might be asked to restructure their contracts.
"I'm not going to make any predictions on that front," said Rooney. "We've got work to do. As it stands today, it doesn't all fit."
What Rooney believes are good fits are Tomlin as the Steelers coach even though the 8-8 finish was the worst of his six seasons on the job, and Haley as the team's offensive coordinator even though in a make-or-break game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23 the offense managed only one touchdown while converting just 2-of-14 on third downs.
"I think Mike did a good job," said Rooney. "He was accurate in his own assessment of himself – we were 8-8. We need to be better than that, but I certainly still have a high level of confidence in Mike. I know he's working as hard as he can already to make sure we get back on the right track."
As for the offense Rooney said, "I thought Todd did a good job. A lot of the things we were hoping for, we were getting. It should only get better."
One calendar year ago, Rooney made headlines when he suggested that Ben Roethlisberger needed to "tweak" his style of play in order to cut down on the wear-and-tear on his body.
"The key thing we wanted was for Ben to be protected more and not to take as many hits," said Rooney. "That was something we were successful with the first half of the season. The first nine games of the season, Ben was having a good season and was taking a lot fewer sacks than he did before, and that was what we were hoping for."
To facilitate that change, the Steelers hired Haley to replace Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator, and after the Steelers defeated the New York Giants on Nov. 4 to run their record to 6-3, Roethlisberger was the best third-down quarterback in football and had been sacked only 17 times, the team had three straight games in which it had a 100-yard rusher, and there was a nice complement of ball control and red zone efficiency developing.
"If we look at it in terms of nine games into the season, our offense was functioning at a pretty high level," said Rooney. "Ben was on track to have his best season of all time, and he was taking fewer sacks. So a lot of the things we were hoping for were happening. After he got hurt (the following week against Kansas City), our offense seemed to lose its rhythm, and even after Ben came back we never really regained that momentum.
"You have to look at it as: OK, when our quarterback was healthy what did we have? And what we had I thought was pretty good. Not that there aren't things we don't want to improve, but you would think the second year of a new offense would be better than the first. Hopefully those kinds of things will evolve in our favor."
Of course, that could depend upon Haley being offered and accepting the head coaching job in Arizona. Rooney confirmed that Haley was in Arizona interviewing with the Cardinals on Wednesday, Jan. 9. The Cardinals had requested permission to interview Haley, and it was granted by the Steelers. Should Haley leave, the Steelers would be looking at a third different offensive coordinator in three seasons.
"When a guy has an opportunity to be a head coach, I don't think there are many teams that would withhold that permission these days," said Rooney. "He's a good, young coach and has opportunities, and I certainly wouldn't stand in his way if he had that kind of opportunity."
TOMORROW: Rooney goes into detail about the Steelers being on the wrong end of the turnover ratio in 2012 and what has to happen to change that.