Shortly after the 2019 season ended, Vance McDonald sat back in his chair, quietly thinking back on the year.
For a player who has always been his own worst critic, he didn't hold back when he offered an evaluation of his 2019 season.
"I think I took some steps backwards unfortunately as a player," said a candid McDonald. "I don't even need a coach to give me criticism because I have too much of it already. I think of it as having almost that edge in 2018, being known for having that play with the stiff arm, the run after whenever I would have a reception. I didn't have as many of those. It makes me want to attack this offseason and next season that much harder.
"I think offensively it was a much different team. It forced players to take a hard look at where we are, our personnel, the ever-changing lineup because of injuries and so forth. They can all be excuses, but at the same time they all present specific things we have to overcome and adjust to. It took some adjusting.
"I think overall there was a stretch where we had a lot of success as a team. For me looking back and analyzing it all, I wish I would have done more."
McDonald's numbers were down in 2019, catching just 38 passes for 273 yards compared to 2018 when he had 50 receptions for 610 yards. You look at numbers and wonder what did happen to the player who became known as 'Vanimal' just a year earlier.
But like he said, there were circumstances that likely led to it, including losing starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger early in the season. McDonald and Roethlisberger had formed a tight bond in 2018, McDonald moving his locker next to Roethlisberger and them forming an off-the-field and on-field chemistry that worked. When he went out, things changed.
"That is something that you can't measure," said McDonald. "I like reframing the term excuses. It's an adjustment, a very real adjustment that is very hard to measure. When you do measure it, things didn't change. You have to get a feel for a guy. It makes it tough for a player."
McDonald hadn't worked much with either Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges prior to this season, so while he isn't making excuses, the adjustments were something that didn't come easy for him.
"I think the timing is the biggest variable, the second week of the season Ben gets hurt," said McDonald. "You go into the third week of the season and we don't have the luxury of having training camp, offseason, or a bye week or anything like that. It's a very quick transition. It affects everyone in the building. You just think of what it did to Randy's (Fichtner) play-calling. He had a guy he was with for more than a decade. All of sudden you have to restructure and think of things like what are my quarterback's strengths, what are the things he is comfortable with. How does he handle himself in certain game situations, in a two-minute offense? That trickles all the way down to players, especially with the key players at each position. You have to accelerate everything, and it makes it tough. At the same time, you are in a very high-pressured situation because you are trying to win a football game."
McDonald, 29, just finished his seventh season in the NFL. When you look at the skill positions for the Steelers last season, with Roethlisberger out, he was the seasoned veteran, the leader, the elder spokesman. And it came without notice. Yes, there are offensive linemen with more experience, but when it comes to skill positions, he was it.
"I think the whole approach for me is to just not only move into more of a place where I am a mentor, but just grow relationships more in the locker room," said McDonald. "At the end of the day that is one of the biggest things in the moment, that heightened arousal of we have to get it done, this is a team. Because of my personality being super introverted, I let go a little more this year.
"Going back, looking back and analyzing it, without Ben I was the oldest skill player on offense. I didn't even realize it until at some point in the year we were doing a walk through and we were going to break it down and Randy said the oldest one, yeah Vance, break it down. I started looking around and look at Ryan Switzer and guys and the next closest one was four or five years younger than me. It's really different to all of a sudden be in that position. You lose a big leader in Ben and my role had to shift a little bit. I don't know if that was the pressure or what that was, of feeling like you are in a corner and you are pressed.
"Whenever you are in a position where there is more…you want to make a play so bad that you start doing more and you end up trying so hard you end up going backwards. I had a little bit of that this year. I say all of that to say I need to stay more singularly focused in myself and abilities rather than fanning out and pressing to be something I don't necessarily need to be. I need to be my own player and accept my strengths and weaknesses and move forward from there."
The best way for him to move forward now is to have some time to just reflect, to get away, to rest and relax. And he has the perfect place to do it. Last offseason McDonald bought a 130-acre farm in Ligonier Township, a place that is a permanent home for his family as well as a sanctuary for community leaders to recharge. For him, it's the right place to recharge as well.
"It's important for us as players to be decent at unplugging when you are done for the day," said McDonald. "I would get consumed by self-criticism and stuff before. It's been amazing moving to Ligonier because I can drive home and be on the farm and have nothing but nature surrounding me. It's good mentally. It's so healthy being able to get that break. I play a Sunday game and before I get to that next opponent, I have a day or two to just breathe and really reconnect with yourself and analyze where you are as a player, with the team. It's good.
"Before we bought this I would go back to Texas. To have that place mentally for retreat and the kids can enjoy it because they are getting older. It's going to bring our family so close together working on the foundation and moving forward with that and taking a step back and evaluating even more what my season was, how I can improve, how I can come back and be a better teammate and employee of this organization.
"There is a spiritual and mental warfare a player goes through every day. At some point how much are you letting in from the outside world. How is that affecting your self-talk, your mental space. What am I letting go of and what am I holding on to? At the same time the flip side is what am I generating up here in my head and how am I letting that affect my daily attack, my ability to run a route. My thoughts of I am going to get open no matter what, I am going to make this play no matter what. If you allow that to get so cloudy, going back to the farm is such a good place for you to go and battle those things as a player. I would love to be more consistent about that."