There is so much still to be determined when it comes to the Steelers and the National Football League in 2021. How much of the offseason will be impacted by COVID-19? Will the Steelers be at Saint Vincent College this summer? Will there be a preseason? Will there be fans in the stands? Of more immediate concern, what will the salary cap be? And will Ben Roethlisberger be back for another season as the team's starting quarterback?
But there is one thing that's not going to happen. Not in Pittsburgh anyway.
"You know, we've got to look at the whole roster, obviously, in the context of this year's salary cap and make decisions on it," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "But I would just say that we're going to try and build a championship team to go into next year. Whether we can do that or not remains to be seen, but we're not going to sit here and say, OK, we're three years away. I mean, we're just not going to look at it that way. We're going to put the best team on the field that we can next year and do our best to compete to No. 1, win our division, and then move on (from there)."
That's how the Steelers approach their business. Always have, and will continue to do so. There is no rebuilding process, no gutting the roster to stockpile cap space and draft picks to target a particular outcome in a single season. There will be no plan for short-term pain in exchange for a hope of glory in the future. Seasons may turn out to be unsuccessful, but they will not be wasted.
As for 2020, Rooney said, "I came into the season thinking we had a strong roster and a team that could compete for a championship. We started off 11-0 and won our division, so a lot of good things. But we stumbled at the end, so (it was) disappointing in that we thought we had the kind of team that could have and should have gone farther. Some of the factors, I think, that went into some of the negative side of the season was inconsistency on offense and really a lack of a running game that contributed to that inconsistency. It was tough to overcome that at times. Obviously, the many schedule changes that we had, it's hard to say what impact that had on us, but I think it did have an impact at one point when we went into that stretch of losing three in a row. And during that stretch, no coincidence that we lost Bud Dupree in that time frame and losing Bud at that point in the season was a big loss.
"It's hard to say what all factors were most important, but looking at the playoff game, when you turn the ball over four times in the first half, you're not going to beat very many people. Take nothing away from the Cleveland Browns. They have a good team. But we just didn't give ourselves a chance. Don't need to overanalyze that. We just didn't give ourselves a chance."
Looking forward, the two biggest issues facing the Steelers are the salary cap and Ben Roethlisberger. While neither is clear-cut today, Rooney sounded a bit more definitive about his quarterback.
"I haven't sat down with Ben myself yet," said Rooney, "but he sat down with Coach (Mike) Tomlin and Kevin (Colbert), and Ben wants to come back. We've left that door open. We've been, I think, up front with Ben in letting him know that we couldn't have him back under the current contract, and so I think he understands we have some work to do there. We'll have more conversations. We'll have more conversations internally, we'll have more conversations with Ben, and obviously we'll have to know what the cap number is at some point to really finalize some of those decisions.
"I don't want to go too far down that road because, as I said, we have a lot of discussions both internally and with Ben before we can make any decisions on that front. So, I think that the salary cap situation and Ben's contract is a big factor in where we go, and that's probably as much as I can say about it right now."
Rooney didn't say a lot about Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert, but what he did say left little doubt about how he views their status with the Steelers.
"We'll address Mike's contract with him as time goes on this offseason," said Rooney about the possibility of an extension for Tomlin. "I'll just say I feel comfortable in saying that he'll be our coach into the future. In terms of the job he did, obviously we didn't finish the way we'd like. The playoff game, again, it's hard to analyze exactly what we did there in terms of just turning the ball over that way. I don't really see how you attribute that to coaching preparation. I think the team went into that game prepared and felt like we were going to win. It wasn't one of those things where we came out flat or anything like that. You just can't turn the ball over. So, in terms of the overall season, you know, we set a franchise record starting out 11-0, won our division, so those are the positives. The way we finished was not one of the positives. I know Mike feels as bad about that as any of us and is determined to do what we need to do to fight to get back into having another opportunity to win the division and move on."
Two years ago, Colbert revealed he and Rooney had come to an understanding that he would operate on a year-to-year basis with his contract, primarily because of his age. Rooney said he has had some conversations with his general manager already and that more likely will happen, but he didn't indicate that he foresaw a search for a successor being imminent.
"I think we have viable internal candidates, but if Kevin decided not to continue on," said Rooney, "I think we'd look at opening up the situation and doing a search and deciding if our internal candidates were stronger than candidates who might come in from the outside. I think that it remains to be seen how we'll approach that, and I feel like Kevin is going to come back, but who knows."
Rooney also addressed some other issues:
On a succession plan at quarterback:
"I'll just start by saying, with Ben, we need to have conversations with him about the end of his career, and we intend to do that. In terms of the quarterbacks we have on the roster now, we'll start with Mason Rudolph. We are comfortable that he's a quarterback who can play in this league and be a starter in this league. And obviously beyond that, we just signed a young player in Dwayne Haskins, but we'll see if he develops. I think when you look at our (quarterbacks) room, we obviously are going to have to add somebody this offseason, and so we'll look at all the opportunities we have to do that."
On recent late-season collapses:
"You know, I think it's hard to go back. Let's go back to last year: We played the last part of the season with our third and fourth-string quarterback at times. How do you factor that into what we did this year? I just don't know that there's much that carries over. Every year you learn things you want to fix and improve upon, and we've already started to address things this year that we feel like we can address. Our mind-set is we're going to do the things we need to do to try and get better next year. Not that it won't be challenging under the cap situation, but our mind-set hasn't changed."
SUNDAY: Rooney talks more about the running game, and if the team might make some changes to the way it does contracts.