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Rooney calls 2018 season 'hard to swallow'

Steelers President Art Rooney II freely admits that the outcome of the 2018 season was "hard to swallow," and he's willing to stipulate that there is plenty of blame to be assigned for that outcome.

"I have to say that when you miss the playoffs, nobody gets absolved," Rooney said earlier today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "Not coaches, players, scouts, front office. Everybody knows we need to be better, including Mike (Tomlin), and there are no disagreements in the organization about that. We all need to do better."

But he wasn't willing to accept the characterization that his football team has devolved into a "circus."

"I don't know where that comes from," said Rooney. "As far as I'm concerned it's nonsense. We work hard to get to where we are, and if you evaluate the season we didn't achieve our goal of winning the division, but we finished a half-game out of winning the division. We had lots of opportunities to get there and it's disappointing, but I'm not sure how that makes you a circus."

One of the off-the-field issues that plagued the Steelers down the stretch of this regular season had to do with Antonio Brown. In the days leading up to the finale against the Cincinnati Bengals, a game the Steelers had to win to have any hope of vaulting the Ravens, winning the AFC North and squeezing into the playoffs, Brown missed three days worth of practices, never showed up for a scheduled MRI on the knee he said was giving him problems, and skipped a Saturday walk-through all without communicating with Coach Mike Tomlin, who ultimately decided that Brown would not play in the game despite a Sunday morning call from Brown's agent informing him his client was capable of playing.

It wasn't the first time Brown ran afoul of team rules, and Rooney was asked why the team's past efforts at discipline didn't alter the behavior that led to this most recent incident.

"I wish I had the answers to that," said Rooney. "I'm not going to sit here and disparage Antonio. I think that you have to remember he has been one of the most productive receivers in the league for a long time now. He has helped us win a lot of games over the last few years. Was it always done the way you'd like to see it done? No. But I don't think he was a major distraction to the team until the last weekend of this season. The proof is in the pudding for the most part, and he was a very good player, and we have been a very good team when he has been on the field."

On the Wednesday after the regular season ended – at his final weekly news conference – Tomlin said his efforts to communicate with Brown about the situation had been unsuccessful. Rooney said today that still is the case, more than two weeks later.

"I have not had any contact with him, no, and that part is disappointing as well," said Rooney. "I would have liked to have had the opportunity to talk to him and understand where he is. Maybe that will happen at some point, who knows?"

From Rooney's point of view, this entire situation with Antonio Brown changed dramatically over that 72-to-96-hour period during the final week of the regular season. It escalated from some minor issues in the recent past – all of which were addressed with some form of discipline that was followed by an admission of guilt and an acceptance of responsibility for that behavior – into something that crossed a line and might be something that cannot be forgiven.

"The situation changed the last week of the season," said Rooney. "If you start talking about that period, from then until now, it's a different story. I was referring to prior to that in terms of, was he a distraction, was he a problem. For the most part, I would say he wasn't a distraction to his team, and the proof is in the pudding. Obviously that changed the last week of the season. There's no other way to say it than I'm very disappointed where we are and what happened, and I don't have a lot of good explanations for it as we sit here today."

Rooney did say that Brown received his final game check for the 2018 regular season, and that there have been no substantive trade talks regarding him. But outside of that, there still is very little clarity surrounding this issue.

"I think the kind of bottom line evaluation of that is, this guy was a great football player in this league over multiple years," said Rooney. "I said before: Were there things maybe we would've liked to have done a little differently or would've liked (Antonio) to do a little differently – the answer to that is probably, yes. He is one of the hardest-working players on the team, he contributed to a lot of wins, and I think someday maybe we'll understand better what happened here during the last week of the season, but I don't really understand it right now.

"I've been around a lot of football players over a lot of years, and they come in all shapes and sizes and colors," added Rooney. "We work hard to try and bring people here who we think are a good fit, but people are different, and we've had some different characters here and there over the years. So the bottom line is I'm disappointed over what happened at the end of the season, and if there are lessons to be learned here we'll look at that and see what we can do better."

But is the situation irreversible? Is the relationship fractured beyond repair? What if Brown apologized?

"We have left everything open at this point," said Rooney. "There aren't many signs out there that (an apology is) going to happen, but as I said before, we haven't made any decisions and we're going to take our time. There are no real decisions that can or need to be made until the middle of March, and so we'll take that time to evaluate everything."

(TOMORROW: More from Art Rooney II on the 2018 season and his view of what the Steelers must do to get back into the playoffs in 2019.)