During the course of his season-ending media briefing on Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Steelers President Art Rooney II was at times forthcoming, optimistic, supportive, reasoned, and candid. But at no point could he be described as satisfied.
Specifically, Rooney addressed issues regarding Coach Mike Tomlin, the hiring of a new offensive coordinator, the need for the team to "make sure we get quality play out of our quarterback position going forward," Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph in particular, the 2023 draft class, and snapping the franchise's losing streak in the playoffs.
"I think it's fair to say that I do feel that we're closer this year at this stage of the game than we were at this point last year," said Rooney in response to a question about whether he believes the team moved closer to being a contender. "I thought we had a solid rookie class, a few guys who really stepped in as solid starters for the future. Need to do that again. Need to have another good draft class. I think we have a core group of players, and that we can compete with this group. As I said, I think the biggest thing we need is quality play at the quarterback position."
As Tomlin had during his season-ending news conference, Rooney said there still is a belief that Pickett, the 20th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, could develop into the right man for the job, but he also praised Rudolph for what he did during the season's final four games and expressed a desire to have him return to the team in 2024.
"We still feel good about Kenny Pickett and his future," said Rooney. "He knows he needs to work hard to take the next step. We've talked about that. One of the things I think we like about Kenny in terms of his career was how hard he worked, and he took a step every year. We're looking for that to happen here. That's an important component of the next coordinator, making sure he helps Kenny take the next step.
"With that being said, can't discount what Mason did," added Rooney. "Can't discount the fact that having competition will be good for everybody. Mason came in and showed, I think, what we're capable of when we do get quality play at the quarterback position. Appreciate what Mason did. We're interested in bringing Mason back."
Something in which Rooney showed no interest was the idea of taking over the process of identifying and hiring the new offensive coordinator.
"I mean, No. 1, to be clear, it's Mike's hire," said Rooney. "Head coaches hire their coordinators. It would be a mistake for me to try to screw up the lines of authority, let's say, in terms of how things are supposed to work. That being said, Mike and I talk every day. (General Manager) Omar (Khan), we talk every day, sharing ideas. That's got to be Mike's hire. I think Mike identified that we want somebody who has some experience, somebody who has a track record that we can look at and feel comfortable with. Those are the things that Mike is looking for."
Over the course of the session, Rooney gave something of an overview of the state of other areas of the roster, and while there was some praise for things and an acknowledgement of mitigating factors in others, he kept coming back to the point that competing to win and pursuing championships are the expectation.
"I think we have two high-performing running backs in Najee (Harris) and Jaylen (Warren)," said Rooney. "They, along with an improving offensive line, can be the foundation of success going forward. Certainly, some positives there, that as the season wore on, I think you saw what they can be.
"On the defensive side, I don't like to make excuses, but we got hit with a rash of injuries that at times was difficult to overcome," he continued. "All things considered, I thought our coaches did a good job of plugging in guys where you sometimes needed a program to figure out who they were on Sundays. A little crazy on that side. The bottom line is I think we have a solid core group of players on the defensive side we can build on and win with. All in all, I like the way our guys kept fighting to get a playoff spot. I think there's a lot we can build on moving forward. We need to find ways to make sure we're better next season. That's what we're about at this point."
Rooney explained why he believes Tomlin is the man for the job.
"I think the players still respond to Mike. That's No. 1," said Rooney. "He still has the key characteristics that we saw when we hired him. He can keep the attention of a group of 20-year-olds for a whole season, keep them in the fight the whole way. Still feel good about Mike. Obviously if I didn't, we'd make a change. If Mike wasn't able to lead us to a championship, he wouldn't be here. That's why he's here."
Added Rooney, "I think there's an urgency. Everybody. Myself, Mike, guys who have been on the team for a while, T.J. (Watt), Cam (Heyward), everybody. We've had enough of this. It's time to get some wins. It's time to take these next steps. So, yeah, I think there's some urgency here, for sure … There's a resolve there and a determination there … Getting a little impatient. We need to see the kind of improvement we all want to see. Mike believes that as firmly as anybody else in the building."
Over the course of the session, the Steelers President addressed a number of other issues:
On Acrisure Stadium:
"We are going through a stadium assessment at this point, really looking at what it's going to take to be in this stadium for the next 10, 20 years, whatever it's going to be. It's a process. Hired some consultants to help us look at it. We like the stadium, think it's a great facility. With the right kinds of improvements, can continue to be our home for a long time."
On Pickett's pluses:
"The things about Kenny (Pickett) that we always like are his toughness, his competitiveness, his desire to be a winner. He has all of those sorts of intangibles. What I think we need him to be is to just continue to develop as a quarterback. Read the defense quickly, get the offense into the best play for a given situation when he comes out of the huddle. He's had some experience with that. He'll continue to work on it … I think on-the-field learning is something you can expect progress from more so than intangibles. Intangibles, you either have them or you don't. His ability to be able to see the field, read defenses quickly, those are things you can develop with experience. If you look around the league, you see that with young quarterbacks. First couple years they're kind of finding their way. All of a sudden, the third or fourth year in, they click. That's what you need to see."
On the bid to bring an NFL Draft to Pittsburgh:
"I would say we're deep in the process of preparing the bid to bringing the draft to Pittsburgh. We're optimistic that we'll bring it here in the not-too-distant future."