When Steelers President Art Rooney II reflects on the team's 2013 season, there are a lot of things to like, such as the 6-2 record over the second half, to the play of Ben Roethlisberger, to the way the offense developed, to the emergence of some young players, to the overall makeup of the roster, to the way the team kept fighting through the adversity it had created for itself.
"I certainly liked the way we finished," said Rooney in his first interview since the end of the regular season. "As far as I'm concerned, we should be in the playoffs. On the other side of it, we made our bed. Unfortunately, we got off to a slow start. I liked the way we finished, I liked the fact we got better as the season went on, which is what you want. You want a team that's playing its best at the end. I think for the most part that's what we did, and that leaves me excited for next season already. We're looking forward to getting started on preparing for next year."
In the NFL, preparing for next year begins with an evaluation of the head coach, and while there are a half-dozen teams that will spend the initial portion of their offseasons making coaching changes, the Steelers are happy with Mike Tomlin.
"I thought Mike did a very good job in the sense that even though we created our own situation (with the 0-4 start), our team continued to play hard through adversity," said Rooney. "That's not always easy to do. They continued to fight, continued to believe in themselves, and most of that is a tribute to Mike and the kind of coaches and players we have here. They fought hard all the way through, and in the end, we came pretty darn close to being in the playoffs. Like I said, I believe we were playing our best football at the end, which is what you want to have happen, and I think that's obviously due to coaching."
What usually comes next in the offseason process is an evaluation of the team's players, with one eye always on how each one might fit under the salary cap that will go into effect at the start of the new league year, on March 11, 2014.
The Steelers have a number of high-salaried veteran players, and some of them have had their 2014 cap numbers inflated because the team re-worked existing contracts to comply with previous years' caps. Even with that, and with 21 of their players due to become unrestricted free agents on March 11, Rooney didn't sound like an executive facing imminent gloom-and-doom.
"I wouldn't call it dire," said Rooney about the Steelers' cap situation moving forward. "It's somewhat similar to what it has been over the last few years. So, we have decisions to make. I think the one thing that may be a little different this year from past years is we do have quite a number of free agents, unrestricted free agents. So there is some work to be done there because there are a number of those guys we'd like to try to figure out a way to keep. As I said, there is work to be done."
Two offseasons ago, part of the work Rooney wanted to see done was a change in the offense to reduce the amount of physical punishment Ben Roethlisberger was exposed to during the course of a season. In the final eight games of 2013, Roethlisberger was sacked 11 times to go along with the 16 touchdown passes he threw over the same span.
"There's no question, Ben, like the team, got better as the season went on," said Rooney. "That's certainly what we were hoping for. You have to like the fact he stayed relatively clean the second half of the season. There's no doubt that's what we'd like to see. We'd like to see him last another five, six or seven years, whatever it is. In order to do that, we have to protect him, and he has to protect himself. I do think the way he performed over the last three quarters of the season was what we were hoping for."
And with that comes the issue of Roethlisberger's status with the Steelers. He has two years remaining on his existing contract, and Rooney reiterated the Steelers' long-term commitment to Roethlisberger without putting a timetable on the next extension of his contract.
"I would say that (extending the quarterback's contract when it has two years left) is not set in stone," said Rooney. "We've done it in the past on a couple of occasions, but it's not necessarily something that's automatic. I believe we'll get something done when it's appropriate for both sides. I think Ben knows that it's our intention to have him here beyond his current contract, whenever we get (an extension) done."
Once free agency arrives, Rooney said the Steelers will involve themselves the way they have in the past, not by diving in during the opening days but by being "opportunistic."
"I don't expect this (year) to be much different from what we normally are (during free agency)," said Rooney. "If there's a quality player we can sign, who makes sense for us and is a good fit both as a player and (within our) cap situation, we will certainly look at it."
This is the general blueprint the Steelers will follow this offseason, because they view the 2013 season as one not without some accomplishments.
"I like the way we finished," said Rooney. "Some of the things in terms of how we finished, in terms of the improvement on offense, I believe those are positive signs. When you look at our roster, I like the fact we have a lot of young players whose arrows are pointing up coming out of this season. We're not disappointed at all in the roster, and I think we have a lot to build on. We're looking forward to adding to it in this year's draft."
FRIDAY: Rooney on expanded playoffs, no-shows, officiating