In a wide-ranging interview on Monday afternoon, Steelers President Art Rooney II said he would characterize the team's season as disappointing but wouldn't go so far as to say it underachieved; that there will be conversations with Hines Ward over the next several weeks about whether he will be brought back for 2012; that Ben Roethlisberger may have to adjust his style of play a little bit in order to stay healthy through an entire season; and that the seating capacity at Heinz Field will be increased by 3,000 for the 2013 season.
The 2011 Steelers finished at 12-4 to become the only team in the NFL to win at least 12 games in three of the past four seasons, but they also lost to Denver in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. The Broncos ended the Steelers season in dramatic fashion, with an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime.
"Disappointment is a fair word. I don't think I would go as far as to say underachieved," said Rooney when asked to characterize the season. "Again, we didn't reach our ultimate goal, so that is disappointing. We felt like going into the season we had a team that could win a championship. Not getting there, that's the part that's disappointing. On the other side of it, there are a lot of positives we can build on, particularly the play of some of our younger players. That's something you can be optimistic about going forward and getting ready to try to climb the mountain again."
The Steelers' attempt to climb the mountain in 2011 continually got sidetracked by injuries to key players. There were nine players on the team's injured reserve list at season's end, including three starters and the presumptive backup quarterback, but there were a handful of other key starters who either were sidelined or hampered by injuries as the playoffs began.
"You really have to be careful about using injuries as an excuse," said Rooney. "We have the attitude, and Coach (Mike) Tomlin has the attitude that we have 53 starters, and whoever's number is called, they have to be prepared to go in and play. Everybody else's roster is constructed the same way, so at the end of the day, it's your 53 vs. their 53, week in and week out. To some extent, injuries – when you look at the whole season – play a part in how you manage it. We feel like we did enough to win with the players we had on the field."
When asked for specifics about positives to take from 2011, Rooney said the Steelers have a good mix of younger players and veterans on the roster, and that many of those key components are signed into the future. But he also said the Steelers have to become more consistent on offense, both by cutting down on the number of sacks and doing better than No. 21 in the NFL in scoring, and that the defense fell short in the number of turnovers it forced.
"For the most part we feel we have the people in the building who can do the job," said Rooney. "That's not to say we won't be trying to get better as we prepare for the offseason, and the draft is something we always look at as an opportunity to get better. It's not a situation where we are looking to sort of tear things apart and start over. We have our franchise quarterback. I think the pieces are there to get better."
One of the key ingredients for any Steelers' success is having a healthy Roethlisberger, and that wasn't the case down the stretch of the 2011 season. Roethlisberger sustained a high ankle sprain on Dec. 8 vs. Cleveland. He played in the team's next game – Dec. 19 at San Francisco – but was ineffective; he sat out the Dec. 24 game vs. the Rams; he came back to play in the regular season finale in Cleveland; and he started in the playoff loss to the Broncos. To what extent Roethlisberger was limited by the ankle injury is a guess, but it's fair to say he was limited to some degree. It's also fair to say that the number of times Roethlisberger has been sacked – 40 in 2011 and 314 for his career – are an issue as it pertains to his health.
"I don't think we should want or expect a dramatic change in Ben. 'A little bit' is probably the key phrase," said Rooney. "He has been pretty darn successful in a lot of what he does. He's different from other quarterbacks. We don't want or expect dramatic changes in Ben. We need him to be healthy. We need him to continue to be healthy. He is turning 30. Taking fewer sacks, fewer risks here and there is something he needs to think about. But not a dramatic change."
Rooney also addressed the situation with Ward, a player who in 2011 became one of only eight in NFL history with 1,000 career receptions while also seeing his role within the offense reduced significantly. A starter on opening day, Ward was cast in the role of the No. 5 receiver for the playoff game in Denver.
"The overall story on Hines is that he's one of the all-time great players we have had. Hopefully, he is a Hall of Famer. I sure think he is," said Rooney. "We are just in the beginning stages of the process of evaluating what our roster will look like next year. We'll be having some conversations with Hines as we go through the next few weeks about where he fits and how he fits and whether he fits. We have a lot of decisions to make. He has decisions to make. I don't want to speculate on it because the minimum we owe him is to have private conversations about that."
Ward has said publicly that he is willing to re-do his current contract in order to finish his career with the Steelers, and Rooney acknowledged Ward said that to him personally. Rooney also acknowledged the Steelers will face a significant challenge in getting under the salary cap for the start of the new league year. While not getting into specific numbers, Rooney said the challenge with this year's cap is "probably the biggest one we've had to face."
"Part of where we are is a little bit attributable to where we have been over the last two seasons with the labor situation, and the uncertainty it created," said Rooney. "We will see. There will be some tough decisions. There will probably have to be contracts that get restructured. There's no question that a lot of work will need to be done."
In addition to the work needing to be done on the Steelers roster for 2012, there is work planned to expand the seating capacity at Heinz Field by 3,000 for the 2013 season. The new seats will be located in the open end, the South end zone, similar to where the temporary seating was constructed for the Winter Classic. When those seats are built, Rooney said they will be offered to people on the team's season ticket waiting list.
"We made the decision that we weren't going to go forward with the project once we got past a certain point last year, last summer," said Rooney. "The uncertainty of the lockout is what really pushed us into next year, because we really had to pull the trigger on the project last June. We wound up in a situation where we had to put it off."