These sessions annually serve as a kind of gridiron mile-marker, because when Steelers President Art Rooney II conducts his media availability at this point on the calendar it serves as the signal of the end of one season and the start of the next. And within this session, his review can offer hints as to how he evaluated the people who authored the events of the recent past, while the look-ahead can forecast how the team will proceed in the immediate future.
During some 30 minutes earlier today, Rooney assessed the 2017 season and evaluated the job Mike Tomlin did during it; he admitted to having some regret that James Harrison was waived; he said definitively that the Steelers want to sign Le’Veon Bell to a long-term contract; and he acknowledged that life in the social media age can be complicated at times.
“Obviously a disappointing ending to the season,” said Rooney as he opened the session. “Disappointing in the sense we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity – we had the No. 2 seed, we had a bye, those kinds of things that you hope set you up for a run in the playoffs. That part of it was disappointing. The other side of it is that winning 13 games in this league is not easy, and we accomplished some of the things you set out to accomplish – winning our division and putting ourselves in position to have the bye – all of those things are positives that hopefully we can build on going forward.
“I am not sure which word to use, whether it’s drama or (it being) an unusual season from a lot of different standpoints,” added Rooney. “Obviously starting with my father not being here this year … on a personal level it was a different kind of journey that made it unusual. A lot of different things happened. I would say all of that considered, winning 13 games over the course of a season like that speaks to the kind of focus our team had, the resiliency we have, and the leadership we have on the team.”
While the Steelers did win 13 games and won the AFC North Division by sweeping the home-and-home series against each of those three opponents and earned the AFC’s No. 2 seed and the bye in the playoffs that came along with that, they were eliminated in what was their first round of the postseason, and by a 45-42 score by Jacksonville at Heinz Field. Because there had been chatter about a rematch with the New England Patriots for the AFC’s spot in Super Bowl LII, the issue of the Steelers’ ability to focus was called into question in the immediate aftermath of the Divisional Round Game.
“You don’t win 13 games in this league if you are not a focused group,” said Rooney. “To me that kind of is the barometer that I use (when asking), do we have a problem here? Here and there maybe there was a comment that I would have rather not seen, but as I look at it, I think those two turnovers in the first half had more to do with what happened in the Jacksonville game than anybody’s comments before the game. We played some good teams this year. The biggest problem you have is when you turn the ball over against good teams. It’s not a good thing. Certainly that was the case in both of the Jacksonville games. I have a hard time putting a lot of weight on a comment here or there.”
Mike Tomlin was the first person who spoke about what came to be known as “the elephant in the room,” and then when his team was eliminated from the playoffs as a result of losing a second time at home to the Jaguars, fingers were pointed at him. Looking past the opponent was allegedly the crime.
“As I said before, I think when you win 13 games in this league, it’s kind of hard to ignore that (because) you had this one loss in the playoffs,” said Rooney. “The fact of the matter is, as I’ve said before, we played against a good team and we turned the ball over in places early that led to scores on their end. I do not want to over-simplify it, but to me in both of the Jacksonville games, turnovers were probably our biggest issue. Part of that is Mike’s problem, but that’s mostly the guys on the field who have to make sure it doesn’t happen. And some of it was good plays by Jacksonville, so there’s a lot that goes into it. Anybody who wants to look at Mike’s track record since he’s been our coach, I think the record speaks for itself.
“It’s always easy for someone to say you should get rid of your coach. OK, well, who are you hiring next? There’s another part to the question that people don’t want to get into. I am very comfortable with Mike as our coach, I’m happy he is our coach, and I think he is one of the best coaches in the NFL.”
During the 2017 offseason, the Steelers placed the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, and the running back reacted by not signing the tender until Sept. 1. This time around, Bell already has made threats about how he will respond if the Steelers tag him again, but he also has said the sides are closer to an agreement than they were at any point last year.
“We’d like to have a long-term contract with Le’Veon,” said Rooney. ‘That is what we hope happens this offseason.
“It’s hard for me to predict these things,” Rooney added about the status of the talks. “Normally they come down to the last minute. I have learned not to predict because I have been surprised that some things get done that I didn’t think would get done. And vice-versa. We’ll go through the process and do our best. I think the good news is both sides want to get something done and hopefully that will lead us to getting it done.”
THE CURSE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
It’s fair to say that these Steelers players maintain a relatively high profile on social media, and while some of it can come off as engaging and fun, some of it also has been the starting point for some of the drama that turned into a regular part of their 2017 season.
Fans would be in favor of the Steelers devising a policy to ban players from all social media platforms so as not to provide any opponents with “bulletin board material,” but Rooney doesn’t seem to be in favor of any draconian policies. Nor does he necessarily believe that something a player might tweet is more damaging to the team’s prospects in a playoff game than, say, a fumble that’s recovered and returned for a touchdown.
“I think you have to be realistic about the world we live in,” said Rooney. “Whether you like it or not, social media is here to stay. It’s a mixed bag. On the good side of it, our fans love to engage with our players, and players enjoy engaging with the fans. From that standpoint, it’s just another way for the fans to enjoy being part of the team. Here and there you are going to have something that maybe you wish didn’t get out there. But that’s life in 2018. It’s something you have to be aware of. There are going to be occasions where you have to call a guy in and have a conversation about it, and we do that. It’s a mixed blessing, but probably more of a blessing than a curse.”
PARTING WAYS WITH HARRISON
In so many ways, James Harrison’s career with the Steelers was an iconic one. An undrafted rookie who was cut a couple of times only to get a final chance to make the team after a starter sustained an injury while getting himself ready for a training camp that was to begin within a week’s time. Make the team, fight his way into the starting lineup, body-slam a Browns fan who encroached onto the field during a Christmas Eve game in 2005, author the greatest play in Super Bowl history in 2008, and then become the franchise’s all-time sack leader in 2016.
But one year later, when the Steelers needed to create a roster spot to activate Marcus Gilbert following a four-game suspension, Harrison was waived. His Steelers career was over.
“We had discussions about James over the course of the season, and I’ll just say it was a disappointment,” said Rooney. “James’ career here, I would have hoped to have it end a different way, so it was a disappointment that it turned out that way. I’ll say that there is probably blame on both sides of the fence on that one, but it’s the way it turned out. In terms of him going to New England, when you make a decision to let a player go, you know somebody can pick them up. You can’t sit here and worry too much about where he might go from here once you’ve made the decision. You are better off moving on.”
Once Harrison was waived by the Steelers and then signed by the Patriots, some of his ex-teammates here came to the organization’s defense by accusing Harrison of conduct designed to force his way out in order to go somewhere else. Rooney didn’t care to confirm that, or to elaborate on the issues that may have led to his release.
“I don’t want to go into the details of what was discussed about it,” said Rooney. “Again, I’ll just say that it is disappointing that a career that James had here to have it end this way. These things happen sometimes. You’d rather not have it happen that way, but that’s where we wound up.”