Super Bowl LV is one week from today, and the team representing the AFC finished the regular season No. 16 in the league in rushing and the team representing the NFC finished the regular season tied for No. 28 in the league in rushing.
Maybe that proves a team doesn't have to be able to run the football on the level of the Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers to contend for a championship in today's NFL, but what the 2020 season showed rather definitively was that a team cannot be as bad at running the football as the 2020 Steelers and expect to contend for a championship.
"Some of the factors that went into some of the negative side of the season was inconsistency on offense, and really a lack of a running game that contributed to that inconsistency," said Steelers President Art Rooney II in his annual season-ending media session on Thursday. "It was tough to overcome that at times."
Even after watching every snap of every game, it's tough to fathom how bad the Steelers actually were when it came to running the ball.
Play design, the actual play-calling, offensive linemen not being physical enough at the line of scrimmage, tight ends contributing almost nothing in this area, poor and/or inconsistent blocking on the perimeter by the wide receivers, tentative running backs, poor decision-making by running backs, looking to bounce the play to the outside instead of hitting it up into the teeth of the defense. All of that was poor too often, which contributed to a loss of confidence in that phase of the offense, which allowed the skills necessary to make it work to atrophy, which further eroded the confidence in it, which further atrophied and skills and the timing required to have any kind of success in situations where the opponent knew, or at least strongly suspected, that the Steelers were going to try to run the football.
Already, there have been some changes – the contracts of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett were not renewed – and there will be more changes to come. Some may be forced upon the Steelers by players hitting the open market as unrestricted free agents, but it's also possible that some of those hitting the open market weren't going to be prioritized when it came time for the team to allocate cap space for contract extensions.
"We've already started to make some changes to address that, and there are more to come," said Rooney. "We probably are going to have some changes on the roster at running back this year with James (Conner) being a free agent. There's no question it's something that we have to address. I think everybody in the building agrees that you can't finish 32nd in the league in rushing and feel you're going to have a successful season."
What was somewhat shocking about the Steelers' inability to run the ball in 2020 was its level of historical ineptitude. Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger (a span of 51 seasons including 2020), the Steelers have finished seasons ranked in the top 10 in rushing 26 times, in the top five 17 of those 26 times, in the top three 11 times, at No. 1 four times. On the flip side, they had finished 20th or worse eight times, with six of those coming in the last nine seasons; they had finished as low as 31st twice – in 2003 and 2018 – and then came 2020 when they were last in the NFL in both rushing yards per game and average yards per rushing attempt.
Also in 2020, the only teams to attempt fewer running plays than the Steelers' 373 were 5-11 Detroit, 4-12 Houston, 1-15 Jacksonville, and the NFC Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"We have to start with a commitment to the running game, and that's something that I'm not sure we've always had," said Rooney. "So as we look at changes to the coaching staff that'll be part of the mind-set. In terms of the people in this building at this point, everybody understands we're going to have to be better than that. Again, that contributed to the inconsistency we saw on offense. At times we had an outstanding passing game, and Ben at times was almost unstoppable. But we didn't always have four quarters where we were being successful at it. We know what kind of work we have to do, and hopefully we'll be able to get it done."
Maybe not to this 2020 degree of ineffectiveness, but there have been times in the past when the Steelers drifted away from running the football effectively, but then they found a way to right themselves and return to being effective if not dominant in that phase. The most recent occurrence came after the 2003 season when the Steelers had finished next-to-last in the NFL in rushing. Mike Mularkey left Pittsburgh to become the head coach in Buffalo, and Coach Bill Cowher promoted Ken Whisenhunt from tight ends coach to take Mularkey's place.
During that offseason, the Steelers pulled the plug on Amos Zereoue as a starting running back and signed Duce Staley during free agency to pair with Jerome Bettis, and Cowher implemented a "re-establish the mind-set" approach to training camp. Already this offseason, Coach Mike Tomlin promoted Matt Canada from quarterbacks coach to replace Fichtner, a new offensive line coach should be hired shortly, free agency is likely to force the team into upgrading the running back position via the draft, and the offensive line as well is certain to get an injection of young talent from the draft.
"Matt was our internal candidate that we knew very well, and Mike interviewed a couple of other coaches he felt good about, felt they were good candidates, and they were," said Rooney. "But at the end of the day he felt like Matt was the best fit for us. Some of the kinds of things you're seeing in offenses around the league we need to employ in our offense. We did some of that this year. At times we got away from it, and that may have contributed to some of the inconsistency we had in the offense. We look forward to Matt coming in and really having another year to put his system in place, and we think he'll do a good job."
The Steelers have had a preferred way of negotiating contracts, but the salary cap hell in which they currently find themselves could spur Rooney to consider adjusting that procedure in an attempt to avoid a recurrence of this in the future.
In fairness, it was the impact of the global pandemic on revenues throughout the NFL, particularly in the areas of in-stadium revenues, that caused the unprecedented dramatic reduction in the salary cap from 2020 to 2021. Without the impact of COVID-19, and with the ratification of a new CBA that guaranteed labor peace through the 2030 season, the cap undoubtedly would be increasing this year instead of decreasing, and then maybe increasing significantly starting in 2022 with networks and streaming services competing for the broadcast right to expanded playoffs and a 17-game season, but with stadium revenue close to zero, the future is less clear.
If, and how the Steelers might alter their approach to contracts is unknown, but Rooney indicated past procedures will be examined to explore options that could help avoid another offseason like 2021.
"You know, it's fair to say that we may have to look at doing some things differently just based on the size of the challenge we have going into this year," said Rooney. "I'm not going to say that this is just going to be business as usual under these circumstances. It's going to be a very unusual year, a very difficult year from a cap standpoint, and so we'll really have to look at if there are adjustments that we need to make to how we structure contracts. We may have to look at that."