There are going to be changes. There have to be changes, based on how the 2020 season ended, and Coach Mike Tomlin readily admitted that during a season-ending news conference on Wednesday via Zoom from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. It's just that with the Wild Card Round loss to the Browns still so close in the rearview mirror, Tomlin said he's still in the process of doing the due diligence to determine what those changes will be.
The salary cap could dictate some of the changes regarding personnel, because early projections have the number falling $20-plus million from the 2020 limit because of league revenue lost partly as a result of COVID-19 mandated restrictions on fans in stadiums.
As for other areas, such as his staff of assistants, his coordinators, the approach to the end of a season to avoid the kind of collapse that has been happening too often of late, and figuring out a way to restore a physical style of offense, Tomlin said all of those issues will be addressed.
"We're still experiencing the disappointment associated with our last performance. It's just tough to swallow. It's tough to accept," said Tomlin. "Still coming to grips with that, assessing what transpired, starting the process of going through the normal things you unfortunately do at this time of the year. I start first and foremost by saying I didn't anticipate being here in this position. Disappointed by it. Understand we better make some changes in terms of the things that we do. We better look at every aspect of it – schematics, personnel, approach to business. I'm committed to that. I'm also committed to not sitting in this position and feeling the way we feel right now.
"Those are just the general thoughts and feelings. Not a lot of work has transpired in terms of bringing some of those thoughts and feelings to fruition. The building was closed at the beginning of the week to protect the group from COVID. We had a virtual team meeting (Tuesday). We've just begun the exit interview process. I think before you proceed, you have to assess and evaluate and summarize the things that have transpired, and so we'll diligently push through those things and let those discussions and discoveries be our guide in terms of how we formulate our plan to move forward."
Whenever the Steelers are ready to move forward, there seem to be some obvious categories that will be addressed:
The most significant and sweeping changes could come here, and for several reasons. The Steelers head into the offseason with 19 potential unrestricted free agents, and their ability to deal with them as well as look for reinforcements in the areas needing them looks now like it could be hamstrung significantly by the salary cap. As of today, the estimation for the 2021 salary cap sits at around $175 million per team, and the Steelers could be looking at having to cut players to get into compliance before they even begin to address the list of 19 that includes:
NT Tyson Alualu, T Zach Banner, P Jordan Berry, RB James Conner, SS Jordan Dangerfield, FS Sean Davis, QB Joshua Dobbs, OLB Bud Dupree, OLB Jayrone Elliott, G Matt Feiler, T Jerald Hawkins, CB Mike Hilton, G Danny Isidora, OLB Cassius Marsh, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, CB Cam Sutton, T Alejandro Villanueva, ILB Avery Williamson, and DE Chris Wormley.
But Tomlin would say is he is neither comfortable nor committed to the idea that the Steelers are about to enter a rebuilding phase.
"It is our desire to be competitive, to compete for and pursue and win a world championship each and every year," said Tomlin. "And so as we begin this process to prepare for 2021, that will be our mindset. No doubt."
Last offseason, Tomlin hired Ike Hilliard to be the wide receivers coach following the sudden passing od Darryl Drake, and he added Matt Canada as a dedicated quarterbacks coach after having Randy Fichtner serve the dual role of coordinator/quarterbacks coach in the two seasons after Todd Haley's contract was not renewed.
In the past, Tomlin has used this postseason news conference to say there would be no changes to his staff, but he didn't do that on Wednesday.
"We haven't had any of those discussions," said Tomlin. "Change is a part of our business, and so I'll acknowledge the possibility for that. We're just beginning the process of having those types of meaty discussions that usually produce changes or non-changes. It is that time of year. I anticipate those discussions happening and happening rather soon as we plot a course to move forward.
"I'm not ready to individually assess anything at this juncture. There's a level of disappointment in all of our performances collectively, starting with my own as I sit here, and that's what I'll be doing in the subsequent days as I begin to meet and talk."
After an 11-0 start to this season, the Steelers lost three in a row before a second-half comeback against Indianapolis clinched the AFC North Division title for them. Then after a close loss in a meaningless regular season finale, the Steelers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in a game at Heinz Field.
It marked the second time since 2017 in which the Steelers were defeated at home in their first playoff game, and after Sunday's loss to the Browns, Tomlin described his team as one that "died on the vine."
"It is something that I am in the process of researching and working to identify and to make necessary changes to assure we're not having similar conversations as we move forward," said Tomlin. "It has been a disappointment. I'll acknowledge that, and I'm not going to maintain the status quo and hope the outcome changes. That's the definition of insanity."
This issue was exhibited most clearly in the Steelers' complete inability to run the football, from the middle of the season to its unexpected conclusion, and the team's inability to be successful on third-and-1s and fourth-and-1s with its ground game was the antithesis of the franchise's reputation dating back to Chuck Noll's hiring in 1969.
There was another glaring example of this during the Wild Card Round, when on a third-and-1 in the first quarter, Browns defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi stood up Maurkice Pouncey and then drove him into the backfield on a play where fullback Derek Watt was stuffed for no gain.
"That's part of the investigation I mentioned in my opening statement, and so we're not going to be able to answer all of those questions in one setting, or (answer them) succinctly in one sentence," said Tomlin. "We'll investigate, we'll plot a course, and then we'll plan and walk that course at the appropriate time."
But Tomlin also made it clear that while the sting from the early playoff exit hasn't dissipated, he's remains committed.
"Don't ask me about my level of confidence as I sit here today. I've just been kicked out of the single-elimination tournament, so I probably can't give you a legitimate answer in terms of that," said Tomlin. "But in terms of being all-in, you bet."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"From a health standpoint, we're still going through the exit physical (examination) procedures. A lot of the injuries that transpired in-season, those surgeries already have happened and those people are in the rehab process – guys like Bud Dupree and Devin Bush and Zach Gentry and Zach Banner and others. If there are surgeries on the horizon for us, those things will be discussed and planned in the upcoming days and weeks. Our intentions always are to move as swiftly as we can in those circumstances in an effort to not adversely affect the preparation process for the 2021 season."