Many questions surround Steelers' sudden offseason
Steelers players gathered for 15 minutes Monday afternoon for a meeting they didn't expect to take place until February.
One day after a 45-42 divisional-round loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, coach Mike Tomlin brought his group together one last time before dispatching his players into the offseason, although exit interviews will continue for the next few days.
It was an assemblage that came three weeks earlier than the Steelers anticipated and brought a finality to a season that included a 13-3 record, division title and first-round bye, yet came up short of expectations.
And because of that, players are bracing for an eventful winter and considerable change before the Steelers begin offseason practices in April.
“This team won't be the same next year,” defensive captain Cam Heyward said. “Some guys are going to retire. Some guys might leave. It's just the business we're in. Every team changes. Every team goes through different things throughout the year.
“It hurts to think this is the last time this group will be together.”
The finality of the situation was evident in the locker room as some players cleaned out their lockers.
“It's not going to be the same room,” guard David DeCastro said. “It's the nature of the beast. It's tough, it's over and it ends so suddenly.”
Instead of talking about a trip to New England for a second consecutive AFC championship game matchup, the Steelers were left talking about where it all went wrong against Jacksonville and what must be done to prevent it from happening again in 2018.
“I feel like we've got really good players, for sure,” left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. “Maybe it's not just talent that's going to get you to the championship. Maybe we need to find that out.”
Players insisted that all of the drama the Steelers experienced — from the national anthem fiasco in Chicago to Martavis Bryant's trade request to Marcus Gilbert's suspension to James Harrison's release — didn't wear them down and finally catch up to them against Jacksonville.
The distractions, however, were numerous. Too numerous for some.
“The things that happened this year can't happen next year,” Heyward said. “Obviously, there are going to be new problems and new things to correct, but let's find a different problem.”
DeCastro indicated more players need to buy into the team concept.
“It's not individuals,” he said. “That's the beauty of the game and what makes it fun. It's not track and field. It's not a relay race. (It's) fun working together as a unit. Maybe there will be more emphasis on it next year and everyone trying to do the job within the team as much as possible.”
The first changes could come on the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley's contract reportedly is set to expire, and wide receivers coach Richard Mann already has planned to retire. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak is a candidate for the coaching job in Arizona. Tomlin could make changes to a defensive staff that watched the Steelers allow 45 points to the Jaguars while failing to stop the run and prevent big pass plays.
The defense had difficulty adjusting to the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier to a spinal cord injury in December that required surgery and threatens his football career.
“The reality of the situation is it's not going to be the same defense in 2018 that we were in 2017,” linebacker Vince Williams said. “Those that come back and those that join us have to put the hand in the pile to work hard and win.”
Eight veterans are heading into unrestricted free agent, headed by All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell, whom the Steelers could retain by using the franchise tag again. Offensive lineman Chris Hubbard is the only other free agent who was a regular contributor and occasional starter over the entire season.
“Hopefully, we keep everybody and bring everybody back,” wide receiver Martavis Bryant said. “We worked hard together this year and developed a lot of chemistry, and I don't want to see that go to waste.”
The list of unrestricted free agents includes kicker Chris Boswell, fullback Roosevelt Nix, linebacker Anthony Chickillo, wide receiver Eli Rogers and punter Jordan Berry. Boswell is a candidate for a long-term contract.
Players who could be salary-cap casualties or candidates to have their contracts restructured include cornerback Joe Haden ($11.9 million cap hit), safety Mike Mitchell ($8.1 million), right tackle Marcus Gilbert ($7.3 million) and tight end Vance McDonald ($4.3 million).
“We'll see what shakes out,” DeCastro said. “The business is tough.”