MIAMI -- A day after their season ended with even more disappointment, the Steelers will begin the process of determining what went wrong to derail a campaign that once looked to be on the right track and why they missed the playoffs following a Super Bowl for the second time in four years.
Though they closed the season with three consecutive victories and a 9-7 record, there was no room for satisfaction or sense of accomplishment Sunday in the locker room in Land Shark Stadium, even after a 30-24 victory against the Miami Dolphins.
Instead, there was only the cold, stark realization that a season that showed so much promise after a 6-2 start had disintegrated with a five-game losing streak that began in November against the Cincinnati Bengals and reached its ignominious bottom with a dispirited and disinterested performance on a bitter-cold December night in Cleveland.
"It's all our own fault," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "We have no one to blame or finger-point. If we take care of business in November, we wouldn't be in this position."
When it was all over Sunday afternoon, even before the Steelers were officially eliminated from the playoffs with victories by the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison, one of their star players, sat at his locker and forecast a measure of sweeping change in the offseason, both on the field and among the coaching staff.
And, unlike the last time this happened, following an 8-8 finish in 2006, those changes won't be because of other teams hiring away their assistant coaches.
"I think there are going to be a lot of changes, I really do," Harrison said. "It's going to be a little of both. We'll see."
But Harrison, one of two Steelers named last week to the AFC Pro Bowl team, intimated that there needs to be another change next season, as well -- in the attitude of some players. He said the Steelers appeared more interested in personal goals than team goals this season.
"I think at times we played as a team and, at times, we played as individuals," he said. "Sometimes it may have seemed that some individual things were more important than actually the whole concept of the team."
Harrison did not specifically name any players, nor did he indicate if he thought that attitude existed on offense, defense or both.
The offense set several franchise standards this season, including having a 4,000-yard quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger), a 1,000-yard rusher (Rashard Mendenhall) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Santonio Holmes and Ward) for the first time in team history.
But the defense -- even Harrison -- failed to achieve the lofty standards they set in 2008 when the Steelers ranked No. 1 in total defense and pass defense, and Harrison set a club record with 16 sacks and was named the NFL's defensive player of the year. He was selected to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, but he did not have a sack in the last six games and finished the season with 10.
The only defensive player who improved statistically from last season was outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who finished with a team-high 13 1/2 sacks -- two more than last season.
"We know the guys who really want to play, want to make plays, want to be successful," Holmes said. "[They] are the guys who step up, week in and week out, for us."
Most of the changes, it appears, will come on the defense, where age and quality of depth are concerns. Six of Sunday's 11 defensive starters against the Dolphins were 31 or older: Harrison (31), nose tackle Casey Hampton (32), safety Tyrone Carter (33), cornerback Deshea Townsend (34), inside linebacker James Farrior (turns 35 tomorrow) and defensive end Travis Kirschke (35).
Carter has been starting because of an injury to Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (28), who missed 11 games with two separate knee injuries; Townsend was starting because third-year cornerback William Gay (25) has struggled; and Kirschke has been a starter since Aaron Smith, who will be 34 next season, was placed on injured reserve in October and missed the last 11 games.
Nonetheless, Carter, Townsend and Kirshke are the top backups at those positions and likely will be replaced next season.
A more pressing concern will be what to do with Hampton, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who will become an unrestricted free agent next month, and Farrior, their defensive captain who had difficulty in pass coverage against running backs and tight ends this season. Farrior has three more years on a five-year contract he signed in August 2008 that pays him $12.5 million over the first three years of the deal.
Part of the problem is the Steelers have not groomed any young players behind Hampton and Farrior to replace them.
"Everything's really going to be different," Farrior said. "I like the guys I play with every day. But that's not being realistic and that's not part of this business. You got to understand what's going on."
It is possible, and perhaps even likely, the Steelers will name Hampton a "franchise" player -- a designation that would allow them to keep him for one more season at a salary equal to the average of the top five players at his position in 2009 or 120 percent of his 2009 salary, whichever is greater.
That would give the Steelers another year to draft a nose tackle -- arguably the most important position in the 3-4 defense -- as Hampton's eventual replacement.
Offensively, the situation is not as dire because of younger talent such as Roethlisberger, Holmes, receiver Mike Wallace, Mendenhall and tight end Heath Miller, all of whom are 27 or younger.
The Steelers have to make decisions on three players who will be unrestricted free agents: right tackle Willie Colon, whom the coaches consider to be their best offensive lineman; Jeff Reed, one of the most dependable kickers in the league who made his last 22 field goals inside the 50-yard line; and two-time Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker, who said after the game he wants to be a starter, not a backup to Mendenhall.
Colon's situation will merit the most attention because the Steelers gave new contracts to each of the other four starters on the offensive line before this season: tackle Max Starks, guards Chris Kemoeatu and Trai Essex and center Justin Hartwig.
Contact Gerry Dulac at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published January 5, 2010 5:00 AM