INDIANAPOLIS -- Perhaps it was of some consolation that the Steelers finished the second half of the season with a 6-2 record. Or that they came within a dropped two-point conversion in Baltimore and a late blown lead against the Miami Dolphins of being the only NFL team to finish with eight consecutive victories.
But it is not to general manager Kevin Colbert, who acknowledged he and coach Mike Tomlin now have a better idea of what can be expected from some young players, such as defensive end Cam Heyward and outside linebacker Jason Worilds. But, Colbert also remained adamant that nobody should lose sight that the Steelers finished 8-8 for the second year in a row despite the strong finish.
And in order to avoid missing the playoffs for a third season in a row, Colbert said the Steelers have to change what they are doing and who they do it with.
"It is 8-8, and we can't run from that, we can't hide from that," Colbert said Wednesday, the first day of the six-day NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"We have to change. We said it last year, we'll say it this year -- if we don't change who we're playing the game with and how we're getting these players, we can't expect a different result. It's not acceptable."
Last year, Colbert cryptically noted some of the key players the Steelers lost in free agency, principally wide receiver Mike Wallace, defensive back Keenan Lewis and running back Rashard Mendenhall, were "three players from an 8-8 team."
But the Steelers finished the 2012 season with five losses in their last seven games, including three of the last four. Colbert said the poor finish, coupled with the slow start in 2013, caused "concern" with him and others in the organization.
"We can feel a little more optimistic about the way the 2013 team finished as opposed to the 2012 team," Colbert said. "We went through a swing there where we finished bad in 2012 and that continued into training camp.
"We had an 0-4 preseason, and I know people say preseason doesn't count, but that was killing us. When we started 0-4 in the regular season, that concerns me."
Colbert said Tomlin did a great job of challenging the players to finish the season strong. The Steelers responded by going 8-4 in their final 12 games.
Whether that establishes a tempo or mindset for the 2014 season remains to be seen. But Colbert said the back-to-back 8-8 seasons have placed even more importance on this offseason. And the first phase of the offseason has started at the combine.
"It's huge for our franchise," Colbert said. "You go 8-8 in back-to-back years, it's a huge disappointment. It's a disappointment, not only to our fans, but the organization. We feel it every day. It's not something we're comfortable with.
"I'm sure organizations that are used to winning, anybody that's not in the playoffs after you've been there, it can be devastating if you let it. But we have to fight through it, and, hopefully, we're not talking about that next year."
Farewell time for Sanders?
It's no real surprise, but Colbert sounded as if the Steelers are prepared to let wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders test the free-agent market.
Last year, the Steelers matched a one-year, $2.5 million offer sheet Sanders received from the New England Patriots as a restricted free agent. It is unlikely they will do the same now that he is an unrestricted free agent.
"Emmanuel Sanders came back and had a nice year for us," Colbert said. "We were happy to have him. Where he goes in free agency and what his market is, we don't know at this point. He certainly performed for us last year. We will see where he is in the future."
The Steelers want to replace Sanders with Markus Wheaton, their third-round draft choice last year. Colbert said Wheaton had a second surgery on his broken little finger after the season, but the procedure was done to "clean it up and make it work."
About all those punters ...
The Steelers went through three punters last season, going back to Drew Butler making the team at the end of training camp.
But the punter who ended the season, Mat McBriar, is an unrestricted free agent and might not be back. The Steelers already have signed former LSU punter Brad Wing to a reserve/future contract and intend to bring him to training camp.
Wing (6-3, 205) originally signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted rookie free agent last year and spent training camp with them before being released Aug. 25. At LSU, Wing was named a first-team All-American and a Ray Guy Award semifinalist in 2011.
"Brad Wing had a nice career at LSU," Colbert said. "He didn't quite get as much done last preseason as we anticipated him being able to do. [He was] another underclassman that probably wasn't ready for the challenge.
"We'll see where it is. It was a no-lose situation for us."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.
First Published February 20, 2014 11:23 PM