Art Rooney II never experienced anything like this as Steelers president. Consecutive 8-8 seasons and two years in a row without a playoff game hadn’t happened since the dawn of the 21st century.
And, while Rooney, who took over for his father as team president in 2003, may not like the results of the past two years, he says he does like the promise of the young 2014 Steelers.
“I like where we are,” Rooney said Wednesday an interview with the Post-Gazette. “Obviously, the proof is in the pudding, but I think we addressed a lot of concerns, and now it’s a matter of developing this group into a winning team.”
Rooney expressed confidence in coach Mike Tomlin after the Steelers rebounded in the second half of 2013 with a 6-2 record to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs by what the NFL admitted was a botched call. He said the coach knows that taking what is their youngest team in years and molding it into a winner is what everyone expects.
“Mike understands that’s the task, and I think the leadership that we have among the players is solid. I like what I see from guys like Cam Heyward, who are stepping up and becoming leaders.
“So there’s a lot to like about the team. Again, it’s what you do on the field that counts. So the time for talking is going to be over here pretty soon.”
Dan Rooney, his father, was president when the Steelers experienced what might be similar transformations from older, successful teams to a new generation of players. They went from the Super Bowl era of the 1970s to a not-so-successful run in the 1980s, but then rebounded in the 1990s. After six consecutive playoff teams in the 1990s, they experienced three seasons out of the playoffs before they emerged in a big way in the 21st century with three Super Bowl visits and two Lombardi trophies.
Rooney II steered his team the past two years through the difficult process of releasing or not re-signing many iconic veterans whose names are embedded on those trophies. These Steelers look little like those who brought home that hardware except for a handful of players such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor.
“I still think at this point we still have a strong core group of players who are able to lead the younger guys,” Rooney said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it develops. We certainly will be a younger team than we’ve been, so that will be a little bit different than what we’ve been in recent times.”
The Steelers might have two rookies start an opener on defense, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Many other young players will play key roles.
“How the younger guys develop, how quickly they develop will be the story of this season,” Rooney said.
Several years ago, Rooney said in an interview that the team needed to run the ball better. They are prepared to run the kind of offense not seen on a regular basis in Pittsburgh — the no-huddle. Rooney said he’s fine with whatever they do if it brings results.
“I don’t really care that much about the way we do it, as long as we do it well. Clearly, we need to be better at it.
“We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years now but I think everybody feels good about where we are right now with the development of the offensive line, with the running backs we have. I mean, the talent’s there I think to get the job done.
“Certainly, Ben’s comfort level with this offense is maybe higher than it’s been for awhile. So I think all the pieces are there to make it a very effective offense, and that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Two years ago, Rooney also expressed concern about Roethlisberger getting hit and sacked so often in his career and said they needed to find a way to reduce that. It took them awhile, but, as the Steelers rebounded with that 6-2 second half while running the no-huddle more often last season, Roethlisberger stayed relatively clean; he was sacked just seven times in the final seven games. He played every offensive snap of the 2013 season.
“There’s no doubt we need to see more of what we saw in the second half of last season in terms of protecting Ben and making sure he’s upright,” Rooney said. “The fact he was able to finish the season and play in 16 games that’s a big thing. If we can have that, that will make a difference.
“That’s clearly something we have to make sure [of], that we keep him healthy.”
Stadium enlargement plan
Rooney also said plans to add nearly 3,000 seats to the open end of Heinz Field are progressing nicely.
“We’re getting through the design process. I think we’re close to having a final design. We started contacting people on the waiting list to make sure we have up-to-date contact information and things like that. Once we have the final number of seats and locations, we can actually start to offer people the actual locations, and they can make a decision on where they want to be.”
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.