Were the Steelers traded publicly on Wall Street now, would you bet them to rise, sell them short or just hope for some kind of dividend as you watch them muddle through again at even-Steven?
Ask them and most will give the company line, that they see good things ahead for 2013, a rosy outlook.
Ben Roethlisberger, for example, thinks his young offensive line has the makings of the best one he has played behind in years. Ryan Clark thinks rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton is better than departed Mike Wallace in all departments except speed. Brett Keisel loves the young players on the defensive line. The coaches say they are so deep at linebacker they did not know who to cut. Etc., etc.
Few others are buying it because the Steelers generally are not given much chance to finish higher than they did in 2012, which was third in the AFC North Division. Las Vegas oddsmakers put the Steelers' over-under win total at 9.
"Sometimes," receiver Emmanuel Sanders said, "it feels good to be the underdog."
Maybe the arrow does not point up, down or sideways for the Steelers. Maybe that's not an arrow.
"We're at a point, there's a question mark," is how linebacker Larry Foote put it. "I think I speak for the fans. I'm waiting to see also."
After an 8-8 season, after losses of talent such as Wallace, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Keenan Lewis, Max Starks and Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers might be in the midst of a down cycle they have not experienced in more than a decade. They have not missed the playoffs two years running since they were shut out of them three consecutive seasons, 1998-2000.
Since then, they bounced back after the doom-and-gloom following their 6-10 record in 2003 by going 15-1 in 2004, and Bill Cowher's last season at 8-8 in 2006 by making the playoffs at 9-7 in 2009.
Foote has been around since 2002, so he has experienced those ups and downs. So, too, has Keisel, a defensive end, who has been with them just as long.
"There's high expectations when you're a Pittsburgh Steeler," he said. "That comes with the territory. We're used to being a tough team. Last year was obviously frustrating. We're hoping to get back on top of things."
Keisel and Foote played for the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense (by fewest yards allowed) in each of the past two years, and, despite the losses of three starters in Harrison, Hampton and Lewis, that defense would seem to be the team's strength again in 2013. It is their biggest reason for optimism to get back into the playoffs.
"When you talk about Pittsburgh, you talk about their defense -- point blank, period," said cornerback Ike Taylor, who joined them in 2003.
"Defense wins championships and we have a few of them. Even back in the day, they said defense wins championship and back in the day, them boys won four and we all know what their defense was doing."
What this defense has not done lately, though, is show its teeth. They have had a notable drop in sacks and turnovers in each of the past two seasons, and they know they must improve.
"If you're going to look at something, you're going to say turnovers, especially coming from our perspective," Taylor said.
They have high hopes in that area for several reasons. Two would be the health of LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu. Woodley can be a sack machine and Polamalu a turnover machine. But injuries reduced the effectiveness of both last season. Another is the addition of rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones, who along with Jason Worilds, will replace Harrison on the right side. And Cortez Allen, who replaces Lewis at left cornerback, was a ballhawk over his final two games when he replaced an injured Taylor as a starter. In those two games, he had two interceptions, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
"I can speak for the defense, I think we're going to be way better than we were last year," Foote said. "Just the involvement with our [defensive backs]. We have a lot of corners who can play. You saw last year, we need to stay healthy but I think our defense is going to be lights out."
They hope the lights go on for their offense, because that's where the real problems were last season after a 6-3 start in which Ben Roethlisberger had the new offense under Todd Haley cooking. Then Roethlisberger missed three games with a shoulder and rib injuries and it all tumbled.
They finished 21st in the NFL on offense -- 26th running, 14th passing. They wanted to be better running the ball and they were worse. So this year, they drafted a running back in the second round and added outside zone blocking to their line's repertoire. But rookie Le'Veon Bell is out indefinitely with a small tear of a foot ligament, and the running game again has come into question.
So, too, is the line. The Steelers flip-flopped their tackles after opening camp with Marcus Gilbert on the left and Mike Adams on the right. It is a young line with the only two proven players in veteran guard Ramon Foster and three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.
"We want to be a good line," Foster said. "Early this spring, Coach showed us a paper that had us fourth in our division as far as O-lines. We're looking forward to that challenge. We want to prove everybody wrong. I think it's a lot better when you have a challenge."
They should be able to overcome the loss of Wallace, who was not as productive last season as he was previously. They have good enough wide receivers but will miss their 2012 MVP, Heath Miller, until the veteran tight end is able to return from a triple-ligament knee injury in the 15th game of last season.
"Count us out if you want to but we'll come to fight each and every week," Foster said.
"We have the tools. We feel like we're a very good team. We have the No. 1 defense from last year. We picked up some tools offensively that will help us out."
Roethlisberger is their ace in the hole, as always. He was making his case as a league MVP candidate while the Steelers ran to that 6-3 start. At that point, he had 17 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. When he returned after missing three games with his shoulder/rib injuries, he was not the same quarterback.
At 31, he is in his prime and they need to keep him healthy.
"If we keep everyone healthy, I think we can be a force to be reckoned with," Foster said.
Health was a huge problem for the Steelers in 2012, not only in 78 lost starts to injuries but key players at that; players such as Polamalu, Roethlisberger, Woodley, Harrison, all of their running backs and most of their offensive linemen.
So, where might that arrow be pointing now? Up, and if so, how far? Down, and if so, how far? Or is this limbo, and if so, how long might it last?
"You never know until the season," Foote said. "Everybody [aspires] to win the Super Bowl, win your division, but you don't know until you're thrown out there.
"Last year, we were 8-8 and lost five games by three points, but that's how we won a lot of games in the past, so we have to figure out how to win those games. I don't know what it is, but we have to be on the other side and get into the playoffs."
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published September 5, 2013 4:15 AM