The Steelers are in crisis mode. And the best evidence of it is that owner Art Rooney II is trying very hard to create the impression that the Steelers aren’t in crisis mode.
Beginning more than a week ago by speaking to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rooney has embarked on an extended, and uncharacteristic, local media tour aimed at doing something that the Steelers rarely have to do: Prop up the brand.
Appearing Friday on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh (as part of a multi-station circuit), Rooney disputed the notion that the Steelers currently have a culture problem.
“I certainly don’t think we have a culture problem,” Rooney said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We won 13 games [in 2017], so if you have a culture problem, if you have a discipline problem on your team, those kind of teams don’t win 13 games in the National Football League. Those are the facts we have to deal with.”
But that characterization of the facts overlooks one very basic reality: If the Steelers didn’t have a cultural problem, maybe those 13 wins in 2017 would have resulted in postseason success, not an ugly home loss to the Jaguars. The Steelers may indeed be the most talented team, overall, in the NFL; something is keeping them from turning that talent into a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Rooney prefers, for obvious reason, to not focus on that deficiency.
“The bottom line is when you point to last year and everybody talks about the drama, that was a team that won 13 games,” Rooney said. “The first test for me is the performance on the field. Are we winning games? Do we have a winning culture? I think the record speaks for itself.”
But a winning culture includes winning in the playoffs. Do the Steelers aspire to be the Patriots, or do they aspire to be the Bengals? The problem is that, based on recent seasons, no one is really aspiring to be the Steelers.
That doesn’t matter to Rooney, because his comments weren’t aimed at confronting the truth but holding off a potential fan revolt that eventually could force Rooney to hire a new coach.
“Our fans judge us primarily on wins and losses,” Rooney said. “This team has won pretty consistently under Mike [Tomlin’s] tenure here. When you look at the season, we’re disappointed we didn’t make the playoffs, obviously, but we finished a half-game out of winning our division and were in it down to the last plays of the season.”
It shouldn’t have been that close. The Steelers should have won the division easily. They arguably should be playing this weekend. For a team that has a long history of pursuing championships, the fact that the Patriots and Chiefs will play for a berth in the Super Bowl should be the kind of thing that generates explanations, not excuses.
Then there’s the question of whether and to what extent Tomlin will be held more accountable for the team’s failure to get over the top. The organization ties too much its identity to a 50-year history of coaching continuity. But without a healthy fear of potentially getting fired, maybe coaches don’t coach as well as they could. Maybe, but for very different reasons, the same kind of complacency that crept into Green Bay has taken root in Pittsburgh.
Maybe that’s why neither team has been back to the Super Bowl in nearly a decade.