Had the Steelers not won their first division title in three years with a new coach, had they not earned a playoff game at home, had they not improved by two games over 2006, the past season would have been a success for one reason:
The return of Big Ben Roethlisberger.
After the 2006 season, doubts swirled around Roethlisberger and whether he could ever return to the form of his first two pro seasons. He was the first quarterback in NFL history to compile a 13-0 starting record in one season, and became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
His third season turned disastrous in many ways, on and off the field. Not only did Roethlisberger fall from rising star, but he also fell hard. He was downgraded in many evaluations, to as low as ninth among NFL quarterbacks by Peter King of Sports Illustrated before the start of the season.
Roethlisberger returned in a big way under a new head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He eclipsed Terry Bradshaw's record with 32 touchdown passes, third most in the NFL; cut his interceptions by more than half with 11; had the second-best passer rating in the league at 104.1, breaking his own team record; and made his first Pro Bowl.
He did all this while under siege much of the season from a pass rush that sacked him 47 times, second most for a Steelers quarterback.
Perhaps management still was optimistic about its quarterback one year ago, but the Steelers have every reason to believe today that he will remain among the NFL's elite for a long time to come.
The next-best thing about 2007 was the sense the Steelers picked a good coach. Mike Tomlin might have made all the right moves and impressed everyone in his interviews last year, but until he went through a full season on the job, the Steelers could not be sure what kind of head coach they had. He passed that test while walking through potential land mines that included resentment by some players that Cowher left and Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm were passed over for that job, by the release of popular teammate Joey Porter, the acrimony over Alan Faneca's contract status and the questions surrounding Roethlisberger.
Tomlin made some rookie coaching mistakes but nothing major. For example, he challenged seven officials' calls and only two were reversed by instant replay. Going for a 2-point conversion from the 12 in the playoff game against the Jaguars also was a debatable call.
The main problems this season were a lack of big plays from the No. 1-ranked defense in yards allowed, a lack of big stops by that defense at the end of games, and an offensive line that rarely gave Roethlisberger much time to throw and did not get the kind of consistent push to generate a good short-yardage ground game.
The Steelers' 11 interceptions tied with Houston for the fewest in the league. One reason they did not have more interceptions was that they concentrated on not allowing deep passes, which they accomplished for the most part.
Last year, football operations boss Kevin Colbert said one of the goals would be to improve their pass rush, yet their sack total dropped from 39 to 36.
LaMarr Woodley should help that. He showed how good he can be as a pass rusher with six sacks, including two in the playoff game, in a limited role as a rookie. He will move into Clark Haggans' job at left outside linebacker next season.
Their other prized rookie linebacker, first-rounder Lawrence Timmons, will compete with Larry Foote to start at the "mack" position inside. Although they said Timmons was an outside linebacker after they drafted him, his future is inside.
They also need another big defensive lineman, not so they can switch to the 4-3, but because Aaron Smith turns 32 in April and they need to groom someone and rotate him into the line on both sides. Casey Hampton also turns 31 before the start of next season and his backup, Chris Hoke, turns 32 in April. Their top backup end is Travis Kirschke, who will be 34.
The Steelers have no plans to switch to a 4-3 defense, even though that's what Mike Tomlin had coached previously. Their outside linebackers are not suited for that defense, for one thing. For another, they were happy with their defensive play this season -- except for the end of four games.
That would include losses to Jacksonville in which the Jaguars had late drives to win twice at Heinz Field. The others came at Denver and at the New York Jets.
There were two changes in the starting offensive line last season and there will be more in 2008. First, All-Pro guard Alan Faneca will leave as a free agent and perhaps tackle Max Starks will join him. The Steelers won't make Faneca the kind of offer that will bring him back. They should make one to Starks before free agency begins in March, sign him and return him to his old job as the starting right tackle.
Next, move right guard Kendall Simmons to center. Sean Mahan, in his first season as the Steelers' center, was overpowered by nose tackles and that had a domino effect on the line. Mahan can compete to start at one of the guard spots and, at the least, serve as the top backup at center and guard.
Right tackle Willie Colon had his ups and downs because he has shorter arms than most tackles, which often prevents him from keeping the big pass rushers off him. He belongs at guard, so put him at Simmons' old spot.
That leaves left guard, where Mahan, Chris Kemoeatu and either a draft pick or free agent can compete.
Good linemen are hard to find in free agency and, when available, are often cost prohibitive, especially when there's a franchise quarterback to sign. That's another reason for them to sign Starks, even though he won't come cheaply.
Marvel Smith not only will be OK after back surgery in December, but it also should help him next season. It was minor as back surgeries go and repaired the disk problem that was causing him so much pain. Trai Essex played well as his replacement in two games and should be their top backup.
Even all that might not correct the problems in the line. It would involve four more changes in the starting lineup, although one of them would put Starks back where he should have stayed this past season.
It's hard to determine if Willie Parker, the NFL's leading rusher heading into the final two games, will be the same after his fibula was broken. Parker relies on speed and quickness and no one can say how a broken leg will change that until he's out there running again.
The Steelers changed their approach to the running game by abandoning their power attack for a more finesse approach that sometimes worked and sometimes did not. They won't pass up a good running back if they can find one.
Of course, they need to improve their special teams, and not just on kickoff coverage. They need a good return man, unless Willie Reid finally can handle that job. It should not be as difficult to cover kicks as they made it out to be this year.
And, they need a good, solid draft -- particularly in both lines. They shouldn't throw away good draft picks on punters and backup tight ends. Spending a seventh-rounder to get a return man wasn't a bad idea; spending it on one whose best performances came three years ago was the bad idea.
The Steelers have paid little attention to their offensive and defensive lines in the drafts recently, and that has to change this April.
The case can be made that the Steelers should still be playing this weekend, but it would be hard to make one for them beating New England in a rematch.
This season might not be remembered as another failure in the playoffs at home, but for two more important ingredients -- a good start to the Mike Tomlin era and reclaiming the franchise quarterback.