The pursuit for a seventh Lombardi Trophy will have to wait another year. For the first time in three seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers will not be a part of the NFL playoffs. Despite winning their last three games, the team was unable to clinch the final AFC wildcard spot last Sunday. The dreams of a Super Bowl repeat are no more, as the Steelers will now join the fans in watching the postseason from the comfort of their living rooms. With the season ending so abruptly, immediate questions now arise on the direction and future of this organization. It is no secret that big changes have to be made next season, in order for the franchise to move forward.
Through the first eight games, the Steelers’ record was a solid 6-2 and a return to the playoffs seemed all but imminent. Unfortunately, the second-half season would not be so kind. The Steelers would lose their next five games, before winning their final three to finish the season with a lackluster 9-7 record. Along the way, the Steelers went just 2-4 against divisional opponents. They were swept by the Cincinnati Bengals, while they split wins with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. It is the thirteenth time in NFL history that a defending Super Bowl champion missed the playoffs the following season. The last team to do so was none other than the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Although the 2009 season ended in disappointment, there were plenty of bright spots for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in franchise history to throw for over 4,000 yards. Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes each finished the season with 1,000 yards receiving. Young players also stepped up and made an impact. Second-year halfback, Rashard Mendenhall, became the guy in the Steelers backfield, and had his first 1,000-yard rushing season. Rookie wide receiver, Mike Wallace, became Roethlisberger’s favorite downfield threat. This first-year receiver finished the season with over 750 receiving yards and had six touchdown receptions, an impressive rookie campaign to say the least. On the defensive side of the ball, James Harrison and Casey Hampton earned Pro Bowl bids. Harrison had ten sacks on the year to go along with his five forced-fumbles and 79 tackles, yet another remarkable season for the reigning 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. Another player who deserves mention is outside linebacker, LaMarr Woodley. Woodley led the team in sacks with 13 ½ sacks, while having 62 tackles on the year.
As they enter the 2009 offseason, the Steelers will have many difficult decisions to make at a number of positions. Players like Willie Parker, Deshea Townsend, Casey Hampton, Ryan Clark, Willie Colon, and Jeff Reed are all free agents in 2010. It is unrealistic to believe that all of these players will be re-signed. As the offseason progresses, it will be of much interest to see which of these players has played his last game in a Steelers uniform. The concerns for this team do not end in free agency. The defensive line is aging, with five linemen being over the age of 30. This matter must be addressed in either free agency or the draft. Finally, there is the issue with the coaching staff more specifically, Bruce Arians. Since being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2007, Arians has been under heavy scrutiny from fans for his sometimes, questionable play calling decisions. ESPN Radio in Pittsburgh reported on January 5th that Arians is expected to be relieved of his position by the team in the very near future. January 5th was also a day that saw the retirement of the team’s quarterbacks coach, Ken Anderson.
There appears to be plenty of change ahead for the Pittsburgh Steelers and at this moment the future is far from clear. As we begin this new decade, we could be witnessing the start of a new era in Steelers football. While the changes will come, let’s hope that one thing stays the same, and that is the championship philosophy that has brought this organization so much success over the years.
Michael C. Smith