PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin understands change is inevitable, though the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers head coach also knows his organization has avoided it more than most.
Probably not this time.
A blowout playoff loss at home to Cleveland still fresh, Tomlin allowed on Wednesday that the upheaval could be significant over the next few months. On the surface, an 11-0 start and an AFC North title looks like a wildly successful season. In most places it is.
It's not in Pittsburgh. And four years removed from the team's last postseason victory, Tomlin feels it more acutely than most. Given a looming salary-cap crunch and three straight December swoons, the team's practice of perpetually kicking the can down the road in order to remain competitive may have to stop.
“It is challenging,” Tomlin said. "The depths of (our situation) is challenging, so there’s a lot of work ahead.”
Starting with whether Ben Roethlisberger returns in 2021. The 38-year-old quarterback played remarkably well at times a year removed from right-elbow surgery but was occasionally mistake-prone down the stretch, including a four-interception performance against Cleveland.
Roethlisberger is under contract for next season and indicated he hopes the Steelers bring him back. At the same time, he carries a $41 million salary cap hit, meaning general manager Kevin Colbert will have to get pretty creative to fill out the rest of the roster likely to be put together without looming free agents. Those include outside linebacker Bud Dupree, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Mike Hilton.
Asked if he anticipates having Roethlisberger under center in 2021, Tomlin said “we haven’t made any decisions about any of our personnel along those lines."
“I think it’s reasonable to assume there is a chance he is going to be back, certainly,” Tomlin added.
That decision, whether it's Roethlisberger's or the team's, will likely have to be made before Roethlisberger receives a $15 million roster bonus due in mid-March. It's one of many forks in the road the Steelers will have to navigate, a list that includes whether to retain offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
Butler helped oversee a defense that finished third in the league in yards and allowed and topped the NFL in sacks for the fourth straight season. The offense became overly reliant on Roethlisberger thanks to a running game that finished at the bottom in both yards rushing and yards per carry. Tomlin refused to be specific in his criticism of either the scheme or the players.
“I think when you’re dead last in anything, it’s all of the above,” he said. "We better assess it as such. We will not accept our current position in that area. We’ve got to attack that and we will.”
The Steelers have put together 17 straight seasons at .500 or better, the longest active streak in the league. Even with long-term retooling imminent regardless of whether Roethlisberger opts in for 2021 or not, Tomlin remains adamant the expectations stay the same.
“It is our desire to be competitive, compete for and pursue (titles),” Tomlin said. “That will be our mindset, no doubt.”
Yet the reality is the Steelers haven't advanced in the postseason since the divisional round of the 2016 playoffs. They've allowed 37 points or more during their three-game postseason losing streak dating back to the 2016 AFC championship, including giving up a franchise-record 48 to the Browns.
“It has been a disappointment,” Tomlin said. “I’ll acknowledge that and not maintain status quo and hope the outcome changes. That’s the definition of insanity.”
The status quo has largely worked effectively for 50 years. No franchise has won more Super Bowls. Only the Patriots have played in more. A decade removed from the team's last appearance in the only game by which the success and failure of a season is measured — at least in Pittsburgh — the Steelers head into a longer than expected offseason at a crossroads.
The process of seeking answers begins in earnest almost immediately. Still, the sting of the fall from a franchise-best 11-0 start to the ignominy of a 1-5 finish remains fresh.
“It’s the loss,” Tomlin said "The nature of the loss. Where we were. How we were trending. The fact that we’re simply not playing this week.”
And won't be playing for a while.
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