Team president Art Rooney II said the Pittsburgh Steelers "should have been in the playoffs" this season, especially the way they were playing during their 6-2 finish, but he wouldn't blame any factor -- except their 0-4 start -- for missing them.
During an 18-minute interview Wednesday, Rooney said the Steelers have an especially busy offseason ahead -- in part because they have 21 unrestricted free agents. He said their offseason approach won't change -- they'll still look for bargains in free agency -- but he wouldn't discuss any particular players.
Rooney wouldn't say if the Steelers might cut high-salaried outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who again missed considerable time with an injury, or will make a strong push to retain free agent linebacker Jason Worilds.
Rooney said the Steelers' salary cap situation is not "dire," but that numerous decisions must be made. Among them: A new contract for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who counts more than $18 million against the salary cap each of the next two seasons. But he said that contract might not come until after the 2014 season -- or, possibly, even the 2015 season. Roethlisberger's deal runs through 2015.
Rooney also said coach Mike Tomlin did a "very good job" in keeping the Steelers together and nearly getting them into the playoffs despite their 0-4 start. He said that the team was playing its best football at the end -- "That's what you want," he said -- but that still didn't compensate for the poor start.
Rooney also considers the Tomlin sideline sidestep issue from Baltimore to be over, and that he told NFL commissioner Roger Goodell the Steelers would appeal if the league attempts to take away a draft pick as part of Tomlin's punishment. Tomlin was fined $100,000 for getting in the way of Ravens kick returner Jacoby Jones during a 73-yard return.
Rooney called what happened "unfortunate" but, to him, "it's over."
Rooney said he is already looking forward to the 2014 season because "the arrow is pointing up" for multiple young players and the team itself, but that he still believes the Steelers should be in these playoffs.
Other issues: Rooney also said:
-- General manager Kevin Colbert already is looking forward to the draft. Asked about Colbert's job performance, Rooney said he likes the young players the Steelers brought in this season, including running back Le'Veon Bell.
-- He was disappointed by the defense's falloff, but he wouldn't say that going younger is the way to improve the defense. He said the key is to make it better, regardless of what route is taken to get there.
-- Tomlin is "still going through the process" of evaluating his coaching staff. But he said he was happy with the offense's progress, and especially that Roethlisberger stayed "clean" most of the second half of the season, with only seven sacks in the final seven games.
The Steelers were "pretty effective" on offense, he said.
-- He dislikes how long it takes for replays, but wants more plays added to those that can be reviewed. He said he wants a system -- even a centralized one like the NHL has -- if it will speed up reviews but still gets calls correct.
--The no-shows late in the season -- nearly 20,000 for a December night game against the Bengals -- weren't any different than during the late 1980s and 1990s, when the Steelers also had no-show issues late in disappointing seasons.
-- The Steelers are going ahead with a project to add another scoreboard in the north end of the stadium, but that the expansion of 3,000-plus seats must wait for ongoing negotiations with the stadium authority to end. That project might be delayed until the 2015 season, or even later.
-- He agrees with Tomlin's decision to go for a touchdown late in the Green Bay game, rather than running down the clock and kicking a field goal that would have left the Packers with no or little clock time remaining.