Rooney bullish on 2016 Steelers
PITTSBURGH — Art Rooney isn't much on crystal balls. So forgive the Pittsburgh Steelers president if he's not ready to enthusiastically endorse the oddsmakers' optimism that his team is a favorite to make it to next season's Super Bowl. Last he checked, there were a good 365-plus days ahead of kickoff in Houston.
Still, Rooney is bullish on what he sees heading into 2016. Considering the seemingly relentless series of injuries to its offensive stars Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers overcame to earn a second straight wild-card berth while coming within an late letdown in Denver of a spot in the AFC title game, it's kind of hard to blame him.
"I do think the direction of the team is a positive one," Rooney said Thursday.
Yet amid all those positives, the Steelers measure success not in playoff spots but championship parades. To that end, there remains plenty of work to be done. The defense under first-year coordinator Keith Butler created an AFC-high 30 turnovers to go with 48 sacks but also was 30th against the pass. That's far from good enough.
"On that front, I would say no, we're not satisfied with where we are," Rooney said. "(But) I'm not going to suggest that we need to do something dramatically different."
Rooney believes some of the answers are already in house. Second-round pick Senquez Golson didn't play a down thanks to a shoulder problem that required surgery in training camp. Fourth-round pick Doran Grant didn't get in a game until December thanks to health concerns.
"We invested some draft picks in some players last year that we certainly hope are going to take a step forward in this coming season and be contributors," Rooney said. "Obviously we've got to look at some opportunities this offseason both in terms of free agency. It's something we have to keep working on."
Including the way the team picks which defensive backs it wants to put in Butler's hyperactive scheme. The Steelers gave Cortez Allen a five-year extension on the eve of the 2014 season. The return on the investment has been minimal at best. Allen lost his starting job in the middle of 2014 and played in just one game this season before getting hurt. Safety Shamarko Thomas has not panned out and Brandon Boykin, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia last August, had trouble getting on the field.
"We've made some mistakes, there's no denying that in terms of some of the evaluations," Rooney said. "Having said that we still have players in that group we think can improve and that's what we're looking for."
Some other thoughts from Rooney as Pittsburgh puts a promising if erratic season to bed:
Tipping the cap: Rooney called the team's salary cap situation "manageable" and suggested the Steelers may have "a little more" money to spend when free agency arrives in March. In addition to the secondary, Pittsburgh has to figure out if it wants to keep left tackle Kelvin Beachum and right guard Ramon Foster, both of whom will hit the open market.
"We've got a lot of decisions to make," Rooney said. "We've got a lot of players we need to sign."
Extension time: The team found a way to give wide receiver Antonio Brown a bit of a bonus through restructuring and he repaid them with 136 receptions. Brown still has two years left on his current deal and Rooney declined to offer specifics only to say he "hopes AB is here for the long term."
Bell is entering the final season of his rookie deal and for all his spectacular playmaking, he's also seen the last two years end with knee injuries. Rooney said the team doesn't need to see Bell come all the way back from the torn MCL that cut short his 2015 for Pittsburgh to make a run at keeping Bell in black-and-gold.
"I think we've seen enough," Rooney said.
Super Bowl time? Rooney remains upbeat as the franchise and the city try to put together a bid to host the 2023 Super Bowl. There are still two years before the NFL decides. "Really I think there's a lot of work to be done on it," he said. "I still feel like it's a worthwhile effort and we could do a good job."
Life after Ben: Roethlisberger turns 34 in just over a month and missed four games with a variety of injuries. That doesn't mean Rooney is ready to start searching on the two-time Super Bowl winner's eventual replacement.
"Ben didn't show much sign of falling off this year," Rooney said. "I'm looking forward to several more years with Ben as our quarterback."
Who backs Roethlisberger up is another matter. Bruce Gradkowski and Mike Vick are free agents and Landry Jones was streaky this season while filling in.