The reaction after the loss to Denver was decidedly different than other season-ending defeats.
by Mike Pristua
For just about every NFL team in just about every NFL season the day after an exit from the playoffs pretty much resembles Groundhog Day unless the day after is also accompanied by a parade.
The prerequisite disappointment over coming up short of the ultimate goal is acknowledged and the appropriate optimism regarding next year is expressed and life goes on.
But for the Steelers this season, the day after was decidedly different.
There was no celebration in the wake of Broncos 23, Steelers 16. But the disappointment expressed on Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex was more a product of the Steelers’ sincere belief that another Lombardi Trophy had been well within their reach than it was their mere failure to add to the franchise hardware collection.
“I think we all felt in here that we had a legit opportunity,” tight end Heath Miller insisted.
You don’t hear that every January.
Nor to do you usually hear a player who isn’t even assured of being on the team next season looking ahead with an enthusiasm that seemingly can’t be contained.
“I can’t wait ‘til next year,” free-agent cornerback William Gay gushed. “It’s gonna be one heck of a ride in 2016.”
It was in 2015, in retrospect, which explains why the countdown to Latrobe and the start of next season has already begun on the South Side.
All that adversity the Steelers overcame on the way to Denver, a slew of crippling injuries that started with No. 2 draft pick Senquez Golson showing up unavailable for training camp and continued right through All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown missing the playoff game in Denver helped transform the Steelers into a team, in Miller’s estimation.
“That’s the mark of a real team,” he maintained. “You get that feeling through going through trials and coming out the other side and sticking together as a group, and I think we did that this year.”
One of the reasons the Steelers survived and even thrived despite all of the much-publicized depletions from the lineup was the response from younger players that had been added this year, last year or the year before.
And that’s changed everything, in Gay’s estimation, in terms of expectations.
“Being a younger team and guys stepping up, I’m excited,” he said. “It’s going to be amazing to watch these young guys go from rookies or second-year or third year players to core veteran guys.”
Some of them, such as second-year linebacker Ryan Shazier, are already there.
The development of players such as Shazier, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, to name three, has coincided with a seismic shift in personnel, philosophy and personality that has readied the Steelers for another championship run.
That explains why, for the first time since the 2010 postseason ended with a 31-25 loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV, the offseason arrow is pointing up.
Since then there had had been a playoff loss to Tim Tebow, consecutive 8-8 seasons after which the Steelers had watched the postseason on TV and a one-and-done foray into and out of the 2014 tournament via a loss to Baltimore in a game the Steelers never really had a chance to win because Le’Veon Bell wasn’t playing.
Clearly, they’ve gotten better at playoff exits more inspiring than frustrating in nature.
And that bodes well for a team that overcame a lot more, came together a lot more and came a lot closer to achieving that ultimate goal this season than perhaps even the most ardent followers populating Steeler Nation can appreciate.
See you at St. Vincent College.