Last year at this time spirits could not have been higher in and around the city of Pittsburgh.
The beloved Steelers were coming into training camp as the reigning Super Bowl champions. They were returning many of the stars that helped them one season earlier. The team appeared as likely as any other team in the NFL to be right on course for another playoff-caliber season (with the hopes of successfully defending a championship at another Super Bowl well within reach).
What a difference a year makes!
As the 2009-2010 NFL season (and offseason) wore on, the Steelers were on the short end of many sticks, both on AND off the field. The result today is a sense of frustration, and perhaps desperation, replacing that previous feeling of jubilation as the Steelers commence with preparation for a season loaded with trepidation (I feel like a boxing promoter!).
The past 12 months have been one long series of disappointments for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After riding into opening weekend with the highest of expectations, the team stumbled out of the gates, needing overtime to win its first game, then falling to Chicago and Cincinnati in the next two. Later in the season the Steelers would suffer a five-game losing streak – three of which embarrassingly came at the hands of Kansas City, Oakland, and Cleveland, who last season COMBINED for only 14 wins.
Players began attacking and criticizing each other and the phrase “Steelers Stink” was heard for the first time in many years around Pittsburgh. It became very clear that the Steelers organization was in trouble. When the curtain fell on the 2009 regular season the Steelers became only the 13th team in NFL history to fail in its attempt to reach the playoffs as reigning champions.
Off the field the Steelers had a fair share of issues as well, highlighted by the legal troubles of wide receiver Santonio Holmes and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
This was not the first time either player had been involved in off-field scandal. The result for the Steelers is to be without both offensive stars as the 2010 season commences.
Despite the fact that Holmes was a Super Bowl MVP, and was the team’s leading receiver, the Steelers traded him away to the New York Jets for nothing more than a fifth-round draft pick. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger will serve a six-game ban to kick off the new season as punishment for his indiscretions. Add to those issues the very impressive performances by the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals last season, and the Steelers begin to look like a franchise on the verge of self-destruction.
Now the Steelers must face the prospect of a new season with many more questions than answers.
Perhaps the largest question looming over the Steelers as camp opens is how to handle Ben Roethlisberger’s involvement in preparation for the upcoming season. Will he practice with the first team, or will the backups be spending most of their time lining up with the starting crew? Also (and perhaps most importantly), what if the Steelers find success behind a backup quarterback during the weeks that Roethlisberger is suspended? Should the team stick with what is working or go back to the guy getting paid more than $100M to play that position? Do not forget that the Steelers were actively soliciting trade offers for the former Pro Bowler around draft time. They have clearly been disappointed in Big Ben’s off-field antics, and could be looking for any excuse to relegate his status on the field.
If you could only attend one training camp all year long, Pittsburgh is the place to be. The Steelers are one of the league’s best franchises in recent history wins two out of the last five Super Bowls, but all signs currently point toward a continued collapse. Will Byron Leftwich and the return of Antwaan Randle El be enough to keep the Steelers competitive through the first half of the season, or should fans in Pittsburgh already start looking ahead to the 2011 season… when the franchise can truly start anew?