PITTSBURGH – With all apologies to Al Michaels: Do you believe in miracles?
The Steelers certainly did after what happened in the past three weeks.
Teetering on the edge of playoff elimination week after week, the Steelers kept winning, while the teams they needed to lose kept on doing so.
That carried into Sunday, when Miami lost at home to the New York Jets, Baltimore fell at Cincinnati and the Steelers dumped Cleveland, 20-7, at Heinz Field.
They nearly got the final part of the playoff scenario Sunday as Kansas City took San Diego into overtime before losing. That put the Chargers, not the Steelers, into the postseason.
Kansas City, playing a number of reserves, was in position to win the game at the end of regulation, but placekicker Ryan Succop missed a 41-yard field goal with the score tied at 24-24.
But the Steelers can’t blame Succop, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid for resting his starters or anyone else for missing the playoffs for the second year in a row.
They need only look in the mirror.
When you start a season 0-4, you can’t expect to make the playoffs, even if you do go 8-4 in your remaining 12 games.
“You can’t start out 2-6 and expect good things to happen,” said defensive end Brett Keisel. “This team, fighting back, 6-2 in the second half, it’s pretty cool. I’m proud to be a part of it.”
There is that. But there is also the reality that change is inevitable in the NFL.
The Steelers have 23 players who are headed to unrestricted free agency, including several starters.
Keisel and safety Ryan Clark are among those starters headed into an unsure future. And with both on the wrong side of 30, they realized that Sunday might have been the final time they took the field for the Steelers.
“There are a lot of young guys who mean a lot to this organization moving forward that need to be signed,” Clark admitted. “Those guys will be a priority over a 12-year guy. They’ll handle those things. If they feel like they can move on without me and the team will be fine, that’s what they’ll do. They’ve got Hall of Famers who finished in different jerseys. I know I’m not going to be any different than that.”
And that’s the reality of the situation.
The Steelers have all but purged their roster of the players who helped them win Super Bowls in 2005 and 2008. If Keisel and Clark have played their final game with Pittsburgh, only Ben Roethlisberger, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller and Larry Foote would remain from those teams.
But Clark’s right. The Steelers have learned from their back-to-back 8-8 seasons that they can’t hold onto the past. They have to move forward.
And that means that young up-and-coming players such as linebacker Jason Worilds, who is also scheduled to be a free agent, have to be a priority over keeping veterans such as Keisel and Clark.
They made that mistake last offseason when cornerback Keenan Lewis, and to a lesser extent, wide receiver Mike Wallace, were allowed to leave in free agency while the team held onto its veteran roster one more season.
If the 2013 season showed anything, it’s that the Steelers are evolving.
The offense underwent a total makeover and jumped into the new millennia. Roethlisberger was given the freedom to run the no-huddle almost exclusively in the second half of the season to great success.
Even when veteran warhorse LaMarr Woodley returned from an injury, Worilds was allowed to move forward at the left outside linebacker position formerly manned by Woodley. In previous years, it would have been a no-brainer to simply put Woodley back at his old spot.
Add in that head coach Mike Tomlin played more rookies in prominent roles than perhaps any time in the past two decades and you can see the changes.
Will that carry over into 2014? Perhaps.
There’s an entire offseason of work to be done before any prognostication can be done for next year.
In the meantime, the Steelers and their fans can take some time to ponder the few plays here or there that would have changed their season and not left Pittsburgh relying on Succop and the Chiefs to win a game to get them into the postseason.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.