PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II knows there are issues his team needs to address coming off a second straight 8-8 season.
He’s not convinced the contract status of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is one of them.
Rooney said Wednesday the Steelers may hold off on reworking Roethlisberger’s contract this spring, a break from the team’s standard operating procedure. Roethlisberger has two years remaining on his current deal, a time when Pittsburgh typically reaches out to work on a new agreement.
It might not happen this year, though Rooney insists any decision to hold off will have nothing to do with Pittsburgh’s intention to lock up the two-time Super Bowl winner for the remainder of his career.
“We look at Ben as somebody who is going to be here for the long-term, hopefully five or more years,” Rooney said. “We’ve got to have Ben retire as a Steeler, no doubt about that.”
The 31-year-old Roethlisberger is coming off one of his best statistical seasons. He set franchise records for attempts (584), completions (375) and had the second-highest total in club history with 4,261 yards passing. Even better, Roethlisberger took every snap for an offense that developed an identity when it used the no-huddle extensively over the final eight weeks.
Given more freedom to call the plays, Roethlisberger helped guide Pittsburgh to a 6-2 record over the second half of the year. He also became more adept at getting the ball out of his hands. Roethlisberger was sacked just seven times over the final seven games, compared to 36 sacks over the season’s first nine weeks.
The performance left Rooney encouraged by what he saw as the relationship between Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley deepened.
“I think the second year of a new offense you would hope for progress and I think that’s what we got,” Rooney said.
The Steelers averaged 23.7 points, nearly a field goal better than they averaged in 2012 and went over 20 points in each of their final nine games, the team’s longest such streak in over a decade.
Though Rooney declined to comment specifically on the status of individual coaches he said “we feel good about the coaching staff in general.” Pittsburgh has already made one move, parting ways with offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. last week.
Haley has one year remaining on his contract, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said at the end of the regular season he plans to be back in 2014 as his unit looks to rebound from its worst statistical season since 1992. The Steelers finished 13th in yards allowed, the first time they’ve been outside the top 10 in that category in 14 years. Pittsburgh tied for 25th with just 34 sacks and produced only 20 turnovers.
Rooney downplayed the advancing age of safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark and defensive end Brett Keisel – all of whom are in their 30s – as factors in the slide.
“We weren’t good enough against the run ... we weren’t good enough taking the ball away and rushing the passer,” he said. “There’s things we need to improve on, whether it’s age related or otherwise, I’m not too concerned about the age, it’s just getting better. We’ll be working hard on that this offseason.”
The Steelers will likely remain bystanders for big-priced free agents thanks to salary cap concerns, though there will be an emphasis on trying to retain some of the 21 unrestricted free agents. Linebacker Jason Worilds, who flourished when LaMarr Woodley went down with calf injuries, figures to be a high priority.
So is maximizing the draft. Rooney said the team has informed the NFL it plans to appeal any additional penalty levied by the league in the wake of Tomlin’s ill-time two-step onto the field in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. The league fined Tomlin $100,000 and said it would consider stripping Pittsburgh of a draft pick after the draft order has been set.
Rooney believes any more discipline would be too much.
“As far as we’re concerned it had no impact on that game or no impact on the playoffs and no reason for that to be revisited at this point,” Rooney said. “Mike has paid the price and as far as we’re concerned it should be behind us.”
So, Rooney hopes, is a two-year stretch of watching the playoffs on television. He believes his team is closer to the one that was among the NFL’s best over the second half of the year than the one that limped to an 0-4 and 2-6 start.
“I like the way we finished,” he said. “I liked the way the offense progressed. I certainly like the way a lot of the younger players show that they have a good future and I think that bodes well for us. I think we’re excited about getting started on next year.”