PITTSBURGH -- The sanctity of the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room has been under attack after a two-year avalanche of storylines that prompted two players to deem their domain a Kardashian-inspired reality show.
Keeping Up With The Steelers has broadcast just about everything: national anthem disputes, Gatorade cooler attacks, yearlong holdouts, bold predictions, Week 17 walkouts and a love-hate relationship between the game's best pass-catching duo.
When team president Art Rooney II met with local reporters last month, one of his first questions, and rightfully so, was about the perception that his team is a "circus." Rooney didn't agree, calling the notion "nonsense" as far as he's concerned.
The Steelers' locker room is filled with mostly exemplary, hard-working players. But the team could have avoided some of these issues, too.
From ownership to team captains, Steelers leaders have tried to reconcile those two realities.
Defensive end and captain Cameron Heyward admitted that the Steelers dealt with a lot internally, and some outside factors that were uncontrollable, such as Le'Veon Bell's holdout. Some situations were handled better than others, he said.
"I think we took a lot of good steps. It’s about younger guys becoming better professionals and being comfortable in what they are asked to do," Heyward said. "The light didn’t click for me right away. ... Just gotta grow, put the petty stuff behind us. It’s not always going to be dandelions and daisies.
"But getting over our problems, being communicative and understanding we have to work through our problems -- that’s what growth takes. You can’t continue to do the same thing and expect the same results. That goes for the whole organization. I’m not saying one person."
Finishing games was the biggest issue in the eyes of Heyward. The Steelers' final four losses were by a combined 16 points. Despite the league's sixth-ranked total defense, a unit that tied for the league lead with 52 sacks, the slow bleed at the end of games was concerning.
The Steelers gave up a late scoring drive in all four of those November and December losses. Only more turnovers will "shut the door" on teams, Heyward said.
The Steelers are keeping defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who has one year left on his contract. He'll replace Joey Porter as outside linebackers coach.
Heyward stressed that coaching isn't the issue.
"Coaches can only do so much. Up to the players to execute," he said. "I want to lead this group and do what’s right. It’s up to the players to execute the jobs they give us. I think our game plans are great. If we don’t execute and do what we should all the time, there’s room for error."
After the Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013, center and captain Maurkice Pouncey defended the team culture and said he wants to bring teammates together. At the Pro Bowl, Pouncey spent several minutes stressing why he believes Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown can coexist, downplaying any Week 17 flare-up and highlighting the duo's accomplishments as two future Hall of Famers.
"At the end of the day, things will get worked out. I honestly, truly believe that," Pouncey said.
Pouncey has been one of coach Mike Tomlin's most ardent supporters over the years, and 2019 could be one of Tomlin's toughest tests yet. He'll likely be without Bell, this time for good, and if Brown returns, the All-Pro wideout and his coach will have issues to mend -- and potentially new parameters to set to curb misbehavior.
But the way Pouncey sees it, there's no palpable tension inside his locker room from day to day.
"I don’t care what anybody else on the outside has to say. We’re all really good friends," Pouncey said. "It’s not like no one talks to each other. You know what kind of organization, what kind of team we have."
The onus is on Rooney to sort through what happened at the end of the season, decide on Brown's future and guide the Steelers into 2019.
Diverse personalities inside the building are nothing new in Pittsburgh, as Rooney knows from decades of experience. Juggling those personalities mostly worked in recent years -- until it didn't.
"You know, I’ve been around a lot of football players for a lot of years. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors," Rooney said. "Look, we work hard to try and bring people here who we think are a good fit, but people are different, and we’ve had some different characters here and there over the years. Bottom line is I’m disappointed by what happened at the end of the season, and if there are lessons to be learned here, we’ll look at that and see if we can do better."
Rooney recognized that the tenor of 2018 would have been far different if the Steelers had improved in two basic areas: turnover margin (minus-11) and kicking (seven missed field goals). Pittsburgh ranked among the league's worst in both categories. It's difficult to win more than nine games that way.
Rooney praised the defensive front seven's ability to get quarterback pressure but wants to see the secondary improve -- and the entire defense protect leads.
"On defense, we just have to be aggressive in taking the ball away and finding players that can do that," Rooney said of turnover margin. "So I think that is something you can improve, and we need to do that. On the offensive side, ball security is something that we talk about a lot. We had some key fumbles and key interceptions at bad times, and those things lead to losing games, so those are areas where we can improve on, among others. But just to name a couple which are things we have to be better at."
It's always more than a couple issues, of course. The Steelers believe they will be back, but it's an open secret that many players in the locker room would prefer a drama-free, football-focused environment in 2019.