The Pittsburgh Steelers entered last season with the Lombardi Trophy in hand and extremely high expectations. But when the smoke cleared in 2009, Pittsburgh was a disappointing 9-7 and watched from home as 12 other teams competed in the postseason.
So what is the current state of the Steelers? ESPN.com's AFC North blog went straight to the top to find out from Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh's football operations director and general manager.
In a one-on-one interview, Colbert discussed all things Steelers, including the 2009 season, Troy Polamalu's knee injury and his thoughts on the coaching and front-office shakeups within the organization.
Kevin, last year clearly fell short of expectations. So how would you best describe Pittsburgh's 2009 season?
Kevin Colbert: In looking back at last year, I'm a big believer in you are what your team's record indicates. Right now we're a 9-7 team. Anytime we don't qualify for the playoffs, that's a disappointment, and it was a disappointing year by any and all accounts. That's who we are at this point.
Probably 70 percent of the league would be happy with 9-7, yet the sky is falling in Pittsburgh when it happens to the Steelers. Is the bar and pressure to succeed for this franchise unreasonable?
Colbert: The pressure is no different than the pressure we would put on ourselves anyway. This organization set a high standard a long time ago with their success. It's been a couple times when we've been able to add to that success. But, again, we understand that not having a chance to compete for the championship, that will always be a disappointing season here. We accept that and we really embrace that, because we're going to have that expectation anyway besides any outside pressure.
After experiencing it in 2006 and 2009, any thoughts on why it's so difficult to defend a Super Bowl title?
Colbert: I don't think it's necessarily defending the title. I think it's speaks to the strength of the league and the balance of the league. We didn't go into the season feeling we were defending anything. We went into the season feeling that we were 0-0 like everybody else, and we came out of the season 9-7 and not good enough to qualify. So, really, we never talked about or looked at ourselves as defending champs. We looked at ourselves like everybody else at the beginning of last year.
The NFL had 10 4,000-yard quarterbacks last season, including Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. What does that say about where this league is heading?
Colbert: Football is very cyclical, and I think it goes beyond the NFL. Obviously, you see the passing game thriving at the college level and it's trickled down to the high schools, and it's going to trickle up to this level. The advancement of the passing is something that has happened. Whether it will continue to happen, nobody knows. As offenses develop, defenses catch up. Then defenses force offenses to change and vice versa. So this league has changed and it will continue to change. But I really think it's a cause and effect by what’s going on at the college level and the type of players that we inherit when we draft from the colleges.
In terms of the uncapped year, will it hurt the way the Steelers do business?
Colbert: No. We're approaching this season as if there is a cap. We're not big players in free agency; we never have been. It's not to say that we won't sign a player or several players. But this organization is more about the draft and using free agency to supplement it. We're going to do things as if we had the same rules in place. We don't know what the future holds. So we're going operate as we have always operated and try to make our decisions based on that.
Speaking of business decisions, is Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton a candidate for this year's franchise tag?
Colbert: I don't want to speak specifically about any one player. But I will say that as long as we have that move [franchise tag] available to us under a collectively bargained agreement, we will always have that at our disposal. The belief of this organization is we don't like to use the tags. But if necessary, we will use it.
Any thoughts on Hampton's comments at the Pro Bowl that he would be unhappy with the tag?
Colbert: Not really. That's something where if we have comments to make about a player, those will be made internally when you're dealing with negotiations.
Concussions are a huge topic in the NFL right now. What is Pittsburgh's overall stance on this issue?
Colbert: We definitely support the guidelines and the efforts of the league. In terms of concussions, those are very serious and sometimes hidden injuries that are difficult to measure. We think that you have to take every precaution possible from a prevention standpoint and the increased safety of the equipment we use, the increased safety of the techniques that we use, and the diagnoses and treatment of that injury once it does occur. Really, I think the league's efforts are excellent, and we will definitely support anything that’s going to make this game safer for our players.
What is the latest on safety Troy Polamalu's left knee injury?
Colbert: I've been traveling, and some of the guys are here rehabbing and some are not. They're in and out. But at this point we have no concerns about any of our injuries or surgeries from last year.
Did Polamalu have knee surgery?
Colbert: No, he did not have surgery.
This is a hypothetical, but could Polamalu have played last month in the wild-card round?
Colbert: I know that he was practicing prior to our last game. If we had advanced into the postseason, he would have probably increased his practice load, and I think his ability to be able to play in a potential playoff game would have been determined by how he practiced that week. But he was able to practice the week before.
What's your take on this year's draft class?
Colbert: It's a very deep draft, especially on the defensive side. The offense is solid. But it probably lacks a solid quantity of so-called big-named skill players. But there are plenty of players in this draft that can help all teams, including ours, really at every level.
How will the Steelers adjust to the various coaching and front-office shakeups this offseason?
Colbert: You're always sad to see people leave your organization, especially when you've had success together in the form of a championship. However, this game does sometimes force change. Sometimes people leave on their own and sometimes they don’t. But change is hard when you've succeeded together. I can't really speak for the coaching changes, that's coach [Mike] Tomlin's area. But we did lose Doug Whaley as our pro scouting coordinator to become assistant general manager in Buffalo. In my opinion, it was long overdue. Doug was certainly qualified to be considered for such a position in the past and it was disappointing when he didn't get some opportunities to interview. I applaud his efforts here, because he was a very important part of what we did, and I'm very excited for him and proud of him that he was able to get that job. I'm sure he's going to do a great job for Buffalo and [GM] Buddy [Nix].