By Nick Shook
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Pittsburgh’s drama-filled season ended earlier than most expected — so early that one Steeler considered skipping the Pro Bowl because he was still too upset about the loss.
“After the [Jacksonville] game, I didn’t know if I even wanted to come for a while,” Heyward said Thursday, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “But you have to make the most of a situation. It’s an awesome experience. Every player should get to experience this. Now I have to tell my guys to get back here, too. Hopefully, we’re busy [playing in a Super Bowl], but I want to see more defensive guys here.”
Heyward is one of eight Steelers at the Pro Bowl, but the lone Pittsburgh defender in Orlando. In a departure from the Steelers of last decade and the 1970s, Pittsburgh is an offense-first team and its postseason honors reflect that.
It’s also a team that seemed to attract off-field issues all season. Some of the blame for that has started to circle back around toward head coach Mike Tomlin. Heyward squashed the theory that Tomlin allowed his team to become undisciplined, leading to their downfall. While he was at it, the defender decided to go down the list in explaining everything that happened in 2017.
“It’s a load of crap to me,” Heyward said of the Tomlin topic. “We’re grown men. We’re not in Little League. We lost the game, and we overcame a lot. A lot of teams would have fallen by the wayside. ‘Coach T’ kept everyone focused and moving on to the next problem. Obviously, we had too many problems to deal with, but that’s not on him.
“Stuff happened this year. You never could have expected some of the stuff that happened. Some of the stuff is football-related. [Antonio Brown] knocked over a Gatorade bottle. I would have knocked it over, too. You guys just didn’t catch it at the right time. If you’ve been on the sidelines, there are plenty of people who spaz out after drives. That’s just life. That’s football. If you care that much, you care about it.”
Stick around — there’s more.
“And Martavis [Bryant] wanted to play football,” Heyward said of his teammate, who sparked controversy when discussing his own teammate via social media. “He was away from it for so long. There are things that happened this year that were maybe unique. We had to overcome a lot, but at the end of the day we didn’t get it done.
“It falls on me and Ben. We’re leaders. As much as we talk about the drama and stuff, it wasn’t like guys were getting arrested or anything, or being caught with stuff. We’ll move past it. It’s nothing that will stick with this team.”
Pittsburgh already extinguished one in-house conflict in parting ways with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who didn’t get along with Roethlisberger. The Bryant problem eventually faded into the past, and Brown’s tirade was forgotten by the midpoint of the season.
Even then, the Steelers still went home after a one-and-done showing in the postseason, falling in a shootout to the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars. In the aftermath, they were accused of overlooking the Jaguars in anticipation of a much-desired rematch with New England. And no matter how it happened, their early exit remained unchanged.
What happens next is vitally important to the future of the franchise, perhpas more than folks might realize. Another season filled with off-field drama and a finish short of an AFC crown very well could spell the end of Tomlin in Pittsburgh, even as that sounds absurd at this point. Multiple seasons of in-house issues would serve as an indicator that control has been lost and a change is necessary.
We’re not at all suggesting that will happen, but it’s possible. What’s also possible is a rebound in 2018 that sees Pittsburgh, a franchise set up to again steamroll through the AFC North, contending for the conference, albeit in a more convincing fashion than 2017’s roller coaster of a season. Maybe they’ll even get more than one defender to the Pro Bowl.