PITTSBURGH -- The shouts echo down the long, chilly concrete hallway beneath Heinz Field. The locker rooms are close enough that you can hear the winners celebrating while you watch the losers shuffle in silently. In the moments after the Jaguars’ stunning 45-42 victory here Sunday, vanquished Steelers could hear jubilant Jaguars quite clearly.
“Where’s Mitchell?” they shouted, looking for safety Mike Mitchell, who was quoted in a Sports Illustrated story this week talking about a seemingly inevitable Steelers-Patriots rematch. “We want Mike! Get 23 out here!”
Mitchell was in the locker room, sitting in full uniform, head in his hands, weeping openly. He sat there for a full 30 minutes, shoulders shuddering as teammates and coaches worked to console him. Around him, Steeler players dressed, gave interviews and headed out into uncertain future that had come far sooner than any of them could have imagined.
“Really disheartening,” said star wideout Antonio Brown, a powerful wizard who caught seven passes for 132 yards and two incredible touchdowns on a bad calf but still couldn’t will his team to victory. “It was right there. We had all our goals in front of us, everything we desired to do. No excuse not to get the job done.”
But they did not, and it’ll be the Jaguars heading to Foxborough for that AFC Championship Game against the Patriots while the Steelers, who always seemed destined for that game, begin an offseason and contemplate the dwindling size of this particular group’s championship window.
“I feel bad because I let the fans down, my teammates down,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “It wasn’t enough. I don’t know about contracts and who’s coming back, but I know the guys up front are. That makes it good for me. So, I look forward to another year with those guys.”
Roethlisberger’s postgame assertion that he’ll be back next year isn’t just relief for the Steelers and their fans -- it’s an offseason assist for the front office. With Roethlisberger in the fold, the Steelers will have the opportunity (should they so desire) to draft his potential replacement in April and not feel the pressure to play the young man right away. It also gives them a little more time to see how 2017 fourth-rounder Joshua Dobbs develops. Roethlisberger seems to talk about retirement every year (except, apparently, this one), but he’ll only be 36 when next season starts, and he just threw for 469 yards and five touchdowns in a playoff game against a historically great pass defense. Woeful Week 5 assertions to the contrary, he’s still got it.
But what else will he have? And for how much longer? Brown will still be in Pittsburgh next year, but questions remain about Bell, who just played a season as a $12.12 million franchise player and told ESPN.com last week that he’d consider sitting out games or retiring if the Steelers franchised him again. That’s a bridge-crossing with which he has not yet been confronted and may never be, because it’s not crazy to think the Steelers would pass on franchising Bell at a cost of about $14.5 million fully guaranteed. Bell could end up with a long-term contract, with a franchise, in a holdout or, potentially, as an unrestricted free agent with other teams lining up to throw money at him. Many possibilities, although he insisted postgame his preference is to be back.
“Of course, I never want to leave this city,” Bell said. “Obviously, circumstances and things like that, but I definitely don’t.”
Those pesky circumstances. They could land Bell back here and happy, or they could send him out of town and force the Steelers to reconfigure their offense around a less spectacular back. But Bell isn’t the only issue. Martavis Bryant will still want a trade to a team where he can sell himself as a No. 1 wide receiver. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s contract is expiring. Injured star linebacker Ryan Shazier’s football future is murky at best, and likely not among his chief concerns. And there’s obviously work to be done on the secondary.
But if Roethlisberger really is coming, back, the window doesn’t shut for a while. The Steelers’ offensive line is strong and signed. The receiver corps looks good even if it does send Bryant packing, as JuJu Smith-Schuster is coming off an impressive rookie season. The Steelers have good young pieces on defense that will get better. They have stable leadership in the head coach’s office, as usual.
For all of their issues, for all of the injuries and off-field flare-ups that characterized much of this Steelers’ season, this was a group convinced it could do something special together. In the end, it was wrong. Whether next year will offer as much promise, and how many more years this particular group of Steeler stars will get to play together, remain to be seen. But in a sullen locker room Sunday night, where the sounds of murmured disappointment mixed with muffled sobs, there was a sense among the Steelers that they would have a chance to be back and try this again, at least one more time.
“I think, if we can get everyone healthy, we can be even more special,” Bell said. “All that other stuff, that’s for the guys in the offices upstairs to handle. Hopefully, we have a lot of people back, and we can make a run next year.”