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In 2020, the Steelers got off to a franchise-best start at 11-0, and then it all came crashing down. They lost five of their final six games of the season, including an embarrassing 48-37 loss to the Browns in the wild-card game.
The game was pretty much over before it even started with the Browns getting out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter after the Steelers turned the ball over four times. Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball over Ben Roethlisberger's head on the first offensive snap of the game and Browns' strong safety Karl Joseph recovered the loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown to give Cleveland an early 7-0 lead. It was just a dreadful night at Heinz Field.
With the disheartening loss to the Browns to end the season and it appearing that Father Time has defeated Roethlisberger with how poorly he played down the stretch, many in the media and Steelers fans look at the 2021 season as a rebuilding year.
Former Steelers head coach and Hall of Famer Bill Cowher doesn't see a rebuild upcoming for the Steelers, however.
“I hate to use the word ‘rebuild’ because there is a winning culture there,” Cowher said on the Mark Madden Show on 105.9 The X on Wednesday via Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “There are a lot of good young players on the defensive side of the ball. Good young receivers.”
The Steelers are in salary cap hell and have a slew of unrestricted free agents in 2021. According to Overthecap.com, the Steelers are projected to be $34,981,664 over the cap, and that's not including the $5.2 million the Steelers will save with Vance McDonald retiring last week, so the Steelers are roughly $30 million over the cap with the cap limited being estimated at $176 million. The Steelers also have 19 players that are set to become unrestricted free agents in March and some will be looking for big paydays -- players like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton.
Maurkice Pouncey is reportedly expected to retire soon, which will free up $8 million in cap space, and Alejandro Villanueva will be an unrestricted free agent in March and he might retire anyway as well. So you're looking at most likely two new starters on the offensive line and possibly three if they don't re-sign Matt Feiler who is also set to become an unrestricted free agent. Couple that with a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada and a new offensive line coach, who has not been announced yet. In addition, Dupree and Smith-Schuster most likely won't be back as they will be offered more money from another team on the open market.
The Steelers 2021 team will look a lot different from this past year's team, but Cowher thinks the winning culture and stability in the Steelers organization will keep things afloat.
"A lot of decisions have to be made, certainly, with the offensive line retooling there,” Cowher said. “But there is a winning culture. Stability with coaches and front office. Those things matter. You may have a year where it doesn’t end the way you want. But I don’t think it is a total rebuild at all.”
Steelers president Art Rooney II doesn't see 2021 as a rebuilding year either, as the Steelers believe they can put a championship-caliber team on the field.
"You know, we've got to look at the whole roster, obviously, in the context of this year's salary cap and make decisions on it," Rooney said about some of the important decisions they have to make in 2021 via Bob Labriola of Steelers.com. "But I would just say that we're going to try and build a championship team to go into next year. Whether we can do that or not remains to be seen, but we're not going to sit here and say, OK, we're three years away. I mean, we're just not going to look at it that way. We're going to put the best team on the field that we can next year and do our best to compete to No. 1, win our division, and then move on."
Former Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor has a different opinion compared to Cowher and Rooney, as for one he thinks Roethlisberger should retire, and with Roethlisberger playing it could set the franchise back for years to come.
“One hundred percent, Taylor said when asked if Roethlisberger should retire on 93.7 The Fan on Wednesday. "Just the mobility part. If you're looking at the AFC North, the three young quarterbacks, they're young, they're mobile and they’ve got playoff experience. You don't want to set your organization behind three years.”
However, Taylor doesn't think the Steelers will force Roethlisberger to retire.
“They’re going to let Ben rock out until he wants to [retire]. You know the Steelers; they're loyal.”
The Steelers are loyal for the most part, but that wasn't the case for Troy Polamalu when Rooney, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert all told him to retire or they'll cut him in 2015. Polamalu ultimately decided to retire.
The Steelers brass of Rooney, Tomlin and Colbert are all on board with Roethlisberger coming back in 2021 and the franchise quarterback has already told the team that he's willing to restructure his contract to lower his $41.25 million cap hit.
With Roethlisberger returning in 2021, will it set the franchise back for three years like Taylor mentions? Who knows, but the organization certainly doesn't see this year as a rebuilding year. Rebuilding just has never been the Steelers way.