Steelers at Crossroads of several important decisions as disappointing 2013 season goes into final stretch

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers as an organization has entered into a liminal period; the team is on a threshold where the continuity of success they have long enjoyed is uncertain, and the future identity of the team is as obscured as Heinz Field in the snow.

There is far more at stake for the Steelers this off season than simply where their final record puts them in terms of draft position. Salary cap issues are affecting positions across the roster, including QB. Combined with coaching issues and a muddled image of what the organization believes the team’s identity should be, the Steelers are at a crossroad in terms of their future success.

From where I watch, this uncertainty stems from three distinct areas: Salary cap, coaching issues and what kind of team does the front office and coaching staff want to be. These three areas are so intertwined in terms of how one affects the others that there are no quick fixes or easy answers.

Ever since breaking onto the NFL scene in 2004, Ben Roethlisberger has redefined the Pittsburgh Steelers. Where prior to Roethlisberger the Steelers were a defensive force with a pounding running game but inconsistent passing ability, Roethlisberger's unique ability to extend plays and pull out last minute victories with his arm suddenly transformed the Steelers into a duel threat of scoring points in bunches yet shutting down even the elite quarterbacks at any time. But that identity change was three Super Bowls, two Lombardi trophies and nine years ago. Roethlisberger is receiving an elite QB's salary, and rightfully so for all he has accomplished.

At every crossroads on the path that leads to the future, tradition has placed 10,000 men to guard the past. - Maurice Maeterlinck

At the same time however, the Steelers' front office "retired" Bruce Arians, the coach that helped develop Roethlisberger into the quarterback he is and the one Steeler Nation sees as the embodiment of the Steelers identity, and brought in an offensive coordinator in Todd Haley presumably to develop Roethlisberger into becoming a quarterback who could survive to play for several more years. Even if you ignore the mass media's incessant speculation over the relationship between Roethlisberger and Haley, there have been a sufficient number of episodes of Roethlisberger making comments then apologizing for them later that would indicate some sort of resistance to the direction the Steelers want Roethlisberger to go in the latter years of his career.

During all this, the Steelers have transitioned from a team that could run the ball at will, to one that hasn't had a 100 yard rushing game 20 games, currently the longest drought in the NFL. They drafted Le'Veon Bell to become the back that could return them to rushing effectively, presumably to fulfill the mutually accepted mandate of head coach Mike Tomlin and team president Art Rooney. However even in games such as the last one against the Dolphins where it appeared Bell was running effectively, the play calling turned away from the run, just as it appeared to turn away from the effective use of the No Huddle offense Roethlisberger has repeatedly admitted he prefers.

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers hired Jack Bicknell Jr to replace offensive line coach Sean Kugler who took the head coaching position at UTEP. The decision to hire Bicknell, with his experience in teaching and utilizing the zone blocking scheme for his offensive lines, was explained by Tomlin: "They played the AFC North, and they ran the ball very well against all the teams in the AFC North," said Tomlin. "They ran the ball effectively against us when Jamaal Charles had a 100-yard game. That was attractive to me. The plan they were able to put together, the success they were able to have vs. some people we are going to see quite a bit was a selling feature." Bicknell had been at Kansas City just one year before being hired by Tomlin.

"Because you continue to inhabit and believe your metaphors, you cannot see what is true." - Wm. Paul Young, Cross Roads: What If You Could Go Back and Put Things Right?

Yet after a full training camp practicing the zone blocking scheme, the Steelers have rarely used it. If "The Standard" in selecting Bicknell was the ZBS, was the reason said standard was abandoned the inability of the players to adapt to it? Tomlin has never accepted injuries as an excuse to get away from the team's intentions, so does that mean the current players aren't the right players for such a standard, and if so, why was it selected in the first place?

The Steelers are at the crossroad to their future; where they end up will be predicated on the decisions they make this off season. Do they extend Roethlisberger this off season, or next, and for how long and for how much? Does Mike Tomlin or Kevin Colbert, or even Art Rooney II make a decision on the Offensive Coordinator position as part of their decision on their franchise QB, and if so does the purported reason for hiring Haley take a back seat to whatever Roethlisberger tells them behind closed doors? Or do they hold firm to whatever premise that led to Haley's hiring and accept the consequences in their discussions with their franchise QB?

The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn. - David Russell

How much salary cap room will the Steelers have to create by cutting defensive players to be able to offer Roethlisberger an appropriate renewal amount? The defense carries the vast majority of the non-QB salary cap burden, but the names associated with that cap burden are almost as important to the legacy of the Steelers as their QB; Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor. Can the Steelers afford more restructuring or do more Harrison and Lewis-like decisions have to be made? Can they afford to keep Woodley as is and still try to re-sign Jason Worilds; can they afford not to keep Woodley, or afford not to re-sign Worilds?

Do they re-visit the ZBS with the existing offensive line players currently on the roster or do they use one or more draft picks on the O line yet again, when so many defensive needs are so readily apparent, especially if profound cuts are made on the defensive roster to make salary cap room?

Can the Steelers afford Emmanuel Sanders cap-wise; can they afford to let him go talent-wise? Same with Bell's backup at running back, Jonathan Dwyer; same with, Ziggy Hood, Al Woods, LaRod Stephens-Howling, not to mention all of the 2015 free agents whose salary expectations will be impacted by any contract restructuring decisions the Steelers make for 2014.

I'm sure these questions and more are occupying the minds of Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Omar Khan and others within the Steelers organization. While the Steelers have a history of consistency and patience, it is difficult to recall a time when a confluence of circumstances such as the salary cap, aging veterans, widespread poor play on the field by the offense and defense alike have all come together at the same time as is happening now. Decisions must be reached, choices must be made; address the offense or the defense; restructure contracts or endure another year of purges; to pay or not to pay. All difficult decisions with far reaching implications, but necessary ones in order to for the team to decide which fork in the road they take, for as last season and this one proves, the past doesn't bode well for the future.

Choices are the hinges of destiny. - Attributed to both Edwin Markham and Pythagoras

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