Apparently what Steeler Nation should have focused on was not certain plays or injuries, but the offensive skill players themselves.
Much has already been written about fractures in the locker room, and a lack of focus on the field, and many have taken the opportunity given by Mike Wallace's departure via free agency to demonize him and blame him for being if not the culprit, then a contributory source of the perceived problems in the locker room.
After the season, there was much indignation at an unnamed source's purported comments pertaining to OLB LaMarr Woodley and his lack of conditioning throughout the season as being the reason for his poor play and subsequent injuries for the second year in a row.
I myself was highly critical numerous times over Todd Haley's play calling and the anemic offensive performance in many of last year's games; in retrospect it appears Haley may have been the victim of a conspiracy of passive aggressive behavior by the core skill players on the offensive unit.
Based on comments made by Emmanuel Sanders on ESPN's "First Take" on May 1 but lost in the post-draft euphoria and analysis, it appears that the true culprits for the disappointing 2012 season were many of the offensive players themselves.
"Offensively, I felt like we slacked and that's on us," Sanders said.
In this interview a comment previously made by Antonio Brown on Sirius XM NFL Football when asked whether he thought the Steelers would re-sign Sanders was presented to Sanders for his reaction. The comment by Brown was:
"...I don't think that they (the Steelers) really like guys that don't do things their way...there's a certain professional way that they go about their business and I don't think that they make decisions with guys that don't go about things in the way that they should...so in my opinion I don't think he'll [Sanders] will come back. It's just not smart to get a guy for one year at a price that you can get a guy for four years."
Read that first line of the comment made by Brown again: "...I don't think that they (the Steelers) really like guys that don't do things their way..." Low tenders on running backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer may have had almost as much to do with the Steelers realizing the lack of commitment to learning and adhering to the new playbook last year by these players as it did salary cap implications, and the Steelers long deliberation over whether to match the offer the New England Patriots made to Sanders or take a third round compensatory pick could have been in part due to their realization that Sanders was one of those players who, in his own words, was guilty of slacking last year.
The high expectations the Steelers supposedly have placed on Sanders, as he himself disclosed, may have as much to do about making up for a lost year last year as it does for the player justifying to his team his deserving of a long term contract.
Throughout the entire season there were signs that the offensive players had not bought into their new offensive coordinator's playbook. It was heatedly debated when the Steelers announced the hiring of Todd Haley whether Haley's reputed aggressive personality would mesh well with Roethlisberger, and whether Roethlisberger would, as a result of possibly harboring hard feelings over the dismissal (or "retirement") of his good friend and former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, "buy into" Haley's new playbook.
As we all saw unfold throughout last year's pre-season, there was an apparent edginess to Roethlisberger, but many in Steeler Nation decried any criticism of their quarterback as a result of such comments of his characterizing Haley's playbook as the Rosetta Stone:
"(I'm) looking over this Rosetta Stone that sits in front of me called our new offense," Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger said on NFL Network's The Rich Eisen Podcast. "It's just it's different, it's new, (but) I'm sure I'll pick up on it. Change isn't always bad, it just sometimes takes a little while to get used to, that's what I'm doing -- trying to put the extra work in."
Such comments were quickly picked up by the national media and reported by Reuters, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, ESPN and multitudes of blog sites. While it is highly probable that players pay little attention to such articles, when you take such widely publicized comments together with multiple lapses of focus by Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, the entire running back corps, plus the issue of the franchise quarterback using hand signals from a previous playbook and making comments after losses to the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers that later had him apologizing to the coaches (post Cowboys game) and referring a reporter's question to the coaches (post Chargers game), combined with the statement by Sanders in the First Take interview:
"But this offseason, Ben [Roethlisberger] has been showing up every day ... and we're getting familiar with the offense and we're looking forward to this next season."
...you begin to get multiple data points that if taken together indicate a majority of veteran skill players not buying into Todd Haley's offensive philosophy, including the franchise quarterback. The dropped passes, fumbled balls, poorly run route trees and missed assignments begin to allude to a serious level of disrespect and possibly contempt towards the offensive coordinator and an apparent passive undermining of his authority.
While it is admirable that Ben Roethlisberger doesn't publicly call out his teammates as did Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears last year, it is paramount to the future success of this team that regardless of his personal feelings towards his boss, the franchise quarterback be the yardstick by which the offensive unit's commitment to the playbook is measured and as a captain on this team, he hold his teammates as accountable for their actions as he is himself.
That there was a noticeable lack of such commitment by the unit was quite evident last year. What other conclusion can you draw from a team's (former) No. 1 receiver, aside from him being petulant, admitting that because he wasn't targeted as much as he thought he deserved, he "lost focus" for large parts of the game(s); of a player who, having just signed a lucrative multi-year contract as Brown did, commits such gaffes as so ineptly fielding a punt in the Cowboy game or failing to perform such a simple high school move as falling on a loose ball in his own end zone, a running back corps that to a man proved to be so ineffectual and a quarterback who felt (or was) compelled to apologize for many of his comments?
Much has been written about the trials and tribulations of the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers, and while focus is now on the upcoming 2013 season, we can expect more intense scrutiny by the media as they attempt to project what the next chapter will hold for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their quest for a novel seventh Lombardi. For such a storybook ending to occur in the upcoming season, Steeler Nation better hope all of the remaining players on the offense have done their remedial summer reading.