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As they prepare for another season, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to be at a crossroads

As the Steelers embark on yet another training camp and prepare for the 2019 regular season, they have many questions to answer regarding their personnel, coaching, leadership and reputation. How they answer them will likely determine their immediate future.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Ugly. That’s probably the most popular word used to describe the Steelers 2019 offseason.

However, if you wanted to use other words, such as tumultuous, volatile, depressing and sad, those would also be fairly apropos.

The ugliness, of course, began the very second Pittsburgh was eliminated from the playoffs on December 30, and word surfaced that Antonio Brown, the All-Pro receiver who had lifted the team on his shoulders oh so many times when things such as the playoffs were on the line, was deactivated for the regular season-finale against the Bengals, not because of an injury issue, but because of insubordination—skipping team meetings and practices in the days leading up to Week 17.

There were also reports that Brown had a very visible dispute with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in practice, which led to the former, in essence, quitting on the team.

Long story, short, it was one of the ugliest divorces between player and team in franchise history, as Brown spent the next few months doing everything in his power—publicly dissing his quarterback and coach, as well as initially refusing to communicate with his actual boss, Art Rooney II—to get himself traded or cut.

Mission accomplished, as Pittsburgh shipped Brown off to the Raiders in March in-exchange for a third and a fifth-round draft choice. Some said the Steelers were fleeced on the deal—getting such low compensation for arguably the greatest receiver in team history. Some say Pittsburgh had no choice but to part ways with Brown, regardless of the return.

At any rate, the Steelers, who, thanks to the circus-like image the All-Pro receiver helped to create within the organization, had been the subject of many sensationalized round-table discussions on outlets such as the NFL Network and ESPN in the months following the end of the 2018 season.

But, again, Brown had been so pivotal to the team’s success in recent years. Time and time again, No. 84 came through when Pittsburgh needed him to. No, the Steelers didn’t win a Super Bowl with Brown as one of the stars of the team, a player who, from 2013-2018, had the greatest statistical run for a receiver in NFL history (686 receptions for 9,145 yards and 67 touchdowns). But surely it wasn’t because of any negative influence he may have had in the locker room, on his teammates, right?

Now that he’s gone, that is the narrative—addition by subtraction—the team is hoping to be true.

Same for the saga involving All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell and the contract dispute that saw him miss the entire 2018 season. After spending two years on the franchise tag, Bell finally hit the open market in March and soon signed a lucrative free agent contract with the Jets. Many say Bell cost himself a lot of money by not agreeing to terms with Pittsburgh last season and the season before. Judging by the numbers, this is very true. But, regardless of who “won” that financial battle, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Bell, in-between injuries and suspensions, was very-much the engine that drove the Steelers offense from 2014-2017. While Brown was the star, and Roethlisberger was the franchise quarterback, Bell was the guy that really seemed to make the offense go when it flowed through him.

But I mentioned the suspensions. Those were drug-related and forced Bell to miss a combined five games to start the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There were also the rap songs, the rap videos and, most importantly, those holdouts—two training camp holdouts and the aforementioned 2018 regular season holdout.

Like Brown, Bell was seen as a huge distraction to many, someone who hindered the team’s chances of winning, this despite his enormous contributions on the field.

Thankfully, James Conner managed to fill Bell’s shoes just fine for most of 2018 and seemed to be a more than adequate replacement, a running back the offense could flow through without missing a beat.

The Steelers now seem determined to move on without two of their biggest stars (maybe their two biggest stars) in recent memory.

Can they?

And can Mike Tomlin, the head coach whose name I can’t believe I’ve failed to mention up until now, regain control of this team? There are those—players, assistant coaches, front office execs and media members—who insist Tomlin has always been in control—there’s no doubt who’s in command. But the perception nationally has been that Tomlin is the lead clown of this circus, that he’s an enabler, a man with too soft of a touch.

It’s hard to dispute that when you hear stories of Brown’s lateness to meetings extending well beyond Week 17 of last year, and that he was allowed to live outside of the Saint Vincent facilities during recent training camps.

It’s also hard to defend Tomlin based on the fact that his team blew a 2.5 game lead in the division over the final six weeks of the 2018 season and missed the postseason by a mere half-a-game—an epic collapse for the ages.

Speaking of something I’ve failed to mention up until now, the Steelers blew a huge lead and missed the playoffs WITH Antonio Brown as a major contributor. The last time Pittsburgh made the postseason, both Brown and Bell were considered by many to be the best receiver/running back combo in the NFL.

Now the Steelers not only have to move on without them, they have to find a way to get back to the playoffs. And once they’re there, they have to find a way to get back to the Super Bowl and win it.

That’s right, those are still the expectations in Pittsburgh. Nationally, the Steelers may be considered much weaker—a team that has been surpassed on paper by the ultra-talented Browns—but locally, the expectations remain high, both within the organization and within the fan base.

One thing about the Steelers organization is it never stops trying to win. No matter the situation, the expectations are the same: Super Bowl or bust. You don’t approach free agency the way Pittsburgh did this offseason—the team signed veteran cornerback Steven Nelson, veteran receiver Donte Moncrief and veteran inside linebacker Mark Barron—if you’re still not trying to win.

Some may be excited about those moves. Some may see them as mediocre, but a franchise that has given up on the idea of winning wouldn’t have made them.

Same is true for how the Steelers approached the 2019 NFL Draft—namely the first round when they traded up 10 spots to select Devin Bush, an inside linebacker from Michigan who may have all the necessary tools to replace Ryan Shazier and be the linchpin of a defense that hasn’t really been the same since Shazier went down with a gruesome spinal injury near the end of the 2017 campaign.

As for the expectations of the fans, they’ll likely never change: Super Bowl........or else.

Go visit the comments section of any social media story involving the Steelers. You won’t have to look very hard to find a #FireTomlin hashtag or 10. As hard as the national media has been on the Steelers head coach in recent years, it’s nothing compared to how hard the fans have been on him for the vast-majority of his time in Pittsburgh.

The perception has been that Tomlin has wasted the latter stages of Roethlisberger’s career by not winning another Super Bowl or two despite having the most talented roster in the NFL.

That may not have been the reality (the talent part), but, as the saying goes, perception is reality. And just because Pittsburgh now appears to be weaker without the services of Brown and Bell, that doesn’t change the expectations of the fans. Tomlin still has the services of Roethlisberger at his disposal, and, gosh darn it, he better finally get the job done.

And why hasn’t Tomlin been able to rebuild a defense that once struck fear in just about every offensive coordinator in the NFL? Yes, Dick LeBeau is gone, as are the many legends he once coached on that side of the ball. But Tomlin cut his teeth as a defensive coach. He’s supposed to be an expert in that area.

Why the struggles to find and develop talent? Why hasn’t Keith Butler, deemed to be a valuable asset within the organization during his many years as the team’s linebackers coach, been able to make strides as the defensive coordinator? He’s certainly been given enough high-end draft choices to take the defense to the next level.

While there has been some improvement on defense, it hasn’t been to the satisfaction of the fans and, more importantly, the organization. Maybe that’s why rumors have persisted that Tomlin has been running the defense in recent years, with Butler’s powers significantly reduced.

Curiously, while the defense has become a “Blitzgurgh” unit again, thanks to a combined 106 sacks over the past two seasons, this hasn’t led to many splash plays and turnovers. In fact, Pittsburgh had an abysmal 15 takeaways last year—a far-cry from the 36 Super Bowl champions have historically averaged.

To make those waters just a little murkier as to who’s in charge of the defense, the Steelers hired former Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to be their defensive assistant/secondary coach. With Tom Bradley still around to coach the defensive backs, and with Butler now coaching the outside linebackers following the firing of Joey Porter, does this mean Austin is the de facto defensive coordinator? Does this mean Butler is the DC in name only? Who is really running the defense in 2019?

We know who is running the offensive line. That would be Shaun Sarrett, following the departure of the legendary Mike Munchak, who made a lateral move to become the Broncos offensive line coach. What Munchak did here, by taking a unit that was once a major weakness and turning it into one of the strongest in the NFL, speaks for itself. Yes, Munchak had a lot of high-pedigreed talent to work with. But he still coached them up and made them even better players. And what he did with the likes of Alejandro Villanueva, Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney and Matt Feiler...well, there’s a reason so many were clamoring for him to succeed Tomlin as head coach.

There’s great optimism that Sarrett, who spent many years here as Munchak’s assistant, will just pick up where Munchak left off.

There’s also great hope that JuJu Smith-Schuster can, in-fact, be a bona fide number one receiver in the wake of Brown’s departure. With 169 receptions and 2,343 yards over his first two seasons, he obviously has the resume. As for his skill-set, physical attributes and toughness? They speak for themselves.

As for the offensive backfield, again, we got a good sample size of Conner last season and his ability to replace Bell as the lead running back. If he can stay healthy—a slightly big if due to his durability issues since turning pro in 2017—many feel Conner can be almost—if not as good as—Bell.

There is hope that T.J. Watt will make a huge leap from an already awesome start to his NFL career and reach the rarefied air that only truly legendary defenders such as his big brother have reached in the past.

There is hope that Bush will, indeed, step right in and be the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s defense.

There is a belief by many that Roethlisberger made Brown—not the other way around—and that he’s just dying to show the world what kind of quarterback he really is in 2019.

There may not be a ton of hope and confidence from the fans regarding the coaching abilities of Tomlin. But there certainly appears to be a lot of both from the organization and, perhaps, more importantly, his players.

If his players are still buying into Tomlin’s message, that’s as good a reason as any to think things really can be better in 2019.

But thoughts, hopes and beliefs are one thing.

You can say you’ll be just fine with Smith-Schuster replacing Brown, but that doesn’t mean you will be. You can say Conner will be just as effective at running back as his predecessor, but if he can’t stay healthy for an entire season, how can you really be sure?

You can preach turnovers on defense, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get many more than you did last year.

A team can buy into a coach’s message and still not succeed if the talent isn’t there.

The Steelers are about to embark on one of their most important training camps in ages.

The expectations may remain the same, but that doesn’t mean the championship window the team has somehow managed to keep open since the loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV hasn’t been slammed shut.

Has it? Are the Steelers still contenders? Will they be just fine now that the circus has (apparently) left town?

Those are just a few of the many questions we’re about to get the answers to.