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Offseason focus for Steelers should start with in-house cleanup

Now that the 2017 season is in the books, all 32 NFL teams must begin the process of preparing for the upcoming season. For the Steelers, the laundry list is larger than normal for a 13-3 team who’s off-the-field antics proved to be more of a distraction than people believe.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Only one team can hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy each year. This season, it was the Philadelphia Eagles who, by all accounts, were the best in the league from beginning to end, despite losing their starting quarterback late in the year. The team replaced Carson Wentz with Nick Foles in a seamless fashion, yet kept winning and winning until there were no more games to win.

I truly believed they would face the Steelers in the big game held Sunday in Minneapolis, but it wasn’t meant to be. It’s just too painful to think about. Really, it seemed as the 2017 regular season approached that all the stars had aligned for this team.

A healthy, rested, franchise quarterback. An offensive line that had played well together, and by all accounts was also injury-free. The best wide receiver and all-purpose running back to get the ball to, complemented by a supporting cast that included the return of a smoke-free beast of a pass-catcher who seemingly had plenty of upside.

The defense was anchored by an All-Pro defensive end and linebacker cut from the same college cloth, a program that breeds great players, plus the addition of a free-agent cornerback that provided depth and skill at a position this team has sorely lacked over the years.

It all seemed so perfect — so much that you could print your boarding pass for a trip to Minnesota in early February.

And then the holdout started by Le’Veon Bell. Cue the slow start to boot, not just for him, but what seemed to be the entire offense.

Bad behavior on Instagram, Twitter and any other available social media platform reared its ugly head into the mix as Martavis Bryant became salty over a lack of attention from his quarterback. This all led to an eventual one-game suspension by head coach Mike Tomlin. Eventually, Bryant toed the company line.

Then there was the National Anthem fiasco in Chicago, which was a precursor to the season’s worst game played, at the time.

And let’s not forget about the drama surrounding Deebo. Unbeknownst to pretty much everyone not inside that locker room, James Harrison’s lack of playing time and production was a combination of the coaching staff not believing the 39-year-old linebacker could help the team and, as we all found out, his brooding over the lack of it, sleeping in player meetings and simply not attending games for which he was deactivated was nothing short of a big, fat, hot mess.

Chip in the disastrous performance at home in October against Jacksonville and things didn’t look so good. The club sat at 3-2 with little to be pleased about either on and off of the field, ‘‘looking like a lost child inside an amusement park at dusk. The offense hadn’t found its groove and the turmoil outside the game was mounting at what seemed like a breakneck pace.

Enter stage left, the Kansas City Chiefs. Undefeated. Crushing teams on both sides of the ball. At home, in the loudest stadium in the NFL. All the Steelers did was shut them down. The running game dominated. So did the defense. Harrison was heard from. And what transpired was an eight-game winning streak that had fans salivating. The offense started to roll, hitting high gear at what seemed to be the right time.

It was in the middle of this barrage of W’s that the events surrounding the injury to Ryan Shazier took place. Football aside at that point, him being taken off the field on a stretcher was devastating. His recovery was all anybody might ask for. As it stands to date, the progress is promising for him to walk again. Playing football isn’t even a reasonable thought, as it matters not.

Finally the Patriots game arrived. Surviving their arch-nemesis proved to be as hard as surviving the ground.

Sorry, but I had to go there.

In a game that summed up the series between the two teams over the past 16 seasons, the Black-and-gold seemed to have finally vanquished their tormentor, only to have a league official rule against the club on what looked like a touchdown catch.

It wasn’t—according to the rule book.

The failure to by the coaching staff to prepare for and execute in what was left of the time on the clock with possession of the ball will go down in the annals of this club as one of its darker moments.

In that span of five minutes, the fortunes of the team surely did change. The No. 1 seed in the AFC was gone. The momentum of an 8-game winning streak evaporated. And the realization that they would have to face a hungry, poised and aggressive Jacksonville a second time didn’t bode well for the looming postseason.

It was game, set and match.

As for 2018, I think it’s fair to assume the Steelers will still have much, if not all of their key players back for another run at a Super Bowl. But to think that this team shouldn’t or won’t address the locker-room issues, social-media gaffes and just the general attitude isn’t a winning formula. Mike Tomlin has to know this. He may have more wins in his first 11 seasons than any other coach in NFL history sans Don Shula, but you drive for show and putt for dough. All those victories mean nothing if you can’t get to the big game.

Something this team hasn’t done now for seven seasons.

That’s unacceptable. The window is almost closed on your chances. There won’t be more opportunities left to squander as Ben Roethlisberger contemplates retirement. The social media blow-ups, selfish behavior and general nonsense cannot continue. It’s not a winning formula. Art Rooney II must address this with his head coach and staff. Change must happen in order to complete the mission.

This culture that Tomlin has allowed needs to be reigned in. Altered. I’m not saying it has to become New England southwest, but all this ‘look at me’ nonsense should be curtailed. I don’t know if it will or not, but if the club wants to really challenge for a title, changes like this will only help, and not hurt.

I’m not 100-percent convinced that Mike Tomlin agrees. And if Art Rooney II doesn’t see it and ask his employee to fix it, then they won’t get back to play for all the marbles.

The clock is ticking on 2018. Here’s to the Steelers fixing the problems that stopped them from getting to their ultimate goal each year: winning a championship. It can be done, but only if you address the issues that have led to such disappointment.

John Phillips is the author of this article and has contributed to BTSC since 2014. Find him on Facebook, not on Twitter. Or a poker room near you.