PITTSBURGH — Just like their fervent fans, the Pittsburgh Steelers found it hard to believe they were going through final meetings with their position coaches and preparing for exit interviews with head coach Mike Tomlin instead of a divisional playoff matchup at New England.
Those Steelers made available to the media Tuesday — wideouts Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, offensive guard Trai Essex, cornerbacks William Gay and Keenan Lewis and running back Isaac Redman — all believed the season ended much earlier than expected, especially when winning the Super Bowl was a realistic goal.
“I think we had a great chance,” Gay said. “We came off being a runner-up, so we just fell short last year. But we came back (this season), with all the injuries, we didn’t use that as an excuse, people got suspended, we didn’t have any excuses to not have a good season. We went 12-4, (but) we just didn’t win the divisional championship to get the bye.
“I still felt like we had a great chance. … The frustration is that we are out (of the playoffs), regardless of who we would have played in the next round. You never want to go home, especially losing a tough game like that in overtime on the road in the playoffs, when you know that you’ve got a good chance to win the Super Bowl. So, it was a real tough loss.”
Redman, who played as well if not better than most Steelers on offense with 121 yards rushing on 17 carries, also believed that the club had more than a good shot to win another Lombardi Trophy this season.
“You always want to be part of helping a team get to the Super Bowl, so to lose like we did … I’ve still got that sour taste in my mouth,” Redman said. “We knew that we would have had to go to New England, but we still felt like we had a great shot. We pretty much handled New England during the regular season, and we felt like we could have made a good run to the Super Bowl.
“Unfortunately, we got Tebowed. … When you look at his career, from college to his time in the NFL, he’s been winning football games. So, regardless of how he does it, he wins. So, you can’t really say that you’re shocked that he’s winning. But when that happened in overtime, I was telling a teammate that I thought we were good.
“Then, we were looking at the dude running down the sideline,” Redman added. “And we looked at each other and thought, ‘Wow, did we just get Tebowed.’ It’s unfortunate, but it happens. … This is the National Football League, so anybody has a shot on any given day.”
Still, Sanders said the perfect play was called to gain 10-12 yards needed to get the Steelers into field-goal range for Shaun Suisham to win the game in regulation. Instead, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked and stripped, which left about a 67-yard bomb for the kicker on fourth down.
“It was actually supposed to go to me,” Sanders said. “B.A. called F-Sailor, but they stunted up the middle. It was just a good play call with the coverage that they had, so it was the exact look that we needed. But we just couldn’t get it off. It was supposed to be a 15-20-yard play, so it would have been enough.”
The players also said the best was yet to come for the Steelers even though there could be several changes on both sides of the line and possibly the coaches. Although every Steelers player believed their coordinators — Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau — would return next season.
With Brown and Sanders obviously key components to the Steelers’ wide-receiver corps next season, Hines Ward’s possible return next season also was discussed. Both offered a positive assessment despite not discussing the situation with Ward just yet.
“He’s a guy who’s been in the league for a long time,” Brown said. “He’s an older guy in our group, so he brings leadership, (and) he sets a tone. We definitely want a guy like that with us.”
Brown’s offseason won’t begin just yet, because he’s going to the Pro Bowl as a special teams performer and return man. While Sanders had his best game this season, primarily because it was the healthiest he’s been all season, he was looking forward to taking a month off to rest his previously injured feet and right knee before beginning to train for the OTAs. And he might even use Ward’s training regimen from last year.
“I’m talking to our trainers, and I’ll probably do a little dancing,” Sanders said. “But, really, just rest is what it needs. And I’ll be using my bone stimulator every day to get the bones stronger, taking calcium and things like that. … Yes, me and Antonio are talking about getting together in Miami and doing some dancing. I don’t know what type, but we’ll be doing it.”
Essex had not talked with Max about his impending knee surgery or if either of them would return for next season, but the two basically just rehashed the Denver game at Starks’ surprise birthday party that his wife threw Monday.
“I don’t know if there’s going to be too many changes. We’ll get Willie (Colon) back, and we’ll see what happens to guys like me and Max (Starks) and whoever else is a free agent,” Essex said. “I’m not sure where everybody stands with their contract, but the NFL is a business. So, we’ll see what happens. Of course, I want to be a starter, and I’d love to start for the Steelers.
“But we’ll see what happens in the offseason. I feel like I helped myself out here, showing my versatility by playing multiple positions. And I think playing center helped me out a lot, so we’ll see what happens. We’ve got a great center here, a Pro Bowl center, but I think the other four positions probably are pretty much open. So, I’m going to come in and compete to be a starter.”
Brown believed that even though he set a record for all-purpose yardage, he had room to get better for next season. And as far as the Steelers’ offense was concerned, there could be improvement there as well.
“One aspect of the game where we have to get better is in the red zone,” Brown said. “We’ve got to take that approach and that mentality of being better this offseason. It starts right now. Everybody’s got to go home and hold themselves accountable.
I know that I should have made more plays. Maybe I should have got some more plays, so I’ll just blame me. I think it’s all about looking within yourself as an individual and seeing what you could have done better, and I’m pretty sure that the other guys feel the same way.”
Notes: Redman said that Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson had surgery Monday for burns he received in a fire at his home late last Thursday night. Redman expected to visit him soon. … Lewis said he expected to train with Mike Wallace this offseason and possibly join him at the Pro Bowl for support.
Here are the Steelers’ unrestricted free agents, who have completed four or more seasons and whose contracts have expired: Quarterbacks Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon, running back Mewelde Moore, wideout Jerricho Cotchery, offensive linemen Max Starks, Trai Essex and Jamon Meredith, nose tackle Chris Hoke, cornerbacks William Gay and Anthony Madison, and punters Daniel Sepulveda and Jeremy Kapinos.
The restricted free agents have three seasons of service and can receive a qualifying contract offer from the Steelers. If they accept an offer from a different team, the Steelers can match the offer or receive draft picks for him. That group includes wideout Mike Wallace, tight end David Johnson, offensive lineman Doug Legursky, offensive guard Ramon Foster, cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Ryan Mundy.
Exclusive rights free agents are not under contract and only have two years of service. They basically are forced to take the three-year NFL minimum from their teams. In that group for the Steelers are running back Isaac Redman and nose tackle Steve McLendon.