It all started—as it often does—with an anonymous comment to the media.
In a February 17 piece about Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley, Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette included an anonymous quote from a Steelers player who accused Woodley's sub-optimal 2012 performance as well as his repeated injuries to a lack of work ethic:
"He was awful," one teammate said of Woodley's performance last season. "He tells us he works out, but we didn't see it. He wasn't in shape. That has to be a reason why he was always hurt."
For a locker room that rarely airs its issues publicly, this was quite the shot heard around the world. The reaction was swift and sweeping, with safety Ryan Clark decrying the fact that the criticism had to be made publicly and that it was anonymous. Former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said it was an indicator that the locker room was in "total disarray" in 2012.
Current receiver Antonio Brown went on a media tour of his own to discuss the state of the Steelers' union, saying that it seemed like many players were out for themselves last season rather than focusing on the team goal of winning games. He also spoke with ESPN Radio in New York about soon-to-be Steelers free-agent wide receiver Mike Wallace, saying that his contract situation led to some "awkwardness" in the locker room.
But the real key to the problems being aired by the Steelers and Brown in particular can be traced to another comment Brown made to ESPN in that interview—overconfidence (h/t Sportsradiointerviews.com). Everything else—the selfishness, the awkwardness, the accusations about Woodley—are symptoms of this one particular affliction, and it's why the Steelers went 8-8 in 2012 in the first place.
Here's what Brown said:
I think guys were going out there thinking, ‘We are the Steelers and we just gonna roll into games,’ but we gotta take poise and leadership and understand the importance of winning games and getting on it and taking it seriously and get on with what we gotta do.
The Steelers rested on the laurels of their past success in 2012, failed to do the work required of them as a result and thus ended the year with a .500 record and out of the playoffs.
It's as though the team looked at the three Super Bowl appearances and two wins over the Ben Roethlisberger era and expected themselves to simply be the same team just by stepping on the field. Football isn't magic, though. Wins don't just come to teams that have won in the past because they have won in the past; however, it was as though the Steelers thought that simply "being the Steelers" would have been enough to skate their way into the playoffs in 2012.
This kind of mentality is toxic. And it's not just the result of a crisis of leadership.
While the bloodletting of last March's veteran roster purge—in which the Steelers lost Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith, among others—certainly didn't help the younger Steelers focus on the reality that these changes would require them to step up and fill those voids, to pinpoint what happened in the 2012 season on these players leaving is too simple an answer.
The cuts were part of it, of course, but it was more about an unwillingness to understand that a football team never stays the same from one year to the next, and that the Steelers in 2012 simply weren't and couldn't be the 2007 or 2010 Steelers, no matter the fact that Troy Polamalu and Roethlisberger and James Harrison remained in the locker room.
The Steelers were resting on a past reputation to carry them through games, without realizing that their opponents weren't even looking at them in the same way.
Though the Steelers defense has repeatedly been at the top of the league in terms of yards and points allowed (fifth in points allowed in 2012, first in 2011, second in 2010; first in yards per game in 2012; first in 2011; second in 2010), their sack totals, interceptions and red-zone defense were all in decline over that span.
Opponents weren't as intimidated by the "vaunted" Steelers defense, and instead of trying to be more aggressive on the field to turn this around, the defense appeared comfortable doing the same things the same ways and hoping somehow to recapture the lightning of previous years simply by being there. The same goes for the offense.
Though there was a philosophic overhaul in 2012, with Todd Haley taking up the offensive coordinator job that used to be Bruce Arians', there wasn't an attendant increase in focus or intensity. The run game was the worst it's been in over a decade, Roethlisberger again missed time with injury and Wallace didn't seem interested giving his all in a passing game that wasn't about how big of a play he could make.
The biggest danger to the Steelers' locker room isn't anonymous player leaks, it's not a me-first attitude, it's not the potential that they could lose even more veterans this offseason as they again try to get below the salary cap—it's complacency and overconfidence. That's what led them to a disappointing 8-8 finish to their season, and what drove the anonymous player to comment about Woodley and all of the other issues that appeared to snowball in 2012.
The Steelers' past is just that—in the past, over and done. Whatever greatness comes their way in 2013 or beyond has nothing to do with what they've done in prior seasons, but what their players can accomplish in the present. Harrison is only as scary as his last sack, Polamalu as dangerous as his last pick, Roethlisberger as deadly as his last touchdown pass under pressure—it has nothing to do with how they've done these things over the course of their careers.
For the Steelers to improve in 2013, they need to not look at themselves as the team that keeps stacking 12-4 seasons and perennially find themselves in playoff contention. Instead, they need to look in the mirror and see themselves for what they are—an 8-8 team in a time of transition, with just as much potential to rise up as to fall behind.
It all starts with the mental character of the team and if the Steelers collectively don't change theirs, they'll continue to be their own worst enemy.