After a disappointing string of back-to-back 8-8 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are nearing uncharted waters. This franchise hasn't had three consecutive seasons without going over .500 since 1969-1971. This is unacceptable by any measure, and looking ahead to 2014, there will be decisions that must be made.
There should be no panic among the Steelers, but rather a sense of urgency. Challenging choices will have to be made. Let's take a look at five of the big ones the Steelers must make this offseason as they stare down a crucial juncture.
Unless specified, all stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Ever since he was drafted in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft, safety Troy Polamalu has been an icon. During his 11 seasons, Polamalu has become one of the all-time greats at the safety position. His propensity for the big play has kept him on highlight reels for over a decade.
Even with all that, 2014 is a crossroads for him and the franchise.
Polamalu has an upcoming cap hit of $10.887 million, per OverTheCap. His role on the Steelers defense has changed. Troy is less about roaming the secondary making big plays and more of an undersized linebacker, playing in and around the line of scrimmage.
The Steelers are about be be cash-strapped, and so the decision will be about Polamalu's salary. Do the Steelers leave it be and work with the rest of the roster to get under the cap? Or do they reach out to Polamalu and see if he's willing to work with the front office to lower his number and help the team?
Similar to the quandary the Steelers have with Polamalu, linebacker LaMarr Woodley is owed a massive amount of money, and the return on that investment hasn't been what they expected.
Woodley has topped 10 sacks only three times in his seven seasons. That's not to say he is not a very good football player, because he is. Nevertheless, $13.59 million, per OverTheCap, is a lot of money for a player who has struggled to produce.
The Steelers save nothing by cutting Woodley early. However, should he be designated a June 1 cut, the cap savings would be $8 million. This would give the Steelers a lot of leverage in the late-offseason free-agent market for additional cap casualties.
The decision about Woodley's future, a lot like that of Polamalu pertains to the future. As long as this franchise continues to hold onto veterans like this, it is going to limit the ability of this team to move forward in developing young talent.
Speaking of young talent, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was supposed to emerge in 2013 as this team's go-to wide receiver opposite Antonio Brown. Unfortunately, this never really came to fruition and Sanders is a free agent whose market value might be diminished.
Did Sanders do enough with career highs in catches (67), yards (740) and touchdowns (6) to earn a new free-agent deal? I suppose the answer depends on the market. If the Steelers, or any teams, believe that in Sanders' fifth season he is ready to elevate his game like Brown did in his fourth, there will be money to be made.
Realistically, the Steelers don't have the chance to get into a bidding war with a franchise that's inclined to overspend. However, should they find themselves in that spot, the decision might be less about signing Sanders and more about how to find an adequate replacement.
The Steelers have been the model of consistency over the years. This is a franchise that has had three head coaches in 45 seasons. Change doesn't come easy for this team, and that's always been to their advantage.
However, looking ahead to the 2014 season, the Steelers staff needs to consider the notion of changes on both sides of the football from a schematic standpoint.
On offense, this team has a real threat in the backfield in running back Le'Veon Bell. Regardless of how much offensive coordinator Todd Haley wants to air it out, it could be time to get back to some old-school Steelers football with some good old ground-and-pound.
The narrative that a team has to be a pass-first offense to win in the NFL is false. The best teams in the NFL this season all had excellent quarterbacks but found ways to run the football with power and commitment when they needed it most.
Defensively, this has been coordinator Dick LeBeau's science project for the past 10 seasons. His attacking, exotic 3-4 defense has served to confuse and punish opposing offenses. In recent seasons, however, this defense has lost some bite. Turnovers are down. Sacks are down.
And what was once one of the most formidable units in all of football has been reduced to something less than spectacular.
It might be time to update the program, so to speak. At some point, even the greatest football minds can lose the ear of their roster. Being forced to tone down what was once such an aggressive defense is disheartening.
If LeBeau can't get these guys to that point, it could be time for a change.
Sometimes it is preferable to be proactive. When it comes to the Steelers and their roster, there's a value judgment to be made. Loyalty is a trademark of this team, and keeping players in black and gold is a trait to be proud of.
However, as key positions on this roster get a little older, and several are in free agency, the decision that must be made is where the focus should be. Do the Steelers keep this core together and play to win now?
Or is it better to take a season or two with some speed bumps, and really reload? The status quo has been the hallmark of this franchise, but it could be time for a change.
Temptation would be to try to hold as many pieces together as possible of a roster that went 6-2 in the second half of the 2013 season. However, a player can go from being veteran to old in a heartbeat. There are several players on the current roster or free agents who are walking that line.