As we all settle in for what will possibly be the last hurrah for the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, it's time to start looking ahead.
The playoff hopes that the team and its fans are clinging to are slim, with the Steelers needing to win and then get help from several other teams to sneak in as the sixth seed.
Whether or not the Steelers pull off an improbable comeback from five consecutive losses, mostly to teams of lesser talent, and return to the postseason, is immaterial.
The fact that the roster and staff need a reality check before 2010 is much more important.
Here's a look inside to address what needs to be done.
Bruce Arians has taken his lumps for poor play-calls, particularly in crucial situations. Does he deserve to keep his job? That's very debatable. Does he keep it thanks to a good relationship with his quarterback? Possibly. Does that mean he can keep on trotting out his poor game plans? Absolutely not.
Arians is living on borrowed time. Had the Steelers not won Super Bowl XLIII, it's highly possible he would have been fired. Now, he's riding a good relationship with his players and hoping that it's enough to hang on to his job.
Arians isn't a bad coach. He's actually a good position coach. I just don't think he's the ideal coordinator, especially for a team with such diverse weapons. Arians runs a very basic system that depends on balance and sound fundamentals.
So what's the problem with that?
Well, to start, Arians has a quarterback who, while very sound mechanically, does not play what anyone would describe as a fundamentally-sound game. Ben Roethlisberger routinely holds onto the ball too long, takes unnecessary hits, and scrambles madly out of the pocket.
You can't change that, however. Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback because he does those things. He's a playmaker, and one of the best at his position simply because he never quits and knows how to deal with less-than-ideal situations and broken plays.
Another problem with running a basic system is that Arians has the weapons at his disposal to do so much more.
The team has two upper-echelon receivers (Mike Wallace and Santonio Holmes) when it comes to speed, yet the team rarely runs reverses.
He has a college quarterback (Hines Ward) and a backup quarterback (Dennis Dixon) who would be adept at running trick plays, yet the team has never used Dixon unless Roethlisberger and regular backup Charlie Batch were hurt. No wide receiver has attempted a pass in the last two years either.
So, if I say that it's time to make a change at the offensive coordinator position, it's not because I want to blame 2009 on Bruce Arians. It is instead because I think there are other coaches in the NFL who could use the Steelers' players more effectively.
For Mike Tomlin, who preaches execution and effectiveness, it's time to make the change.
I'm not a fan of Larry Zierlein, either. In this case, I point the finger directly at him for not developing the talent that the team has put at his disposal.
Tony Hills and Kraig Urbik mid-round draft choices the last two years have yet to show enough consistency to crack the lineup.
Max Starks has regressed this year, and has often been the biggest liability along the offensive line.
Willie Colon is still a major offender on what I categorize as stupid penalties (false starts, particularly at home, and not lining up correctly).
Chris Kemoeatu has developed nicely this season, but he still has lapses that aren't addressed, particularly when it comes to defending against blitzing defenders.
Position coaches bear more blame, at least in my opinion, for failures of individual players or positional units than do coordinators. It is the responsibility of Larry Zierlein to coach the offensive linemen.
I'm not talking about sacks, because I think most of Ben Roethlisberger's sacks are due to his propensity to try to make a play. I'm talking about the line's failure to consistently protect him in the pocket and also their inability to consistently open holes for the team's running backs.
The failures of the line this year are not due to the scheme. Arians' basic scheme should, if nothing else, help the linemen. The failure is with the players themselves.
Offensively, there are not a lot of holes when it comes to roster depth or starting players. The Steelers are very sound.
Could they use some help? Sure, but how many teams in the league couldn't use a little help somewhere on both sides of the football?
They need to face a few realities, however.
At some point, they are going to have to replace Hines Ward. Hines is wrapping up his 12th season in the NFL and, while he's not slowing down, he's certainly become slightly more injury-prone.
Ward rarely comes down with a major injury, but he has been getting banged up more often in recent years with hamstring tweaks and other minor dings. With the way he plays the game, Steelers fans should consider themselves fortunate that Ward has never suffered a major injury.
But eventually, even the best players age and retire. It would be prudent to bring in a wide receiver through the draft, perhaps in the third round, who could eventually replace Hines Ward.
Mike Wallace is a good player, but I don't see him as being a future No. 1 or No. 2. He's best suited to playing in the slot where he can use his speed to get past linebackers or split deep coverage.
Also, it would be prudent to use a first or second-round pick on an offensive lineman who could start right away. I would look for a tackle to replace either Starks or Colon. They are the weak links in the line.
It wouldn't hurt to get a guard, too, although Trai Essex seems to have stabilized the right guard spot for the time being. I'm not sold on him or Darnell Stapleton, whom he replaced before the season, however.
Outside of those areas, the Steelers are in good shape offensively. The biggest changes to the depth chart next year might simply be the departure of the disappointing Limas Sweed and the permanent promotion of Dennis Dixon to the No. 2 spot on the quarterback chart.
Anyone want to fire Dick LeBeau? I've heard some people whispering about how it's time that he retired, and also about how he failed to overcome the loss of Troy Polamalu, one of the most dynamic players in the NFL.
Okay, I understand the frustration of fans. I wasn't exactly pleased with the defense either this year, but I'm not going to suggest firing one of the league's best assistant coaches.
LeBeau should take heed of the warnings that 2009 presented, however. He did not adjust well to losing Polamalu and too often pulled back from blitzing because he did not have that great playmaker in the lineup.
The Steelers are at their best when they blitz and create pressure. They've never really had a great secondary in the last decade, so they count on their front seven to disrupt the momentum and rhythm of opposing offenses.
When they don't blitz, bad things have happened. The world found out just how valuable Bryant McFadden was when William Gay turned in one of the worst seasons ever by a cornerback.
Part of the problem is schematic. The Steelers have one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL. They should be blitzing on virtually every down. Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison are great at collapsing the pocket. Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior are good at slashing through the middle of opposing offensive lines.
The other schematic problem is allowing the Steelers' cornerbacks to play zone defense. Ike Taylor and William Gay are not good in pursuit, but are at least passable in man and press coverage. When they are asked to cover a zone, they get burned.
Now, let's talk about position coaching again.
Ray Horton, defensive backs coach, please turn in your keys.
Horton replaced the respected Darren Perry when Mike Tomlin arrived. Since Perry left, Ike Taylor has regressed from his status as a solid cover corner, now supplementing his atrocious hands with poor speed and pursuit.
Let's not even mention Gay. Everyone knows he's the weakest link in a weak secondary. Gay was Horton's to develop and he hasn't developed at all.
Like Zierlein, if you cannot develop players, you aren't doing your job. More than the coordinator, the position coach is responsible for the failure of this unit. He needs to go.
More than anything, the Steelers need to overhaul their defense and face some serious realities.
First, the reality of aging. Aaron Smith isn't getting any younger. Neither is Travis Kirschke or Casey Hampton.
Kirschke and Smith are going to start sliding down the slippery slope soon. Smith's replacement is already on board in Ziggy Hood, who proved against Baltimore that he could be every bit as dominant as Smith.
Smith probably has a few years left, but he's lost two of the last three years to injury. That's possibly the start of a bad trend. It's probably a good idea that Hood begins platooning with him next season, thus extending his career while keeping one of the team's best players on the field.
Kirschke might be a backup, but he's part of an important rotation around the line that keeps the starters fresh. He also makes some good plays and is not a liability when he's called upon.
Hampton's weight is likely to shorten his career and lessen his effectiveness as he ages. He may not even be re-signed. He's not a workout warrior and, as he ages, that will start to cause injuries to pile up. He's already lost a year to an ACL injury, which could creep up again if he isn't careful.
I wouldn't be sorry to see the team bid Hampton farewell if they had a replacement, but they don't. They also have more pressing needs than nose tackle in the draft. Perhaps this is where they will look to spend some money in free agency (if free agency is even a viable option with the CBA in question).
That pressing need, and where I believe the team is best suited to spend its first-round draft choice, is at cornerback.
Ike Taylor is either aging or falling back into the lackadaisical routine that got him benched by Bill Cowher a few years back.
William Gay is not a starting corner and is possibly not an NFL corner at all. The backups, Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis, don't inspire much confidence either, but could be successful with better coaching.
The reality is that the team could use a true shutdown corner, which they have lacked since Rod Woodson packed up in the late 1990s. Deshea Townsend is no longer an option to step in and start, so its time to spend the money and a high draft pick on improving the position.
Depth-wise, the team would be wise to address the inside linebacker position to have someone ready for when James Farrior hangs up his cleats. He's a tremendous player and is still playing at a high level, but like Smith, his clock is ticking, too. It's never too early to start grooming a replacement.
Special Teams Coaching
It's no big secret that, whenever and wherever this season concludes for the Steelers, Bob Ligashesky will likely be sent packing.
The Steelers allowed way too many yards on kickoff and punt returns this season and far too many scores.
The problems range from poor tackling to poor coverage schemes. There isn't just one problem. That's when the coordinator has to be looked at as a problem. Ligashesky hasn't been able to succeed regardless of the players he's been given. They've been okay in recent weeks, but they are still giving teams good average starting field position.
There's only the assistant coach, Amos Jones, to blame besides Ligashesky. It's possible that both could go, depending on how they break down the responsibility for the special teams units.
Special Teams Personnel
Playing starters might be the only quick fix Mike Tomlin has when it comes to changing the personnel on his coverage units. While many teams do it, it's not ideal because of the increased likelihood of injury and the increased strain on players.
The team would do well to retain Anthony Madison. He proved again that he is a great coverage man, and I'd be worried if they once again let him go.
There really isn't much to be done. Special teams players are, in many cases, a dime a dozen. The best thing to do is to fix the scheme and preach sure tackling and a better approach to returners. It's the best and likely easiest way to fix what hurts the team most.
Pittsburgh has the talent to be a champion every year. They are one of the few teams, along with Indianapolis and New England, that have continually weathered the rigors of free agency to avoid salary cap hell and remain threats to win every season.
The problem is that the Steelers often defeat themselves. This season has been the perfect example, with the Steelers losing six of their seven games after holding a lead in the fourth quarter, and the other by only six points.
The defense collapses too often, the offense can't score consistently from inside the 20 yard line, and the special teams units can't cover or tackle opposing returners. That's a recipe for disaster and also a warning that changes are necessary.
Winning a Super Bowl is great. Following that up with a mostly-complacent season in which the team took a step back is not. Now it's time to react, regardless of how the Steelers finish 2009.