PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers have seven long months to think about what exactly happened in 2013.
Are they closer to the team that looked lost and overmatched at times during a 2-6 start? Or are they closer to the one that went 6-2 over the final eight weeks and came within a shanked field goal and a botched penalty call in San Diego from making the playoffs?
The answer is both.
LEARNING TO DEAL — Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin gestures at officials in the first half of Sunday’s game against the Browns in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 20-7 to finish to season with an 8-8 record. Pittsburgh was on the cusp of a playoff berth, but failed to qualify for a second straight year.
-- Associated Press
And while coach Mike Tomlin saw progress during one of the wilder 8-8 seasons in recent memory, the end result was a second straight 8-8 campaign that left the Steelers on the outside of the playoffs looking in ... yet again.
So forget about the illegal formation penalty that wasn't called on San Diego in the final seconds against Kansas City on Sunday night. Ditto the Chargers' apparent fumble on a fake punt in overtime. The way Tomlin looks at it, if his team is relying on a series of breaks thousands of miles away to get into the postseason, the only people to blame are the ones wearing black and gold.
"We stepped into 16 stadiums this year with an opportunity to state our case and we didn't state a strong enough case," Tomlin said.
No, but they did create a compelling one.
An offense that sputtered during an 0-4 start found a rhythm when coordinator Todd Haley incorporated a "no huddle" attack that gave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger more freedom. Running back Le'Veon Bell shook off a shaky preseason to set a new team record for total yards by a rookie. Antonio Brown put together arguably the greatest season ever by a Pittsburgh wide receiver, catching 110 passes and setting a franchise mark for yards receiving in a season with 1,499.
A defense that couldn't sack the quarterback, take the ball away or tackle for long stretches - including a horrific 55-31 loss to New England on Nov. 3 that was the worst statistical performance in Pittsburgh's 81-year history - recovered somewhat over the final two months.
Safety Troy Polamalu didn't miss a game and made the Pro Bowl despite spending most of the season out of position as a linebacker in passing situations. Jason Worilds emerged as a difference maker, playing so well at left outside linebacker when LaMarr Woodley went down with a calf injury that the Steelers took the unusual step of moving Woodley to the right side during his brief return.
The result, however, was nothing more than window dressing of sorts for a team that doesn't use moral victories as the standard for success. Pittsburgh will miss the postseason in consecutive years for the first time this millennium. As encouraging as parts of 2013 were, it didn't represent a step forward.
"I don't think anybody's goal in this locker room was to go 8-8 and be sitting at home during the first week in January like we'll be doing this year," tight end Heath Miller said. "So, in that regard, it certainly was an underachievement."
One that will lead to more than a little soul searching as the core that helped the Steelers to three Super Bowl berths since 2005 continues to give way to a youth movement designed to help Pittsburgh keep up with Cincinnati in the new-look AFC North.
Safety Ryan Clark will be a free agent. So will defensive end Brett Keisel. Both are in their mid-30s. Both say they want to play in 2014. Both will likely have to do it elsewhere next year if they end up playing at all.
Woodley, who hasn't played a full season since 2010, suddenly looks expendable. Cornerback Ike Taylor could fall into the same category unless he agrees to help the salary cap-strapped club by reworking a deal that currently counts nearly $12 million against the cap next year.
Offensively, the Steelers need to find a No. 2 receiver with Emmanuel Sanders all but out the door as a free agent.