Following the 2010 season, with the Steelers coming off of a Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin made a calculated decision to keep the band together for one more shot at Super Bowl glory in 2011. The Steelers had won two Lombardi Trophies in three trips since 2005 and the belief was, that their aging roster had one more run left in them. Not only was the roster “old and slow”, as Warren Sapp had called them, but it was very expensive as well. It was a worthwhile and expensive gamble that did not pay off. Following their loss to the Tim Tebow led Denver Broncos in the wild card game, the Steelers were facing the reality of having to rebuild the roster while residing squarely in the middle of salary cap hell.
From the fans perspective, this had the makings of being a rather long and painful experience, especially to those who suffered through the Steelers of the 80’s, when the Super Bowl players started steadily retiring. This team was about to lose it’s share of Super Bowl talent as well, and many were predicting large amounts of doom and gloom. Considering how unsuccessful the drafts had been since 2007, the concern for the future was justified. In 2012 and 2013, the Steelers went 8-8, and missed the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since the 1998-2000 seasons, and that is as bad as it has gotten. In the last three years, the Steelers have won the AFC North twice and qualified for the playoffs as a wild card in 2015. A repeat of the 80’s hasn’t occurred and doesn’t look to any time soon. Oh, and by the way, the Steelers no longer reside in salary cap hell either.
Since that 2011 season, the Steelers have parted ways with (through retirement, free agency, or releasing), Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Will Allen, Larry Foote, Lamarr Woodley, Jason Worilds, Hines Ward, and Ike Taylor. These players were either too old and expensive, or they were high draft picks who flamed out or never developed. Either way the time had come to move in a new direction and get younger, especially on defense. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had their work cut out for them with the need to quickly rebuild a defense that would compliment the offense.
Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin already had started to build an offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger, which is now one of the best in the NFL. In addition to building that offensive line, they also picked up a decent weapon for Ben in the 6th round of the 2010 draft, Antonio Brown. Since then they have added Martavis Bryant, LeVeon Bell, and free agent DeAngelo Williams. It was the defense though that needed the most attention. Starting in 2011, the Steelers have added these defensive players: Cam Heyward, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree, Ross Cockrell, Ryan Moats, Artie Burns and Sean Davis.
For all of the criticism they take, Colbert and Tomlin have done in a few years what the Cleveland Browns haven’t been able to do since re-entering the NFL in 1999, build another Super Bowl caliber roster. They did it in an impressive fashion when it is put into perspective. There was not much salary cap room to speak of, they never fell below 8-8, and in the two years they failed to make the playoffs, they were in the hunt until the end of each those seasons. When Colbert and Tomlin started the process of rebuilding the defense in 2011, the average age of the entire defense was 27.7 years old, while the average age of the starters was 30.1 years old. In 2016, the average age of the entire defense is 26.3 years old (25.9 without James Harrison), while the average age is 26.1 for the starters.
The Steelers last losing season was back in 2003, the year they earned the right to draft Ben Roethlisberger, and the only losing season during Colbert’s tenure. With such a young and talented team put together in a relatively short time by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, the window for a seventh Lombardi Trophy should remain wide open for the foreseeable future. With the championship picture of the NFL always in a constant state of change and instability, the Steelers have remained as one of the few teams that seem to always be a Super Bowl contender year in and year out. Perhaps it’s time that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin got their just due. Under Colbert, since 2005, the Steelers are the only team besides the Patriots to have never finished below .500, and to appear in three Super Bowls. With the work that Colbert and Tomlin have done in the last few years, they just might might make it Super Bowl trip number four in a few short weeks.