PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert sat in his office last January and tried not to mince words.
Coming off an 8-8 season that included a miserable 2-5 finish, Colbert called the gap between Pittsburgh and the elite teams in the AFC "significant."
One that appears to have widened during the last 10 months.
The Steelers haven't won a game since Colbert's state of the franchise address. Not in the preseason, which they did their best to brush off as no big deal. Not in September, when the offense forgot how to take care of the football and the defense forgot how to take it away.
Given a bye week to stew over the team's worst start in 45 years, the Steelers are trying to say all the right things.
"We're in the business of winning football games, and if you're not productive in this business you can easily be replaced," wide receiver Antonio Brown said. "That's why you can't anything for granted."
Even in a place where excellence and stability have been the standard for more than four decades. The Steelers, perhaps more than any other team in the NFL, have been steadfast in their approach. They build through the draft. They don't make splashy signings in free agency and they don't panic when things go awry
Yet even quarterback Ben Roethlisberger allows the team is in "uncharted territory" as it sits at 0-4. Coach Mike Tomlin considers himself a man of "great patience." Good thing, because he likely will need it as Pittsburgh tries to navigate its way out of a slump that extends far beyond four miserable weeks to start the season.
The Steelers are just 8-12 since Denver's Demaryius Thomas outran Ike Taylor and Ryan Mundy to the end zone on the first play of overtime to give the Broncos a 29-23 overtime victory in the Wild Card round of the 2011 playoffs. Contrast the starting lineups from that chilly day in Denver to the one the Steelers trotted out in a 34-27 loss to Minnesota in London last weekend and it's evident Pittsburgh is in transition no matter how the front office tries to spin it.
James Harrison. Mike Wallace. James Farrior. Casey Hampton. Max Starks. Chris Kemoeatu. All keys to Pittsburgh's last Super Bowl run in 2010. All gone. Same goes for Rashard Mendenhall, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and promising cornerback Keenan Lewis.
As Tomlin so frequently puts it "such is life in the NFL." Perhaps, but the next wave the Steelers expected to keep them in contention have failed to meet the lofty expectations.
The team poured high draft picks into the offensive line, with mixed results. Maurkice Pouncey is a perennial Pro Bowl center but is also out for the year with a knee injury. Second-year guard David DeCastro is still trying to find his footing after missing most of 2012 with a knee injury and tackles Mike Adams — who the Steelers liked so much they declined to re-sign the rock-steady Starks last spring — and Marcus Gilbert have underachieved.
"We've gotten below-the-line work, and that's the reality of it," Tomlin said. "It needs to be above the line, and we'll turn over any stone in order for that to happen."
Adams played so poorly against the Vikings the Steelers sent a conditional pick to Arizona for embattled Levi Brown, who spent six-plus years in the desert struggling to live up to his pedigree as the fifth overall choice in the 2007 draft, two spots ahead of Adrian Peterson.
It's unlikely a 29-year-old lineman is going to deliver any kind of quick turnaround. Besides, the issues go far beyond the offensive line. The defense is the only one in the league yet to produce a turnover. Quarterback pressure has been inconsistent and opposing running backs are starting to find room where once there was none.
Replacing Hampton at nose tackle has been difficult. Defensive end Brett Keisel is getting little help from elsewhere along the line. And while rookie Jarvis Jones has all the makings of a star at outside linebacker, he's still a work in progress. So is safety Shamarko Thomas. Cortez Allen, given the starting cornerback job after Lewis left in free agency, can't stay healthy enough to make any sort of impact.
It's unlikely any major changes are coming. The Steelers currently have more than $84 million committed to its top eight players in 2014, including nearly $19 million for Roethlisberger alone. If they decided to change tactics and go for the quick fix, it's not really an option.
So the Steelers will do what they've done for years — stay the course.
Given the embarrassing state of the AFC North — where nobody begins October above .500 — the Steelers are just a three-game winning streak from being in the thick of things.
The schedule suggests it's doable. Pittsburgh faces the New York Jets, rival Baltimore and Oakland after the bye. History, however, suggests otherwise. The 1992 San Diego Chargers are the only team to recover from an 0-4 start to reach the postseason.
To their credit, the Steelers haven't even given a rally much lip service. At this moment, winning a single game is a big enough task.
"It's all about that, so we need to find a way to get a win next week," Brown said. "I think we'll come off this bye week, and everybody will be re-committed and ready to go."
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