A fitting end

The Steelers up and down season comes to an inglorious end. The star quarterback struggled, but not nearly as much as the coaching staff, and that's where we should place the blame.

A little something to chew on: you're the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator, your team has fought back from an 18-point deficit to take a one-point lead. Your Pro Bowl quarterback is having the best season of his four-year career, and on third-and-6 from your own 26 with 2:56 remaining on the clock you … call a draw play that goes for one yard. Brilliant.

I have a question: In that situation, do you think Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Tony Romo, Matt Hasselbeck, Philip Rivers -- basically anybody but David Garrard -- does anything other than throw the ball? Hell no. Third-down quarterback draw plays are for losers, which seems fitting in retrospect.

I watched the play unfold like a slow-motion train wreck. I felt like I was in one of those low-budget films that included a way-too-close up of me mouthing "NOOOOOO" in my Barry White voice. And then everything went silent. And numb. I was pretty sure the Steelers' 2007 season was over. Corroboration came on the ensuing punt when the Jaguars took over at midfield. Pittsburgh didn't deserve to win that game for any number of reasons. But it was the last one -- the hair-brained play-call by Bruce Arians, ostensibly okay-ed by Mike Tomlin -- that is most deserving of ridicule.

I don't consider myself a reactionary. It's too predictable, too boring, too unoriginal; that's also why I try not to write moments after a heart-wrenching loss. But this game was different. There's an urgency to what happened Saturday night even though Pittsburgh won't play another meaningful game for another eight months. I don't want to be overly dramatic, or hyperbolize what this team needs to do to be competitive next season. And things are seldom as dire as they seem in the wake of such calamity.

Yes, the roster needs some tweaking, but not a complete overhaul. Sean Mahan is the most obvious problem, although the one time he didn't break the rules he was called for holding; there's your foreshadowing. There's also a chance Alan Faneca has played his last game, and who knows if Marvel Smith will ever return to form. (Pittsburgh discovered Max Starks and Trai Essex weren't the stiffs once thought, so there's that.) Kendall Simmons went from incompetent to capable as the season progressed, and Willie Colon was a pleasant surprise. The wide receiver and running back positions are mostly set, and the quarterback is still a few seasons away from hitting his prime.

On defense, you can never have too many quality cornerbacks or safeties, and Aaron Smith's injury just reinforces how important the defensive line is in the 3-4. But all of that is cosmetic. Injuries were the main culprit for the defense's backslide, not the sudden decline in Richard LeBeau's ability to put together a game plan. Too bad we can't say the same about Arians, although it's probably blasphemous to even compare him to LeBeau.

A word of caution: before you pen 1,000 words on why the Steelers "need to blow things up and start over," just remember: you can have a roster full of future Hall of Famers, but if the coaching is suspect so too will be the results. Saturday night was a case study.

I don't know if Arians should be "Brian Billick-ed", but it wouldn't shock me. He seems like a swell person, has a great relationship with Roethlisberger and has the pedigree to match his experience. After all, isn't this the same guy who almost led the Browns to the 2002 wild-card win over the Steelers during the 2002 postseason by airing it out? Where's is that Bruce Arians. Pittsburgh could have used him against Jacksonville. Perhaps the second-most frustratingly noteworthy Arianism -- other than the incessant, almost unthinkably automatic running plays on 2nd-and-10 -- was how the Steelers' offensive game plan suddenly changed after the first touchdown. Pittsburgh came out throwing. And not only were they throwing, they were throwing quickly. Three-step drops, slants, quick outs. And it might've been one of the best drives of the season. Then, suddenly, in the time it takes to say Maurice F-ing-Drew, the game plan suddenly changed. It was back to the Steelers football we've grown accustomed to seeing the last month. Five- and seven-step drops promptly followed by hard-to-watch Big Ben maulings. For as much as I've panned the offensive line this season, most of the sacks fell squarely on the quarterback and the offensive coordinator. Roethlisberger can be excused. it's part of the deal; you get a lot of good with the occasional bad -- although the law of averages was at work on Saturday. Either someone secretly transported 2004 Playoff Ben to the present day via a time machine, or he just had a forgettably disturbing first half. I'll go with the latter. But after watching Pittsburgh march 80 yards down the field and score a touchdown, there's no excuse for Arians reverting to the call sheet he sported during the month of December.

I admit this is much about football I don't understand. And I accept that. But I have trouble accepting any explanation, no matter how technically feasible, that justifies Arians' actions after the first drive and before the last. The Steelers made too many mistakes to count. But physical miscues are one thing; it's what makes sports interesting, I think. But the mental gaffes, expressly from the coaching staff, are indefensible. We're not even talking about misusing timeouts, or mismanaging the clock, but something much more egregious: playing not to lose when the game is on the line.

Who knows if this will have any bearing on Arians' future, or if it should for that matter. But the Steelers are better than what they showed on Saturday. They're not a Super Bowl team, and would've likely been 10-point underdogs in the divisional round next week, but they outplayed the Jaguars and they still lost. Shouldn't have, but they did. Arians' performance overshadowed another stomach-churning start from Bob Ligashesky's very special special teams. It was that bad.

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