PITTSBURGH (AP) — Larry Foote knew at some point he would take a long look around the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room and wonder who is going to be around next year.
Foote just never expected to have to do a head count so soon. Neither did his teammates.
A promising season, however, was undone by a December swoon. And only 60 minutes against the Cleveland Browns stand between the Steelers (7-8) and an uncertain offseason.
“You know they’re going to start looking at the 30-year-olds,” the 33-year-old linebacker said. “You know they’re going to start thinking about who is part of their plan.”
It’s a sentiment the Browns (5-10) know all too well.
The franchise is in the midst of yet another reboot under new owner Jimmy Haslam and there’s a real chance second-year coach Pat Shurmur could be coaching his last game in Cleveland during in an otherwise meaningless season finale.
The Browns have shown flashes of growth this fall — including a 20-14 win over the Steelers on Nov. 25 — but have been unable to make any real headway in the competitive AFC North. Cleveland is already assured of a last-place finish for the fourth time in the last five seasons and with team president Mike Holmgren already out the door there’s talk Shurmur may soon follow.
Chatter about who will be on the sideline is nothing new in Cleveland, where Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas could be playing for his fourth coach in seven seasons next fall.
“There is going to be plenty of speculation on the side of fans and media members and people that are interested,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t affect us. We don’t have any say in what happens, so all we can really focus on is things that we have control over, and that’s how we play against the Steelers on Sunday.”
A victory would give Cleveland its first sweep of its rival since 1988, not an insignificant milestone. Shurmur believes that’s incentive enough to keep his team from focusing on what will happen after the final gun sounds.
“I ask the players not to think of anything beyond Sunday” said Shurmur, who is 9-22 in two seasons. “At least to this point they have done a good job of sticking with me on those types of messages.”
There figures to be no overhaul on the sideline in Pittsburgh, but there may be plenty of turnover on a roster that’s used to having its season end in January or beyond. The core that’s helped the Steelers to two Super Bowl titles and three Super Bowl appearances over the last eight years may finally disintegrate through age and attrition.
Fixtures like nose tackle Casey Hampton and left tackle Max Starks will be free agents and neither seem to be quite ready to call it a career. The 35-year-old Hampton understands the salary cap math may make it difficult for him to return while Starks isn’t ready to cede his starter’s spot to Marcus Gilbert, who missed most of the season with an ankle injury.
“They’re businesspeople,” Starks said. “I look at it as this would have been the end of my original deal that I signed four years ago. Obviously, the last two years I’ve taken minimum salary. I’ve got to make that up.”
Even if Starks has to do it someplace else, something Hampton isn’t ruling out either.
“I want to play and I feel like if somebody wants me to play for them I’m going to play,” Hampton said. “That’s just what it is.”
It’s not exactly the way the Steelers envisioned their regular season finale. They were 6-3 the week after Election Day, but things started to unravel when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sprained his right shoulder and dislocated a rib in a 16-13 overtime win against Kansas City on Nov. 12.
Pittsburgh dropped two of three with Roethlisberger out of the lineup, including an eight-turnover disaster in Cleveland. The expected bounce from Roethlisberger’s return, however, didn’t happen.
The Steelers are 0-3 since Roethlisberger came back, struggling to generate any sort of consistency. Roethlisberger has taken responsibility for the losing streak. He tossed game-deciding interceptions in each of the last two weeks, including an ill-advised pick in the final seconds of regulation against Cincinnati last week that allowed the Bengals to escape with a 13-10 win.
“I think a lot of it has to do with my play, not playing well down the stretch and fourth-quarter drives or last-minute throws, just not making it happen,” Roethlisberger said. “I guess my best is answer to you is probably because I didn’t play well enough.”
As a result, the Steelers will enter a long offseason with plenty of issues to address. The quarterback knows the time to deal with them is coming soon. He knows some good friends likely won’t be around the next time the Steelers play. It’s part of the game, but something he’s not ready to think about. He’d prefer to focus on avoiding the first losing season of his nine-year career.
“You never want to lose anybody and you don’t want to think about it being the last game,” Roethlisberger said. “I’m just not going to think about it. I’m going to cherish the time I get with these guys and go forward from there.”
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