Redskins

Steelers bracing for changes after 8-8 season

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Steelers bracing for changes after 8-8 season

PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers spent all fall claiming the chatter generated by various off-the-field issues was only so much background noise.

Through Mike Wallace's contract status to the relationship between quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley to the injury problems that kept bold-faced players out of the lineup for long stretches, the Steelers insisted they were focused.

Standing in the corner of a quiet locker room after an 8-8 season ended with a 24-10 win over rudderless Cleveland, wide receiver Antonio Brown begged to differ.

``We wasted a lot of energy worrying about things that were out of our control, pointing a finger here, pointing a finger there,'' Brown said. ``People mad here. People mad there. And as a team collectively you can't have that.''

And the Steelers know they can't have another season like 2012, one that included flashes of brilliance but also too many times where they shrank from the task. Pittsburgh lost five games by a field goal, most of them the result of uncharacteristic mistakes in critical situations by players used to the guys in the other uniform being the ones who fail to deliver in the clutch.

``The good teams, the dominant teams, aren't necessarily dominant inside stadiums but they are dominant largely in moments, and they do what is required to get out of stadiums with victories,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. ``We didn't do that consistently enough.''

The revamped offense brought in by Haley designed to take some of the pressure off Roethlisberger operated in fits and starts over the second half of the season. Having the franchise quarterback miss three games with a sprained shoulder and dislocated rib didn't help. Neither did injuries along the offensive line that made getting any sort of rhythm in the running game impossible.

Still, Tomlin refused to place blame in any one specific place, be it the relationship between Roethlisberger and Haley or the running back rotation that failed to produce consistently. Taken as a whole, it just wasn't enough. The Steelers finished 21st in total offense - down from 12th in 2011 - and averaged 21 points a game, less than a point more than the year before.

``Offensively I thought we started off on the right foot in terms of dominating time of possession and converting third downs,'' Tomlin said. ``We did what was required in those areas to possess the ball and win football games. Obviously we didn't ascend in the second half of the season in those areas. It was an Achilles' heel for us.''

The defense finished No. 1 overall for the fifth time in the last decade but had issues generating turnovers. Pittsburgh's 10 interceptions were tied for the second fewest in franchise history and the Steelers needed seven takeaways in the final two games to reach 20 on the season.

Safety Troy Polamalu, linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and cornerback Ike Taylor - fixtures on a team that's made two Super Bowl appearances in the last five seasons - all missed extended time with injuries and the backups were disciplined but not exactly dynamic. The lack of playmakers enabled opponents to take advantage late in games, namely road losses to woeful Oakland and Tennessee that put Pittsburgh in an early 2-3 hole.

``It was a really good defense in the latter portions of season, particularly in those settings,'' Tomlin said. ``I think the statistics show that. But again, not enough significant plays in those moments at the early portion of the season that produced wins.''

Even so, don't expect 75-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to go anywhere. LeBeau pledged to return in 2013, a decision Tomlin endorsed on Monday.

``He's a special guy, a special man and a special coach,'' Tomlin said.

He's also one of the reasons Pittsburgh remains a sea of calm in a constantly evolving league. Pittsburgh is perhaps the best team in the NFL in providing continuity, there is a sense significant change is coming.

Fixtures like nose tackle Casey Hampton, linebacker Larry Foote and running back Rashard Mendenhall will become unrestricted free agents. So will Wallace and cornerback Keenan Lewis.

Wallace pledged Sunday he would love to return, though the math could make that impossible. The Steelers will have to get creative to get under the salary cap next year, and Wallace is expected to be in high demand on the open market.

``It's a business, but at the end of the day this is all I've known,'' Wallace said. ``I want to be here.''

If Wallace does come back, he won't holdout as he did during training camp, the start of a season-long list of distractions that led to four months where things never really fell into place.

If he bolts, the Steelers believe they have the parts in place to return to their usual spot in the postseason. Starting in 2000, the Steelers have missed the playoffs every three years - 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012. If the pattern holds, they'll be playing into January next year, hopefully a wiser group than the one that let this season slip away.

``The best team that I've been on is when a group is collectively a team, people not playing for money or playing for (themselves),'' Brown said. ``A collective effort for the team and that's the mentality we've got to carry around next year.''

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How can Ron Rivera and the Redskins become contenders? Mike Rizzo gives his advice

How can Ron Rivera and the Redskins become contenders? Mike Rizzo gives his advice

If a college offered a How to Build a D.C. Team Into a Champion class, Mike Rizzo would be an apt choice to lead the course.

Rizzo has been a top executive with the Nationals since 2009, when he assumed the role of general manager. He's overseen Washington's rise from NL East fodder to NL East contender to, of course, now World Series winners. 

The process was arduous, but Rizzo was steadfast in his approach through it all and was committed to sticking to his values and his roster. He was the perfect leader to help elevate the Nats to the top of baseball, and he's also the perfect person to give advice to Ron Rivera and the Redskins as they try to make the same climb in football.

So, the Redskins Talk podcast searched for that kind of advice on Wednesday when Rizzo sat down with them in Miami at Super Bowl LIV.

Rizzo, who's actually already fond of Rivera since Rivera played for Rizzo's beloved Bears, looked back on the early days of his rebuild with the Nationals, stressing the importance of having a vision.

"It's very difficult. It's more difficult towards the fan base," Rizzo explained. "With them, we were honest and up front and kind of mapped out what our blueprint was for how we were going to develop this thing... From that day on we had a blueprint and a plan of how to do this. When I took over as GM in 2009, we started implementing the plan."

It seems as if Rivera is being allowed to begin his tenure in a similar way. The two-time Coach of the Year is the key component in what Dan Snyder has called a "coach-centric" structure, and so far, Rivera has brought in plenty of new figures at all levels of the organization. He'll likely do the same when free agency and the draft come and go.

That's just the beginning, obviously, which Rizzo discussed. It's rare for a franchise to flip its fortunes in a flash, especially when they're in bad as shape as the Curly Ws once were or the Burgundy and Gold currently is. But growth should happen, and that growth will hopefully lead to an eventual explosion.

"We saw small increments of improvement," Rizzo told Redskins Talk. "We went from 59 wins to 69 wins. From 69 wins to 80 wins. And then we went on our big runs."

Rivera is taking over a group that just went 3-13, and while there's plenty of optimism for what he can do, the progress may initially be slow. Six victories in 2020, for example, won't result in a playoff berth but would represent quite a jump. Yet even with what could be an uninspiring record in Rivera's debut season, there may be some vital developing going on.

"It happens most powerfully in places that nobody sees," Rizzo said. "It's down at the grassroots."

In the end, Rizzo has emerged from the Nationals' ascension understanding that making a team into a legitimate force is insanely difficult. However, the task becomes more doable if there's patience and unity between the people calling the shots. 

Essentially, in that hypothetical How to Build a D.C. Team Into a Champion class, the following quote from Rizzo would be the principle takeaway.

"Sometimes you have hiccups and take steps sideways or even take steps backwards," he said. "Ownership better be on board, you better have their support, they better have the blueprint in front of them and believe in the dream. And you better have the personnel in the front office and the decision-makers to make sometimes scary decisions. You can't be afraid to make big decisions and bold decisions to accomplish big things."

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There’s a Harper in DC again: Nationals trade for reliever Ryne Harper

There’s a Harper in DC again: Nationals trade for reliever Ryne Harper

It may have taken until Jan. 29, but the Nationals finally made their first trade of the offseason Wednesday when they acquired right-hander reliever Ryne Harper from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for 21-year-old pitching prospect Hunter McMahon.

Of course, he won’t be the first Harper to don the Curly W. He’ll have a lot of work to do if he wants to top the legacy of the former MVP now playing in Philadelphia.

Putting that aside, he’s joining the Nationals coming off a solid rookie season in which he posted a 3.81 ERA with one save and 12 holds in 61 appearances for Minnesota.

At 30 years old, Harper will certainly be a bit seasoned for a second-year player. Per Brooks Baseball, his fastball averaged out at 89.7 mph while he also mixed in healthy usage of a slider and curveball. He isn’t a big strikeout pitcher (8.3 K/9), allowing mostly grounders (38.5 percent) and flyballs (37.3 percent).

Harper was designated for assignment by the Twins to make room for Josh Donaldson on the 40-man roster. Washington was among the suitors for Donaldson; although they didn’t end up signing him, the third baseman still managed to make an impact that affected the Nationals.

McMahon was a ninth-round pick out of last year’s draft who posted a 0.71 ERA over nine appearances last season between rookie ball and Low-A Auburn.

Washington figures to give Harper a chance to compete for a bullpen spot in spring training, joining a crowded group that only has three pitchers guaranteed spots heading into the year: Sean Doolittle, Will Harris and Daniel Hudson.

After the Nationals made the trade official Wednesday, their 40-man roster is now officially full. For fans still holding out hope that Kris Bryant could be going to D.C., this trade only lowers those odds even further after Bryant lost his service-time grievance with the Chicago Cubs.

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