PITTSBURGH - 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."