If the Steelers wanted to stay out of politics, their Sunday strategy might be the biggest false start in NFL history. For Pittsburgh’s fans, absence did not make the heart grow fonder — and their owner hopes to calm the waters with an open letter to them. Art Rooney tells the Terrible Towel brigade that the team’s decision to remain in the tunnel was an attempt to opt out of a political statement, not a boycott of the national anthem, as was interpreted by many.

If that’s the case, well … the team clearly needs a better play caller, at least in pre-game strategy.

Note that this is an explanation rather than an apology, but Rooney does agree with fans that the team should just stick to football rather than politics (via Leah Barkoukis at Townhall):

Few sports-franchise owners carry as much credibility with fans as does Rooney. The family has owned the team since its inception, are very much part of the Pittsburgh community, and has remained loyal while other franchises have gone wandering for greener pastures. The events of last Sunday in Chicago — and perhaps especially their aftermath — may have exhausted the goodwill that the Rooneys had banked with their fan base, especially after it appeared that Alejandro Villanueva had been humiliated by Mike Tomlin for the act of standing outside the tunnel during the national anthem. Despite all other potentially legitimate explanations for the team’s reaction, that’s the way many fans saw it.

Salena Zito, whose reporting beat at one time included the Steelers, wrote at length yesterday about the sense of betrayal and conflict felt by the team’s fans after the fumbled response:

“We bleed black and gold here,” said Sean Parnell, a Pittsburgh native and former US Army Airborne Ranger who served in the legendary 10th Mountain Division for six years, retiring as a captain.

“The Steelers are who we looked to as an example of achievement in the face of adversity, they were the ones who brought families and friends together every Sunday. They symbolized all that is good in us and it is hard to imagine a city in this country whose heart and soul is not more identified with their team than Pittsburghers are with the Steelers,” he said of what is affectionately called “Steeler Nation.”

But after the Steelers’ decision to not participate in the national anthem last Sunday, Parnell is not so sure about the strength of that nation.

“As a Pittsburgher, the team abstaining from taking the field during the national anthem was crushing to me for a few reasons. I come from a family that is Pittsburgh through and through — three generations. My grandfather worked as an usher at Forbes Field, Three Rivers and PNC Park. Loyalty to Pittsburgh sports, well, it is not just a hobby and we aren’t simply fans. It’s a way of life around these parts. We hold our athletes and owners to a high standard. And on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to meet that standard. And not just one or two players, but the entire franchise, from owner on down.”

Salena wonders whether Steelers fans will give their team a shot at redemption this weekend. Rooney’s betting on open dialogue and a promise to focus on the game will give them another opportunity to get it right. Steelers fans are dedicated, but they also want to know that their team still reflects their values. The question isn’t whether they get Rooney’s message — it’s whether Rooney and the Steelers get their message.

As far as Maurkice Pouncey’s concerned, the message has been received. Given that the Steelers pushed this out on their official Twitter account, it seems clear that the team’s going to show up and stand up in Baltimore on Sunday.