ST. LOUIS -- The first bad sign came when Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker was carted off the field with an ankle injury in the Steelers' first offensive series Thursday night against the St. Louis Rams.
The next bad sign came when Parker emerged from the X-ray room in the Edward Jones Dome on crutches.
As they studied Parker's X-rays, there was a look of concern on the faces of all involved. And it was justified. The NFL's leading rusher fractured his right fibula, more than likely ending his season, no matter how far the Steelers go.
In 2004, Terrell Owens suffered a similar injury on Dec. 19 but came back to play in the Super Bowl, which was played three days later than it will be this season.
The injury could potentially have massive ramifications. It could change Pittsburgh's hopes for this season. It could impact Cleveland's. It will cost Parker money as his contract includes a hefty bonus for leading the league in rushing, which he no longer will do.
Now it seems as if Taylor will, under circumstances nobody wanted. Taylor is expected to get his first invite to Hawaii and Najeh Davenport will be asked to replace Parker and carry Pittsburgh into and through the postseason.
In each of the past two off-seasons, Pittsburgh has lost key contributors to its organization.
Two years ago, it was running back Jerome Bettis, who went from playing football to analyzing it.
Last year, coach Bill Cowher stepped down and linebacker Joey Porter signed with the Miami Dolphins.
Now, the Steelers are on the verge of losing another valuable member of their organization for the third straight year.
The Steelers attempted to re-sign the 30-year-old Faneca during the summer, then again during the season. But neither of Pittsburgh's two attempts produced anything close to a contract extension. Now Faneca is poised to hit the free-agent market, where teams always are searching for offensive linemen.
Just last off-season, Derrick Dockery, Leonard Davis and Eric Steinbach landed record-breaking deals for guards, each commanding just under $20 million worth of guaranteed money. None of those players went to seven straight Pro Bowls like Faneca.
But Faneca is not the only financial issue the Steelers will wrestle with this off-season. The team also is planning to open contract talks with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has two years remaining on his current deal after this season. The second year of Roethlisberger's deal, 2009, is inflated, and Pittsburgh will need to address it before then. This off-season is expected to be the time.
Both sides have made it clear that they would like to get a long-term deal done and keep the Pro Bowl quarterback in place. There is no reason to think they won't. When Pittsburgh wants to keep a player, it does what is necessary.
This off-season, look for Faneca to leave Pittsburgh and for Roethlisberger to lay down even more roots.
Bruce on way out?
On the night the Rams welcomed back former running back Marshall Faulk, who had his No. 28 retired at halftime, they just as easily could have been saying goodbye to wide receiver Issac Bruce.
If so, it will mark the end of an illustrious career in St. Louis.
It was a historic night for wide receivers.
With 13,983 all-time receiving yards heading into Thursday night, Bruce needed only 22 to pass James Lofton for third place on the NFL's all-time receiving yardage list. He finished with seven catches for 87 yards and is now third on the all-time list behind only Jerry Rice and Tim Brown.
Pittsburgh had its own receiving milestone. With 8,682 receiving yards, Hines Ward needed only 42 to pass John Stallworth (8,723) to become the Steelers all-time receiving yardage leader. He finished with six catches for 59 yards, giving him 8,741 for his career.
» Word going around the league is that Ravens offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel is the favorite to become UCLA's next head coach. There's a reason that so many of UCLA's boosters are pushing so hard for the Ravens offensive coordinator. Neuheisel is a master recruiter who attended UCLA, and he would bring tremendous passion and energy to the job.
» Do not completely dismiss Cam Cameron staying on as Dolphins coach. Cameron once coached at Indiana, and has ties to former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight, one of Parcells' closest friends. Should Parcells decide to bring in his own head coach, his list of candidates is expected to include Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Cowboys assistant head coach Tony Sparano, Cowboys linebackers coach Paul Pasqualoni, Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Virginia head coach Al Groh and Giants quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer.