The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers are in the midst of a remarkable transformation before our eyes.
In the offseason and over the past few years, the team had put all of their championship eggs into the basket of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Those hopes were irreversibly scrambled the moment Big Ben grabbed his elbow during the team’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday by a score of 26-28.
The next day, our worst fears were confirmed. Gone, baby, gone. The team’s franchise player is out for the season.
The Steelers Way of “we don’t rebuild, we only reload”?
Gone, baby, gone.
The Pittsburgh front office looked like Aunt Martha making a run for the doorbuster sales table on Black Friday when they threw their helmet into the free agent frenzy for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
With their first-time-in-more-than-fifty-years sacrifice of next year’s number one draft pick in exchange for Fitzpatrick, the Steelers abandoned their hard fast (and rather arrogant) assumption they didn’t need to play with the rest of kids in the pool of free agency. They were too talented at the NFL Draft for that…apparently.
The Killer B’s? The greatest assembly of offensive talent for the franchise since the era of pet rocks and Saturday Night Fever?
Gone, baby, gone.
Finally…the notion that the Steelers are automatic contenders to be champions of their division? Their conference? The league?
Gone, baby, gone.
This all sadly blended with the demoralizing truth that they have stumbled, tripped and somersaulted out of the gates with an 0-2 record means they have metamorphosed into something they haven’t been in a long, long, long, time.
And that is…underdogs.
Who let the dogs out? Let’s give it a Spin to find out.
Mortgaging The Future?
If you are still somewhat in shock that the Steelers front office actually pulled the trigger on trading a first round pick for a disgruntled player from a failing team, you shouldn’t feel ashamed. It was indeed shocking they acquired Fitzpatrick.
Yet, unfortunately, it’s also providing a reveling reading of the team’s pulse. This is an organization in a state of disarray and panic.
By any past metric of Steelers decision making, the Fitzpatrick trade was one of their greatest acts of desperation in the past twenty years.
A starting player like Sean Davis gets hurt? Big deal. I thought the mantra was “next man up”? Not any more. Because, for the Steelers, the problem wasn’t that they were out of safeties. The issue was they were out of stories.
Like the story that this was going to be a much stronger team because the “bad apples” were gone from the tree. The “addition from subtraction” story didn’t end up buying any groceries.
Or the story that there wasn’t any need for coaching changes at the end of last year’s disappointing season. The team didn’t make the playoffs only because of an unsettled locker room and poorly behaving superstars. Or so the story went.
And, of course, the story that this team could take things to the next level on the broad, Hall of Fame shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers organization was flat out of stories. They were at the sincere risk of losing a lot of readers. Which is why the acquisition of Fitzpatrick made so much sense.
It was time for the team to roll the dice. It was as much about public relations for the team as it was anything else.
This team desperately needed a new story.
Adding Insult To Injury
Perhaps the most insulting part of the high stakes trade with the Miami Dolphins was that the Steelers had offered something similar to what reportedly five other teams had put on the table.
Why did the Dolphins choose the Steelers offer? Because they believe Pittsburgh is going to tank the rest of the season making their 2020 number draft pick the most valuable of all of the suitors.
Ouch. So much for the Steelers impeccable reputation for competitive football.
If the Black and Gold have nothing else to play for, it should be for this: Make that number one draft pick as high as possible. How about 32nd? Wouldn’t that feel good?
We’re Number Ones!
The recent acquisition of Fitzpatrick added to the plethora of number one draft picks that now participate on the Steelers defense. Some are trying to sell this as an indicator of just how dominant this squad could be.
Yet, it also brings up the antithesis to this claim. That is, “Why isn’t this defense among the very best in the league with all of its blue chip talent?”
One explanation could be overreaches by the front office so that these “number one” picks should have really been twos, threes or fours. Or, another unfortunate possibility is the talent is there, but the coaching is not up to the task.
Regardless, it wasn’t that long ago when the Steelers could boast of how their “best in the league defense” consisted of players like 4th rounder Ike Taylor, 5th rounder William Gay, 7th rounder Brett Keisel and undrafted free agent James Harrison.
That used to be how we would have the number one defense.
A Failure To Communicate
“What we have here…is failure to communicate.”
Is this a rerun of Cool Hand Luke or a professional national football league team? How many years do we need to hear about “communication issues” on the part of the defense as the primary cause of their struggles? When I hear that over and over again, I don’t interpret it as an excuse for poor player performance rather than a flat out confession it’s a coaching failure.
The Wasted Pick
Only a few weeks ago, some in Steelers Nation were still making the argument that investing in the third round selection of Mason Rudolph last year was a “wasted pick”. I had argued here on the Spin that the Steelers would be wise to use ALL of their picks in every draft until they find their quarterback of the future. Maybe, it’s Rudolph. Maybe it’s not. We’ll find out shortly. But in this moment, that third round pick of last year is looking like one of the best ones they’ve made in years.
The Comeback Kid?
It’s heartening to hear that Roethlisberger is focused on making a full comeback to the NFL. You want to see that fire. You want to cheer him on. Having an injury is no way to end a Hall Of Fame level career.
Yet, in many ways, it won’t be the greatest news if he is able to pull off a comeback. Because that would mean the Steelers are still desperately seeking their quarterback of the future.
The reality is, if Rudolph ends up being the “real deal”, there won’t be anything but a mentoring and backup role available for Big Ben when he straps them on again. You aren’t going to sit “the future of the franchise” in order to make room for a 38-year-old quarterback recovering from major elbow surgery.
If that sounds terribly harsh, then please remember the many quarterbacks on the Steelers roster who didn’t have a chance of getting off the bench because Big Ben was unquestionably “the Man”.
Even the truly great players of the NFL have their opportunities, and their seasons.
It’s the opportunity and season of Mason Rudolph. At least, for now.
Dawn Of A New Era
Steelers Nation may not want to admit this, but this season is no longer about winning a championship. Yes…that’s still possible. After all, it’s soooooo early. And real fans never give up hope. And, ya da, ya da, ya da. Okay…we get it.
But, what our season is about right now, is the dawning of a new era. It’s our glimpse into what lies ahead for many years. Is the future bright? Or are we entering a dark age of Steelers football…like all of the other mortal franchises need to do from time to time.
Do we have a quarterback of the future? Can all of those number one draft picks actually translate into a top defense? Are our young receivers ready to rise? Can this highly vaunted offensive line start asserting itself in the run game? Or when Mike Munchak left Pittsburgh, did he take the keys to that car with him?
Who let the dogs out? Why are we in this underdog role?
Truthfully, the Steelers organization left the gate open with a long series of questionable moves. Probably more damaging are moves that weren’t made in the name of “stability and consistency”.
Now…there are questions everywhere. Which means this year is all about getting answers.
It’s not the kind of fun and games we were hoping for, but it’s the one we have now.
In some ways, it’s brought a whole new level of excitement to being a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In many ways, we will be tested to see if we actually are real fans.
I don’t know if this year’s Steelers are championship grade. But, I do know that Steelers Nation is and always will be.
The next opportunity to show it is in San Francisco. Count the number of towels waving. I’m guessing we won’t disappoint.