The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season is now in the books, and it ended in spectacular fashion — though the wrong kind of spectacular — in a dismal postseason defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, sending them into an early offseason mode after going 12-4 in the regular season and winning the AFC North for the first time in three years.
After setting a franchise record by opening the year on an 11-game winning streak, they followed that up by losing three games in a row. Pittsburgh went 1-4 in the final five, with only a 17-point comeback staving off a five-game slide. But all the issues they had in the regular season showed up in the postseason, resulting in their early exit.
The only thing facing them now as they head into 2021 is more questions. And right now, they lack answers. What will Ben Roethlisberger do, and what will they do with him? What will the salary cap look like? How many free agents are they going to lose? Who could they possibly afford to retain? Who might they part ways with—not just on the roster, but also on the coaching staff?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football is a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked. Though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: How would the offseason have differed, for the Steelers and the entire NFL, if not for the COVID-19 pandemic?
NFL teams, essentially, came into this offseason with $25 million less to spend against the salary cap than they probably expected to have under ordinary circumstances. The 2021 salary cap checked in about $15 million under where it was a year ago. It had previously been anticipated to rise by about $10 million. That was roughly what its trajectory has been for most of the life of the previous CBA.
Having that big of a swing from what you expected to have to what you do have forces you to make a lot of different decisions that you otherwise wouldn’t have made. Teams will inevitably be all the worse for it. While money won’t buy you happiness, it will get you talent.
Leaguewide, we saw a number of high-profile releases, and teams reluctant to commit to big-money deals. On the flip-side, without the big money, players were reluctant to commit to long-term deals. Many opted for one-year contracts, something that they talked about openly.
Zeroing in specifically on the Steelers, you have to wonder how much different the roster would look like right now if they had another $25 million. Would Steven Nelson still be here? Mike Hilton? Bud Dupree even? How about Alejandro Villanueva, Vince Williams, Matt Feiler? As it is, even with other creative decisions using void years, they’re still up against where they need to be when factoring in predictable future expenses for 2021.