This was true before Friday’s shocking news of Deshaun Watson going to Cleveland, the team he reportedly rejected before circling back ($230 million guaranteed is a hell of a way to change a man’s mind). But Watson’s decision is only the exclamation point on an obvious statement.
It’s a QB driven world. The AFC is full of top-tier guys. And the Steelers don’t have one.
To quote George Carlin and apply it to the land of NFL passers:
“It’s a big club. And you ain’t in it.”
Scribble down a list of the top ten quarterbacks in football and most now hail from the AFC: Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson. All tremendous talents. All in the Steelers’ conference. Three in the division.
Six times a year for the next five years, and probably longer, the team will face Watson, Burrow, and Jackson. Sure, they’ve had Jackson’s number but he’s still a threat with his legs while Burrow is emerging into an elite quarterback and Watson – there’s a reason why he got the biggest contract in history despite 22 sexual harassment/assault allegations against him.
Will the Steelers have a good defense? Sure. 2022, at least, though anything beyond that is total projection. But the name of the game is quarterback play. That separates the contenders from the pretenders. It doesn’t take long to know what camp Pittsburgh’s currently sitting in.
Make no mistake. The Steelers aren’t stupid. They know the position they’re in. They enjoyed the benefits of having a franchise quarterback for 18 years and all the doors it opened up. Made the receivers looked better. Enticed players to sign and stay in Pittsburgh. Always kept the Super Bowl window open and justified the team’s all-in approach with every signing and trade.
Now this team is back to square one. And for all their solid free agent signings, nothing against James Daniels, Myles Jack, even the veteran bridge attempt with Mitch Trubisky are perfectly fine to praise and enjoy. But nothing matters until you get your quarterback. Without one, you can compete for a Wild Card spot, be in the hunt, convince yourself that if *everything* goes right, there’s a chance (“Playoffs are single game elimination!” you say out loud).
But Super Bowls are won by top-tier quarterbacks. Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Tom Brady again have all won the last four Super Bowls. There are occasional surprises and hot streaks, Nick Foles’ improbable 2017 run, the withering husk that was Peyton Manning who rode a great defense to a win the year before. As the years go by, quarterback play becomes all the more crucial and the AFC hasn’t ever seen a landscape quite like this.
There is risk in feeling obligated to do something. Bad decisions usually are on the other end, like the team’s panic move drafting CB Artie Burns years ago. But there’s an undeniable urgency for the Steelers to try and find their franchise quarterback. And fast. It’ll almost certainly have to come in the first round. Of all the QBs I listed, everyone but Wilson was a Top 32 selection.
So that’s the Steelers mission. That siren started going off last season, knowing Ben Roethlisberger was entering his final year, and it’s screaming now that Roethlisberger is officially gone. I expect the team to try to fulfill that goal. It’ll look like an aggressive move in the first round of next month’s draft, likely zeroing in on Liberty’s Malik Willis. He comes with risk and isn’t Day 1 ready but has the highest ceiling and best traits of this class – the arm, the mobility, the ability to make “wow” look routine, consistently thriving outside of structure. If quarterback isn’t ultimately the answer in 2022, then 2023 has to be the year. It’s projected to be a strong class, Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud, but it’ll cost more to acquire them. For Pittsburgh, everything must be on the table.
In the NFL, there’s two types of teams. Ones with franchise quarterbacks. And ones without. The AFC has a bunch of them in that first camp. Pittsburgh must join them.