Some things in life just seem to be destined to be paired together. Peanut butter and jelly, Batman and Robin, or Bonnie and Clyde. At Thursday evening’s NFL Draft, we witnessed another crucial pairing that hopefully will set Pittsburgh up for the next decade or more, as the team selected hometown quarterback Kenny Pickett out of Pitt. Leading up to the draft, the Steelers were a team in search of quarterback help, and which one would make more sense than the one who shared the same practice facility with them in Pickett? Count his personal QB coach Tony Racioppi among those believers, who also credits the extra time working with him during COVID lockdowns as a key element in his development.
“So if anybody’s gonna know him, it’s gonna be those guys,” Racioppi said on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio’s Sports Sunday with Lance Medow. “And I think, you know, bumping into him and seeing the kind of person he is over and over again, over the years, seeing him mature, seeing how hard he worked on his craft. Because if you look at his tape, every single year, he was better and that’s because he worked on his game. Whether it was out here with me, anytime he had a break, obviously because of the COVID years we took advantage of those because he was home longer than he’d ever been. After not this season, but the season before, he was home for like two months just because of everything else so I was really able to almost put him through draft prep the year before his senior year. So, I think those guys got to see him mature on the field as well as off the field. And obviously, they lived him having that almost-Heisman kind of season. They were right there, they saw the city rally behind him and, I mean it’s a great place. It’s a flagship organization.”
Racioppi’s comments fell directly in line with ones made by Tomlin over the weekend, citing that for higher-round prospects, there’s usually some degrees of speculation in the war room. But in this instance, there was none, directly because of their comfort level and familiarity with Pickett.
“So the more you can get behind the scenes and just see his mental makeup and how much he loves football and his work ethic and his toughness and his heart and his upbringing. All those things kind of just kind of paint a picture of the player, if that makes sense? And the more you can paint the picture, the easier it is for those guys to make that decision. So, I think it was huge obviously having coach Whip there and his relationship there and obviously coach Narduzzi. You know, obviously his relationship with the Pittsburgh Steelers is huge. I mean, he talks to those guys all the time. So it’s a perfect case scenario.”
He was questioned next directly about Pickett playing in the rough outdoor elements of the Steel City, and his response left no doubt that it even should be in question.
“You know, we’re talking about a kid that grew up in New Jersey, right? So you’re playing the last third of your season in bad weather for the most part, right? You’re playing playoff weather in November and December, which is again, not great as far as temp-wise. You’re playing in some snow, you’re playing in some rain and some wind. And obviously you had that in five years in Pittsburgh. It’s all about perfect places, right? It’s the exact same city. So, you kind of know by season where you live, right? So August is usually really hot and humid. September usually could go either way, October starts dipping and by November, you’re playing in sometimes 30-degree weather, 18-degree weather, snow rain, wind, and it’s all stuff he’s done. So that’s why I kind of chuckled every time I heard people say ‘oh, the hands were a concern and bad weather’. And again, we’re not talking about a kid who grew up in like Southern California and every day was 75 and sunny here, so he’s played in every element possible, multiple times. I mean, you pop on that University of North Carolina game from this year, that Thursday night game when he played Sam Howell, which was an awesome game, an awesome, awesome college football game. And he made some big time throws in a torrential downpour. And the field is completely muddy.”
Based on Racioppi’s comments, it’s clear that Pickett meant a lot to him, both on a professional and a personal level. A sticking point on his feelings regarding his pupil’s draft destination is the unmatched level of organizational stability and structure with which the Steelers operate. With only three head coaches over the last 53 years, their continuity is crucial, compared to a franchise like the Browns. Even disgruntled QB Baker Mayfield was very critical of their stability recently, citing having four head coaches in four years. This won’t be the case for Pickett.
“All you want for is a guy go to a place that it’s run the right way, right? From ownership to personnel to coaching staff. I mean, how many coaches have they had in 60 years? Not many, so you see a lot of guys get picked high and in their third year, they’re on their new head coach and their new GM. And you know, sometimes that guy wasn’t a fan of you coming out, so maybe they want to go somewhere else at the quarterback position and by year four, you’re out of a job, you know? So it’s a great fit for him. I couldn’t be more excited for him and his family and the city of Pittsburgh, both the Steelers and Pitt.”