The summer is barely melting away and already National Football League fans from all around the world are in complete states of hysteria.
And why shouldn’t they be?
After all, there are all those exciting free agent acquisitions with the capability to transform their teams. And the NFL Draft? Why Santa Claus brought them all kinds of exciting gifts under the team tree.
There’s nothing holding our sorry old team back this season. We…could…go…all…the…way!
Except, that’s the problem. Every team gets a draft. Even the flunkos get to enjoy major talent infusions on their team through way of the draft. And, with the sophistication of scouting these days, pretty much every team has at least a decent draft.
The rich do get richer, but they also do get drained through free agency. Yet, they still have the huge advantage of the players on their team getting the priceless experience and confidence boost of going deep in the playoffs.
So…the only way an underperforming 2021 team can improve its performance in 2022 is by a positive change in coaching, major investments in free agency or a SIGNIFICANTLY better draft than the rest.
How did our Pittsburgh Steelers do in these areas?
Well, to start, the coaching is the same at the top. Has been for a very long time. Not much to see there other than a few subtle shifts of the chess pieces.
As is usual, the Steelers participated only modestly in free agency, so you should not expect their performance there to vault them ahead of others on its own.
Which leads us to the NFL Draft. Did the Steelers real nail it…I mean…REALLY nail it? Because, that is what it will take to make a big difference this year.
Or? Is there some other factor that would signal a meteoric rise? Something else that would move the needle positively in a major way? Let’s find out. Let’s give it a Spin.
Addition By Subtraction
This will be a sensitive topic for some, so if you’re fragile, please don’t read any further. But, the truth of the matter is the Steelers took a significant step forward purely on the news of Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement.
I know. I know. I warned you. Put down those Molotov Cocktails and hear the Spin out.
There is only one time in the history of an NFL franchise quarterback’s career when they provide extraordinary value to a team. That’s during their rookie contract years.
The moment their agent gets the ink drying on their second contract is the same time the team enters a Zero Sum relationship with their quarterback. Yes, the team has their man, but they are paying dearly for that privilege. As in franchise-crumbling dearly.
An NFL franchise quarterback contract is a massive burden on a team. Not only do they need to secure the quarterback, but they are obligated to surround them with mother hen protective linemen and extraordinary tools of the trade. Like wide receivers that can get open and catch, no easy task in the NFL.
The result is the death of any good defense. It happened to the Steelers after Big Ben’s big contract. Same with Russell Wilson and it will happen with Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson.
For these franchise contracts to be even modestly profitable, it means the quarterback has to be at the absolute top of their games in terms of physical health, and competitive mental strength. As the player declines, the team, with all of the burdens of these contracts and commitments, begins to suffer a slow, miserable demise.
Eventually, just like a rusty old boat anchor, they’ll take the offensive ship down with them if you leave them in too long.
Yes, Big Ben will remain a legend in Pittsburgh sports history, and many will argue effectively he was the greatest quarterback the Steelers ever had. A Hall of Famer? Should be.
But, his value to the franchise peaked years ago when he had a strong offensive line and extraordinary rushing and receiving talent around him in names like LeVeon Bell, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Heath Miller.
The defense tanked at time before getting revived with a series of draft picks the past few years. The team has been offensively in sharp decline since Big Ben’s glory days.
It’s just the way it works.
Opening Up The Offense
In other words, this is an offense and a team overall with the ability to make massive improvements throughout the roster and on the field, just through subtraction. With several talented players still in their rookie contracts, the Steelers will now have the ability to secure the next great generation of Pittsburgh offense.
This isn’t just about money. This is a tactical shift allowing the team’s offensive playbook to modernize significantly.
With Big Ben suffering from shoulder woes and wobbly knees, his once vaunted powerful arm and escapability factors had all but escaped him. This forced the team’s offensive coordinators to rely almost exclusively on a quick release passing game, making the Steelers one of the most basic and predictable offenses in the league.
With any one of the three younger quarterbacks to choose from, there is instantly an improvement in arm strength and durability. Perhaps more important, they are also much more disposable. The whole team won’t rely on going all out to keep their quarterback upright.
They can have their gunslinger throwing and dodging bullets, without fear and trembling.
All of this to say…as great as Ben Roethlisberger has been, the offense is instantly much more potent and the future on that side of the field looks bright again.
This is no knock on Big Ben, but rather the reality of aging rapidly, while carrying a monster contract, in the National Football League. His departure is probably the team’s biggest step forward this year.
So What About Those Quarterbacks?
You’ve got a trio to choose from. Who should start?
Let’s begin with who shouldn’t. There is much being said about the “unfair hatred” tossed incessantly in the direction of Mason Rudolph.
First of all, none but the most vile team fan trolls actually “hate” Rudolph and wish him ill. He’s an exceptionally fine young man, with a great deal of talent, and a clear heart and desire to be an NFL starter. He’s pursuing the dream of just about every kid who grew up a football fan.
He’s just not our guy. He doesn’t have what it takes to guide the Steelers to the Promise Land and he should no longer be in the way of the One who can.
Any anger is not with Rudolph, it’s with the “Coach Speak” telling us year after year he has as good a chance as any to win the starting role. It’s the same with Landry Jones. They were both great guys, but it was clear to most fans neither of them were valid successors to Big Ben. We saw it early, which is why it’s so wearying that “Coach Speak” keeps saying they are in the running.
Rudolph has a big arm and is a big guy. But, he’s got a non-reparable shortcoming in that in the moment of truth, when the defense is crushing in around him, he’s physically incapable of being great. It’s always a moment of panic and randomness, ending in a key misfire on third down or in the endzone.
The end result, time after time, is him walking off the field with his head down.
Many times, he’s not directly to blame. A player misses a route or drops a ball or an offensive linemen commits a timely error. But, winning quarterbacks are the types of leaders where they inspire their teammates not to let this happen. Definitely not in critical moments.
They aren’t walking off the field with their heads down as frequently is the case with Mason.
So, if not Mason, then who?
Mitch Trubisky has displayed excellent athleticism in getting out of tight situations. He’s looked very…shall we say…early Ben Roethlisberger-esque.
Yet, the difference with Big Ben is that at the end of the Houdini escapade, he was able to complete the miracle by making a fifty yard, game-winning completion. That hasn’t been the case with the former Chicago Bears player.
Trubisky is already in journeyman status as the Steelers are already his third team since being drafted in 2017 as a second overall pick in the NFL.
His career reminds of that one experienced by Charlie Batch, who ended up being an average-at-best starter, but a phenomenal back-up for the Steelers. That wouldn’t be too bad to rinse and repeat.
There are few better jobs on the planet than being a back-up quarterback in the Pittsburgh Steelers organization.
Which brings us to “The Kid”. Even before earning top accolades for his game performances in preseason so far, the moment he won the job was when he first stepped on the field in Pittsburgh to rousing chants of “Kenny, Kenny, Kenny.”
Pittsburgh loves Kenny Pickett, which means they’ll be highly patient as he goes through what will surely be a rough rookie season as he gains experience at the professional level.
But, as long as he is healthy, he should play every game this year as the starter. From Day One.
This despite the cries from fans wanting to shield him from “such a horrible offensive line.”
There is no player development anymore. That went away several NFL Collective Bargaining Agreements ago. These days, you throw your rookies in the lake and see if they can swim…or not. This is especially the case with quarterbacks.
After all, the team only gets great value from them up until the end of their rookie contracts. Then it’s downhill from there.
And if it turns out that Kenny is not The One? Let’s find out sooner than later. No more Mason Rudolphs and Landry Joneses.
Sure, this offensive line looks abysmal at this point. But, the offense is packed with young offensive weapons. We don’t need a hero at the quarterback position. Just someone with a bright future.
Give Kenny the ball.
Many of the Steelers players on the defensive side of the ball have stated they will settle for nothing less than total dominance on the field this season.
Yet, is this a reasonable expectation?
When you look at this year’s roster you have three bona fide defensive stars:
Yet, beyond this there are mostly “contributing players”. Contrast this with the roster of players on the truly dominant defense of the Steelers most recent Super Bowl-era team.
Each one of those players were among the best at their positions and this doesn’t include Ryan Clark, Bryant McFadden and Larry Foote who were pretty solid support players.
If you take a glimpse into the 90’s you’ll see another dominant Super Bowl-level defense stacked with world beaters.
This defense had “support” players like Darren Perry, Willie Williams, Myron Bell, Brenston Buckner and Ray Seals.
We won’t hit the drums any harder by going back to the 70’s and starting to list off those players on dominant defenses by the Steelers. Those weren’t just stars, they were tall stacks of Hall of Famers.
The point here is that the current Steelers are quite a few celestial players shy of being a dominant defense. They also need more high-quality players so the unit doesn’t collapse entirely if T.J. Watt suffers from an ingrown toenail.
Does this mean the Steelers can’t be totally dominant this season? Absolutely not. But, to accomplish this, they are going to need several of their younger players to make a major step up in class for them to have a chance.
Should I Buy Them Tickets?
Not yet, my friends. Not yet. On paper, the Steelers have too much to improve and the competition around them is too fierce, strong and experienced.
This the Spin will promise: It’s going to be an exciting year! More fun than it’s been in a while as so many young players grow into their positions and seek to establish themselves among the NFL elite.
This will especially be the case if they do the right thing and go with Kenny Pickett as their trusted arm on Opening Day.
Hopefully, we’ll be raving about Pickett to (George) Pickens for many years to come.