Until 2022, about the only thing Mike Tomlin hadn’t done as a head coach was deal with a brand new quarterback situation. Sure, there were seasons of juggling. Losing Ben Roethlisberger six quarters into 2019. Roethlisberger’s suspension that caused him to miss the first four games of 2010. But 2022 was unique. A year without Roethlisberger, not having a clear cut starter from Day One of the season. Drafting a first round quarterback in Kenny Pickett, signing a veteran in Mitch Trubisky, all new territory for Tomlin.
Naturally, there were unavoidable ups and downs. And the good news is Pickett will head into 2023 as the Steelers’ starter. For Tomlin, he’s looking ahead, not behind, and doesn’t regret how he handled the quarterback room this year.
“As I look back on it, I don’t know if I have any second thoughts or regrets about the process or how it transpired as I sit here right now,” Tomlin said via the Steelers’ YouTube channel. “Maybe I’ll think differently as I analyze it in an in-the-season kind of way in the upcoming weeks. But knee-jerk reaction to your question, I don’t have any regrets about it as I stand here this morning.”
Tomlin went into training camp with three viable options: Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett, and Mason Rudolph. Trubisky worked as the #1 throughout the spring and entered the summer in pole position with Rudolph as the #2 and Pickett the #3. Trubisky’s play was volatile but he did enough to comfortably hold onto the starting job. After a slow start, Pickett impressed and especially played well in preseason action, passing up Rudolph to be the #2 to begin the regular season.
Pittsburgh got off to a 1-2 start and trailing the New York Jets at halftime, Mike Tomlin pulled Trubisky and put in Pickett. He threw an interception on his very first pass, a jump ball WR Chase Claypool lost out on, but did enough to be the starter in Week 5. There was really no turning back anyway. Pickett struggled through the bye week, throwing costly turnovers, some of which were his fault and some of which that required context. After the bye, Pickett made strides, throwing just one interception from Week 10 through the rest of the year and leading a pair of game-winning drives against the Las Vegas Raiders and Baltimore Ravens, the first rookie quarterback to ever accomplish that in back-to-back weeks. Pickett finished the year completing 63% of his passes with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Evaluating his season as a whole, Tomlin said Pickett consistently made progress.
“I thought his development took off once he started getting into stadiums in the preseason. And so there was a process there of playing in the third groups. He was playing in the second groups and we gave him some first group exposure. Pre-season football is different than regular season football, let’s be honest. He bided his time and worked in a regular season football environment and when he had an opportunity, when it presented himself, he showed he belonged and he continued to get better in that space.”
In terms of starters, the only bump along the way came in Week 15, a game Pickett missed due to a concussion. Despite a mid-week quarterback battle, Trubisky earned the nod over Rudolph and played well enough to beat the Carolina Panthers. Pittsburgh heavily leaned on its ground game but Trubisky finished the day going 17/22 for 179 yards, making smart decisions and taking care of the football.
Pickett is the team’s starting quarterback next year but the team still has decisions to make at the position. Trubisky carries an $8 million base salary next season, expensive for a backup quarterback and one who didn’t expect to be in those shoes when he signed, already admitting he regrets signing so quickly. Pittsburgh has the cap space to keep him on the roster but Tomlin wants volunteers, not hostages, making Trubisky’s future in Pittsburgh uncertain. Rudolph is almost certainly gone and will compete for a #2 job elsewhere.
With the offseason so fresh for Tomlin, 24 hours ago the Steelers were fighting for their playoff lives, he offered little assessment of the QB room’s future.
“Mitch is under contract. Rudolph is scheduled for free agency. We’ll see what happens.”
Pittsburgh always carries four quarterbacks to camp. If Trubisky is released, the team would likely look for a cheaper veteran backup behind Pickett. It’s also logical they would sign a QB to a futures contract and perhaps sign an undrafted arm to round out their room.