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The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Overnight Transformation

“Pressure is what you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing.” (Chuck Noll)

It’s a tall order for any NFL team to replace a Hall of Fame quarterback. But this has been the daunting task of the Pittsburgh Steelers ever since Ben Roethlisberger hung up his cleats following the 2021 season. Considering the length of time elapsed since the Steelers’ last championship — and also accounting for the team’s mediocre playoff performances in the intervening years (even prior to Big Ben’s retirement) — the pressure on the Black-and-gold to return to glory has grown more intense with each passing season.

But developments unfolding in recent days appear to have thrown any semblance of a strategic plan entirely out of the window. Kenny Pickett, the former Pitt star and hometown favorite, was assumed to be heir-apparent to Roethlisberger’s throne. Instead, Kenny receives the NFL equivalent of a bum’s rush — dealt to the Philadelphia Eagles for what amounts to chump change.

All of the glowing words about Pickett from Head Coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers front office following the 2022 NFL Draft were last seen floating down the Monongahela River like so many old tires. Even Taylor Swift’s dressing room doesn’t stock enough lipstick to put a pretty face on this picture.

The Steelers have dumped a young, third-year quarterback and first-round draft pick in favor of the 35-year-old journeyman Russell Wilson, whose most productive seasons likely are behind him. But the addition of Justin Fields from the Bears looks like possibly the silver lining that could take some of the sting out of seeing the team’s entire 2023 QB corps leave town for greener pastures. Despite being stuck in a dysfunctional Bears organization, Fields brings youth, athleticism and tremendous upside to Pittsburgh. Statistically, Fields has performed reasonably well during his first three seasons in the league and many avid Chicago fans currently contend that Fields actually has been carrying a bad Bears team on his back.

But given this sea change in Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks and offensive coaching, it’s obvious the Steelers will be totally reverting to the drawing board in the upcoming season. This scenario won’t bother fans and pundits who have advocated a general housecleaning at Rooney University ever since Roethlisberger’s latter seasons. Some undoubtedly will celebrate what amounts to the dynamiting of the Steelers’ former, transitional plan hatched in the spring of 2022. But it’s tempting to ignore the troubling fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers organization these days bears a strong resemblance to other NFL franchises which constantly rebuild but somehow never reach the Super Bowl.

Giving up on a highly touted, first-round QB after he played less than two full seasons might turn out to be a serious enough error by itself. But plugging-in a pair of QB castoffs from other NFL teams as the Steelers have done looks like a Hail Mary move that smacks of desperation. Furthermore, it lends credence to unconfirmed reports that Art Rooney II has given Tomlin a fairly clear deadline for producing a championship-caliber team.

While this might seem out of character for the Steelers owner, how else to explain these recent, shocking developments? The Steelers ought to have known very well that Pickett would not expect a demotion to backup QB after Tomlin had named him the starter last season and then stuck with him throughout a majority of the 2023 campaign.

If the Steelers truly cared about Pickett or his potential, they should have named him as the starter in September — keeping open the option of switching to Wilson if Pickett’s play wasn’t satisfactory. But given the clumsy handling of this situation, it’s hardly surprising that Pickett opted to bail out, even though he surely will be filling the backup role in Philadelphia. This entire sequence of events scarcely reflects careful planning for the long term. On the contrary, it speaks strongly of Tomlin and company succumbing to precisely the kind of pressure Chuck Noll once cited as a sure sign that an organization has lost its bearings.

Certainly, this isn’t to disparage the capabilities of Russell Wilson or the even more exciting potential of Justin Fields. But it’s obvious now that the Steelers badly misjudged Pickett’s reaction to the Wilson signing and it’s equally obvious that the organization opted to follow the same pathway as many other NFL teams — pursuing the fleeting hope of overnight success rather than executing a more methodical and lengthy rebuilding process.

For the present at least, the Steelers have placed all of their eggs in a pair of unfamiliar baskets. They must now entirely rework their offense, likely with some additional, new faces including wideout Van Jefferson. Overall, it’s difficult to imagine a more comprehensive shift in the makeup of the Steelers offense.

But subscribers to the housecleaning theory of team building will find this current situation to be right up their alley. Perennial Tomlin critics should also be pleased to see that the Steelers head coach now appears to occupy a particularly precarious position. One can only imagine the harsh recriminations which will ensue in the event that neither Wilson nor Fields pans out at QB — or if Kenny Pickett should wind up blossoming into a modern-day John Unitas.

But nobody is in a mood to entertain such gloomy possibilities right now. If nothing else, these unexpected developments have at least rousted the pundits out of their offseason doldrums by providing new grist for the speculation mill.

Unfortunately, the team’s overall situation today appears more unsettled than at any time since Big Ben retired. As their post-Roethlisberger transition project now enters its third season, the Steelers scarcely can claim any significant progress yet with respect to moving closer to their ultimate goal. The only thing they’ve definitely accomplished during these past several madcap days is to toss many of their developmental efforts during the past two seasons into the dumpster.


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