Super Bowl LVI is today. And again, the Pittsburgh Steelers will watch from home. Worse, the franchise hasn’t been farther away from a Super Bowl since their God-awful 1999 season.
- This reality is generating untold angst within Steelers Nation.
Social media is full of solutions for returning the Steelers the Big Dance. First, there are the “Make Buddy Parker Proud” plans that involve trading a pirate’s ransom of draft picks to get Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson.
On the flip side, there are demands to trade T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward because, “We’re never going to contend during their careers, so why not?” In between, you see calls for sticking with Mason Rudolph and/or Dwayne Haskins — but not to explore their potential — but because they’re Pittsburgh’s best shot at a top 5 draft pick.
No, nothing is easy, is it? Now you understand why Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin agreed to take a final, longest of long shots with Ben Roethlisberger.
If the Steelers road to Lombardi Number 7 certainly isn’t easy, the map they need to follow isn’t complicated because it involves focusing on the fundamentals that got the franchise their first 6 Super Bowls. Here is a four point roadmap.
1. Embrace the Suck
Jim Wexell quoted Tammy Duckworth’s “Embrace the suck” mantra following Martavis Bryant’s second substance abuse suspension. Duckworth of course lost both her legs in Iraq rebounded to become a US Senator.
In this context, the Steelers “Embracing the suck” means accepting that they are neither a quarterback nor a handful of key players away from contending again. A big part of this site’s Steelers 2021 season review hinged on who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft and who actually made (or stayed) on the field in the early fall.
- That perspective was useful for reviewing 2021, but is irrelevant for 2022.
Take Tyson Alualu. The Steelers run defense certainly would have been better with Alualu. Alualu can probably help in 2022. But Alualu will be 35 and has only played in 17 of a potential 33 games over the last two seasons. He’s not a long-term answer. The Steelers need long term answers.
Fans can fantasize all they want, but it is important that Rooney, Tomlin, Colbert and his successor are honest with each other and with the men in the mirror about where this team stands.
2. Prioritize Winning Big Over Winning Fast
- In this light, the idea of trading away 3 or 4 premium draft picks for a blue chip quarterback is pure folly.
Fortunately, the Steelers are in a much better place today than in 1969. In Watt, Fitzpatrick, Heyward, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Dan Moore and a few others the Steelers have foundational players.
- But they need to find more foundational pieces, and they need to take them where they can find them.
Outside of perhaps safety and running back, there’s not a spot on the Steelers depth chart that should be off of the board on Days 1 and 2 of the 2022 NFL Draft. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell has argued repeatedly, good things happen when your best player is your hardest worker (and if possible) is the biggest guy in your locker room.
If ever there was a year for the Steelers to deprioritize need in favor of talent in the draft, it is 2022. That could leave some painful holes in the 2022 roster but will deliver long-term dividends.
3. Don’t Try to Force Finding a Franchise Quarterback
Finding a franchise quarterback requires 3 things:
The importance of luck should be obvious, but it’s not. To understand luck’s role, think of how the Steelers found their first franchise quarterback. Despite drafting Joe Greene, Jon Kolb and L.C. Greenwood in the 1969 NFL Draft, Chuck Noll went 1-13 that season.
The Steelers tied the Bears for the worst record, and they tossed a coin for the first pick in the 1970 NFL Draft.
- Pittsburgh won the toss and drafted Terry Bradshaw. The rest is history.
Patience is just as critical as luck. The Steelers whiffed in 1983, drafting Gabe Rivera instead of Dan Marino. Fans and press pundits panned the team for trying to get by with Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister – didn’t Rooney and Noll know how important the quarterback position was?
And they also knew that franchise quarterbacks few and far between. Outside of Steve Young in the 1984 Supplemental draft and Brett Favre in the 1991 NFL Draft the Steelers didn’t have a shot at a true franchise quarterback until they passed on Drew Brees in 2001. (Ok, they should have taken Tom Brady instead of Tee Martin in 2000. 29 other NFL teams should have too.)
Reaching for a quarterback and missing is more costly than it is at any other position. Just ask the people who picked Andre Ware, Cabe McNown and JaMarcus Russell. That’s why Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert were wise to resist any temptation to draft Chad Pennington in 2000.
- The Steelers must exercise the same prudence today.
And that’s where instincts come in. Dan Rooney lived through the mistake of passing on Marino and ensured that history didn’t repeat. So if and when the Steelers brain trust really does think they’ve found a franchise quarterback, they must take him.
4. Strive to Be Great, But Build to Win with Good
I took a lot of grief in high school, college and later sports bars defending Bubby, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart. After all, the Steelers continued to make playoff runs while teams like the Bengals wasted first round picks on busts like David Klingler and Akili Smith.
- And besides, you didn’t need a great quarterback to win a Super Bowl, you only needed a good one.
Then I saw Ben Roethlisberger go 9 of 12 while throwing laser like touchdown strikes to Antwaan Randle El and Heath Miller to open the 2005 AFC Divisional win over the Colts. That’s when I understood why teams threw first round picks at quarterbacks. Neither Bubby, nor Neil nor Kordell could have done what Roethlisberger did that day.
- The game has changed a lot since 2005 and much more since the 1990s.
Today conventional wisdom holds: You can’t win with a “Good” quarterback anymore, you can only win with a Great one. If you look at the names of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the 21st century, it is hard to argue against that.
Hard, but not impossible.
There’s no doubt that without a franchise quarterback, a team must be virtually error-free in the draft, have depth everywhere, and reach the playoffs in excellent health. But non-franchise quarterback do lead their teams to Super Bowls.
Nick Foles did it in 2017. In 2015 the Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl with excellent defense, a strong running game and a Peyton Manning who was a glorified game manager at that point in his career. Many would put the Joe Flacco-led Ravens Super Bowl in 2012 into that same boat.
The Steelers of course tried to win a Super Bowl with a good quarterback in the 1990’s and the early ‘00’s, only to come up short with losses in Super Bowl XXX and 3 AFC Championship games.
But because they were built to win with good while seeking to be great, when luck, patience and instinct combined to start the Ben Roethlisberger Era in 2004 the Steelers as an organization were ready. And 3 Super Bowl appearances and victories in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII followed in the next 7 years.
Today, Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin must follow the same formula.