3 Lessons from My Second Steelers Sabbatical

As regular readers probably noticed, I recently took my second “Steelers Sabbatical.” Like the first one, this one yielded 3 important lessons which I’ll share

1. Ivan Cole Was Right. Again.

“Ivan was right. Again” That was my first thought after getting re-plugged into the comings and goings of Steelers Nation in early May. I’m talking about the late, great Ivan Cole, former Steelers blogger at Behind the Steel Curtain and then later the now dark Going Deep with the Steelers site.

  • Later in life Ivan got heavily involved in supporting efforts to combat human trafficking.

Those efforts took him away from writing and even following the Steelers in much detail for much of the 2016 off season. This was a drastic change for Ivan, who for years spent off seasons penning the weekly “Weekend Check Down” where he recapped the previous week’s Steelers news.

Acrisure Stadium

Acrisure Stadium, Photo Credit: AP via Post-Gazette

When Ivan got back into the swing of things closer to training camp he said something along the lines of “…And I was surprised to learn that very little had happened that I couldn’t quickly get back up to speed on.”

  • That’s exactly how I felt.

The Steelers started the off season with a bang, as Mitch Trubisky, Mason Cole, Chukwuma Okorafor and Patrick Peterson all got cut. They of course signed Russell Wilson for the league minimum, traded a song for Justin Fields and sent Kenny Pickett down the turnpike for the NFL equivalent of couch cushion change.

  • All of that had happened by the time my sabbatical started.

In the ensuring five weeks or so very little of substance happened. The oft anticipated trade or big ticket free agent signing never occurred. The 2024 NFL Draft came, and while the early reviews are positive, it featured none of the “Khan Artist” wheeling and dealing that so many expected.

2. Unable to Write = Unintended Consequences

Although I wasn’t able to write about the Steelers, I was able to follow.

The “Sabbatical” actually started during February. I had fully intended to do a full Free Agent Focus series that I’d done for several years past.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs. Seahawks, Najee Harris

Mason Rudoph and Najee Harris during the Steelers 2023 win over the Seahawks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

I did get articles up on Mason Rudolph and Miles Killebrew, but Kwon Alexander wasn’t so lucky. His got written, but never published. Not only did he not get a whiff of interest form the Steelers, he also never got his final 15 seconds of fame that this website has bestowed upon so many souls (L.T. Walton, this Bud’s for YOU.)

While the proverbial “Work to do and bills to pay” was one reason for why the no other Free Agent Focus pieces got written, the other is that, guys like Blake Martinez, Chandon Sullivan and Elijah Riley didn’t lend themselves to compelling stories.

By the time the Omar Khan and the Steelers got into action on the free agent front the volume of work had risen to the point where writing pieces on the arrives of the likes of Patrick Queen, DeShon Elliott or say Dean Lowry was out of the question.

And that fact has left me far less invested in their success, than I was for, say, Mewelde Moore back in 2008.

3. The NFL is Eroding Itself with Over Exposure

Mewelde Moore’s arrival as a Steelers free agent in 2008 offers a revealing contrast for how the media landscape has changed since then. As he happened to sign on the same day Ben Roethlisberger inked his first 100-million-dollar contract, the press took little note.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger at at press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune Review documented his signing with small stubs and then left it at that. None of the other major outlets paid much attention either.

And Steelers Nation basically forgot about him until injuries to Willie Parker and then Rashard Mendenhall led to his first start, where Moore exploded for just under 100 yards in the 2008 Steelers pivotal win at  Jacksonville.

  • It is metaphysically impossible to even imagine that happening today.

The Steelers closed spring practices by cutting Denzel Mims and Trenton Thompson. Google their Steelers Cut Denzel Mims and you’ll can scroll through 3 if not 4 full pages of Google results on his waiver before you find articles about his signing.

And that doesn’t count all of the WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts and Podcasts dissecting how this move either enhances or dooms Mike Tomlin’s ability to win Lombardi Number Seven with Russell Wilson at the helm.

  • If all of this quantity resulted in a true diversity of analysis that would be one thing.

But most it is just “Content Aggregation.” In one sense the NFL’s digital eco system reminds me of commercial radio. As a commentator asked about Classic Rock stations back in the early 00’s, “Why is it that Classic Rock stations with decades worth of music to draw upon, still end up playing the same Pink Floyd songs over and over again.”

Translated into 2024 terms, how many articles, WhatsApp alerts or Tweets do we REALLY need to read about hypothetical scenarios about the Steelers trading for Brandon Aiyuk?

  • It doesn’t take long to lose interest.
  • In fact, it is easy to lose interest. Fast.

To be sure, this phenomena isn’t unique to the NFL or even pro sports. Nor did the NFL owners and their infinite greed create this digital dynamic.

  • But it also seems clear that they either don’t see it, don’t understand it or just don’t care about it.

The NFL just doesn’t seem dead set on going to an 18 game season (oh, but player safety is paramount). The NFL not only wants the season to extend into President’s Day weekend, but it also wants to stretch out free agency and the draft during the off season to make the sport into a true, 12 month a year sport.

Yancey Thigpen, Yancey Thigpen Terrible Towel, Steelers vs Browns

Yancey Thigpen twirls the Terrible Towel.

  • The law of diminishing returns is real. The NFL is not immune.

During my second sabbatical there have been times when I’ve had ideas that I wished I had time to write about. And it did feel good to get back on the saddle while wondering if the Steelers had the next Yancey Thigpen on their roster.

  • But part of the reason is precisely because time to write about the Steelers was scarce.

The first thing I learned about economics on the first day of class at Loyola’s famed Sellinger School was that scarcity creates demand.

It is a principle the NFL would be wise to remember. But I doubt they will.

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The Right Decision: Steelers Extend Mike Tomlin’s Contract Despite Playoff Drought

The Steelers extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for three years, keeping him in Pittsburgh through the 2027 season. The news was expected as both Tomlin and Art Rooney II confirmed shortly after the playoff loss to the Bills, that Tomlin would get an extension.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

However, these clarifications only came after Tomlin’s contract was not extended last summer before training camp when he had two years left on his existing – and for decades franchise policy was to extend the head coach when he had 2 years remaining on his existing contract.

  • During the season there were murmurs the 2023 season would be Tomlin’s last.

Many, if not most of those were poorly sourced. However, on the Steel City Insider podcast legendary Steelers scribe Vic Ketcaum did everything but say a reporter he was close had sources indicating Tomlin would be gone. Ed Bouchette, who joined the podcast, wasn’t as insistent, but also indicated that “one way or another” he expected 2023 to be Tomlin’s last.

  • For the record, podcast host Jim Wexell told listeners to expect Tomlin back. And Wexell was right.

News of the extension was not taken well by many in Steelers Nation.

But now that Art Rooney II has “Gone and done it” let’s unwrap his decision.

The Elephant in the Room: Tomlin’s 7 Year Playoff Victory Drought

While Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now 7 years and counting since Chris Boswell kicked them into the AFC Championship game with a win at Kansas City. To put that in perspective:

That last point strikes hard and seems particularly damning. But it is not. For two reasons.

First, simple math proves that Noll is a better coach than Tomlin. Second, the 80’s saw the AFC suffer an uncanny talent imbalance to the NFC (just look at the decade’s Super Bowl results). That gave an edge to teams with superior coaching.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Also remember that the Steelers playoff losing streak started with Le’Veon Bell’s injury in the AFC Championship, when Bell was fresh off breaking the Steelers playoff rushing record in back-to-back games.

At that point Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had overseen a complete rebuild of the roster since Super Bowl XLIII save for two players. For as bad as losing another AFC Championship to the Patriots stung, the franchise’s futures seemed bright.

Then of course the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier, who was budding into an all pro and perhaps a generational-talent. Not too long after that Ben Roethlisberger needed elbow reconstruction surgery.

  • The ripple effects of those two injuries can still be felt today. To quote Jim Wexell, “That’s not an excuse. Its reality.”

It is also reality to acknowledge that those ripples did not reverberate in a vacuum. Since their last playoff win the Steelers swung at air with several personnel moves in a vain effort to reload for a final run with Roethlisberger. Those misses snowballed following Shazier’s injury.

Mike Tomlin deserves his share of the blame for those errors.

But along the way Mike Tomlin has:

  • Gone 8-8 in 2019 while starting Devlin Hodges for almost half the season
  • Won the AFC North in 2020 with a 1 dimensional offense and an injury ravaged defense
  • Made the playoffs in ‘21 with offensive and defensive lines rebuilt with spit, duct tape and bubble gum

It takes quality coaching to coax winning records in situations like that. But you’ll notice the 2023 season isn’t listed above.

There a reason for that.

Tomlin Still Proving the Rooney Rule

When Mike Tomlin beat out insider favorites Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm for the head coaching job, many attributed it to “The Rooney Rule.”

The Rooney Rule may have contributed to Tomlin’s getting hired, but he certainly met the requirements of a Rooney Rule, but not the one you’re thinking of. As retired radio journalist, Steelers blogger and Immaculate Reception witness Mike Silversteen has observed, the real Rooney rule is as follows: Hire the best man for the job and stick by him.

And one of the most important qualities of a coach, as Dan Rooney explained in his autobiography is an ability to lead men. Chuck Noll started his tenure going 1-13, 5-8 and 6-8. But Dan Rooney kept him because Noll always had the locker room.

Bill Cowher’s 1998 Steelers finished an ugly 7-9 and an even uglier 6-10 in 1999. Yet Dan Rooney stood by Cowher, because he felt Cowher had kept the locker room (I disagreed at the time, but yep, Dan knew a little more than me.)

The Steelers opened last December with one of the worst 3 game stretches of the modern era, punctuated by perhaps the Tomlin era’s most appalling 30 minutes of football in 2nd half against the Colts.

  • Everyone, yours truly included, left them for dead.

Yet Tomlin rallied the locker room, brought Mason Rudolph out from the bull pen and pulled guys from the couch to the practice squad and made them starters and brought the Steelers to the playoffs.

17 years later he still proving to be worthy of the Rooney Rule.

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Rumors of the Death of the “Steelers Way” Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Sometimes things change fast on the South Side. Russell Wilson and Justin Fields are in Pittsburgh, while Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett are in Buffalo, Tennessee and Philadelphia.

In the blink of an eye, Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin have remade the Steelers quarterback room in Nietzschean fashion.

SteelersNOW’s Alan Saunders proclaimed, “These are not your Father’s Pittsburgh Steelers.” On Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell looked back to the Buddy Parker era – the last time the Steelers completely remade the quarterback room year-on and year-out, and reminded us that these might be your grandfather’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

More than one commentator has said that these changes prove that the Steelers have fundamentally changed the way they work.

It may feel that way.

But reports of the death of “The Steelers Way” are greatly exaggerated. Let’s explore why.

Russell Wilson, Pittsburgh Steelers

Russell Wilson’s first Steelers press conference. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Yes, This IS a Big Change

Let’s embrace the obvious. The Steelers QB depth chart now reads:
1. Russell Wilson
2. Justin Fields
3. TBD

Precisely NO ONE saw this coming. No one.

Even coming out of the NFL combine the safe money was on Kenny Pickett’s “competition” being Ryan Tannehill. Not only did the Steelers reel in two of the bigger fish in the market, they moved on from Kenny Pickett faster than they’ve moved on from any first round draft pick since Huey Richardson in 1992.

  • For a franchise steeped in stability, that’s a lot of change.

But if you look at consider the moves that Omar Khan has made in the larger context of Steelers history, you’ll find plenty of precedent.

The Myth of Steelers Standing Pat @ Quarterback

If you asked GenAI or some other bot to neatly summarize modern era Steelers quarterback history you could easily get an answer like this:

The Steelers drafted Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1970. Despite seeing a series of bad, average and “good” quarterbacks follow Bradshaw, the Pittsburgh Steelers move to get another franchise quarterback until drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

  • Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Perfect for our world of Twitterized communication. Except its wrong.

Not drafting Dan Marino was a grave mistake. The Steelers also could have tried to get Steve Young’s rights in the 1984 Supplemental Draft and would have been better off with Brett Favre instead of Huey Richardson in 1991.

But after missing on Marino, those basically the Steelers only two chances to draft a franchise quarterback until 2001 when they took Casey Hampton instead of Drew Brees.

  • Meanwhile, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert did exactly as Omar Khan has done this past spring.

Despite having invested a first round draft pick in Mark Malone, Chuck Noll traded a third round pick for David Woodley. After dealing Malone for an 8th round pick, Noll traded a 4th to Kansas City to bring Todd Blackledge to Pittsburgh.

Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

Bubby Brister beat out Blackledge for the starting role in 1988. A year later Brister and 1989 Steelers “shocked the world” by upsetting the Houston Oilers in the playoffs, finishing a bad snap and a dropped pass away from a trip to the AFC Championship.

Yet, Chuck Noll thought that Neil O’Donnell was a first round talent and would have drafted him there in 1990 had Bill Nunn and Dick Haley not assured him O’Donnell would be there in the 3rd.

Get that? The franchise had a 2-year starter at QB who’d just won the franchise’s first playoff game in 5 years, and yet Noll was ready to take another quarterback in the first round.

O’Donnell would of course eventually beat Brister for the starting job, and led the 1994 Steelers to AFC Championship game. Pittsburgh lost in a stunning upset, but people forget O’Donnell broke a few AFC Championship passing records on that dreary day.

  • So what did Tom Donahoe do?

He drafted Kordell Stewart in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL Draft. Kordell Stewart saw his ups and downs as Steelers quarterback, leading Kevin Colbert to sign Kent Graham to compete with him.

Kordell Stewart, Steelers vs Raiders

Kordell shrugs off injury to lead 2nd half rally. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Twitter

Stewart lost but ultimately re-gained the starting role for the 2000 Steelers leading them to a 9-7 record. Yet, Kevin Colbert still took a flyer on XFL “star” Tommy Maddox. Stewart was voted MVP of the 2001 Steelers and appeared to have finally turned a corner. That didn’t stop Colbert for signing Charlie Batch when the Lions surprisingly cut him in the spring of 2002.

  • The Steelers have been criticized for not having a coherent succession plan for Ben Roethlisberger.

No real argument there. Anyone think that no one on the South Side regrets taking Terrell Edmunds over Lamar Jackson?

But along the way the Steelers did take flyers on Zach Mettenberger, Paxton Lynch and Dwayne Haskins, one former part time starter and two former first round picks.

What IS Different

As you can see, Terry Bradshaw began his “Life’s work” the Steelers actively tried to improve at quarterback. Sometimes this has taken the form of (largely unsuccessful) quarterback reclamation projects.

At other times they’ve invested premium draft picks in quarterbacks despite having an incumbent starter – starters who’d been more successful than Kenny Pickett.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

In contrast, Omar Khan has brought an aging veteran in at the veteran minimum and given up a conditional 6th round draft pick to bring in 2021’s 11th overall pick to Pittsburgh on his rookie contract.

Compared to moves to bring Woodley, Blackledge, O’Donnell and Stewart to Pittsburgh, Khan is downright conservative compared to his predecessors.

  • The critical difference or the “independent variable” if you will is Kenny Pickett.

To be sure, the arrivals of these new quarterbacks to Pittsburgh didn’t spawn Cumbia-like moments at St. Vincents. But all of the signal callers in question handled the prospect of competition with far more professionalism and maturity than did Kenny Pickett.

Which is why he’s in Philadelphia facing at least two years of clipboard holding.

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Kenny Pickett’s Lasting Lesson to the Steelers? If You’re Gonna Fail, Fail Fast and Fail Big

In case you’ve been under a rock, the Pittsburgh Steelers traded Kenny Pickett to the Philadelphia Eagles in a move that no one saw coming mere days before it happened.

  • In a blink of an eye, Omar Khan has ended the Kenny Pickett era of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That’s amazing when you consider that just over one year ago hardened, serious X’s and O’s types over at the Steel City Insider were declaring that “The Super Bowl window is open” largely thanks to Kenny Pickett’s improvement at the tail end of 2022.

Russell Wilson signed with the Steelers on the same day Pickett got traded, so perhaps someday we’ll look back and say that Wilson’s arrival in Pittsburgh marked the moment the Super Bowl re-opened.

  • But if that’s the case, Pickett will be watching from the opposite side of the turnpike.

Kenny Pickett played in 25 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers, threw 713 passes, completing 13 of those for touchdowns while throwing another 13 for interceptions. Pickett leaves Pittsburgh without having any real signature moment (my God, doesn’t feel like “Kenny Fucking Pickett!” happened 100 years ago?)

  • But there is lesson to be drawn from the Kenny Pickett era: If you’re going to fail, fail fast and fail big.

And ironically the Steelers lived the best example that lesson immediately after Pickett made his final play as a Steeler.

Kenny Pickett, Johnathan Ledbetter

Kenny Pickett scrambles for the end zone in vain. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The first half against the Cardinals was ending. On third down at the goal line, Kenny Pickett, after being unable to find an open receiver, tried to run it in himself. He failed and got injured in the process. Mike Tomlin could have gone for three, gotten points on the board and lived to fight another day. Instead he went for it on 4th with Najee Harris who came up short.

A similar situation played out a week later against New England after a Mykal Walker Red Zone interception yielded three fruitless attempts and another 4th down attempt when kicking a field goal would have been the wise mathematical decision.

And be crystal clear on one thing: When a team moves on from a first round draft pick after just 25 games, you’ve failed big.

Richardson was Chuck Noll’s last first round draft pick. Noll picked him during the 1991 NFL Draft in a panic move when none of the players he’d targeted remained on the board. Richardson only saw spot duty in 5 games as a rookie (although he did have an impressive preseason debut). He struggled so badly during his sophomore summer at St. Vincents that Bill Cowher traded Huey Richardson to Washington for a 7th round pick.

The Steelers sent Pickett to Philadelphia and a 4th for a third and two 7ths – what has been described as the NFL equivalent of some couch change.

To a man, Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II all expressed confidence in Pickett. While there were rumblings that at least one of the brain trust was having second thoughts, all reports indicate the Steelers had every intention of a QB depth chart topped by Wilson and Pickett – otherwise they would have made at least a token effort to resign Mason Rudolph.

But the Steelers didn’t lift a finger to keep Rudolph in Pittsburgh, and now he’s a Tennessee Titan.

But apparently the move was spawned by Pickett’s reaction to the Steelers decision to sign Russell Wilson. That calls to mind Tommy Maddox’s outburst after the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger. When he confronted Bill Cowher, Cowher’s retort was that Maddox’s reaction validated the Steelers decision to draft Roethlisberger.

Yet, Pickett faced a far different choice. He’s not a veteran facing the prospect of having to share a quarterback room with his successor. He could have embraced the opportunity of challenging a Super Bowl veteran for a starting role or alternatively being mentored by one.

  • Instead he viewed Wilson’s arrival as a threat.

Pickett didn’t want to fight for his job. One can only surmise that Wilson’s arrival provoked a total meltdown. So as a consequence he now finds himself on the other end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, waiting on either 2 years or a serious injury to Jalen Hurts for his next chance to start.

I hope he’s happy with his choice.

Keep up with Steelers Free Agency. Click here for all of Steelers 2024 coverage.

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Let the Competition Begin! Steelers to Sign Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson is signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both ESPN and the NFL Network are reporting this, while Wilson himself indicated this in a tweet.

Russell Wilson, Devin Bush Jr., Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Seahawks

Russell Wilson at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Dawgs by Nature

The conventional wisdom as recently as the NFL Combine was that the Steelers were not interested in bringing any of the big name quarterbacks available to Pittsburgh to provide competition for Kenny Pickett. However, late last week Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Russell Wilson was visiting with the Steelers and that the interest was mutual.

Unlike the various social media “experts” who claimed that Kirk Cousins or Justin Fields to the Steelers was “a done deal” no one rushed to debunk this rumor. Wilson showed up in Pittsburgh as advertised, had a long meeting but left without signing. Even then, other commentators (including this one) floated the possibility that Omar Khan was entertaining Wilson in Pittsburgh to pressure Mason Rudolph into signing.

Then on Sunday night Russell Wilson issued this tweet:

Russell Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl Championship in 2013 in just his second season in the league. Seattle returned the following year, but lost in part due to a goal line interception that Wilson threw scuttling a comeback effort.

Since then Wilson had been a consistent winner in Seattle, but as the 2000 teens came to an end, there were rumblings that he was not happy. Wilson and the team said all of the right things and Wilson had a reasonably strong season in 2021, but the Seahawks traded him to the Broncos.

  • This first season in Denver was a disaster, leading to the firing of head coach Nathaniel Hackett.

Under Sean Peyton Wilson’s play improved, but he did play a few very bad games. Peyton benched him late in the the season opening speculation that Wilson would leave by trade or release. The Broncos plan to release Wilson when the league year begins on Wednesday March 11th. The Broncos are on the hook for 38 million to Wilson this season, so conceivably the Steelers could sign him for as little as 1.2 million.

No Risk? + No Rudolph?

On one level this deal is a no brainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers. While Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed their confidence in Kenny Pickett, each man has also said the Steelers would bring him competition.

December and January of last season revealed two things about the Steelers:

1. This team is still a ways away with playing on the level of any of the teams in the conference championships
2. However, competent quarterback play brings them is much closer than anyone would have thought possible on say, December 20th 2023.

So, if the Steelers can land a Super Bowl winning quarterback at the veteran minimum that would almost be a no-brainer. Almost. At age 36 Russell Wilson may “still have something left in the tank,” but he also doesn’t have much “upside.”

That means if neither Pickett nor Wilson pans out in 2024 then the frachise will be starting from zero at quarterback in 2024 because the Steelers signing Wilson almost certainly ends Mason Rudolph’s time in Pittsburgh.

Even before Wilson’s arrival it was clear that Rudolph would return as QB No. 2 with nothing more than a promise that he’d have a shot at moving up the depth chart. Given limitations on training camp practices and the current 3 schedule of 3 preseason games holding a 3-way competition for the starting quarterback slot simply isn’t realistic.

While bringing Wilson to Pittsburgh carries little “risk” conventional risk for the Steelers, the opportunity this presents could also be smaller than meets the eye.

Mike Tomlin’s flirtation with aging athletes in the twilight of their careers – think Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Joey Galloway and perhaps even Patrick Peterson hasn’t yielded much fruit. And if Tommy Maddox did deliver one year of “Tommy Gun” in 2002, previous franchise quarterback reclamation projects with David Woodley, Todd Blackledge and Kent Graham failed.

  • But none of those men wore Super Bowl rings.

Russell Wilson does. Welcome Steelers Nation.

 

 

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Definition of “At a Crossroads” The Steelers Mason Rudolph and Free Agency

What difference does 365 days make? For Mason Rudolph, everything.

Last year when Mason Rudolph reached free agency, I debated over whether it was worth the time to do a free agent profile on him or not. Omar Khan’s comment about “keeping the door open for Mason” nudged the scales in his favor.

  • But felt like an academic exercise.

But of course Mason Rudolph returned to Pittsburgh. He authored another strong preseason. Yet he remained nothing more than a clipboard holder until, wait for it, the eve of Christmas Eve when Rudolph began leading the franchise to the playoffs.

Now Mason Rudolph is a free agent again, and this time he’s the one holding… well at least some of the cards. Let’s take a look at how this could play out.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers and Mason Rudolph have reached a cross roads. And they took a unique route to get here. So instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of Mason Rudolph’s journey with the Pittsburgh Steelers, we’ll instead focus on how that journey started.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Early in the 2018 off season Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was working into his pre-draft profiles and devoted some time to Oklahoma’s Mason Rudolph, mentioning that Tomlin and Colbert had shown real interest.

In the comment’s section a reader shared a picture noting “Went to the osu game at Heinz Field. Colbert was never more than 5 feet away from him entire pregame.”

Yet, when the 2018 NFL Draft came the Steelers passed on Lamar Jackson and took Terrell Edmunds in the first round and then picked James Washington in the 2nd round (ouch!). But Kevin Colbert also robbed er um traded Martavis Bryant to the Raiders for a third round pick. And with that extra pic, the Steelers took Mason Rudolph.

Then two interesting factoid’s leaked: 1. The Steelers had a first round grade on Rudolph; 2. Rudolph was described as a “compromise pick.”

While Steel Curtain Rising has no access to sources on the South Side, the translation of the above into simple English is this: Kevin Colbert was Mason Rudolph’s champion.

  • If this is true then Rudolph’s career arc with the Steelers becomes easier to understand.
Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It easier to see why Mason Rudolph became the first quarterback of the Tomlin era to get benched for performance. The same can be said for Tomlin’s decision to bring back Joshua Dobbs, sign Dwayne Haskins, Mitch Trubisky and draft Kenny Pickett. Likewise, Tomlin’s decision to look past Rudolph’s strong performances during the 2022 and 2023 preseasons take on a different light.

  • That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tomlin mishandled Rudolph’s development.

In a non-football context you’d say, “the business drivers” of each of those decisions were strong. And in both 2022 and 2023, Rudolph only had one year remaining on his contract. Pickett and Trubisky had multiple years so it made perfect sense to focus precious practice and preseason snaps on that duo.

Now Mason Rudolph’s contract is about to expire. Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II all say they want him back.

But just how badly do they want him?

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Tomlin era has seen the Golden Age of Steelers third string quarterbacks. So when Rudolph resigned last spring, he seemed destined to get a start. He got four, including one in the playoffs.

  • And Mason Rudolph was undisputed best quarterback on the roster.

The Steelers fielded a different, more dynamic offense with number 2 at the helm. George Pickens exploded. Diontae Johnson did his damage. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren had some of their best games. The defense, freed from the obligation of carrying the team, also played some of its best ball despite being critically short-handed.

The only question is, what is Omar Khan waiting for?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Yes, Mason Rudolph looked good. He elevated the team. Everything about his four game audition, complete with the way he maintained his poise after the interception vs Buffalo says the Steelers would be insane to let him walk.

Yet, before cutting a check, the Steelers brass would be wise to remember a few names: Brock Osweiler, Matt Flynn, Rob Johnson and Scott Mitchell.

These are four NFL quarterbacks who parlayed varied amounts of success in a limited number of starts into mammoth free agent contracts to be starters elsewhere.

  • For those four, the grass truly was greener on the other side.

But none of these quarterbacks proved be worthy of their fortune, fame or salary cap space for the teams that signed them.

The only thing worse for the Steelers than losing Mason Rudolph would winning a bidding war to keep him. Mason Rudolph has shown he’s worth of an NFL starter’s contract, but light years away from earning a franchise quarterback deal.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

Everyone wants Rudolph back and Rudolph seems open to it.

  • But there are three “but’s” at work here.
Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the numbers side, you can take it at face value that the Steelers want to keep Rudolph in Pittsburgh. But you can also be sure that the Steelers have a number in mind and won’t go much beyond that (see Cam Sutton last spring.)

Then there’s a trust issue. Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Kenny Pickett will arrive at St. Vincents as the number 1 quarterback but assures that “He’ll have competition.” And Tomlin sounded serious. But he also sounded great to Melvin Ingram, Morgan Burnett and LeGarrette Blount who came to Pittsburgh as free agents and left disgruntled feeling that Tomlin promised them something he didn’t deliver.

  • This phenomenon isn’t limited to outsiders. Just ask James Harrison.

Finally, there’s Russell Wilson. The conventional wisdom has been that the Steelers would bring Mason Rudolph back to Pittsburgh to provide “competition” and if they couldn’t, they’d fall back to a veteran free agent such as Ryan Tannehill or Jacoby Brissett. But Russell Wilson has already visited the Steel City and talked with the Steelers brass.

  • Maybe this Russell Wilson flirtation is Omar Khan and company pressuring Rudolph to sign…
  • …but maybe it’s a signal that Tomlin doesn’t see Rudolph as a long-term starter and never will.

Mason Rudolph is good guy to have in the locker room. His teammates love him. He takes his preparation seriously. He puts the team first. He will elevate any quarterback room he joins.

In an ideal world for the Steelers, Rudolph would elevate the quarterback room in Pittsburgh. But if Russell Wilson’s visit to the Steelers is anything more than a “kick the tire” due diligence exercise, then that’s a clear signal that in Rudolph’s ideal world his NFL career will continue elsewhere.

Keep up with Steelers Free Agency. Click here for all of Steelers 2024 coverage.

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Steelers Cut Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal. To Meet Russell Wilson

With the clock ticking towards free agency Omar Khan continues to make moves to free salary cap space for the Steelers by cutting Keanu Neal and reportedly Patrick Peterson.

  • And Khan is neither being sentimental nor playing it on the safe side.

Khan began the off season by cutting the Steelers punter, their backup quarterback and their number 3 tackle. For an encore he cut the starting center. Now he’s taking a cleaver to the secondary.

Patrick Peterson, Keanu Neal, Chistan Watson, Steelers vs Packers

Patrick Peterson tips an end zone pass to Keanu Neal. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review.

Keanu Neal’s release was somewhat expected. Neal came to the Steelers with a high pedigree but with a questionable injury history. But the Steelers 3 safety package has become more and more important to the defense and with Terrell Edmunds’ departure that opened a role for Neal.

Neal filled the role well, playing in 66% of the Steelers defensive snaps, making his biggest move with the game-saving interception in the Steelers win over the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately it was his last play with the team as he went on injured reserve the following week

The Steelers gave him a physical this week and when he failed granted him his release.

  • The decision to cut Patrick Peterson is more of a surprise.

Peterson is a potential future Hall of Famer who admittedly was closing in on his “Life’s Work” before the Steelers signed him last spring. Peterson became an immediate starter, logging more snaps than any other starter on the defense.

His performance was checkered. At times he appeared to be slowing a step. But he clearly proved to be an asset in other ways, mentoring Joey Porter Jr. and moving over to safety after injuries decimated the position late in the season.

There was speculation that Peterson would move to safety full time in 2024.

Apparently that won’t happen now, at least not in Pittsburgh.

Oh, Yeah About Wilson

The other BIG news ahead of free agency is the report that the Steelers will meet with Russell Wilson. Yes, none other than Russell Wilson who led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship and how the Broncos gave up the store to bring to Denver.

Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The same Russell Wilson that the Broncos will have to pay nearly 40 million dollars to next year no matter what he does.

All of the reports from credible reporters indicated that the Steelers were not interested in bringing one of the veteran free agent quarterbacks to Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, at the combine Omar Khan did clearly state that all options were on the table for improving the Steelers at quarterback.

Khan, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II have all expressed confidence in Kenny Pickett and they’ve all said they want Mason Rudolph back.

  • But Mike Tomlin also insisted that Kenny Pickett would get “competition.”

Questions abound:

  • Would Wilson agree to come to Pittsburgh on the condition that he compete for the starting job?
  • Would Mike Tomlin stage an open competition?
  • Would Wilson even be a good fit for Arthur Smith’s offense?
  • How doe Mason Rudolph factor in? Is part of the reason behind this to pressure him to sign?
  • Does Wilson have something in the tank?

On the latter note, Mike Tomlin does have a history of bringing high-profile athletes to Pittsburgh late in their careers. Plaxico Burress, Michael Vick, and even Joey Galloway serve as examples. While he didn’t do much in his second act in Pittsburgh, Burress did close his career with a touchdown at Heinz Field. Vick had one quarter of football left in him that put the Steelers over the on top vs San Diego on Monday Night Football. And Galloway never saw the field.

Landing on Their Feet

Two recently released Steelers have landed on their feet. Mitch Trubisky signed a two-year deal to return to Buffalo to backup Josh Allen. And the New England Patriots have signed Chukwuma Okorafor.

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Back to the Drawing Board: Steelers Cut Mason Cole, Will Seek Center in 2024 NFL Draft

The NFL’s 2024 off season isn’t quite in full swing but Omar Khan made another decisive move as the Steelers cut starting center Mason Cole. The Steelers signed Mason Cole in 2022 after Kendrick Green’s one year starting stint ended in disaster.

Mitch Trubisky, James Daniel, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Although sources from inside the South Side expressed skepticism to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell that Cole was up to the task, Cole’s play was solid during his first year in Pittsburgh. 2023 told a different tale. Whether Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph stood under center, one of the first things that fans looked for was an errant or low snap.

Fortunately there were no signature disaster moments such as Maurkice Pouncey opening the 2020 playoff loss to the Browns by hiking the ball so far above Ben Roethlisberger‘s head that neither Ben nor James Conner could recover it before the Browns Karl Joseph did in the end zone.

But Cole’s low snaps were a disruption for an offense line that didn’t find its footing until about Halloween and an offense that literally struggled with the basics until Christmas.

Ironically or perhaps not so ironically, Omar Khan made his move on the day when the NFL officially increased the salary cap 30 million for 2024. Prior to cutting Cole, the Steelers were estimated to be about 8.5 million under the cap.

By releasing Mason Cole, the Steelers will gain about 4.75 million dollars in salary cap space, although they will add to their 1.5 million in dead money.

Who Has the Next Shot?

Although Cole does not have an heir apparent in Pittsburgh, the Steelers do have options at center already on their roster. Reserve guard Nate Herbig can also play center as can starting guard James Daniels. The Steelers also began the off season by signing Ryan McCollom to a reserve/futures contract.

But the 2024 NFL Draft is said to be deep in interior lineman, and the Steelers have already been linked to several top centers.

The franchise’s lineage at the position is second to none, having proceeded seamlessly from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson, to Jeff Hartings. And while the Sean MahanJustin Hartwig interregnum disappointed, the Steelers responded by drafting Maurkiece Pouncey.

So perhaps the 2024 NFL Draft will deliver Pittsburgh its next worthy successor.

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Starting Fast: Steelers Cut Mitch Trubisky, Chucks Okorafor & Pressley Harvin to Start 2024 Off Season

Shortly after the Kansas City Chiefs completed their comeback in Super Bowl LVIII the Pittsburgh Steelers published a tweet proclaiming “The 2024 season starts now #HereWeGo.”

Omar Khan certainly got the message as the Steelers began the first day of their off season by cutting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, former starting offensive tackle Chuks Okorafor and punter Pressley Harvin. While none of these moves can be described as a complete surprise, they all reveal something about the thought process of the Steelers brass.

Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Colts,

Mitch Trubisky fumbles after scoring his final touchdown as a Steeler. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

After years of middle-of-the road punting the Steelers invested a 7th round pick in Pressley Harvin during the 2021 NFL Draft. Harvin had a mixed rookie year that was sprinkled with personal tragedy and the Steelers stuck behind him. Harvin improved in his second year, but his third year was wildly inconsistent. There were times when he boomed punts deep into opponents territory. At other times he placed them perfectly inside the 20s.

Yet there were too many times was Harvin failed to do either. In his season-ending press conference Mike Tomlin minced no words about needing more consistency from his punting game. Most thought that mean Harvin would have competition. Instead he got a pink slip.

Mitch Trubisky stands as Exhibit A for now the NFL really does mean “Not For Long.”

One year ago today, Mike Tomlin, Art Rooney II, and Omar Khan were all singing Trubisky’s praises and signaling their intentions to keep him in Pittsburgh long-term as a backup. Indeed, he seemed to fit the Mike Tomczak perfectly.

Yet Trubisky saw action in 3 games in relief of Kenny Pickett and two as a starter, and he disappointed on all 5 occasions and was clearly outplayed by Mason Rudolph, the man he was brought in to replace. Time will tell what form of competition Kenny Pickett will get for the starting job, but the Steelers wasted none in discarding Trubisky as an option.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Chuks Okorafor, Steelers 2022 Free Agent

Chucks Okorafor in the Steelers 2021 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images via StillCurtain.com

After years of neglecting the offensive line, the Steelers invested a third round pick in Chuks Okorafor in the 2018 NFL Draft as the first step in rebuilding their line. Okorafor saw spot duty in starts vs Denver and Los Angeles his next two years, acquitting himself well against Von Miller and Aaron Donald, before taking the starting role in 2020 thanks to an injury to Zac Banner.

While Okorafor was never a liability, he was also never a strength on several struggling Steelers offensive lines. And the unit clearly improved during the middle of 2023 when Broderick Jones took over the starting role. The Steelers don’t have a lot of depth behind Jones and Dan Moore, but Okorafor can’t play right tackle. It had been suggested the Steelers might trade him — he does have 59 starts under his belt — but the Steelers need his salary cap space now.

These moves save the Steelers approximately 13 million in salary cap space with more cuts and/or restructures to come.

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Case Closed: GroupThink Explains Myles Garrett Winning DPOY over T.J. Watt

The AP has named Myles Garrett as 2023’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year over T.J. Watt, and in doing so makes a mockery of itself and the entire process.

Truthfully, T.J. Watt’s 2023 season might not be worthy of a second DPOY award, because it is perhaps more worthy of an NFL MVP Award. But I digress.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans, T.J. Watt sack Will Levis no helmet

No helmet? No problem for T.J. Watt. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Steelers.com

Let’s call a horse a horse here: Voting Myles Garrett over T.J. Watt for the NFL DPOY is an exercise in GroupThink pure and simple. Throughout the season, anyone who was even remotely tied into NFL threads on X (formerly known as Twitter) could see that there was a campaign underway pushing for Myles Garrett as 2023’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Two factors fuel GroupThink here. First is a palpable pro-Garrett sentiment in the press. Second is an infatuation with analytics, largely supplied by Pro Football Focus metrics.

The press likes Myles Garrett. By all accounts he’s a well-rounded person who readily engages with members of the media. That’s fine. Good relationships with the press often lead to positive coverage (see Najee Harris for a contrasting example.) That’s how the game is played.

But relationships shouldn’t trump facts, but when in Garrett’s case it has. Jim Wexell pointed this out on Steel City Insider shortly after Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph in the infamous Body Bag Game back in 2019. Reflecting on reactions of many Cleveland based reporters, Wexell offered this:

Listening to Cleveland-area reporters telling me how nice of a guy Garrett is, and how well he treats his dog, made me think of reporters interviewing neighbors of mass murderers. Yes, a bit much, but, honestly, Mason Rudolph could’ve been killed out there. “He was SUCH a nice, quiet guy who never bothered anyone. And what a LOVELY dog!”

While Wexell admits to exaggerating a bit, subsequent events proved his point. After Roger Goodell lifted his suspension, Garrett doubled down on his baseless, debunked claim that Mason Rudolph uttered the N-word during their scuffle.

Garrett’s claim went unchallenged to the point where Mike Tomlin did the unheard of by breaking his off season vowel of silence by joining Stephen Smith on ESPN to defend his quarterback.

  • The analytics nut is a bit harder to crack.

Advanced analytics certainly have their place in today’s NFL. They can be an excellent tool for uncovering contributions and achievements that remain hidden in standard box scores. Kenny Pickett’s quarter-by-quarter splits might offer an example here.

But over-reliance on analytics, either by coaches or the press creates a tail-wags the dog dynamic. Which is what’s happening with Myles Garrett, who apparently does exceptionally better than his peers in penetrating pass coverage.

  • Fine. But the result of what you do after you get past the offensive lineman that drives excellence.

And in that, T.J. Watt wins hands down. Some times raw numbers reveal a truth that advanced analytics can’t obscure:

T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, Micha Parsons

Numbers don’t lie: T.J. Watt should be 2023’s NFL DPOY

But of course there are those who try to argue that it’s as much about quality as it is quantity. So let’s take a look at a highlights reveal a little bit about the quality vs quantity debate. Here’s a clip of T.J. Watt’s interception against the Rams this past season:

Now let’s look at a clip of a Myles Garrett interception from the past season…. Oh, wait a minute. He doesn’t have one.

Scores serve as an excellent differentiator when evaluating defenders. So let’s take a look at T.J. Watt’s touchdown from the season:

That wasn’t just a splash play, it came at a critical moment and sealed the Steelers win over the Browns. Now, let’s look at a Myles Garrett scoring play from the 2023 season…. Oh, wait a minute, Myles Garrett didn’t have a scoring play.  (And this was a close game. Garrett had multiple opportunities to make a similar play. He didn’t. Just Saying….)

And this barely scratches the depths of the pro-Garett GroupThink movement. In the eyes of one commentator, Garrett is more versatile than T.J. Watt.

Fortunately, Steelers reporter Mike Frazer wasn’t having any of it.

 

Yes, facts can be stubborn things, but they come up short against GroupThink.

Myles Garrett beat out T.J. Watt because it many felt it was “His turn” and perhaps because Cam Heyward won the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, and as L.C. Greenwood’s absence from the Hall of Fame attest to, the “too many Steelers” mentality is real.

JJ Watt was right when he stated: “Myles is a phenomenal player, I’m a big fan and he’s had an incredible career so far. I can acknowledge that while also wondering what more TJ could have possibly done.”

T.J. Watt couldn’t have done more, and frankly should have needed to.

But it is what it is.

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