For 18 seasons, it's been all about No. 7 under center. And for 18 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have remained among the AFC’s elite, failing to finish below .500 since Tommy Maddox led the black and yellow nearly two decades ago. But how long is too long, and with Pittsburgh now on the outside looking into the conference's playoff picture as Ben Roethlisberger approaches his 40th birthday, it’s time for an overdue change under center for one of football’s most illustrious franchises.
A relationship highlighted by 11 playoff appearances, eight division titles, and two Super Bowls, the time for head coach Mike Tomlin to flip the switch and move forward from the success enjoyed in the multitude of years prior is behind schedule. A season rapidly slipping out of the long-tenured head coach’s fingers, the Steelers have represented a shell of the units we’ve become accustomed to studying over the last two decades.
On a roster with a mix of high-impact, youth-infused talent and headlining veterans, the play of Roethlisberger this fall just hasn’t been up to snuff, to say the least, as we approach the final two weeks of the campaign. In just the last few weeks, the laundry list of negatives surrounding Pittsburgh has introduced an overwhelming cloud of doubt into the Steelers’ ability to win another game this fall, and a window into who, ideally, could represent Roethlisberger’s successor moving into next season.
After reeling off four consecutive victories in the middle of the season against the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, and Chicago Bears, where Father Time looked to have hit the snooze button on No. 7’s productivity, a tie to the then-winless Detroit Lions, a shootout loss to the high-octane Los Angeles Chargers, and a blowout at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs over the last seven weeks has brought expectations back to earth—where they should be—and placed Tomlin nose-to-nose with an uncertain future at his most important position.
As we know, success for a franchise kickstarts under center. While Tomlin and Roethlisberger have had the opportunity to share a relationship and annual success similar to that of Tom Brady-Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning-Tony Dungy—two legendary tandems of the game—a lack of anything aside from one outlier game from Roethlisberger in the past month-plus to show he has any last remnants of fumes in the tank is cause for major concern. And for the Steelers, who have a pair of young quarterbacks ready to take over signal-calling duties in Mason Rudolph and Dwyane Haskins in dire straits, while the options could surely be worse for Tomlin, it’s time to let go of the past.
Looking toward this offseason, a bevy of potential suitors have made their way out of the shadows. With Rudolph and Haskins, they both present multi-year projects whose immediate success will replicate nothing like Roethlisberger’s first full season as a starter back in 2004. While they aren’t rookies, idealizing Tomlin moving forward with an in-house option looks like a fantasy, especially considering the current postseason window the Steelers find themselves in with talent aplenty in non-QB areas. Tomlin remains in win-now mode.
With that being said, let’s hold the reins on shipping Heisman finalist and former Pitt Panther standout gunslinger Kenny Pickett to Tomlin’s doorstep as Pittsburgh’s next potential “big thing.” Like the aforementioned quarterbacks in Haskins and Rudolph, Pickett’s insertion into a veteran-laden Steelers roster, while it could work, doesn’t leave the aftertaste Tomlin could desire as an immediate impact talent. Pickett, like Matt Corral, Malik Willis, and Desmond Ridder, among others in this year's crop of draft-eligible quarterbacks, represents a multi-year project.
However, a peek into the veteran trade market provides clarity. While the names in Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson will dominate headlines as each camp has teased with trade ideals prior to, and throughout the year, pulling the trigger for a seasoned starter with a multitude of NFL seasons under his belt looks to present the clear avenue for Pittsburgh as they look to avoid a full-blown rebuild. While the two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks represent the cream of the crop, a look out west to the bright lights of Las Vegas could present the Steelers’ ideal fit for Tomlin.
Derek Carr is a signal-caller that could satisfy Tomlin’s appetite. And with just one season left on his current contract, in the prime of his career, Carr fits everything Pittsburgh wants to do on the offensive side of the football. A gunslinger with toughness and urging hunger to lead, his current status as the Raiders’ captain has gone massively overlooked with the surrounding turmoil amid the resignation of Jon Gruden, which could see him shuttled to Pittsburgh on a potentially cap-friendly deal with just a lone season left on his massive $125M extension signed in 2017. With weapons on the boundary in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and in-line threat Pat Freiermuth, who, when healthy, became one of Roethlisberger’s favorite targets, acquiring Carr could see the stars align for a potential coupling of Tomlin’s immediate desire for hardware without having to relish years of coaching into a rebuild.
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