In a year of great expectations and even greater disappointments for Steelers Nation, it's somehow weirdly fitting that the last vision burned into our brains would be the sight of Bruce Arians, Tom Brady and Antonio Brown gleefully hoisting the Lombardi Trophy here in central Florida.
In 2020, the Buccaneers proved conclusively that waiting to develop a championship team has become a fool's errand. You can get there much faster by simply opening your checkbook and signing a nucleus of free-agent stars from other teams. Thus did we witness Brady, Brown, Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette making the key offensive plays in a blowout 31-9 Tampa Bay victory. Man for man, you won’t find a stronger offense in the NFL than the team blessed with perhaps the greatest quarterback ever to play the game plus the depth to platoon high-caliber players such as Fournette, Ronald Jones, Gronkowski and Brown.
Considering the many twists of fate occurring in a typical NFL season -- let alone a 2020 season played amidst a global pandemic -- it's not difficult to understand how even a team as talent-heavy as the Kansas City Chiefs might be reduced to watching their entire season crumble to dust by halftime in pro football’s most crucial game.
As it turned out, the last man standing in the wake of this bizarre season just happened to be the same guy with the most Super Bowl wins under his belt. As for Patrick Mahomes, he was hounded throughout the evening by a Tampa Bay pass rush whose challenge was considerably lessened by the absence of both the Chiefs’ regular offensive tackles disqualified by the virus protocol. Despite his uncanny ability to escape the pass rush, Mahomes absorbed a beating, particularly during the second half when he had to drop back and throw the ball in a futile attempt to get his team back in the game.
Such is the reality of a long NFL season which concludes with the crowning of a singular champion. Even when you've had a great regular season like the Chiefs and you’re lucky enough to reach the big dance, you get only one shot to avoid being relegated to the batch of 30 other teams who failed to accomplish what they set out to do in training camp last summer.
As a showcase for today’s NFL, the 31-9 Super Bowl blowout hardly met the expectations of football fans, nor did it warrant the volumes of hype leading up to the game. In this virus-hampered season, Super Bowl LV unfolded as a crippled version of what nearly everyone anticipated. Ultimately, it seemed absurdly appropriate that this snoozer of a game was played in a stadium populated largely by cardboard-cutout fans.
But considering the Pittsburgh Steelers’ uncertain future, the Bucs’ and Chiefs’ separate roads to their respective NFL titles during the past two seasons offer similarly aggressive approaches to this quest. These examples have important implications for the Steelers’ upcoming 2021 NFL Draft and regular season. Given the many uncontrollable factors in today’s NFL — issues just as apt to ruin the season for a Steelers team undefeated in its first 11 games as to undo a Chiefs team that posted an AFC-best 14-2 regular-season record — it sharpens the reality that, in the NFL, the future is now.
Both Tampa Bay and Kansas City made the big offseason sacrifices necessary to field top-shelf offenses, and without waiting for key players to develop. In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Chiefs traded their No. 27 pick — plus a third-round pick and their 2018 first-round pick — to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for the No. 10 pick they used to draft Mahomes. Their sacrifice paid off when Mahomes performed at star level from the very first time he walked onto an NFL gridiron and led the Chiefs to a championship in Super Bowl LIV. Likewise, Tampa Bay’s front office had reached the point last spring where they no longer were willing to wait for success, signing Brady to a 2-year, $50 million contract.
Of course, Ben Roethlisberger’s decision is pivotal concerning whether to return to the field later this year for what likely would be his final NFL season. But there’s no doubt that securing the quarterback position, and doing so fairly soon, is even more crucial today than it was when Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004. The question is whether the Steelers should adopt the Buccaneers’ approach of signing a marquee quarterback who still has some career mileage in store (e.g. Aaron Rodgers or Deshaun Watson) or should they trade up in the 2021 NFL Draft — probably also sacrificing some high draft picks or other talented players —to obtain a young quarterback capable of being the same kind of can’t-miss player that Terry Bradshaw and Big Ben had been as rookies.
Despite his many detractors, Ben richly deserves the chance to come back and prove that 2020 was a fluke and that he can retire while still performing at a championship level. But if Roethlisberger cannot reach contractual agreement with the Steelers, either of the two paths chosen in recent years by the Bucs and the Chiefs might just be the Black-and-Gold's route to another Super Bowl. Unfortunately, though, we might never find out whether Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins have what it takes to develop into top-flight NFL quarterbacks. After a decade of failing to reach the big dance, the urgency of fielding a serious Super Bowl contender sometime within the next couple of seasons might force the Steelers' hand.
What’s inescapable is the central role the quarterback position plays in the quest for another Lombardi trophy. Either the Steelers will find another championship-caliber quarterback or else they’ll be waiting a painfully long time for their next shot at glory. The period leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft likely will determine the path chosen by the Steelers’ brain trust.