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The Pittsburgh Steelers might be down but not forever

This season looks hopeless but free agency and parity have shortened the journey from the doghouse to the penthouse.

Pittsburgh Steelers Art Rooney Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

If you’re not a fan of games featuring mediocre teams that slug it out for 60 minutes with neither one ever landing what looks like a clear knockout blow, you’ve probably been less than thrilled by the 2021 NFL regular season. That’s especially true in Steelers Nation because, for the majority of their season, Pittsburgh has been one of those humdrum teams. The Steelers' subpar play throughout the season has put them in the unenviable position today of needing help from the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars to secure a Wild Card berth.

Parity has given many more NFL teams reasonable playoff shots, while the league does its best to avoid the uncomfortable question of whether some of these teams actually deserve to be in the post-season tournament. But as Clint Eastwood’s memorable character William Munny said in the movie “Unforgiven” (before shooting “Little Bill” Daggett, played by Gene Hackman), “Deserve has nothing to do with it.” Not only is parity here to stay, but it’s likely to become even more pronounced in the years ahead.

But along with the significant uptick in barely watchable games, there’s a silver lining to the parity game, and not only for the league's bean-counters. That silver lining is the shrinking quality gap between teams that play in the Super Bowl and those that finish in the middle of the pack. Heightening the NFL's growing parity of talent, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult for teams to achieve the week-to-week consistency they need.

Besides the league's generally lower bar for success these days, the Steelers also don't face a very high hurdle to improve on their own dismal performance of 2021. If they beat the Ravens in Baltimore this weekend, they'll finish their regular season at a pedestrian mark of 9-7-1. Despite Big Ben's glorious evening on Monday Night Football, defeating the Browns at Heinz Field — and those indelible images of the heartwarming send-off he received from pro football's greatest fans — this also looks like the most forgettable season of Ben’s outstanding career.

That's why it won’t exactly require a complete rebuilding of the franchise for Pittsburgh to become competitive again. While 2022 definitely looks dicey for the Black-and-Gold, the Tennessee Titans have demonstrated this season just how far a potent running game can carry an NFL team. If the Steelers substantially address their OL issues during the off-season, Najee Harris looks like the kind of franchise back that can give this offense a boost, even with a different quarterback taking the snaps.

Big changes can be expected during the off-season, as the Steelers begin adjusting to life in the post-Roethlisberger era. For better or worse, the Steelers can't avoid becoming a fundamentally different team without No. 7 at the helm. In addition to some quality free agents likely to be available before next season, the Steelers will probably be adding at least a couple of draft picks to their roster who can step in to help them right away. As a team, the Steelers definitely have an opportunity to improve next season.

While it's certainly nothing to bank on, nobody knows yet how Mason Rudolph will respond if he's handed the keys to Pittsburgh's offense next September. But should Rudolph falter as his critics expect, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that one of his competitors could surprise by capitalizing on their opportunity.

When a young QB is backing up a future Hall of Famer, and he's relegated to holding a tablet on the sidelines for most of the season, fans never get a true picture of his capabilities. Likewise, hasty verdicts on backup QBs who haven't yet accrued even one full season of starting experience are often flawed because they're based on a limited body of work by players who never before have had any realistic expectation of winning the starting QB job. Furthermore, not every quarterback who achieves NFL success begins his career with the kind of gangbuster performance seen during Big Ben's remarkable 2004 rookie season.

But even assuming the Steelers ultimately will need to draft their next franchise QB, some marginal improvement of the offense still is possible before they secure the draft position to do that. Defensively, the addition of only a few quality players at key positions will make a huge difference in the team's overall performance. For Steelers Nation, the team's obvious need to make some major, potentially surprising moves during this off-season should be grist for plenty of anticipation, interest and discussion.

Throughout this transitional period, "patience" ought to be the watchword for fans and pundits. Regardless of all the criticism currently being hurled around, the Steelers' modern history disputes the dark view that everything is falling apart at Rooney U.

If the standard represented by six Lombardi trophies on display at Steelers headquarters means anything, it means Pittsburgh definitely will bounce back. But the timeline for this rebound won't be dictated by fans' impatience or media pressure. It will depend chiefly on the quality of strategic decisions by the Steelers' front office. For the diehard fan, keeping faith means trusting in the proven capabilities of one of pro football's most successful organizations to make the right moves.