George Carlin, the late, great standup comedian, had his “Seven Dirty Words That You Can Never Say On Television.”
I’m not sure if owner Art Rooney II is a fan of standup comedy, but there is apparently one word you can’t say around the Steelers facilities: Rebuild, as in, rebuilding, as in, rebuilding year.
If that word is restricted at work, Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson violated the rule immediately after the 24-20 loss to the Jets at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday.
“Obviously, it’s a rebuilding year,” said Johnson, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We can’t use that as an excuse. It doesn’t matter who is at quarterback or any position. It’s our job to get it done and win games. That’s what we have to do — win.”
The quarterback part of Johnson’s quote pertained to the change that occurred at the position when rookie Kenny Pickett replaced veteran Mitchell Trubisky during the Steelers' first possession of the second half.
It’s a good thing for Johnson that the inevitable Trubisky to Pickett transition took place on Sunday, otherwise, his quote about 2022 being a rebuilding year for Pittsburgh may have led to an even bigger firestorm of a story on Monday.
Did Johnson’s quote need a distraction in the form of a quarterback transition, however? The Steelers are in a rebuilding year, right? I mean, they better be.
Ben Roethlisberger just retired after 18 years, and the Steelers signed a veteran to take his place, before drafting a guy in the first round to take the place of the guy who they signed to take the place of the guy. Furthermore, unlike in Roethlisberger’s rookie season of 2004, neither Trubisky nor Pickett was going to be starting for a ready-made Super Bowl contender that was simply a good quarterback away from being seriously legit.
The oddsmakers put the Steelers' win total at 7.5 to start the year, meaning they thought 2022 would be the team’s first losing season in nearly two decades.
Also, remember that high-octane offense that the Steelers had as recently as 2017, the one with a highly-functional franchise quarterback, along with the best receiver in the game who was in the fifth year of the greatest six-year stretch for any player at the position in NFL history, the best dual-threat running back in the league, and a highly-decorated offensive line that was elevated by a highly-decorated offensive line coach?
That’s all gone. In fact, most of it left by 2019.
Everyone’s been racking their brains trying to figure out what’s been going on with the Steelers' offense the past few years—including the first few games of 2022 when it can’t crack the 20-point threshold. You can start with a massive transition from all-time great players to so-so talent in less than a half-a-decade.
I don’t care who the offensive coordinator is, you ain’t scheming up Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell-level production when you don’t have players on the roster who can match their greatness.
Even the defense, one that is the highest-paid in the NFL, is going through a bit of a rebuild. Don’t think so? Larry Ogunjobi was signed to take the place of Stephon Tuitt. While the former is a good talent, he can’t match what the latter gave the Steelers when he was at his best. Cameron Heyward is getting older. Tyson Alualu may have slipped into the “too old” phase of his career. Meanwhile, youngsters like Montravius Adams and DeMarvin Leal are being worked into the defensive line rotation on a more frequent basis.
Alex Highsmith, while making strides at outside linebacker (he has the most sacks in the NFL), has yet to show that he can be as good as Bud Dupree was when he was at the very height of his powers.
Even the secondary, one that everyone thought would be decent with the recent additions of Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace, may not be nearly as good as the unit from two years ago when Joe Haden was considered to be too old, Steven Nelson was supposed to be too expensive and Mike Hilton was hellbent on signing with the highest bidder following the 2020 campaign.
And if you want further proof that this defense, again, one that is paid more than any in the NFL, still needs more retooling, the Steelers are now 0-7-1 in the last eight games that T.J. Watt has either missed or been compromised due to injury.
If you’re still not convinced that the Steelers are going through a rebuilding phase, look around at the rest of the NFL. Watch teams like the Chiefs and Bills go to work. Heck, watch the highlights of the 49ers, Eagles, Packers and Cowboys.
I’m not even sure if the Steelers are in the same ballpark in terms of overall talent as the Ravens and a Bengals team that they somehow managed to defeat in Week 1.
I realize head coach Mike Tomlin likes to say that the standard is the standard. I also understand that the fans have embraced that motto.
I also know that the Steelers organization simply refuses to accept defeat or that it may be in a rough patch.
But, come on. Tomlin isn’t stupid. Rooney isn’t stupid. General manager Omar Khan isn’t stupid.
These are smart football people. Surely, they know what they have in that locker room at Acrisure Stadium and that it’s not comparable to what the true NFL contenders employ in theirs.
Hopefully, they’re not delusional enough to say to the world, “Hey, NFL, this is us at our best! We’re here to compete for that sticky Lombardi!”
The Steelers are in a rebuild, and they should be because what they’ve been doing the past five years hasn’t worked in terms of earning them a seat at the table of the NFL’s elites.
The faster everyone—including the organization and its fans—accepts that the Steelers are in a rebuild, the sooner they can come out of it looking like a true contender again.