Considering the struggles of their favorite team in 2022, Pittsburgh Steelers fans are looking for the answers to all the questions and issues that are currently holding the team back from the success they’ve grown so accustomed to. It’s understandable. Since the Immaculate Reception in 1972 gave the Steelers their first ever playoff win, the organization has been unmatched as a perennial contender with 32 playoff appearances in 49 years and 6 Super Bowl titles.
But in recent years, frustrations are mounting, specifically with the Steelers’ relative unwillingness to part with what some consider an archaic form of team-building. For decades, the organization has relied heavily on drafting and developing home-grown, championship-level rosters and very little on the trade and free agent markets to flesh out a contender.
Other NFL clubs have been more open to the concept of “buying” a Super Bowl squad from other teams’ home-grown talents and players who hit free agency in their prime. It’s an exciting, click-bait style of team building, but even more so than that, it has worked.
Fans point to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Rams, who took decent rosters and added outside pieces to push themselves from competitive to contending in one offseason. The Bucs added the GOAT, Tom Brady, to a loaded offensive group that appeared to be a quarterback away from elite status. It worked. Tampa Bay hoisted a Lombardi in their home stadium in year one of that experiment.
The Rams haven’t had a first-round draft pick in 5 years, trading multiple one’s for players like Jalen Ramsey and Matthew Stafford to elevate an already solid roster. Again, it worked! The Rams are the defending Super Bowl champions in the same year they paid the big price for Stafford.
Go back to 2012 and you’ll find another similar story in the Denver Broncos, who acquired future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and proceeded to appear in two Super Bowls in four years, winning one. So yeah, there have been some nice success stories with this more modern approach to roster management.
But 2022 is telling us a little bit of a different story about this method, weaving a cautionary tale for those over-zealous fans pining for a similar tactic for their teams.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that not all scenarios are equal in this equation. However, there are lessons we can learn from other teams’ experiments. Let’s start with the 2022 Denver Broncos, who sold the farm for another high-profile quarterback, this time former Seattle Seahawks’ star Russell Wilson. The reasoning was Tampa Bay-level sound, with the team boasting an elite defense and a bevy of offensive weapons and an elite quarterback away from a championship. Two first-round picks and a $200+ million contract later, the Broncos are wallowing in offensive futility and an equally poor record at 3-7. Wilson has been an abject disaster in Denver, and there doesn’t seem to be a turnaround coming. Poor coaching plays into this story, but the Broncos will be reeling from this franchise-altering decision for years barring a drastic change in performance happening fast.
The 2021 NFL Champions are doing some reeling of their own. As Mordo in Marvel’s Doctor Strange so ominously states,
“The bill comes due.”
It has for the L.A. Rams, who are floundering in historic fashion despite returning essentially the same roster as the one that brought home a trophy just last year. The issue? The Rams forfeited their ability to reload and build depth through the draft, which left the door open for injuries and performance regression to absolutely decimate the group in 2022.
Even the Cleveland Browns, despite a unique situation, are risking a lot giving up a king’s ransom for a quarterback who hasn’t played in almost two years. For a roster with as many issues on defense and at wide receiver as they have, the Browns will struggle to fill those holes without the draft capital and cap space they relinquished in the blockbuster deal for Deshaun Watson, no matter how good he turns out to be.
I haven’t even mentioned the Las Vegas Raiders spending a first- and second-round pick to acquire Davante Adams from the Packers. As a result, the disappointing Raiders had no early selections in 2022 to round out their porous roster.
Many Steelers fans were calling for the team to pursue an elite veteran quarterback this last offseason. Wilson, Watson, and even Aaron Rodgers were in the conversation. Based on how each of those players are faring so far in 2022, can we really say the Steelers would be better off with one of them as their starter instead of the rookie Kenny Pickett? Consider beyond that the draft capital it would have required to acquire one of them. It would have been a serious miscalculation by a Pittsburgh team with real needs at offensive tackle, cornerback, guard, and even linebacker. Rarely is a team truly “one player away.”
The moral to this story is this: Maybe the patient approach that has hallmarked the Steelers franchise over the years is still the best method of team building.
Recently, Mike Tomlin has emphasized the phrase, “...prudent use of mobility” regarding his quarterbacks. When it comes to building a championship roster, the “prudent use” of free agency and the trade block to supplement the team’s historical draft-and-develop philosophy would seem to be the most, well, prudent approach.
I for one still believe in the Steelers “old-school” style. The organization has established a solid foundation of young talent to build on for the future without mortgaging it. Beyond franchise cornerstones like T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Cam Heyward playing at the peak of their talents, look at this list of promising young contributors all acquired through the draft:
QB Kenny Pickett
RB Najee Harris
WR George Pickens
TE Pat Freiermuth
IDL DeMarvin Leal
OLB Alex Highsmith
That group gives Pittsburgh a legit high ceiling if developed properly. Elite results may not be immediate, but there’s a pathway in place to get there. And once you’ve arrived, it’s definitively more sustainable than the quick-fix philosophy that is so popular today.
“The bill comes due.”
Keep that in mind the next time you’re begging for the Steelers to jump on the shiniest new toy that comes available, no matter the cost.