Joe Burrow is going to the Super Bowl in his second season. Patrick Mahomes just lost to Joe Burrow in his 4th straight AFC Championship Game appearance to start his career. But those are just the two that made it the farthest in the playoffs this year, the AFC also has Josh Allen who lost to the Chiefs in a shootout after demolishing the New England Patriots and their rookie QB Mac Jones. And then there is Justin Herbert, who only missed the playoffs because of a poorly used time out and an improbable run by the Steelers to put Ben Roethlisberger in the playoffs in his final season.
Imagine if the Steelers hadn’t pulled off that run and Justin Herbert’s Chargers made the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. You would have had Herbert vs. Mahomes, Allen vs. Jones and Burrow vs. Derek Carr in the AFC Wild Card games. It also stands out that the 30+ quarterbacks that made the playoffs, Carr, Roethlisberger and Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill combined for 0 wins in the AFC playoffs, while the oldest QB to win an AFC playoff game was 26 years old.
The future of the AFC seems to be firmly in the hands of young QBs, and there is no way the Steelers can compete without adding an elite quarterback of their own.
That argument is frequently used alongside a push for the Steelers to sign or trade for a top tier veteran, because Mason Rudolph can’t be in the same tier as the names above, and I agree, Rudolph isn’t in the same tier, or even ballpark, as Burrow, Mahomes, Allen, Herbert or even Jones. You can add Lamar Jackson into the mix of QBs that are far above Rudolph on any tier list.
But on the other hand, this season can easily be seen as a warning against putting too much stock into a veteran QB to carry a team on a playoff run. Aaron Rodgers was the quarterback most likely to carry a team on a deep playoff run for years, but he hasn’t been that guy recently. He’s still great, but he’s going to need a good team around him. Kind of like the LA Rams. They have a great defense, some top tier weapons on offense, and added Matthew Stafford to the team to get back in the Super Bowl. Mac Jones was in a similar spot. The Patriots took a bad year, added some talent alongside Mac Jones, and Jones didn’t have to be Joe Burrow to make it to the playoffs. Patrick Mahomes joined a team that already had a juggernaut offense, and while he’s made the AFC Championship Game four straight years, that has only ended with one Super Bowl win. Having two of the top weapons in the NFL and one of the elite tier QBs isn’t even a guarantee for winning it all.
It also needs to be pointed out the Steelers faced every single AFC playoff quarterback in the regular season, and several top tier quarterbacks from the NFC as well. They faced Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, as well as Ryan Tannehill and Derek Carr who made the playoffs in the AFC. And when you count the playoff game, they played Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes twice each.
The Steelers beat Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills, Russel Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks, although Geno Smith was at quarterback, Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens and Tannehill’s Tennessee Titans. They lost to Herbert’s Los Angeles Chargers by 4 when the defense was missing T.J. Watt, Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick. When Taco Charlton, James Pierre and Tre Norwood are starting in place of three of your best defenders, wins aren’t exactly likely.
Against the rest of the AFC Playoffs field, the Steelers went 2-4 in the regular season. Playing 6 games against playoff teams is not an easy schedule, and 3 of their 4 losses were to the Chiefs and Bengals, the two teams who played in the AFC Championship game. Those 3, plus the playoff game, were 4 of the 5 games the Steelers lost by 10+ points, the other game they lost by 10+ was to Aaron Rodgers’ Packers.
I also think it is important to revisit T.J. Watt’s season and the ridiculous split in the Steelers record when he was healthy and when he wasn’t in 2021. When Watt played 60% of the snaps, in other words when he was healthy enough to play the whole game, the Steelers were 9-2 in the regular season. The losses to Green Bay and Cincinnati came when he was coming back from injury and not 100%. When Watt didn’t play 60% of snaps the Steelers were 0-5-1, with their other loss to the Bengals and their regular season loss to the Chiefs in that category.
When T.J. Watt was healthy facing the Chiefs in the Wild Card game the Steelers defense held the Chiefs to 5 straight scoreless drives to start the game, and scored a touchdown of their own. In other words, they straight up beat one of the top offenses in the NFL with no help from the offense.
If the Steelers could have gotten some offensive production, some decent drives, maybe a TD and a FG, and gotten the defense into the half with only 6 drives in the first half, the Steelers could have been looking at a 17-7 lead going into the second half. If they could have weathered the Chiefs’ third quarter push, they would have started the 4th quarter likely trailing the Chiefs by only a few points, heading into the quarter where the team was at its very best.
That’s a lot of speculation, but it shows the hope a lot of Steeler fans have, and the reason a lot of people are pushing for the Steelers to go after a top quarterback right now. It is easy to hope the defensive line comes back and plays healthy, the offensive line improves with rookies entering their second year and at that point, a great QB might be enough to put the Steelers into that level of play. Making them a legit contender for the next few years.
If you look at the Steelers, and say the line is 2 players away from good enough, not super great, but good enough, and the defense only needs one or two pieces added to be great, then it makes sense. I think this thought process is common among people who looked at the Steelers offense and saw Ben Roethlisberger’s physical ability deteriorating as the biggest problem. Ben Roethlisberger was a great leader in his final season, and his intelligence and experience made him an excellent game manager, but the team needed him to be more, they needed someone to make big plays from the quarterback spot, and while he could throw off the shackles of time periodically and bring back some of the old Ben Roethlisberger magic, it wasn’t very often, and it wasn’t something the team could rely on.
If you look at the above paragraph and largely agree with it, then going all-in for a top tier quarterback makes sense. Spend some of that free agent money and some of the draft capital on fixing the line, add a smart piece or two to the defense, then throw the rest of the team’s resources into adding a top tier quarterback.
On the other hand, excusing two losses to the Chiefs and two losses to the Bengals by an average of 23 points by saying T.J. Watt wasn’t fully healthy for three of those games isn’t the most convincing argument that the Steelers are close to competing on that level. It isn’t like the Steelers went 1-3 against the top two teams in the AFC, or that they were close in most of the games. They were thoroughly beaten in each of those games, and weren’t close to competing in the second half of any of them.
If you look at the Steelers’ offense and think there are serious issues with the offensive line that require major investment to fix, and aren’t comfortable hoping the defense is just healthier this coming season, then you likely aren’t interested in investing major resources into a quarterback.
I lean toward the latter case. As sad as it makes me to think of Cameron Heyward retiring without making it to a Super Bowl, I don’t see the Steelers as being just a piece or two away from contending. I want to set up the next Steelers quarterback for success, and that means substantial investments in both the offensive and defensive lines before they make the move for their next quarterback of the future.
What side of the fence do you land on?
What should the Steelers do about the quarterback position?
This poll is closed
Go all in right now, they aren’t far off.
Invest in the team, go cheap on quarterback for 2022.
I don’t care about the long-term, I just don’t want Rudolph/Haskins in 2022.
Doesn’t matter to me, I’m a Bengals fan now.