We shape our own destiny with the decisions we make everyday. Some decisions are more impactful than others obviously, but each one matters. Many of these decisions directly affect those around us. The NFL is no exception, and a recent decision by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a prime example.
The Steelers made the huge destiny shaping decision to make T.J. Watt the NFL's highest paid defender just days prior to the start of the 2021 NFL season. Leading up to the eventual decision, which understandably impacted Watt's ability to fully participate in training camp and kept him out of all preseason action, I openly questioned the long term logic behind having the highest paid defender on a team in need of their next franchise quarterback.
There was never any doubt T.J. Watt was worth ever penny of his new deal. He used the motivation of his well-deserved financial windfall to have the best season of his already impressive NFL career. The simple fact of the matter was this: When Watt played a complete game at anywhere near 100%, the Steelers won. When he missed part, or all, of the game, or was admirably gutting it out at far less than full strength, the Steelers lost. He was undoubtedly the Steelers Most Valuable Player (MVP), even making numerous clutch game-changing plays.
The youngest Watt tied the all-time single season sack record with 22.5 total, and went home with the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) hardware. He humbly accepted the long overdue award and immediately acknowledged receiving the recognition only motivated him even more. That's the type of high character individual you want to invest in.
T.J. Watt ended any debate about whether or not he was worthy of the record payday, but the reverberation of that decision will be felt for the foreseeable future, and undoubtedly impact every player on the roster. It potentially could even impact the one thing that Watt wants the most in his NFL career, to win a Super Bowl championship.
The Steelers find themselves without the services of a franchise quarterback for the first time in 18 seasons, which not surprisingly was the beginning of their ongoing non-losing season streak. The Steelers emerged victorious in 9 games in 2021, and the recently retired Ben Roethlisberger engineered seven game-winning drives in those victories. Roethlisberger's ability to deliver in the clutch won't be available in 2022, and the Steelers appear destined to have even more new faces in new places next season.
The Steelers face a daunting situation moving forward. The Steelers currently have the least talented collection of proven offensive talent we’ve seen in two decades, and plenty of question marks and depth issues on the defensive side of the ball too. This looks like a rebuilding situation on paper, but apparently not to the Steelers decision makers and players. They have refused to acknowledge the rebuild, holding fast to the company mantra to reload. Whatever you choose to call it, the Steelers need to do it as soon as possible.
The Steelers currently have two elite level players in T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward. Both gentlemen are trending towards being mentioned amongst the all-time great Steelers at their positions, but the question remains if they will ever have the opportunity to leave a championship legacy in the Black and Gold.
Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Carnell Lake were standouts from the 90s who never got to experience what it's like to be a Super Bowl champion in Pittsburgh, although they at least got to play in the Super Bowl XXX loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Woodson eventually left Pittsburgh, and won a title with the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers have a lot of work to do if they are ever going to be able to give Watt and Heyward the opportunity.
The Steelers have a plethora of needs and a multitude of decisions to make this offseason, beginning with free agency. Which of their own free agents do they want to sign, and which outside free agents do they want to pursue. Those returns and additions will start to rebuild the overall talent and roster depth, and give the Steelers more clarity heading into the draft.
If the Steelers can have a fruitful free agency and an optimal draft class, they could conceivably accelerate the whole rebuilding process and potentially return to contender status as early as 2023. That's definitely a long shot, as all the pieces would have to fall into place perfectly, which they seldom do.
Truth be told, the Steelers will most likely be forced to get out of their comfort zone to acquire the final pieces of the puzzle. It's more than just finding the next franchise quarterback, surrounding him with the requisite talent to be successful, and building a championship caliber defense. The Steelers have to do all of the above within the next few years, while guys like T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward are still in their prime.
That is one area where the Steelers may have to take a page out of the Los Angeles Rams’ playbook. The Rams fully committed to helping their generational talent Aaron Donald finally win a Lombardi. Hopefully the Steelers can do the same for Watt and Heyward.