The title of this article suggests the Steelers upcoming season will be their most fascinating in years. The key term there is “fascinating,” and it’s one I did not arrive at lightly. I went back and forth on which adjective to apply for a good ten minutes before making a decision. I used, at various times, words like “compelling,” “exciting,” and “interesting,” even Googling synonyms that properly conveyed my intention.
Why fascinating, then? While those other adjectives also apply — I am indeed compelled, excited and interested in the prospects of the 2022 Steelers — fascinating seemed most appropriate because of its insinuation that the subject is somehow unique or unusual.
Years ago, for example, I met former NBA player Shawn Bradley at a restaurant. Bradley is 7’6, which, as tall as that may seem on paper, is astonishing in person. I meant no disrespect to Mr. Bradley, nor did I mean to make him feel like some sort of carnival attraction by staring at him the way I did. It was fascinating, however, to behold an individual of that size up close. You just don’t encounter people that large on the day-to-day. When you do, it holds your attention. I thought about him for days afterwards, wondering how he navigated seemingly simple tasks, like driving a car or buying clothes, realizing that for Shawn Bradley, few things were simple.
This Steelers team has certainly held my attention. They are not unusual in the same way as meeting someone who is 7’6. But they are different, more so than any Steelers team in recent memory. The obvious difference is they are replacing their quarterback for the first time in 18 years. In the time that Ben Roethlisberger was Pittsburgh’s starter, I got divorced, was re-married, celebrated the birth of two children, bought four different houses, became an offensive coordinator and then a head coach. Each of those are life changing events, and they all occurred during Big Ben’s tenure with the Steelers. I’m certain I am not alone in this regard. Many people reading this saw their lives ebb and flow while #7 took snaps. He was a constant in an inconstant world.
Roethlisberger’s departure steeped Pittsburgh’s off-season in intrigue. Intrigue, at its best, is a tantalizing prelude to fascination. It suggests the prospect of something worthy of our attention. The Steelers have given us that these past few months, and more. The baseline was the fact we knew they would seek a replacement for Roethlisberger. But who? That speculation was great fun, and though no answer was available in the early days of the debate, it carried Steelers’ fans through much of the cold winter.
In late February, however, a story of a different nature captured headlines. The team announced it had signed former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores as a defensive assistant. It was a bold and brilliant move by the organization. They brought in one of the best defensive minds in the game at a time when many thought the lawsuit Flores had filed against the NFL would make him a coaching pariah. It was another example of how the Steelers have often operated according to their own code of values rather than caving to the group-think that often dominates professional sports at the administrative level.
The Flores signing created its own flurry of speculation on how the defense would change and the impact he would make. It was only February, yet there was already so much to anticipate.
In March, the organization provided a potential answer to the quarterback question when it snapped up Mitchell Trubisky on the first day of free agency. Few saw Trubisky as the long-term solution, which created additional speculation. Would Trubisky be the starter? If so, how would Matt Canada structure the offense with him? What about Mason Rudolph? Would Trubisky and Rudolph compete? Was their room for Dwayne Haskins in that equation? Would the team still pursue a quarterback in the upcoming draft? The situation seemed far from settled.
The Trubisky signing kicked off a free agency period like none other in Pittsburgh. With Roethlisberger’s contract off the books, the Steelers enjoyed the rare luxury of having money to spend. General manager Kevin Colbert, in the final months of his long tenure, closed with a bang. After Trubisky, the Steelers signed James Daniels, Myles Jack, Mason Cole, Gunner Olszewsky, Genard Avery, Levi Wallace, Damonte Kazee and Miles Boykin. They re-signed Chuks Okorafor, Ahkello Witherspoon, Miles Killebrew, Terrell Edmunds and Montravious Adams. It was a free agency feast for an organization that, in most years, typically picked at leftovers.
At BTSC, I could barely keep up with the news. Each signing sent Geoffrey Benedict and I scrambling to the film room. There was little time to focus on the draft. It was frantic yet exhilarating. The Steelers were not taking Roethlisberger’s retirement laying down. They intended to compete, and were going to use their resources to do so. The standard was the standard.
Then, in the midst of the free agency flurry, and just weeks from the draft, the shocking news came that Haskins had been struck by a vehicle and killed while trying to cross a highway in Florida. It was a sobering moment that made the debates over how the new free agents would fare or whose mock draft was most brilliant seem meaningless. Haskins was just 24 years old, with a long life in front of him. It was only natural in the wake of the tragedy to hug our kids a little longer, to appreciate a sunset often overlooked, or to simply take stock of our lives and vow to do better.
Inevitably, life moved on, the draft came, the Steelers selected Kenny Pickett with their top pick and the frenzy resumed. What did this mean? Was Trubisky merely a place-holder? Would Pickett win the starting job outright? Was Rudolph trade bait? Some argued the Steelers should not have taken a quarterback. Others said they took the wrong one. These were conversations many fan bases had on a semi-regular basis. In Pittsburgh, it was the first such debate of the BTSC era.
And yet, with everything that had happened, the intrigue was still building. Colbert stepped down after the draft, and the Steelers had another rare and coveted opening to fill. They hadn’t hired a general manager since 2000, when the position was titled Director of Football Operations. They granted Colbert general manager status in 2010, so technically, Colbert’s replacement would be the first such hire in franchise history. Whomever got the job had the tricky task of replacing a future Hall of Fame candidate who had steered the Steelers through two decades of sustained success. Filling Colbert’s shoes would be as daunting as filling Roethlisberger’s.
When Omar Khan was announced as Colbert’s replacement, reactions were mixed. Yet Khan came out swinging. In his first few weeks on the job, he signed Minkah Fitzpatrick to a contract extension that made him the highest paid safety in NFL history, then grabbed free agent defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to fill the void left by Stephon Tuitt’s retirement (that happened, too — par for the course in an off-season where the unexpected was the norm).
If intrigue describes my mindset heading into the off-season, fascination describes its product. What the Steelers have done since Roethlisberger announced his retirement has been franchise-altering. New quarterbacks. New coaches. New executives. Each year brings change, but these changes, in a place that values stability the way Pittsburgh does, are seismic.
I have no idea what it will produce once real football resumes. My suspicion is the Steelers have done some good things the past five months. I believe Trubisky will be the starting quarterback. I like him more than most, and I think he will play well in Canada’s offense (which I also like more than most). Trubisky will benefit from an upgraded offensive line, their biggest weakness in 2021. They won’t be a Top 5 unit in the league, or even Top 10. But they won’t stink, either, which is significant.
Elsewhere, I think Flores will pay dividends in both game-planning and in the subtle, unseen work that takes place on practice fields and in film rooms. The draft class is promising, especially at the receiver position, which needed dynamic players. The free agent signings have some hidden gems, in particular Kazee, who I believe will play a larger role this season than many anticipate. And Khan, while the sample size is small, has made a good first impression in his initial month on the job. There is far more to like than to dislike.
This off-season, for the first time in a generation, the Steelers were forced to reassemble from their core. They did so aggressively, in ways that were bold and sometimes surprising. There were arrivals and departures along the way, including a terrible tragedy. The 2022 squad will be very different from the one that walked off the field after the playoff loss in Kansas City in January. Will they be better? That’s anyone’s guess. But no matter what, it will be fascinating to watch.