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5 “what if” moments from the 2022 Steelers season

Looking back on what could have been generally brings up the very best and ignores the negative consequences.

NFL: SEP 11 Steelers at Bengals

What if…

I’ve heard it so much since the Steelers 2022 season ended. There has been all kinds of speculation as to what could have been the difference to land the Steelers into the playoffs. Whether it was from the very first week or in the final minutes of Week 18, there’s been plenty of Steelers fans saying how if one little thing changed how everything would work out perfectly.

But does it always work out?

As I discussed with Big Bro Scho on The Scho Bro Show podcast, playing the “what if” game will never yield a winner. Changing the past can never guarantee what would have happened. As much as we like to think we would have known, one little change could make all the difference, or it could set off a string of catastrophes that could end the world as we know it.

Yes, I just referenced “the butterfly effect” from Chaos Theory.

To have a little fun in the offseason, let’s take a look at five different “what if” situation that are common in Steelers’ Nation at this time. Let’s look at how it could best turn out, the worst case scenario, and the more realistic outcome based on the change. Of course, just like any scenario of changing the past, this is complete speculation and can never be proven. But the least we can do is have a little fun.

So it’s time to ask ourselves…

What if…

There was no horse collar penalty called against the Jets

The setup: In order to make the postseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers also needed help from the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. While the Bills stepped up and did their part, the inept Jets and the “never was elite” Joe Flacco could not put more than a measly six points on the scoreboard against the floundering Miami Dolphins who were trying not to lose their sixth-straight game.

On the first play coming out of the two minute warning in a tie game, the Miami Dolphins were faced with a second and nine from their own 44-yard line. Completing a 2-yard pass, the Jets were called for a 15-yard horse collar penalty simply because a player put his hand on the back of the Dolphins’ player’s jersey. The penalty moved Miami into Jets territory where 7 yards on the next three plays gave them an opportunity for a 50-yard field goal with 0:23 remaining in the game. The field-goal was good, the Jets couldn’t pull off a play with the Stanford band where they ultimately gave up a safety, and the Dolphins win 11–6.

The best case: With no penalty, the Dolphins threw an incomplete pass on third down and were forced to punt. The Jets are able to get to the punter and block the kick which rolls down around the round 20-yard line where they take over. The Jets run down the clock before kicking a field goal as time expires and send the Steelers into the postseason. The Steelers become the first ever seventh seed to run the gauntlet and win the Super Bowl, setting up a dynasty that brings home the next 10 Lombardi trophies.

The worst case: The Dolphins failed to get another first down, and the Jets stay with their typical ineptness. The game goes to overtime where neither team can cross midfield. As the Jets miss a 36-yard field goal as time expires to win the game at the end of overtime, George Pickens, believing a tie does not help the Steelers’ playoff chances, slams his helmet into the ground, striking and breaking Najee Harris’ toe. As Harris begins to hop up and down, he inadvertently loses his footing and falls into T.J. Watt’s knee, causing an ACL tear that costs him the entire 2023 season. As Watt goes to the ground, his helmet flies into the air and hits Kenny Pickett in the head, giving him his third concussion of the season. The Steeler still make the playoffs, but with such a depleted roster they lose the game to the Bills 72–0 and sets the franchise back 10 years in their rebuild.

The realistic case: Much like on the third and eighth a few plays earlier, the Dolphins still convert a first down without the aid of the horse collar penalty. They are able to move the ball just into field-goal range as they still kick a 50-yard field goal as time expires and the final score is 9–6 instead. The Steelers finish 9–8 and still miss the playoffs.

One other thing went right in Week 14 against the Ravens

The setup: Hosting the Ravens in Week 14, the Steelers fell in defeat by a score of 16–14. Whether it was Kenny Pickett staying in the game and not being concussed after only eight plays, or anyone of the three interceptions thrown by Mitch Trubisky they were caught in the red zone, the easiest change would come from the Steelers properly blocking Chris Boswell’s field goal to where Calais Campbell couldn’t get through the line and the Steelers get the field goal in the fourth quarter where their touchdown with just over two minutes remaining gives them the lead in the game.

The best case: Any one of those scenarios above come to fruition and the Steelers defeat the Baltimore Ravens in Week 14. Going on to win the next four games, the Steelers finish their season on a six-game winning streak heading into the playoffs. The Steelers become the first-ever seventh seed to run the gauntlet and win the Super Bowl, setting up a dynasty that brings home the next 10 Lombardi trophies.

The worst case: If one of the scenarios come through and the Steelers are victorious against the Ravens at Acrisure Stadium. But after losing five-straight matchups with the Steelers, the Ravens come out with vengeance on their mind in Week 17. Roquan Smith makes an amazing play late in the game and knocks the ball away from Najee Harris in the final moments of the game, earning him an extra $10 million per season it his new contract to where it’s $150 million over five years. On the fourth-down play, Smith, is amped up from the previous pass defense and brakes through the line and sacks Kenny Pickett, breaking his leg to where he could never play football in the same manner. As the Steelers try to defend the Ravens in the closing seconds, a cheap shot comes at T.J. Watt to where he tears his ACL and is lost for the entire 2023 season. The Steelers go on to lose in Week 18 as well and finish the season 8–9. The loss of both Watt and Pickett the next season sets the franchise back 10 years in their rebuild.

The realistic case: The Steelers win in Week 14, the Ravens play revenge at home and pull out the squeaker in Week 17. None of the above injuries happen, allowing the Steelers to still handily defeat the Browns in Week 18. Although not heading into the next season on a four-game win streak, the Steelers finish 9–8 and still miss the playoffs.

The Steelers had one key play go their way against the Pats, Jets, or Dolphins

The setup: There were three games early in the season where any one of a single moment could have turned into a Steelers victory instead of defeat. Whether it be the muffed punt off Gunner Olsewski’s face mask against the Patriots, a pass which was to be thrown away to the sidelines which Pat Freiermuth got his hands on in deflected do a Jets player setting them up for the go-ahead touchdown, or any one of the dropped interceptions against the Miami Dolphins which could have set the Steelers up for a touchdown to take the lead in the second half, any one of these could have given the Steelers one additional victory. For this setup, we’ll go with the Patriots scenario since it was the first one to occur and could affect the other two outcomes as well.

The best case: By not muffing the punt, the Patriots don’t get the touchdown to get to a 17–6 lead. The Steelers fourth quarter touchdown gives them the 13–10 victory and they go into Thursday Night Football at 2–0. The Steelers take down the Browns due to the momentum created from there previous victory and host the Jets the next week. On the first play of the second half, Mitch Trubisky suffers an injury and Kenny Pickett enters in relief. This time, the momentum of the 3–0 start for the Steelers allows the defense to hold the Jets and the Steelers move to 4–0 on the season. Losing close games to the Bills and Eagles, the Steelers otherwise win all of their contests with their amazing rookie quarterback and stout defense to finish 15–2. As the number one seed, the Steelers roll through the playoffs setting up a dynasty that brings home the next 10 Lombardi trophies.

The worst case: On the Steelers first offensive play after receiving the ball from the Patriots punt, Mitch Trubisky throws a pick six and the Steelers ultimately lose the game. After falling the next week in Cleveland, the Steelers turn to Kenny Pickett to start the game in Week 4 only for him to suffer a season-ending injury late in the first quarter. Going back to a defeated Trebisky, he continues to throw multiple interceptions each game of the Steelers start an extensive losing streak. Thinking of the season is over, T.J. Watt decides it’s not worth risking injury to return in 2022. The Steelers go on the lose their final 16 games of the season. Seeing that the team is nothing without him, T.J. Watt attempts to renegotiate his contract and ultimately forces his way out to Pittsburgh via trade when things fall though. The Steelers front office is in shambles, which sets the franchise back 10 years in their rebuild.

The realistic case: After cleanly fielding the Patriots punt, the Steelers offense once again goes three and out only to see the Patriots put together an impressive touchdown drive. The Steelers do score one touchdown late but still ultimately fall 17–13. Everything else plays out as normal and the Steelers finish 9–8 and still miss the playoffs.

T.J. Watt had not got injured in Week 1

The setup: The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt left the game at the end of regulation against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1 with a pec injury. Missing the next seven games, the Steelers went 1–6 without their best defensive player only to go 7–2 after he returned.

The best case: T.J. Watt doesn’t have to leave the field and makes the game-saving play keeping the Bengals from even tying the game and the Steelers winning in regulation. On a roll after such a big win, the Steelers are victorious in the next two weeks due to defensive shutouts. In a scoreless game in Week 4, the Steelers are tired of an inept offense and turn to Kenny Pickett who begins his Steelers career. The Steelers give up no more 17 points in any game and go 17–0 to finish the season. Being the first team in NFL history to go 20–0, the Steelers roll through the playoffs setting up a dynasty that brings home the next 10 Lombardi trophies.

The worst case: After leading the Steelers to a win in Week 1, T.J. Watt suffers a full tear of his pectoral muscle in Week 2 which causes him to have season-ending surgery. Burdened by having to carry the load of the defense after the Steelers bye week, Cam Heyward stays on the field for too many snaps and wears himself out causing him to retire at the end of the 2022 season. Alex Highsmith, leading the Steelers in sacks, sees a constant double team throughout the season and ends up tearing his ACL in Week 18 which causes him to miss the 2023 NFL season. All the Steelers players not under contract for the next year jump ship, leaving the Steelers last-ranked defense of 2022 in shambles and sets the franchise back 10 years in their rebuild.

The realistic case: The Steelers defense continues with their typical sack output and stout defense in the red zone in order to keep point totals even lower. But the Steelers office, taking their defense for granted, continues in the wrong direction and struggles to hit double digits each game. The Steelers finish 9–8 and still miss the playoffs.

Kenny Pickett started Week 1

The setup: There were many who felt the Steelers first-round draft pick should have started the season under center instead of Mitch Trubisky.

The best case: After an overtime victory in Week 1 against the Bengals, Kenny Pickett plays well enough against the Patriots to earn a 20–17 win. Using the momentum, the Steelers manage wins the next two weeks against the Browns and Jets. With all kinds of offensive momentum, the Steelers cruise through their schedule going 17–0. Being the first team in NFL history to go 20–0, the Steelers roll through the playoffs setting up a dynasty that brings home the next 10 Lombardi trophies.

The worst case: The Steelers start out great with their rookie quarterback going 2–0 in the first two weeks. But in Week 3, Kenny Pickett misreads the Browns defense to send help for a stunting Myles Garrett who comes right up the middle and knocks Pickett out for the remainder of the season with a right shoulder injury. Despite the hot start, the Steelers offense can do nothing with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback and finish 2–15. Even with high draft picks, the Steelers stick with Pickett as their quarterback although his shoulder is never the same and never finishes a season with a record greater than 8–9 through his entire rookie contract. The inability to move on from a first-round quarterback investment sets the franchise back 10 years in their rebuild.

The realistic case: The Steelers lose Week 1 to the Bengals because their rookie quarterback does not play a clean game and the difference of one turnover creates the loss. Pickett bounces back and wins games against the Patriots, the Jets, and the Dolphins. With two extra wins before the bye week, everything else plays out as normal through Week 16. But the Steelers rookie quarterback hits the rookie wall after starting so many games and the Steelers fall in defeat to both the Ravens and Browns in January. The Steelers finish 9–8 and still miss the playoffs.

This was a fun little exercise in showing the various extremes of trying to change the past. I must admit, it was almost impossible for me to come up with a realistic scenario of the Steelers going 9–7 and missing the playoffs if T.J. Watt was not injured in Week 1. But other than that, it was just as easy to see how things really wouldn’t have changed at all as much as it was to see how things would have turned out really good or really bad.

Do you have a different scenario in the Steelers’ “what if” game? Feel free to leave it along with the best case, the worst case, and the realistic case in the comments below.

To hear more about how it’s impossible to win the “what if” game, check out the most recent episode of The Scho Bro Show podcast below: