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For Steelers fans, bad gets worse because the ‘Standard Remains the Standard’

Organizational consistency cannot circumvent an unwillingness to adapt.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin walks the endzone before the football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on October 1, 2023, in Houston, Texas. Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Imagine this: it’s a Thursday evening in late April and you’re planted on the couch, double-fisting slices of pizza, and watching the NFL Draft. The season prior, your team was a national disgrace, but because they rallied just enough to win a meaningless game on the final Sunday of the regular season (to the chagrin of management and fans such as yourself), they hold the second overall pick.

Your team needs a quarterback, and the projections you’ve been pouring over since January seem to confirm this, but you’ve seen, like, four different guys attached to your team in various mock drafts and draft missives, none of whom resemble a blue-chip prospect; experts can’t even establish any sort of consensus about which is the Best Guy Available.

In any event, you’ll be drafting a quarterback who the team that picked first didn’t want. On Twitter, a local beat reporter flexes their clout by tipping your team’s pick and 30 seconds later Roger Goodell lurches toward the podium to make the declaration formal to the remainder of the viewing audience through a chorus of deserved boos. Photos are taken, perfunctory high-fives are exchanged, and what yesterday was a mere prospect is reborn anew — a franchise quarterback. You’re excited and hopeful but then trepidation sets in because you’ve seen this movie before, and the ending is just the same as the start.

Those fears are quickly dispelled. Your team starts the following season 0-2 but the rookie quarterback shows signs of promise. Then, in Week 3, your team crushes its division rival and in Week 4 suplexes a supposed top-flight defense through a folding table. You’re sitting at 2-2 in the league’s most consistently winnable division and what months ago looked like a multiyear rebuild all of a sudden looks like a wide-open window.

Texans fans don’t have to imagine this, because they drafted C.J. Stroud, who looks every bit the franchise quarterback they’d hoped he’d be. Through four games, Stroud is fourth in the league in passing yards, fifth in touchdown passes, and sports a 100+ QB rating. He is one of three starting quarterbacks yet to throw an interception this season (the others are Brock Purdy and, I absolutely kid you not, Joshua Dobbs) as well as the heavy favorite to win NFL Rookie of the Year, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to place him among a shortlist of a dozen or MVP candidates. He is very good, is what I’m saying.

Stroud’s touchdown pass to Nico Collins on the Texans’ first drive against the Steelers proved to be the game-winner, but it was his second touchdown to Collins to cap off an 11-play drive that served as the dirt atop the Steelers coffin and justifies the excitement the Texans should feel about their longer-term prospects. On 3rd and 6 with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Stroud handled a shotgun snap, surveyed his options, took a confident step forward into a collapsing picket, and lofted a perfectly weighted pass to Collins, who didn’t even have to break stride on his way into the end-zone. This description does not do justice to the mechanical poetry of the act:

Now imagine this: your favorite team, much like the Texans, held a 23-7 lead late in a game and had not one, but two chances to deliver a kill shot like the one Stroud delivered above. Instead, they parked the bus, played ultra-conservatively in the fourth quarter, and in the process allowed the opponent to transmogrify the ethereal realm back into the plane of existence and come one retroactively poor coaching decision from playing in overtime. The next week, your team gets its teeth kicked in by the aforementioned rookie and some 5-foot-8 guy named “Tank”. Your team’s own young quarterback continues to play poorly and his appointment as franchise savior is starting to look awfully dubious. Your team is now 2-2 and what looked like an open window is starting to look like a multiyear rebuild. Steelers fans don’t have to imagine this, either.

Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett, much like Stroud, was drafted to function as organizational bedrock. Unlike Stroud, though, Pickett isn’t particularly good at playing quarterback. I remain just as unsure about Pickett’s status as a franchise quarterback today as I was the day he was drafted, and I’m guessing the Steelers themselves are starting to think likewise.

The caveat about all the glowing praise lauded on Stroud is that his sample size is relatively insignificant in the grander scheme of things. Okay, sure, let’s entertain that. How about Pickett’s sample size then? Sunday’s loss in Houston was the 17th game of Pickett’s career, which is essentially a full season. The numbers are not great: 322 completions on 516 attempts for 3,207 yards, 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. 76.6 quarterback rating. Extremely grim stuff. The kind of output that an enterprising organization might identify as deeply problematic and therefore demanding immediate rectification.

Pickett is, of course, only partly complicit in his struggles; his offensive line stakes a legitimate claim as the most contemptible unit anywhere in the NFL, and autonomy is not something typically afforded to young quarterbacks, so they are often products of their coaches’ design. And the framework in which Pickett is being asked to ply his trade is not one that could be reasonably considered well-designed.

The most egregious example of Pittsburgh’s offensive ineptitude came with less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter in their loss to the Texans. Trailing 16-6 and desperately needing points, the Steelers faced a 4th and very short from the Texans 33-yard-line. A field goal would’ve been fine, but the context probably demanded they go for it. And so, they did.

Across the state, the Philadelphia Eagles orchestrate the single most unstoppable play in football: the “tush push,” whereby 10 offensive players form a phalanx around QB Jalen Hurts and generate enough forward leverage to consistently gain positive yardage. Granted, Jalen Hurts is built like a refrigerator and the Eagles' interior offensive line makes Sisyphus look like Kendrick Green, which is partly why their version of this play is so routinely successful, but the framework of the design makes sense for any team: In high-stakes, short-yardage situations, it is smart to run a play that takes you the least amount backward so you can get a head start in moving forward. The quarterback’s hands should be touching the center’s perineum.

So, when the Steelers lined up in a high-stakes, short-yardage situation with Pickett standing five yards behind the center, it was a clear rebuke of convention and established best practices. Pickett took the snap (no play action was signaled, so the Texans read pass the entire way), rolled back 5 yards into the pocket (now needing to throw a pass traveling a minimum of 11 yards in the air to gain the one yard needed for a first down), glanced to his right and saw Will Anderson hit a spin move, which caused Pickett to panic and hit a spin move of his own in the opposite direction (rather than stepping forward into the pocket) and in doing so miss a wide-open Najee Harris leaking out of the backfield.

By the time Pickett’s vision aimed back downfield, his glance was greeted not by acres of green space or an open receiver, but rather the snarling countenance of Jonathan Greenard, who microseconds earlier passed through Broderick Jones like seed through a goose. Pickett fell with the grace of a toddler and had his knee pretzeled in the process, and as of this writing, it isn’t clear how much time Pickett will miss. Turnover on downs, essentially signaling game over.

Postgame, an incensed Mike Tomlin indicated that Sunday’s lowly showing would portend some immediate changes. Tuesday’s press conference will probably yield some more illuminative insights on that front, but short of firing Matt Canada, there aren’t many viable options for expediting any sort of turnaround.

And even if they do fire Canada, what then? It wasn’t entirely doomed schematics that had Pickett running scared in the pocket, and it isn’t as if Canada is the only thing holding the Steelers back from being an elite offense. The personnel largely sucks, the coaching staff maintains a steadfast refusal to innovate (and for someone who ostensibly does not live in their fears, Mike Tomlin’s pusillanimous decisions to punt on 4th and 1 from midfield down 13-0 and on 4th and 2 from his own 36 down 23-7 sure do run directly counter to that mantra).

The organization itself is so far up its own butt with its promoting from within, its Mister Rooney, and its building through the draft (check the Steelers’ recent draft history and let me know how that’s going), and its Steelers Way that it can’t even smell the rot emanating from beneath the floorboards. That’s admittedly a pretty bleak way of going about looking at things, and any broadcast will be quick to remind you that the Steelers have not had a losing record since 2006, but they also haven’t won a playoff game since 2016, and their last Super Bowl appearance is closer to the release of Stankonia than it is to present day.

That all said, the Steelers are 2-2 and still have more than three quarters of the season left to play. There’s plenty of time to rally to nine wins, remain in postseason contention until the final weekend of the regular season, overpay flotsam like Isaac Seumalo and Mason Cole in the offseason, and continue to promote from within.