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Steel Curtain Sound-Off: The Steelers should have an open QB competition in 2024

This week, we’re discussing the Steelers' longer-term quarterback prospects, trading for Justin Herbert, and the Ravens.

George Pickens #14 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after scoring a touchdown with his teammates Mason Rudolph #2 and Allen Robinson II #11 during the third quarter of a game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Acrisure Stadium on December 23, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Welcome to Steel Curtain Sound-Off, where I journey through the irradiated morass of the comments section here at Behind The Steel Curtain dot com, and I return with your takes (...and respond).

“…Rudolph came in with one weeks worth of work, with the same roster and cooked. Frankly it makes Pickett and Trubisky look bad. We all know how lacking the offense has been this year but with competent QB play, it looked damn good!!! In my humble opinion, Rudolph should be the starter the rest of this season and then be given a LEGITIMATE opportunity to win the QB1 job in camp next season. Hell he’s only 3 years older than Pickett but doesn’t have the wear on his body a typical 28 year old does.” - nepasteelerfan

(The ellipsis is to indicate that I cut off the first part of this comment, because it was fairly long.)

I appreciate all the layers and nuance in this comment. I’ll start by saying that I agree with the thesis, which I’m interpreting as a declaration for an open quarterback competition this offseason. I think it’s too early to definitively conclude whether Kenny Pickett is or is not a bust, but I also think that eschewing potentially better options at quarterback simply because Pickett was a first-round draft pick is catastrophically stupid. The Steelers wouldn’t turn down Micah Parsons because they already have Alex Highsmith. Despite what the final standings let on, the margins that separate good teams from bad teams are relatively thin, and so any options that can make a team even incrementally better should be fully explored. And if that includes giving Mason Rudolph a fair shot at winning the starting job in 2024, then so be it. Pickett and Rudolph are both professional athletes; if the idea of forcing them to compete with one another offends Pickett’s sensibilities to such an extent that it stunts his development, well then the Steelers should have a much easier time identifying their starting quarterback.

With all of that said, it’s important to put Rudolph’s performance against the Bengals in the proper context. For starters, Rudolph is not some neophyte to the craft—he’s been in the NFL since 2019 and has nearly a dozen starts under his belt. It is true that he only had a week (less than a week, in fact, since the Steelers played on a Saturday) to prepare for his first start of the 2023 season, but it isn’t like he was pulled off his couch and force-fed Xs and Os until he yielded schematic foie gras. Rudolph has been around the Steelers for going on five seasons and therefore has intimate familiarity with the general vibe. The only material difference between last week and all the weeks that preceded it is that he got the plurality of reps in practice.

Second, while Rudolph did indeed cook, the ingredients he used were highly suspect. The Bengals have one of the worst defenses in the NFL and just a few weeks ago allowed the Steelers to accumulate 400 yards of total offense. Had Rudolph gone out and skewered the Ravens, that would’ve felt like the spiritual equivalent of a chateaubriand au poivre, accompanied by a side of sous vide Yukon mash and enough Caesar salad to fill a kiddie pool, but beating this current iteration of the Bengals is like having a Hibachi chef cook you a Big Mac. It’s still delicious, to be sure, but there is a cap to its culinary exceptionality.

And while we’re splitting hairs, a weird phenomenon that tends to accompany back-up quarterbacks is that they experience something of a dead cat bounce in their first start, either because they or the team is playing with house money and can afford to get a little weird with the playbook, or because the opposing team doesn’t have enough information to draw meaningfully informed conclusions about how said quarterback operates within the context of the current offense. I suspect both things were true for the Steelers, as last Saturday’s game represented a must-win, Rudolph understood that his performance would be more-or-less career-defining, and the Bengals had scarce little film of Rudolph from this season to study.

I don’t intend to come across as entirely dismissive of Rudolph’s performance against the Bengals or too nihilistic about where things stand moving forward. Rudolph had by far the best game any Steelers quarterback has had this season, and the offense operated with a level of dynamic fluidity that’s been largely unseen since Ben Roethlisberger stood behind center. Starting Rudolph against the Seahawks is a no-brainer, and I think that much would be true even if Pickett were 100% healthy.

“Nothing to see here, folks. Florio cites a source “with knowledge of the situation” who says Tomlin has been involved in roster preparation for 2024 and 2025. His source can also speak to the Steelers’s motivations and intentions.

Russini is citing unattributed “chatter”, which could be ball boys, coaches, or even other reporters. No one who has direct knowledge of the Steelers inner workings (which, again, raises the question of why the term “insider” appears here…). That article is also from the 23rd, before Florio broke the news that the Steelers intend to extend Tomlin.” - maffiemd

This comment is in reference to a “report” indicating that the Steelers might be open to trading Mike Tomlin during the offseason. Dianna Russini is an NFL “insider,” which is a term that refers to reporters who have their fingertips on more and better intel than beat reporters and, obviously, bloggers. Insiders are nominally reporters, but the lines between their job descriptions and traditional “journalism” can sometimes get a little blurry. Reporters report facts, or information that they’re led to believe is factual, but some reporters of a certain ilk present information in a way that buries the lede, is heavily slanted or otherwise purposely redacted, or, in Charissa Thompson’s case, completely fabricated.

I think Russini is generally more trustworthy and objective than someone like Thompson or Adam Schefter, a shameless, unethical, sycophantic meat puppet who enthusiastically licks the owners’ boots with impunity and whose sole purpose is to parrot narratives that serve his employer’s (ESPN) and the NFL’s interests, but she is still a power broker of the spicy intel that dominates the NFL news cycle. Her information is valuable currency, and thus it behooves her to obfuscate her sources at every turn to ensure the tap continues to fill the fount.

It is important to consider, too, that the “sources” feeding the “insiders” have their own motivations and agendas. For instance, rival executives may intend to sow discord by alluding to a potential shakeup among the Steelers leadership. Teams with head coaching vacancies could be floating someone like Tomlin as a candidate to superficially alter the demand for someone they actually want (like Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson) and, potentially, drive down asking prices.

Insider “sources” only leak intel that they want the public to know; the truly valuable information must be mined like diamonds. That’s where the journalism comes in (or is supposed to come in). The NFL makes it hard to do actual journalism. Beat reporters can’t get too critical of the teams they cover because they’ll get stripped of their access, and blogs like this can offer critical insights but don’t have team access. A real pickle!

I don’t want to paint with too broad of strokes and imply that journalists somehow have harder and more respectable jobs than reporters, because journalists can absolutely eschew objectivity, discernment, humanity, and the various other pillars that uphold the ethics of journalism in favor of promoting their own self interests. I also don’t want to come across like all sideline and beat reporters are mere shills for the teams they cover. Alas, plumbing these depths is a topic for another blog. Check back next week for another micro-module in media literacy.

I would not put much stock into “chatter” about Mike Tomlin’s future with the Steelers unless it comes with proper attribution.

I’d just go to LAC mgmt & see what it would take to get Herbert out of that horrible situation. Also look to unload Pickens & DJ to get pix back. Then I’d tell Kenny to take a walk, install Mason as backup, and dump Trubs too. Then, draft linemen & WRs.” - StillGrill

I am not sure you guys understand how many assets it would take to land someone like Justin Herbert. We are talking several years’ worth of premium draft picks—I don’t think the Chargers would even answer the phone for anything less than three first-rounders, but I don’t know—maybe two or three mid-round picks for good measure, and multiple starters, likely at least one with high upside.

I talk about the Broncos a lot in this space, so let’s stick to that formula and revisit the Russell Wilson trade. In exchange for a then-33-year-old Wilson, the Broncos traded two first-round picks, two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick, quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant, and defensive lineman Shelby Harris.

Justin Herbert lacks Russell Wilson’s resume and pedigree but given his age (25; same as Kenny Pickett) and contributions to date (a Pro Bowl nod, 95 career passer rating, two 30-touchdown seasons), he is an undeniably attractive franchise quarterback candidate. Assuming the Chargers operate in accordance with real-world trade logic, their demands should fall along the following lines:

  • At least three first-round picks. The fact that the Steelers pick this year (and presumably in the years following Herbert’s acquisition) will likely be mid-to-late-ish in the first round isn’t helping matters.
  • At least two second-round picks.
  • Another two or three picks between rounds three and four.
  • Kenny Pickett plus at least two of the following: George Pickens, Pat Freiermuth, Alex Highsmith, Joey Porter Jr.

If that strikes you as a deeply insane transaction, that’s because it is. It is also why the Steelers will never trade for Justin Herbert; not because they don’t necessarily want to, but because one way or another, it is a franchise-altering gambit.

But let’s assume the Chargers would accept a trade for Herbert that doesn’t include Pickens or Diontae Johnson. Okay, sure. And then let’s assume the Steelers manage to trade both Pickens and Johnson. Again, fine. What picks would the Steelers recoup? The Steelers just traded a disgruntled young receiver for a second-round pick last season, which turned out to be one of the most lopsided transactions in NFL history, so nobody is ever giving them a second-round pick ever again. At best, the Steelers would get a couple of mid-round picks for Pickens (maybe a second, if they’re lucky, but even that is pushing it) and Johnson (very doubtfully a third and realistically a fourth or later).

To recap: the plan is to trade premium draft capital from the next two or three drafts, multiple starters, and both starting receivers for a quarterback and some mid-round draft picks, with no immediate recourse for addressing the horrific offensive line (that pick would go to the Chargers for Herbert) and heading into 2024 with Calvin Austin and Allen Robinson as the main guys at receiver. Yikes!

If the Steelers are hellbent of changing quarterbacks in 2024 (my guess is, uh, they are not, but I’ll digress) then I would genuinely rather they run it back with the exact same team, address the offensive line in free agency and the draft, and pay Kirk Cousins the $30 million or whatever it will require to secure one year of his services. Again, the Steelers absolutely will not do this, but if there is even the remotest possibility that something like this could come to fruition, then this makes infinitely more sense than napalming the roster for Justin Herbert.

“Damn, Baltimore is good, really good.”welchlib

This is the part where I point out that the Steelers—and every other team in the NFL—could have had Lamar Jackson in exchange for two first-round picks. In the Steelers' defense, hindsight is 20/20, and trading for Jackson at the time did not make sense. Pickett had enjoyed something of a resurgence over the latter half of the 2022 regular season, and if his anointment as franchise savior wasn’t yet formalized, at the very least bouquets festooned the ballroom. That’s all looking awfully dubious at present, whereas Jackson is a near-lock to win his second MVP award (I locked Jackson in at +200 odds after Brock Purdy threw his third interception on Monday Night Football; that line has since moved to -210, so hooray). Only 10 quarterbacks in NFL history have won multiple MVP awards, and all are either in the Hall of Fame or first-ballot locks (Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes).

Now, am I saying that winning a second MVP will make Lamar Jackson a Hall of Famer? No, probably not. However, am I saying that it would be extremely hilarious if Jackson ended up making the Hall of Fame after the national media questioned his longevity and applied the “running quarterback” misnomer and the Ravens rendered him expendable and the rest of the NFL said “Nah, we’re all set”? Indeed, that would be beyond hysterical, and I sincerely hope it happens. I hope Jackson carries that chip on his shoulder for the rest of his career and treats his Hall of Fame speech like a celebrity roast.

As the commenter correctly indicated, the Ravens are so, so good. That was true even before they vaporized the 49ers in front of a national audience on Christmas Day. Jackson is playing out of his mind, they can run on anyone, the offensive line is great, and the defense is characteristically robust at all three levels. They are also well coached across the board and are virtually guaranteed at least three points any time they venture into opposing territory thanks to Justin Tucker. A few weeks ago, I wrote that the AFC was anyone’s to win, but I no longer believe that to be the case: not only do I think the Ravens should be heavy favorites to win the AFC, but they should also be the favorite to win the Super Bowl. And I think they will.

Foisting effusive praise on a hated rival harms me to my core, by the way. It is disgusting that the Ravens are so good, and even more so because other teams seem to simply allow it. The Bears traded the Ravens Roquan Smith in exchange for a second-round draft pick; 20 other teams sat idly by and allowed the best receiver in the 2023 Draft to fall into the Ravens’ laps; Kyle Hamilton was a consensus top-five draft prospect, and the Ravens nabbed him at 14. And, of course, it bears repeating that the Ravens were perfectly content allowing Lamar Jackson to sign with another team, and no team took them up on the offer—not even the Falcons.

I genuinely believe the Ravens have one of the NFL’s best front offices, but they have also reaped massive benefits from where others have sowed. It’s like they actually read all these blogs where people outline the best-case scenarios and act accordingly. Some underling in management is like “Boss, BirdsFan69 thinks we should sign Jadeveon Clowney, what do you think?” and then four months later Clowney is wearing number 24 (which looks insane on a defensive lineman), wreaking untold havoc against one of the league’s most formidable offensive lines, and almost singlehandedly causing the national media to talk about Purdy the same way this blog talks about Kenny Pickett. Any team could have signed Clowney, a three-time Pro Bowler who is still only 30, and yet the only one who wanted him is somehow the one who routinely converts retreads to their prime form. Disgusting! Next week the Chargers will waive Khalil Mack and the Ravens will be the only team who submits a claim. This offseason they’ll get Sauce Gardner from the Jets for a conditional seventh-rounder. I hate how good the Ravens are, and I hate that this comment reminded me of it.

Not giving anyone on defense a junior varsity. Playing with 4th and 5th string ILB and Safety gives them a pass. If they keep the points off the board they win.” - kdsteel

If Steelers fans didn’t find stuff to complain about, then they wouldn’t be Steelers fans. I compared Mason Rudolph to a Hibachi chef working at McDonald’s earlier so I can’t cast any stones here. I do think admonishing the defense for allowing 300+ passing yards to the Bengals is kind of nuts considering a) the Bengals had to resort to throwing for nearly the entire game, so a pass-heavy script is going to necessarily precipitate more pass yardage, b) the Steelers forced three interceptions, and c) they had Eric Rowe (who, unlike Rudolph, was sitting on his couch a few weeks ago) manning the secondary. They also only allowed 11 points, and they won, so yeah, splitting hairs over a makeshift secondary giving up too many garbage times yards is peak Steelers fan behavior.

Nah. Rooting for help? Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Me personally I’m not looking for morale victories. Having everything break just right so you can snag the last seed only to get sent to the woodshed isn’t what I care to see. I’d rather miss out on the playoffs then get humiliated again. Whatever happens happens.” – Steel71

I agree. Just yesterday I called my mortgage company and told them to raise my monthly payment and my interest rate. “It’ll just make me grind harder,” I told the befuddled operator. Locking in a fixed interest rate pre-Covid was a coward’s decision, but I’ve learned to embrace the hustle and let my haters be my motivators.

Jokes aside, I want the Steelers to make the playoffs. The reasons for this are manifold:

  • They are beyond tanking for a better draft pick, and I really don’t see any material difference between the 13th pick and, like, the 20th pick.
  • Despite all of the nice things I said about the Ravens, the Steelers did beat them earlier this season, and they’ve somehow achieved incredible success against Jackson throughout his career. If they’re the team to beat in the AFC, and the Steelers can beat them, why not try to sneak into the playoffs and just see what happens?
  • I am still a fan of the team and being a fan of a mediocre 9-8 team that makes the playoffs is a lot more fun than being a fan of a mediocre 9-8 team that misses the playoffs.

We are three years removed from a Steelers team that started the season 11-0 before dropping four of their final five games, missing out on a first-round bye and then losing a home playoff game—by a lot—to the Cleveland Browns. There is a high bar for postseason embarrassment, so the idea of losing 30-14 to the Dolphins or whoever doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It is better to make the playoffs than to not make the playoffs. This is not a hot take.