The Steelers spent most of the 2010s trying to recapture the magic of their second Super Bowl era that started in 2004, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season, and pretty much ended the night Tim Tebow beat them in a wildcard playoff game following the 2011 campaign.
Despite some real salary-cap hell, the departure of many Super Bowl heroes, and a major roster turnover, Pittsburgh surprisingly managed to build itself back into a decent contender again by the end of the 2014 season.
It helped to have Roethlisberger and his prime years still on the horizon. It also didn’t hurt that Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell became arguably the best receiver/running back duo (if there is such a thing) in the NFL. Both were, at times, the best players at their respective positions (Brown would actually go on a historic run of greatness). Throw in an offensive line that went from a real weakness to one of the stronger units in the NFL, and the offense would be the engine that powered Pittsburgh in the mid-to-late 2010s.
Unfortunately, despite some pretty exciting years, the Steelers, under the leadership of the Killer B’s-led offense, never got back to a Super Bowl.
In my opinion, the Killer B era officially jumped the shark late in the 2018 campaign when Pittsburgh blew a 2.5-game lead in the AFC North and missed the playoffs with a 9-6-1 record.
Things would never be the same after that.
Bell, who held out all of 2018, and Brown, who forced himself to be traded, were both gone by 2019. Roethlisberger suffered a serious elbow injury in Week 2 of that year and would miss the remainder of the season.
If the rebuilding of your Pittsburgh Steelers wasn’t underway prior to Roethlisberger’s injury, it certainly began during it.
Yes, the Steelers, with the help of a shocking early-season trade that saw them acquire safety Minkah Fitzpatrick for a first-round pick, remained in the playoff race until the final week thanks to a stout defense, but your eyes told you who that 2019 team was: One in transition.
Your eyes told you the same thing in 2020, even with a returning Roethlisberger, who somehow led the Steelers to an 11-0 start.
And there was no question Pittsburgh was in rebuild mode in 2021, maybe not fully—Roethlisberger was still around and surprisingly got the team into the playoffs—but damn near.
Last year was the Steelers' first campaign without Roethlisberger as the face of the franchise in nearly two decades. Maybe that’s why it felt like the rebuilding had just begun.
Kenny Pickett, the rookie quarterback, struggled. The offensive line struggled. The offense was an even bigger joke than it had been the previous three seasons. Even the defense was just sort of okay without T.J. Watt for a significant portion of the 2022 campaign.
Maybe this is why the sentiment among so many—mainly, the national and local media experts—is that the Steelers are still two or three years away from truly being able to compete.
Two or three years? Rebuilds aren’t supposed to take over half a decade to be completed in the National Football League.
Pickett will be closing in on 30 in three years. Same with Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth.
Watt will be 31. Cam Heyward, Mr. Steeler, will probably be retired by then. Fitzpatrick will be 29.
The Steelers have been rebuilding and revamping their offensive line since the 2021 offseason. You mean to tell me they have a few more springs and summers to go before it’s finally done?
I’m not some overly-optimistic, pie-in-the-sky Steelers supporter who is proclaiming that the team is ready to win a Super Bowl now. I’m just saying there is no way it should take another three years to be a contender.
Yes, the AFC is loaded with quality quarterbacks, but that still doesn’t have much to do with the Steelers and their rebuild.
Obviously, Pickett would be the second-best quarterback when facing a team with an elite passer in 2023. However, if Pickett really does have the talent to be a franchise quarterback, NFL history tells me it won’t take him until 2026 to realize that potential.
I will say this in conclusion:
Roads and highways often take close to a decade to rebuild—Route 28, anyone?—but not NFL teams.
I might be in agreement with the experts, if not for the fact that Pittsburgh, who started 2-6 in 2022, finished with a 9-8 record.
Young teams that are on the rise often finish strong after challenging starts. Young teams who finish strong usually carry that momentum over to the following year.
A young team that finishes strong is often one that is pretty much done with its rebuild.
A young team that finishes strong is often one that is just about ready to compete with the big boys.
If it does take the Steelers another three years to be in position to win playoff games against the likes of Kansas City, Buffalo and Cincinnati, Mike Tomlin really should be fired.
But I don’t believe it’s going to take another three years for that to be a reality.
The NFL just isn’t built for seven-year rebuilds.