A phrase that’s becoming more and more popular among Steelers fans in recent years goes something like this: “The Steelers need to draft Roethlisberger’s successor and start grooming him for the future.”
The funny thing is, this is mentioned like it’s just that easy, like going to buy a new pair of shoes.
If only it were that simple.
Unfortunately, it’s never been that simple in the NFL, and it’s certainly never been that common.
For starters, if you’re a team with a franchise quarterback the caliber of a Roethlisberger, chances are, you’re going to be a Super Bowl contender. Therefore, you’re certainly not going to spend a first or second round pick on a quarterback (regardless of his talent or upside), because you’re still going to be in “win now” mode. If you’re in that mode, you’re going to use the draft to address areas of your organization that need improvement in-order to reach the Promised Land.
The idea of drafting a quarterback in the later rounds, well, that’s a nice thought and all, but, other than the occasional Tom Brady, how often does it really work out? And even if a passer of that draft pedigree does pan out to the point of becoming a starter, odds are, he’s not going to play at a franchise (or elite) level.
But what if you’re one of those teams with a franchise quarterback the caliber of a Roethlisberger that happens to be having a bad year, and you have the first or second pick in the draft and the chance to select the cream of the crop of signal callers?
Number one, if you have a franchise quarterback, you’re probably paying him upwards of around $20 million annually, which is the going rate these days. And if you want to select a quarterback first or second with the idea of grooming him for the future...Jared Goff, the first pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, received an $18 million signing bonus; Carson Wentz, the second player chosen, earned a $17 million bonus for his signature. Sure, the annual salaries of each rookie passer are no where near what a proven veteran such as Roethlisberger makes, but that’s still a lot of money to tie up in one position.
Second, if you have a franchise quarterback, and he’s relatively young, aren’t you still in “win now” or “win fairly soon” mode, even if you just had a really awful year in the standings?
Let’s face it, a franchise quarterback can make up for a lot, and if he’s proven himself already, you have a decent chance to build your roster up to his level once again—especially if you have a high draft position.
So, if you try to groom a mid-round pick into a future starter, your chances for success are probably even less than they would be if you were trying to do the same with a guard or safety.
And if you decide to make a move and bring in a quarterback with a high draft choice, he’s going to be so expensive, you will likely be forced to part ways with a legend, which is precisely what the Colts did with Peyton Manning in 2012, after he missed all of 2011 with a neck injury. Indianapolis just finished 2-14 and had the number one pick and a decision to make: go with the elder Manning and pay him the $28 million bonus he was due or start over with Andrew Luck.
The Colts chose Luck, which meant they had to release maybe the greatest quarterback who ever played at age 36.
Pretty good deal, though, right, considering Luck has been one of the better young quarterbacks in the game since being drafted five seasons ago. Unfortunately, due to deficiencies in other areas, Indianapolis isn’t exactly the powerhouse it was in Manning’s heyday. Yes, the team has contended more often than not under Luck, but that magic, it’s just not been there.
You could point to Aaron Rodgers as an example of a team who wanted its cake and got to eat it, too. That team would be the Packers, who drafted Rodgers 24th in the 2005 NFL Draft and allowed him to learn for three years under the legendary Brett Favre. After finally becoming a starter in 2008, Rodgers quickly evolved into one of the game’s best quarterbacks.
Pretty good deal, right? Yes, but while Rodgers has led his team to a Super Bowl championship, so far it’s just been one. Sure, Favre only won one Super Bowl in Green Bay, but he played in two—and let’s not forget the three-straight MVP awards and those passing records.
Bottom line, replacing a franchise quarterback is sadly a once-in-a-generation kind of deal. And, with the exceptions of the aforementioned mostly successful transitions from Favre to Rodgers and Manning to Luck, usually the greater the man (meaning, destined for Canton), the bigger the fall once he decides to stop breaking all of his team’s records.
So, if the Steelers are lucky, Roethlisberger’s heir apparent is a freshman in college, and he’ll step right in in about five years, once Pittsburgh drafts him in the first round. Unfortunately, No. 7 probably won’t be around to offer any advice, because the organization will likely have to move on from him.
But, if the Steelers are like a lot of other teams throughout the years (including themselves in the early 80s), Roethlisberger’s true heir apparent is probably in a crib right now, and a bunch of placeholders will play quarterback at Heinz Field for about 15 or 20 years, while he grows up and is groomed by other people to become a future Pittsburgh passing icon.