I’m not really keen on injecting personal vignettes into these kinds of stories, but it’s technically the off-season, so humor me for a minute.
Last weekend, my wife and I, somewhat on a whim, decided to go to the Divisional Playoff game at Heinz Field. As a result, we didn’t actually put out butts in our seats until the middle of the first quarter, right as the replay booth was confirming Leonard Fournette’s second touchdown run of the game. By this point, fans were understandably restless, and the positive ethos that had suffused the stadium only minutes earlier had all but evaporated. It was at this point that I began to hear the takes: At least we’re getting to see Ben’s final game in person; Oh well, it isn’t like we were gonna beat the Patriots, anyway; They gawt ta FAHR TAWMLIN!
Amidst all the defeatism and anger, I heard this: The Steelers need to win a Super Bowl while the window is still open; the window, of course, being the manifestation of Ben Roethlisberger’s remaining years as an NFL quarterback. As long as Ben is under center, the championship window remains open.
And there’s nothing particularly vexing or controversial about this claim—a franchise quarterback can elevate an otherwise pedestrian group of teammates to the precipice of contention (as demonstrated by Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers). In Ben’s case, not only is he at the height of his powers (during the second half of the 2017 season, Roethlisberger posted MVP-caliber numbers); he possesses an enviable surplus of offensive firepower. Even if Le’Veon Bell ultimately ends up playing elsewhere in 2018—or skipping the season altogether—the Steelers will still have one of the league’s best receiver triumvirates, a deep stable of good tight ends, and a top-tier offensive line.
Naturally, we can’t so blithely discount the significance of losing an All-Pro running back this off-season. In fact, should Bell ultimately seek greener pastures and a well-deserved long-term contact, the Steelers should be rebuked for failing to win a championship with one of the greatest offensive trios in NFL history—and part of the blame for this falls on Mike Tomlin. But at the same time, Pittsburgh has been in contention in every season under Tomlin’s tutelage, even during the now-infamous back-to-back 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013.
With that, I offer this viewpoint: Pittsburgh’s window isn’t open so long as Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback, but so long as Mike Tomlin is the head coach.
See, there’s an obvious and inherent chicken/egg duality in the quarterback/coach relationship, but it’s absurd to suggest that Tomlin is merely the beneficiary of falling arear into a franchise quarterback. In his 10-plus years as Pittsburgh’s head coach, Tomlin has proven himself a capable evaluator of draft talent, locating blue-chip talents in the early rounds, star-caliber receivers in the middle rounds, and high-level contributors in the later rounds. It wasn’t long ago that Jonathan Dwyer was Pittsburgh’s leading rusher and Ben was among the most oft-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL. So Tomlin and his crew went out and found a once-in-a-generation running back and constructed an impenetrable, monolithic offensive line. When the defense got old and slow while offenses around the league become smaller and shiftier, Tomlin followed suit by stacking his defense with speedsters.
Perhaps expecting the Steelers to avoid the reckoning that typically befalls teams following the departure of their franchise star is kind of naive (the Steelers have had three losing seasons in my lifetime, so I suppose “contention” is simply something I’ve grown accustomed to). But I have faith that Mike Tomlin can keep the ship afloat post-Roethlisberger, and I think Pittsburgh’s “window” could remain open indefinitely; provided, of course, that Tomlin maintains his impressive record of success in developing home-grown talent.
Whether or not he manages the clock correctly is a story for another day.