Previously in this space, it was commented that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has never replaced a quarterback and thus doesn’t know how to do it.
Here’s how that might play out.
The Steelers drafted Kenny Pickett 20th overall to be their long-term quarterback.
But Pickett is 24 and started 49 games at Pitt. Never mind the future. Pickett should start immediately.
Sure, he’d take some lumps and so would the Steelers. But that’s going to happen whenever Pickett first plays, be it now, a year from now, or even longer from now.
But the Steelers never think in the long term. They never think past the next season or even past the next game. They never think about building a team to a peak.
The Steelers think about getting into the playoffs.
They say their aim every year is to win a Super Bowl. That’s just talk. Making the playoffs is realistic. It props up the brand.
So, instead of starting Pickett and, to some degree, looking past this season, the Steelers will start Mitch Trubisky and hope to squeak into the postseason.
That’s not all bad.
Right now, Trubisky is a better quarterback. He’s been in the NFL five years and had a modicum of success, although not nearly matching his pedigree of being the second pick overall in 2017.
But Trubisky was, indeed, the second pick overall. As opposed to 20th.
If Trubisky, at 27, would have been available in this year’s draft, he’d have been the first quarterback picked. If Pickett doesn’t get an extra year at Pitt because of the pandemic, he’s likely a fourth-round selection.
Trubisky is still relatively young. He’s less than four years older than Pickett. It’s not a reach to think that Trubisky has more potential than Pickett, even now.
The Steelers’ schedule is tough and tight at its beginning. The plan seems transparent: Start Trubisky until the Steelers fade from playoff contention, then insert Pickett. (This assumes Pickett is deemed ready by the Steelers’ very conservative standard.)
But what if the Steelers don’t fade from playoff contention?
It’s easy to see them starting 2-4. But let’s say they start 4-2 and stay in the race to grab a wild card until season’s end.
If that happens, Trubisky keeps playing.
If the Steelers make the playoffs or fall a game short, Trubisky is the starter at the beginning of next season, too.
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That’s how the Steelers operate. Heaven knows when Ben Roethlisberger would have started had Tommy Maddox not got hurt in 2004, Roethlisberger’s rookie season.
The Steelers could end up with a deeply discounted version of San Francisco’s situation. The 49ers drafted Trey Lance third overall last year, but Jimmy Garoppolo crossed them up by continuing to win. (That seems to have come to a head, as the Niners look set to transition to starting Lance following Garoppolo’s offseason shoulder surgery.)
A scenario where Trubisky keeps starting isn’t bad for the Steelers, because it’s also a scenario where the Steelers keep winning.
But that scenario invalidates drafting Pickett. If the Steelers weren’t set on starting Pickett right away, they shouldn’t have drafted him. They should have used that 20th pick to fill one of their umpteen other holes.
Pickett obviously isn’t exceptional. If he was, he’d have been drafted higher. He’d jump above Trubisky on the depth chart immediately.
Or maybe he should jump above Trubisky on the depth chart immediately, except that’s not the “Steeler way.”
Pickett could easily be Trubisky’s backup this season and next. And if the Steelers make the playoffs twice, Trubisky will be extended.
The only way for the Steelers to recognize the proper vision for drafting Pickett within the context of the way they operate is to fail as a team.
Your timetable for playing Pickett coincides roughly with Trubisky’s first incompleteness.