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Saunders: Can Steelers Season Be Success without Playoffs? It Depends.



Steelers QB Kenny Pickett

Was the 2022 season a successful one for the Pittsburgh Steelers?  That’s a tough question to answer right after the campaign came to a close on Sunday, and not because we don’t have enough information about the Steelers.

It’s nearly farcical to suggest that a team with a stated goal of winning the Super Bowl could have a successful season while failing to even make the playoffs. But not all failures are created equally, and while the Steelers remain far from their goal, they may have secured a key step forward in getting back to the top of the NFL.

That could come from the play of rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett did not set the world on fire as a rookie, finishing in the bottom third of the NFL in most statistical categories, though he did display some propensity for getting things done in the clutch down the stretch.

Pickett will be the Steelers starting quarterback in 2023, that much seems clear at this juncture. What is not yet clear is exactly what kind of NFL quarterback Pickett will be going forward.

That’s what could make the Steelers’ 2022 season a success. If the Steelers, in their first year without future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, have found his successor, then the Steelers’ record in 2022 is essentially meaningless.

Take a look at how things have gone for some other teams recently after some Hall of Fame quarterbacks retired or moved on.

2021 New Orleans Saints (Drew Brees) Jameis Winston 9-8
2020 New England Patriots (Tom Brady) Cam Newton 7-9
2020 New York Giants (Eli Manning) Daniel Jones 6-10
2020 Los Angeles Chargers (Philip Rivers) Justin Herbert 7-9
2016 Denver Broncos (Peyton Manning) Trevor Siemian 9-7

Which team would you rather be? The Chargers finding Justing Herbert and finishing 7-9 or the Broncos playing Trevor Siemian and winning two more games? I think that’s very clear at this point. Moving on from a franchise quarterback is hard. Some teams will wander in the darkness between star quarterback for years and years.

When the Steelers moved on from Terry Bradshaw in 1984, the future looked promising. Mark Malone took the Steelers all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Malone turned out not to be the guy to lead the Steelers back to the Super Bowl. Do you think they’d have rather ended up with Boomer Essiason, drafted in the second round that spring?

When a team has chosen to define success by a winning championship, they do so knowing that goal is unlikely to be attainable in most years. But some failures are far better than others.

It’s hard to envision any team in the NFL in this day and age — and especially one that needs to come out of the quarterback-dominated AFC — winning a Super Bowl without elite quarterback play.

So in order to get from not winning the Super Bowl — and not even coming close — to eventually doing so, the Steelers need to find that quarterback capable of taking them to those heights.

Will that player be Pickett? It’s hard to tell at this point. Many promising first-year starters have never developed further. But he certainly seems to have the tools and the makeup to make it a possibility.

If he does, the Steelers’ 2022 season, in being able to go 9-8 while navigating from one franchise quarterback to the next, will not only be seen as a success, but a model example of how to deal with one of the most difficult processes in football.

If he doesn’t, then it will just be another season where they fell short of their goal.