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Steelers Analysis

Farabaugh: Steelers Must Learn from Kenny Pickett Failure

The Pittsburgh Steelers must afford themselves to learn from the mistakes they made with Kenny Pickett in his tenure.



Steelers Pickett Tomlin Canada
Pittsburgh Steelers had coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Omar Khan during the 2023 NFL Draft. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers no longer have to worry about Kenny Pickett and his development. Not one iota. Now, it’s about the team’s ability to get the most out of Russell Wilson and help Justin Fields recuperate his career. Pittsburgh had three quarterbacks in the room last season, and none of them will return in the 2024 season. But that’s the new-look Steelers regime getting to work.

I have not spoken much on how Pickett handled himself on his way out of Pittsburgh. The reality of that situation is not hard to break down. But I don’t really care about the minutiae of it all, either, or how Pickett reacted to the team signing Russell Wilson. The reality of those conversations is that they are juicy talking points. Everyone wants to talk about that, and I get it, it’s something in the lull of the offseason that creates for endless discourse in multiple avenues.

But in reality, the way Pickett handled himself, the Steelers’ refurbishment of the quarterback room, and the insanity of the first wave of free agency really misses the scope of where this team needs to look after cutting Pickett loose — directly at themselves.

I’m not about to wax poetic to you that the Steelers failed Pickett. He’s not blameless in all of this. And it’s hardly a black and white issue on who is at fault for Pickett’s rapid descent from the first-round pick who they hoped could be the future of the franchise to out of town in an instant. Certainly, Pickett’s lack of development falls on him to some degree.

But the Steelers need to look at how they evaluate quarterbacks and set them up when dealing with their next young quarterback. This could be Fields, it could be someone else, but the fact of the matter is that the team did a poor job of giving Pickett the infrastructure to maximize his abilities.

So, let’s take a trip down memory lane to Week 4 of the 2022 NFL season. Mitch Trubisky was the starter, and the Steelers offense continued to struggle. The Steelers made a change at halftime, opting to throw the rookie Pickett into the fire. He would throw three interceptions that day, and the Jets would storm back to win the game. The first half of that season would end up as one that Pickett struggled mightily, only hitting his stride in the back half of the year when the run game started to click.

The first issue was how Pickett was managed and thrown into the game on a moment’s notice. Through three weeks, it was already crystal clear that Trubisky was not going to pump the offense forward. With 10 days between their loss to the Browns and the game against the Jets, Pickett could have prepared to start. Or even better, as someone who covered that 2022 training camp in full, Pickett got better from day one to the very start of the season. In reality, Pickett could have started the year.

But the Steelers had two other natural spots to get Pickett in there — either during that 10-day break or after the bye week. Instead, they hastily threw him into the fire, and Pickett’s first few weeks were clearly jolted by a jittery mess of a plan that never cohesively came together until after the bye week.

All that being said, fine. The supporting cast that year was young around Pickett, and the offensive line struggled and was clearly not good enough. With upwards of four spots that could be addressed in the offseason, the team needed to invest there. And then, there is the entire Matt Canada debacle. In his first two seasons with the team, it become abdundantly clear that Canada was not the answer.

He never fit the scheme to his personnel correctly. A pre-snap motion basis to an offense that often became more like football balderdash than anything meaningful with a poor passing scheme. Yet, the team chose to bring him back in 2023, anyways. It was the stability for the sake of stability excuse. Canada was not some kind of quarterback whisperer, either. In bringing him back for a third season, the Steelers handcuffed Pickett from the jump.

Did they upgrade the surrounding cast around him? Well, yes. They signed Isaac Seumalo and drafted Broderick Jones. Clear upgrades! But this was a unit that clearly fell short across the board in 2022 (aside from James Daniels) and should have been upgraded upon. Dan Moore Jr. and Mason Cole being starters was head-scratching.

That is before we even get to the mismanagement of offensive line personnel. It was clear that Kevin Dotson was a good player, he just needed to play at his natural right guard slot. Now with the Rams, Dotson cashed in for a massive extension. And Jones, a promising rookie who is a natural left tackle, played out of position at right tackle, and kept Moore in the lineup.

That is how you set up a quarterback with poor infrastructure. So, the team fires Canada, and Pickett gets about one and a half games without him. Against the Bengals, he played the best game of his young career. Then, against Arizona, he gets hurt, and never plays another snap in a Steelers uniform. Pittsburgh is a win-now organization and Mason Rudolph rallied them to the finish line. Credit to him. He maximized where Pickett did not, but Pickett’s evaluation outside of the confines of the Canada offense remains incomplete to this day as a result of poor process, specifically in the decision to bring Canada back.

Even if you take this outside of the confines of a young quarterback, do you remember how the Steelers tried to stitch together a last-ditch effort for Ben Roethlisberger? They trotted Kendrick Green and Moore starting on the offensive line along with Dotson, Chuks Okorafor, and Trai Turner. And by doing so, they kneecapped Najee Harris’ ability to do much of anything in his first season. It was an oddly, hastily stitched together effort.

I know it sounds like I am making the argument the team failed Pickett, and thus, placing the blame fully on them. No, that is not what this is. Pickett missed open receivers consistently, actively regressed with some of his pocket management from his rookie season to the second year, and the talent that he popped did not show through enough to be worthy of a third year as the starter. Pittsburgh made the right decision here to try and upgrade, even if the process to get there was odd.

But remember all of this when Omar Khan, Mike Tomlin, and Art Rooney II try to build around another young quarterback. If it’s Fields at some point this year, they need to make sure they get him a legitimate center and offensive tackle upgrade this offseason. More than that, they better tailor to his strengths, which will include his dynamic, explosive ability on the ground.

So, to recap, the Steelers paired Pickett with a poor offensive coordinator choice and then kept him around, thus handicapping their ability to help Pickett’s development and evaluate him, and then on top of that, ran it back with a poor offensive line group and mismanaged it on the field.

For the next young quarterback they try to develop, whether this ends up being Fields or someone else, they must learn from these mistakes. It seems like they are trying to make changes as a franchise, but learning from their failures Pickett’s development are essential for the future of the franchise.

In the NFL, it’s a results-oriented business. But generally, good process leads to good results. The Steelers went through the entire Pickett saga, from start to finish, with a bad process. And his development paid for it. And even if you never believed in him as a franchise quarterback prospect, like I did, that’s something the franchise has to change for its next quarterback.