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Saunders: Steelers Can’t Let Kenny Pickett Turn into Baker Mayfield



Pittsburgh Steelers Kenny Pickett
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) looks to pass during the second half of an NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

As the Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2023 offseason, a significant point of resistance has come up to what many expected to be a slam-dunk decision: to move on from offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

The Steelers did not have a good offense as a team in 2022, the second consecutive season that can be said under Canada’s guidance, and his passing scheme in particular has come under criticism as not being up to modern NFL standards.

That has led from an overwhelming chorus from the fanbase that the Steelers should replace Canada as offensive coordinator.

But recently, there’s been a counter-argument made that has the support of some significant voices. Former Steelers quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Kordell Stewart spoke out this week about the importance of continuity in developing Kenny Pickett.

Stewart had five offensive coordinators in his eight seasons in Pittsburgh, and he cautioned that it’s not easy for an inexperienced quarterback to be saddled with a new offense.

“It is not easy to be able to go out and play at a high level when you’re not thinking,” Stewart said on 93.7 The Fan on Thursday. “It becomes easy to talk about, because you’re not happy with (the offense), but at the same time, what if the next guy comes in and gets worse? …

“You’re at least going in the right direction, if you’re upset about what’s going on with this offseason. Because to me, rightfully so, it started getting better. Remember this team was what, 2-6, 2-7 at one point in time and then ran off a 7-2 run to hope that a win by (the Jets) got them in.”

Changing coordinators frequently can certainly be a negative impact when it comes to the development of any player, and particularly a quarterback. It’s probably not a coincidence that the longer Pickett played in Canada’s system in 2022, the better and more comfortable he looked.

Changing the offense now would upset at least some of that progress, there’s no question. But the big question is whether the Steelers can get to where they want to be with Canada as offensive coordinator.

His offense has not been historically quarterback-friendly. It’s more of a running scheme. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If anything, that probably helped Pickett be able to take the reins so early in his career. But that doesn’t sound like the kind of offense that maximizes the abilities of Pickett.

It sounds like what the Browns did with Baker Mayfield. When Cleveland drafted Mayfield in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, their second-round pick was running back Nick Chubb. And while Mayfield was the face of the franchise for several years, it was Chubb that was the actual driving force behind turning around the Cleveland offense.

In the Browns’ 2020 season that saw the team return to the playoffs and beat Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round, Mayfield finished 18th in the NFL in passing yards. Chubb finished seventh in rushing. Backup Kareem Hunt finished 16th.

The Browns were winning with a strong offensive line, a strong running game, and by not asking Mayfield to do too much. That worked — until it came time to pay him. And yes, Mayfield had multiple coordinators. But he never had one that tried to hand him the keys to the offense and play like his draft pick status suggested he should be able to.

Before the 2021 season, the Browns picked up Mayfield’s first-round option for the 2022 season, worth $18.9 million in guaranteed money. Early in that season, Mayfield suffered a torn labrum on his non-throwing shoulder. Instead of surgery, he played through the season. He and the Browns struggled and the team failed to return to the playoffs.

Suddenly, paying Mayfield $19 million to not be a significant factor in the offense’s success became unpalatable to those in Cleveland. The Browns traded him to the Carolina Panthers for basically nothing in an attempt to get out from under some of the money they owed him and then Browns owner Jimmy Haslam threw his checkbook at Deshaun Watson.

Under Canada, like Mayfield with the Browns, the Steelers could probably win with Pickett at the helm. But if that happens because Pickett does a lot of handing the ball to Najee Harris with some occasional late-game magic while overall being statistically insignificant as a quarterback like he was in 2022, what will happen when it comes time to pay him?

The Steelers used a first-round pick on Pickett. They did not do so, in all likelihood, with the hope that he would become an above-average game manager. They did so in the hope that he could develop into a franchise quarterback — or at least something close to one.

The Steelers have to decide about Pickett’s fifth-year option before his fourth year starts. So that means there are two more seasons to figure out what kind of quarterback they really have in Pickett.

Can there be more to Canada’s scheme to get more out of Pickett? It’s certainly possible, but we haven’t really seen it to this point, either in his time here or as a college coordinator. If the Steelers bring Canada back, and it doesn’t work out, then they would have one year in a new scheme to really figure out what they have in Pickett.

If they make the move now, it might mean a slower start to the 2023 season. It might not work out at all. As Stewart said, a new coordinator is no guarantee to be better.

It’s not an easy decision, but it’s one that Mike Tomlin and company will have to make and avoiding the worst-case path for Pickett in Pittsburgh will be the key.