The Pittsburgh Steelers will need quarterback Kenny Pickett to grow and develop in his second season in the NFL and in the offensive scheme of coordinator Matt Canada.
For Pickett, the familiarity should be a good thing, as he avoided dealing with a scheme change one season into his NFL career. When Pickett was given multiple seasons to work with offensive coordinator Mark Whipple at Pitt, it took until their third season together to really make a breakthrough and unlock most of Pickett’s talent.
There isn’t really a lot of comparisons to make in Canada’s recent history about working with a quarterback for multiple seasons, because he hasn’t done it.
Canada worked with Ben Roethlisberger in 2021 and was the Steelers quarterbacks coach under Randy Fichtner in 2020. He took 2019 off. Before that, Canada had four stops in his previous four seasons at Maryland, LSU, Pitt and NC State.
It’s not until you get back to his time with the Wolfpack, spanning from 2013-15, that Canada returned in the same place with the same quarterback. That’s also the best quarterback Canada has ever coached.
Jacoby Brissett transferred from Florida to NC State and sat out the 2013 season, Canada’s first in Raleigh. Pete Thomas and Brandon Mitchell shared the passing duties, and things went poorly. They combined for 15 interceptions compared to 11 touchdowns and the Wolfpack finished 98th in the FBS in scoring with 274 points.
With Brissett in the huddle in 2014, NC State surged to 57th in scoring and 392 points. In his senior year in 2015, they finished 41st with 432 points.
Pickett’s progress with Whipple at Pitt and Canada’s success nearly a decade ago with Brissett are positive signs, but they remain just two data points, and not at the NFL level.
What about other quarterbacks that have recently gone through the same process?
In 2021, five rookie quarterbacks became full-time starters for their team: Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Mac Jones and Davis Mills.
Lawrence saw his coaching staff overhauled, with Urban Meyer and Darrell Bevell giving way to Doug Pederson and Press Taylor. In Houston, David Culley and Tim Kelly gave way to Lovie Smith and Pep Hamilton. Matt Nagy and Bill Lazor were not retained in Chicago, with Matt Eberflus and Luke Getsy taking over for Fields’ second season. In New England, coordinator Josh McDaniels left and he was replaced by a hodgepodge that mostly left former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia calling the offensive plays.
So four of the five starters from the 2021 rookie class did not get that continuity. The one that did, Wilson with the Jets, lost his starting job midway through 2022.
In the 2020 class, three players emerged as full-time starters as rookies: Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa saw Brian Flores and Chan Gailey get fired after his rookie year. Burrow got to keep Zac Taylor and Brian Callahan, but Anthony Lynn and Shane Steichen were gone for Herbert’s second year. Steichen’s replacement, Joe Lombardi, has also been fired, so Hebert won’t get any continuity from Year 2 to Year 3, either.
Just two players in 2019 earned starting jobs as rookies: Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones. Murray kept Kliff Kingsbury and Tommy Clements for his second year. Pat Shurmur and Mike Shula were not retained in New York.
In three seasons, only three quarterbacks that started as rookies retained their head coach and offensive coordinator going into their second season.
Even of the ones that did, there’s hardly a consensus. Jones actually got worse, going from an 87.7 passer rating to an 80.4. Wilson showed slight improvement despite losing his job, going from 69.7 to 72.8. Burrow’s career took off, going from 89.9 as a rookie to 108.3 and a Super Bowl berth in his second season.
Will Pickett be more like Burrow? Or Jones? It seems impossible to say at this point. It doesn’t seem like he’ll turn out like Wilson, where maturity concerns were just as much a part of his failure as ability.
Otherwise, in both Canada’s career as offensive coordinator and in the NFL in general, this doesn’t really happen enough for us to have a good read on whether it will work or not.