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Saunders: Steelers Win-Now QB Upgrades Far from Sure Things



Steelers Omar Khan Mike Tomlin
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Omar Khan talk after the 2023 NFL Draft. -- Alan Saunders / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers have completely re-vamped their quarterback room this offseason, tossing aside three players and going out and getting a former Super Bowl winner in Russell Wilson and another former top draft pick in Justin Fields.

At the 2024 NFL owner’s meetings, general manger Omar Khan said the drastic change was because the Steelers wanted to put together a winner, not at some point down the road, but in 2024.

“We’re trying to win a Super Bowl this year,” Khan said at the NFL owners meetings this week. “Those decisions were made with the intent that they could help us this year.”

When Ben Roethlisberger retired in 2022, the Steelers set out on a similar journey. They searched for quarterbacks high and low, and ended up settling on Pitt passer Kenny Pickett in the first round.

That’s the traditional method of NFL teams restocking the quarterback position. All six of the Steelers’ Super Bowls were won by a quarterback drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft by the club.

Of the 24 Super Bowls won this century, half were won by a team that drafted its quarterback in the first round of the draft. Another half dozen were drafted by the winning team after the first round.

But the Steelers didn’t see value in going that route in 2024. They would have likely needed to trade up more than 10 spots to get one of the top quarterbacks in this draft class, and so the team made aggressive moves in free agency and in the trade market instead.

Will those moves help take the Steelers from playoff also-ran to Super Bowl contender? That’s the stated goal, but recent history says it’s not very likely.

The Steelers signed Wilson to a league-minimum contract, partly because the Denver Broncos are on the hook for his $39 million this season, but also because he couldn’t get the Steelers or any other team to commit to a long-term deal at 35 years old. Fields was jettisoned by the Chicago Bears after failing to develop in three years as a starter. The Steelers invested next to nothing in the duo. Individually, the moves are easy to like. But they’re also very far from sure things.

RELATED: Steelers Super Bowl Odds Slow to Rise Despite Splashy Offseason

Of the 24 Super Bowl winners since 2000, 12 were drafted by their teams in the first round. Five — four of them Tom Brady — were drafted by their teams after the first round. Matthew Stafford was acquired by the Los Angeles Rams in a trade for a first-round pick.

Three winners were inked to big money free agent contract: Brady, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning with the Denver Broncos.

Just three others were neither drafted by their team, traded for a high draft pick or signed to a big-money free agent contract — and none recently: Brad Johnson with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and Tomlin) in 2003, Trent Dilfer with the Baltimore Ravens in 2002 and Kurt Warner with the St. Louis Rams in 2000.

The Steelers are trying to win a Super Bowl — their words — using a method that hasn’t proven successful in 21 years. They are trying to win with the NFL’s highest-priced defense, and by addressing the quarterback position on the cheap.

It’s not impossible. The history shows us that. It’s also not likely. There’s good reason it hasn’t been done in a long time. In that span, the NFL has become an offense- and quarterback-driven league.

The Steelers have had an aggressive offseason. They acted quickly to make changes to the position they saw that needed addressed. But they way they’re going about it is not a way that has had historic success. 

 “I owe it to Steeler nation to do everything I can to try to get to the Super Bowl,” Khan said. “And every decision that we make and that we talk about, every move that we make and talk about is based on that. Sometimes we make moves we make decisions. Sometimes we don’t, but it’s always with the intent of doing what we can to get to the second week in February.”

They’re not acting like the Steelers usually act. They’re also not acting like most other teams, either. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but certainly increases the pressure to make it work.