As the Ben Roethlisberger era closes, the Pittsburgh Steelers need to shoot for the moon at quarterback

A quarterback refresh appears to be on the way for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Perhaps one year later than should have been the case, but so it often goes with the final gasps of Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

Not that Pittsburgh missed out on a whole lot during the great quarterback migration of 2021, which turned out to be a rebooting of Matthew Stafford, Carson Wentz and a caravan of mediocrity that didn’t change much anywhere else. If anything, the big loss for Pittsburgh last offseason is more of a what-might-have-happened scenario involving Mac Jones. Had Ben Roethlisberger not taken a pay cut to return last March, maybe the Steelers work out Jones, fall in love with him and make the rare draft day move to secure their next cornerstone.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Leaving Pittsburgh where it is now — in the muddled middle, with a roster that’s pretty darn good except for that glaring hole at the most important position in the NFL. In a slim-pickings year for draftable quarterbacks, too. That’s not a disaster for Pittsburgh, but also not great, either, largely because this is a team good enough to be some version of 9-8 or 8-9 for the foreseeable future. That is usually good enough to take a team out of the running for upper-echelon quarterbacks in the draft.

That leaves the Steelers with a few choices. Among them: Go big and bold for a win-now veteran starter; draft and groom as part of an extended rebuild; or fish around for a middling starter who hopefully needs just a change of scenery. To put it in terms of what happened in 2021, they can be the Los Angeles Rams dealing for Stafford; the New England Patriots drafting Jones; or the Carolina Panthers/Denver Broncos dealing for the likes of Sam Darnold or Teddy Bridgewater.

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - OCTOBER 03: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers talks with Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers before the game at Lambeau Field on October 03, 2021 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Could Aaron Rodgers replace Ben Roethlisberger as the next Steelers quarterback? (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

The winner in that scenario is easy, except that it isn’t. Of course you’d choose to draft a Mac Jones … if a Mac Jones was available in this draft. And by most accounts, it appears he isn’t as of late December.

That means as of now, the Steelers’ options are standing pat with a Mason Rudolph vs. Dwayne Haskins runoff, poking around for a Jimmy Garoppolo or Matt Ryan type of option or doing something the franchise basically never does: Dreaming the biggest of dreams and preparing a plan to pursue a titanic trade. Think: Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers or Deshaun Watson. They're three players who ultimately will control their own destination after this season and would instantly turn a middling Steelers team into a Super Bowl contender.

The first response to that is going to be a typical no-chance-in-hell brushback. That's understandable. The book on the Steelers' front office has seemingly been chiseled into granite for ages. They are a build from inside operation first and foremost. Guaranteed money is rarely given beyond the first year of a contract. Big dollars are almost never splashed around in free agency — a fact that was displayed to perfection last offseason when four of Pittsburgh’s five biggest free agents signed elsewhere, and the fifth (wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster) ended up coming back on a hardball one-year contract.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying the Steelers have a long track record of being conservative when it comes to the landscape-shifting moves in the NFL.

But there are two things that could change that approach in 2022.

First, head coach Mike Tomlin is concluding his 15th season in Pittsburgh having gone 11 years without a Super Bowl appearance. This feels like a significant pivot point for the franchise and 49-year-old head coach. It could either extend a rebuild that has realistically been underway since 2018 and might eventually include casting aside Tomlin, or turn the key on a roster that is arguably one quarterback from being a Super Bowl favorite. In that vein, think of a quarterback pursuit as being part of a Tomlin refresh, too. The right quarterback and a Super Bowl appearance? Suddenly Tomlin would have wind in his sails to last another decade or more.

The second factor: In the 22 drafts where general manager Kevin Colbert is involved, they’ve traded a first-round draft pick for a player only once — that being for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2020. In those other 21 drafts, the Steelers moved up three times in the first round, each time for what turned out to be a significant talent: safety Troy Polamalu, wideout Santonio Holmes and linebacker Devin Bush. What that should tell you is that although Colbert is largely framed as conservative, he knows there are times to color outside the lines. On the few occasions he has done it, the Steelers have added fundamental pieces.

This has a chance to be one of those opportunities. And in an AFC North with Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and a Cleveland Browns team that might swing for the fences at quarterback this offseason, it’s an important moment to seize an opportunity.

At the moment, there’s still no telling what door will open in two months. Maybe Rodgers breaks through to another Super Bowl appearance in Green Bay and keeps his last dance going. Maybe Wilson and Seattle find a path through the present bleakness that maintains the marriage in 2022. And Watson, well, maybe his legal problems get worse rather than better in the next several months.

Regardless of those possibilities, Pittsburgh has to be ready to step out of character and shake up the league. Colbert has to be willing to make the big leap he bypassed last offseason. The rejuvenation of the Steelers as a legitimate championship contender hangs in the balance.

The flip side of that is more of what we saw in 2021. A franchise that’s good enough to not be considered bad.