It’s nice to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You just won the Super Bowl, and much of your team will return intact. Oh, and you have plenty of salary cap space—well above league average—to manipulate next year’s roster.

The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Much like Tampa Bay, the Steelers have an aging quarterback and a championship quality defense. Unfortunately, the Steelers capologists will have to be magicians because the Steelers  are on the bad side of the salary cap space league average. 

The retirements of center Markese Pouncey and tight end Vance McDonald will help the cap some. On the other hand those retirements leave black holes at center and tight end that Eric “drops” Ebron and J.C. Hassenwhateverhisnameis won’t begin to fill. 

So what course of action do the Steelers take this offseason?

When healthy, the Steelers defense is one of the best in the league. Signing free agents Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton move right to the top of the priority list. Bud Dupree is likely going to sign elsewhere. Cam Heyward’s brilliant career is winding down. Joe Haden isn’t getting any younger, thus the importance of Hilton and Sutton. However, Devin Bush will be back and healthy, which is huge. Alex Highsmith proved he is very capable, as did veteran Tyson Alualu. 

The hottest rumor this side of Marc Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh these days is that the Steelers will sign newly freed JJ Watt. Watt escaped the circus in Houston, and he is ready to resurrect his career elsewhere. 

Here’s the thing. Watt’s best days are behind him. 

Unless he is willing to sign the team friendliest contract of all time, the Steelers have no reason to bring him to Pittsburgh. They have more pressing issues, and they are many. It would be a great story with all the Watt brothers playing in Pittsburgh. But you know what’s an even better story? Pittsburgh building a winner. Watt would bring character, a will to win, and a high motor. What he wouldn’t bring is the skills that made him dominant five years ago. If you are looking for an edge rusher, um…Bud Dupree. After his injury that price tag shouldn’t be considerably different than Watt.

Pass on Watt. 

The biggest piece to figure out for the Steelers is obviously at quarterback. 

Ben Roethlisberger said he was coming back. Then he was going to talk to the team about restructuring his contract to help with the salary cap. His handpicked offensive coordinator was mercifully let go. Finally two of his best friends on the team retired. Now many close to the team think there is a possibility Roethlisberger retires. Others close to the situation say he will be back.

Did anyone following Ben’s career to this point think this decision would come without drama?

I joined Bill Cowher in predicting the Steelers would win last year’s Super Bowl. Hey, we are both homers. I fell for the fact that they were one position away from being great. Quarterback. And with Ben coming back he would guide them to one more Super Bowl and ride off into the sunset. 

Instead it was old man Brady that won one more Super Bowl and he isn’t riding off anywhere.

As for Roethlisberger, well, he should still ride off. There just isn’t going to be any sunset. 

 He is finished as an NFL quarterback. At least a high end quality quarterback. What made Ben great was his ability to improvise. He would scramble and scramble, avoid sacks, be nearly impossible to bring to the ground, and throw lasers on the run. When he was in the pocket he could throw the deep ball with the best of them. And when necessary, Ben could get you required yards with his feet.

Those days are behind him. His deep throws were way off target most of the time. He can’t run from the sidelines to the huddle without making Steelers fans cringe. And he no longer can improvise. He is petrified to get hit. Just look at his disinterest in falling on the infamous bad snap in the playoff game this past season.

He looks more like a guy who would struggle to get down on the floor to play with his kids than an NFL quarterback.

The offense was, ahem, readjusted to his new skill set. Slants, slants, slants, and more slants replaced the good stuff. Only when the season was on the brink of disaster did Ben and the offense start throwing down field. By then it was too late and too obvious. Ben just couldn’t get it done. In other words…

2 yard slant Ben <<<<<<<<<<<<<< Improvisation Ben

So the first shoe that has to drop is for Ben to acknowledge he is finished. The Steelers probably aren’t contenders with or without him. As a matter of fact, they are worse with him than even a healthy Mason Rudolph. He needs to see this. This won’t be a money issue, it will be a pride issue.

The Steelers have helped push a Hall of Fame player towards the door before. Troy Polamalu wasn’t ready to retire, but the Steelers acknowledged his diminishing skill set and nudged him to the door. Ben will undoubtedly be a first ballot Hall of Famer, but the organization may need to do a little nudging again.

The Steelers have massive issues on offense. If Ben does the right thing and retires, who goes under center?

Mason Rudolph. Dwayne Haskins. Sam Darnold. DeShaun Watson. Mitch Trubisky. Kyle Trask. Trey Lance.

The most obvious option would be Mason Rudolph. The Steelers have always spoken highly of him. He did show glimmers during his stints in the lineup, none more so than versus Cleveland in the last game of the regular season. 

Haskins was the 15th pick in the NFL draft. There is some talent in there somewhere. I wouldn’t bet on him ever finding it though. He was a “lottery ticket” acquisition. You hope for a jackpot, and if you don’t get it you toss the ticket in the trash. 

I’m partial to Darnold. I think he has playmaking ability. I saw it while following him at USC. Getting out of New York would certainly help him. He probably wouldn’t cost a mint to get. It is a matter of whether the Jets have decided to move on from him.

Watson will cost too much, although it is the Texans we are talking about so who knows what they are thinking.

Please, no, on Trubisky.

Drafting a quarterback at 24 in the first round is risky. Are you really going to find your next star there? The numbers say it is a long shot. You have Rudolph, plus there are more pressing needs. 

Those pressing needs are offensive line and running back. In that order.

The Steelers must replace Pouncey and most likely Alejandro Villanueva along the offensive line. Zach Banner returns from injury, but upgrades are mandatory.

The Steelers have a habit of finding great centers, and Alabama’s Landon Dickerson could be that guy. His Alabama teammate Alex Leatherwood or Oklahoma State mauler Tevin Jenkins would be starters on the line from day one.

James Conner will only be back if it is a team friendly contract, and the Steelers can’t find something better. Benny Snell is barely above the line and Anthony McFarland needs more time.

The only running back I would take ahead of a lineman is Najee Harris out of Alabama. Presumably the Steelers will want to get back to running the ball like they have traditionally done. Harris is a younger version of Derrick Henry. He would give you that franchise running back.

Tight end will have to be addressed as well. Ebron can’t block and drops too many passes. That only leaves seldom used Zach Gentry. Somewhere they will need to find a tight end. One that can be plugged into the starting lineup. There will be a handful of free agent options.

The other big question on offense is whether to bring back JuJu Smith-Schuster. Again, I’m biased. I loved him at USC. He is a Hines Ward clone. He will stiff arm you into the third row, block you into the third row, and run any route you ask of him. Yes, he is immature. No, I don’t know why a grown man insists on doing Tik Tok. Yes, he seems very interested in establishing a brand. 

JuJu developed a foundation before he was 21 years old that does fantastic things for various charities. He knows about struggles. He knew the importance of helping others right from the start of his career.

Some say he isn’t focused on winning. I know this simply isn’t true. I watched him play hurt for over half a season at USC. He easily could have stayed on the sidelines in street clothes. Ignoring the dancing stuff, watch him play and tell me he doesn’t want to win. That narrative is completely absurd.

Should Smith-Schuster be paid as a number one receiver? Probably not. And that is why he will probably go elsewhere. Some team out there will pay him to be their number one guy. Jets, anyone? Admittedly the loss shouldn’t be huge considering the Steelers will have Drops Johnson, James Washington, and budding star Chase Claypool. I hope JuJu is back, but I don’t look for it.

All in all that is a huge overhaul for the offense. 

Will the Steelers have a defense dominant enough to win most games if their offense gets to 20 points? Questionable.

Will the Steelers assemble an offense that can get to 20 points consistently? Questionable.

When you look around the AFC, you can argue that Kansas City’s defense isn’t that great, the Colts need a quarterback, the Bills need a running game, the Ravens need a passing game, Cleveland needs receivers. However, I don’t think any of those teams have as many question marks as the Steelers. 

That is the quandary for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Can you rebuild your offense and still win with a great defense? Questionable. 

Can you do that if your 39 year old quarterback who can’t move refuses to walk away? Very questionable.

This offseason has more question marks to figure out than any in recent memory for Pittsburgh. It is why the last ten years of playoff failures—with lots of talent on the roster—is so frustrating. I didn’t even mention all of the coaching changes that occurred this offseason.

It all leaves me with one question.

 If the standard really is the standard, then it seems the standard is, well, questionable.

Two Cent Takes

College Hoops

~Michigan had not played a game for 22 days because of COVID-19. After shaking off some rust, the Wolverines took it to a good Wisconsin team on both ends of the floor. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson collected 15 rebounds. Dickinson is 7’1” 255 pounds and resembles a house. Michigan is a team capable of a long March run.

~A really cool story is taking place in Kentucky. No, Mr. Calipari, not you. Bellarmine, in their first year of Division I competition, is leading the Atlantic Sun and is 13-5 overall. Scott Davenport is the head coach. He comes from the Rick Pitino coaching tree, and that is a pretty effective coaching tree.

~Things I didn’t know until I watched way too much college basketball this weekend.

  1. Dennis Rodman has a son that plays for Washington State.
  2. Presbyterian is a school, and their nickname is the Blue Hose.
  3. Rick Pitino still looks like he is 45, and he still yanks players immediately after a mistake.

~This week let’s look at whose bubbles are inflating or deflating.

  • Inflating: The Mountain West, The Atlantic 10, Clemson, Drake, Mississippi, BYU

The Mountain West and A-10 have really good metrics, so whomever doesn’t win the automatic bid may still have a great shot at an at-large bid. Clemson banked in a game winner to separate themselves from fellow bubbler Georgia Tech. Drake split with Loyola this weekend which keeps them on the right side of the bubble. Mississippi needs to keep winning but they did add air to their bubble this week. BYU will benefit from the strength of Gonzaga to maybe steal an at-large bid.

  • Deflating: Pitt, Duke, St. John’s, Penn State, Indiana, Michigan State, and Maryland.

The pin is getting ever so close to Pitt’s bubble. Duke is Duke, so they will remain floating. St. John’s has been super hot, but stumbled against Butler this weekend. As strong as the Big Ten is this year, I have to imagine that at least two of the four teams listed may still have a chance. More on Penn State in my Final Thought.

NHL

~The Penguins had their first two goal lead of the season Sunday. They beat the Capitals by 3 after two empty jet goals. Remarkably they are in a three way tie for third place at the quarter pole with 15 points. Boston and Philly look like locks for the playoffs, but the Pens, Caps, Islanders, Rangers(they are young and should improve) and Devils(have only played 9 games) will be in a real battle for the other two playoff spots.

~I’m on board with Pittsburgh bringing Marc Andre Fleury back. He belongs in Pittsburgh. He is 7-1 this year with a 94% save rate, so most likely Vegas isn’t sending him anywhere. Maybe Brian Burke and Ron Hextall can work some magic.

~Speaking of Hextall, the Pens new GM. How great would it be if the Pens could win a Cup some day with an ex-Flyer as GM?

Golf

~This picture means…

…the tour was at Pebble Beach. Daniel Berger won, but who cares. Just watching golf with the beauty that exists at Pebble Beach is enough for me.

~I’ll make my weekly plea to Jim Nantz to please(x’s 1,000) quit waxing poetic on what it would be like with fans. Jim, we know what it would be like. Up until now there have always been fans. We know sports are a million times better with fans. You do NOT need to remind us 25 times per weekend.

Bull Riding

~Yea, I said bull riding. The first non-football Sunday had me spinning the dial and it landed on bull riding.

I have two questions.

  1. When did these wimps start wearing helmets?
  2. Does the helmet help to keep their vertebrae from dislodging during the ride?

A Penny For My Final Thought…

No word on whether Jim Ferry contacted U-Haul to reserve a truck for March after a disastrous loss at home to Nebraska.

It was bad, and it was typical Penn State basketball.

During the entirety of the Patrick Chambers era, the Nittany Lions have always hovered around the bubble. Except the years where they really sucked. This year is no different, other than Jim Ferry is now the head coach.

Another difference is that this team appears to be coached better. There is far more motion in the offense. John Harrar has turned into a productive player. Defenses are being mixed. Late game situations are coached well.

Still they lose games they shouldn’t.

Still they can’t get over the hump.

The last two games Ferry has designed good late game plays. At Michigan State he designed a play to get Myles Dread a wide open three to win the game. He missed. Last night he designed a play for Izaiah Brockington, the team’s best slasher, to get to the basket. He had it blocked. A foul could have been called but wasn’t. Two debilitating losses were suffered.

Ferry is putting the players in position, but he can’t shoot the ball for them. They play hard. They play together. Those are all positives on the coach’s ledger. But you have to win.

Ferry has not been able to change the losing culture that has permeated the program, particularly late in games. Ultimately the coach has to take responsibility. Barring a miraculous run from here on out, Ferry will not be considered for the permanent job.

The next hire will tell me how seriously the current administration plans to take basketball.

Ferry would probably take a shorter contract. Ferry would likely keep this team together. If he would make the tournament it would be hard to not hire him. No tournament and he is going to go. Clearly the AD would like to move away from the Patrick Chambers era, which Ferry was a part of.

Last week I said Jim Ferry should get fair consideration for the permanent job.

I think Jim Ferry is a good coach, and I stand by my comment.

Losing to a team like Nebraska is all too familiar to the Patrick Chambers years. Losing to Nebraska puts U-Haul on alert.

Just my two cents…