The first step toward understanding the NFL in 2020 is acceptance. It will not make sense. Conventional wisdom will reverse itself dozens of times. Not even the smartest people in the sport know exactly what the NFL will look like on the field this year. It will not be normal, but that is about the limit of anyone’s concrete knowledge. There’s some concern over the nuances of the game, like special teams, or tackling, or roster construction, but the most common answer I’ve received lately when I ask what we’ll see is a shrug and, maybe, a sigh.
The only thing smart people who run teams feel sure of is the importance of continuity and adaptability. It is not a particularly good time to do something new. The rationale I’ve heard most often is that there are so many unknowns—and many more will develop in the next six months—that teams want to stockpile knowns.
This brings us to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team with a lot of knowns, that also happens to be the most unorthodox contender in the AFC. Fifty-one weeks ago, star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had season-ending surgery. A very predictable thing happened after: The Steelers offense got dramatically worse. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers suffered the fourth-biggest year-to-year offensive decline on record, and Football Outsiders’ data goes back to 1986. The offense never showed much life, but, incredibly, the Steelers were pretty good anyway. Led by Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at quarterback, the Steelers finished an admirable 8-8, propped up by their best defensive performance since 2011. With stars like Cameron Heyward, one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL, T.J. Watt, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh dunked on the expectation that it would have a “historically bad season.” The Steelers had a playoff shot late into December even with no production at the quarterback position, something that seems impossible in this current passing boom.
“I know this group did not let the loss of Ben overcome them,” general manager Kevin Colbert told me. “I think we were competitive and within a game of the playoffs. Is that going to be good enough? Absolutely not. But we were going to keep pushing forward, and we did. We came up short. That’s not acceptable but that is, kind of, just the starting point for where we are this year.”
Starting points, of course, are crucial this year. There were zero offseason activities, zero preseason games, and pads did not come on in training camp until mid-August. Roethlisberger’s performance after missing 14 games is still a fairly large unknown, but everything else about the Steelers seems to align with the profile of a contender in 2020. They’ve had the same coach, Mike Tomlin, since 2007, and three total coaches since 1969. Colbert has been with the team since 2000 and became the only person to be named general manager in the team’s history in 2010. Roethlisberger has been the starter since 2004 and coordinators on both sides of the ball will return.
The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia recently ranked teams by continuity from 2019 to 2020 and found that the Steelers ranked 22nd. However, Kapadia points out, if you dismiss Roethlisberger’s injury, the Steelers would have ranked first using his formula. Pro Football Focus said that since it stands to reason that defenses with little turnover will have an advantage, the Steelers are “poised to dominate early in the COVID world.” Their owner, Art Rooney II, once told me that he values promoting from within because it reinforces the organization’s culture and makes it easier to build on previous successes. Almost every team is trying to stress continuity in 2020 or some sense of normalcy, and the Steelers have lived it for decades.
All of this may not be enough to overcome the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. Baltimore is also a smart, stable organization, who, mind you, also returns plenty of coaches and stars, including league MVP Lamar Jackson. Stability isn’t the determining factor in playoff races, instead, it’s more of a barrier to entry. The things that always win football games—good players and schemes—will win again this year. It will just be harder to find and develop those qualities. Teams with a head start in those areas—like Pittsburgh and Baltimore—will have an advantage to start the season.
“We are a more veteran team than probably some of the teams around the league and that is to our benefit, especially on the defensive side,” Colbert told me. “That group has pretty much played together for at least one year and, in some instances, three, four, five years. So I think there’s benefit there. Offensively, I think it could be the same benefit. The only real difference is that Ben has not played a lot with some of our young skill talent. Once he gets caught up and starts to play more with that group, I think it could be interesting as they continue to develop. And a guy like Eric Ebron coming from the outside, it’s important for Ben and he to get on the same page. I think there will be some timing issues.”
Colbert stresses how young the Steelers’ core of receivers is, joking that JuJu Smith-Schuster is the “elder statesman” at age 23. He said that Roethlisberger will need time to jell with a player like Diontae Johnson, a 2019 third-round pick who played only two games with Roethlisberger last year. “There’s some different learning that has to go on offensively from a cohesiveness standpoint. But it could be very productive once they get on the same page,” Colbert said.
Getting on the same page in 2020, of course, is harder than any other year. “I do worry without the preseason football that the level of our game will be different,” Colbert said about the entire NFL. “I value the preseason games for all of our players. The returning player, the starting-caliber player, they usually get a game or a game and a half worth of preseason football, which I know is important for their timing and their readiness. Then, of course, the younger guys, they haven’t seen some of this, they don’t understand what NFL football is like. Even when you play preseason, it’s not the same as the regular season, and now we’re going to go from intrasquad-type games to Monday Night Football and we are going to learn about ourselves in a hurry in a new environment. That is not unique to us. It’s unique to everyone in the league.”
Not being able to test Roethlisberger may be a setback, but Colbert said “physically I think he’s fine. His arm has been fine in training camp. He should be fresher because he didn’t have a year’s worth of hits on his body, movement on his legs.”
Colbert continued on Roethlisberger: “His mindset, too. Ben is a Hall of Fame quarterback and he doesn’t have to do this. The fact that he wants to do this, and wants to accomplish even more is a great mindset and a great example to our younger players. That it means that much to him. That’s really the only reason he continues to play, is he wants to win more Super Bowls.”
It is not much of a revelation to say quarterback health matters for every team, but Pittsburgh learned firsthand last year how steep the drop-off is without Roethlisberger. At age 38, this is one of his most intriguing seasons ever, provided a lot of 2019 Steelers performances carry over. Last season, Pittsburgh’s defense led the NFL in turnovers and was top five in the NFL in points per drive, yards per drive, and passing defense. The Steelers have not been under .500 since 2003, a year before Roethlisberger arrived. Last season was the first time since 2003 that Roethlisberger was not the team’s top passer—Rudolph was—and the fact that the team still reached eight wins for the 16th year in a row suggests an infrastructure, a roster, and a coaching staff that puts the Steelers in the AFC conversation should their quarterback stay healthy. It’s fairly remarkable that Tomlin and Colbert prevented the Steelers from having a lost 2019 season, considering the offensive decline.
It will be expensive to keep that continuity going. Heyward, for instance, signed a four-year, $65.6 million extension over the weekend. I broached the subject of keeping a talented roster together in this current climate with Colbert. The salary cap will not grow like it has due to financial losses brought about by COVID-19—including lack of fans in stadiums, among many other revenue impacts. The NFL and NFLPA agreed that next year’s cap will have a floor of $175 million. This year’s cap is $198 million.
“We know the cap can’t be any lower than 175 million. Can it go higher? Yes. Will we know that in the short term? No. We just have to assume it will be at that low number and if things change we’ll change along with it,” Colbert said, adding that no one could possibly know what the free-agency market will look like next year. “We’ll deal with the known now.”
Those team-building unknowns, of course, extend to the draft. Two of the five Power Five conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, postponed their fall schedules, and several prospects have announced they’re opting out for the season. Colbert said he’s still hoping to get as many safe, live looks at players this fall. He made it clear, however, how he’ll prioritize 2020 prospects: “The one thing, the conferences that chose not to play, and the players that opted out, we understand all that. Obviously, they are doing it for safety and health, first and foremost, and we respect that. However, the players that get the opportunity to play and choose to play, we feel more comfortable in their evaluations,” Colbert said. “Because I just don’t know, sitting out a year, what those players are going to look like having missed the season. There’s just not a real natural source of information saying, ‘Well, when this player sits out, he’ll be this’ because we just don’t know. We respect the fact that they aren’t playing, but we also have to make the best decisions and I think the best decisions we’ll be able to make are the ones where we can see them play in 2020.”
So, I asked: If there are two similar prospects and one skipped 2020, would he prefer the player that played a college season? “No doubt,” he said. “If there are two players that are close or equal, we’ll take the one that has played most recently. We’re hopeful that the other conferences get up and running. If they do, we’ll add that to the evaluations. If they don’t—again, all we have is 2019 and we’ll make the best decisions we can.”
Colbert stressed that the Steelers operated as close to normal as they could this offseason, though sometimes it was impossible. Colbert discussed how hard it is for coaches not to be able to see players’ eyes when they are teaching a concept, or how to simply teach a physical technique over Zoom when physicality isn’t allowed. One team-building adjustment Colbert made was that “we went deeper in the XFL players because when we thought about the college free agents, we knew less about them because we didn’t have pro days, didn’t have physicals. The XFL players were more NFL-ready, so that was the one thing we did differently.” The team signed nine XFL players.
But even with those signings, Colbert says he thinks the team was pretty close to going about business the way they usually do. Because of course, they are the Steelers. It’s business as usual, and in 2020, that probably means a lot.