It’s rare to see the close of a chapter of football in real time, but Sunday’s Browns-Steelers matchup had that aura from the opening snap—literally. Cleveland’s 48-37 beatdown marked the franchise’s first victory in Pittsburgh in 17 years, and the team’s first playoff victory in 26. Plus, the Steelers had ended the Brown’s previous two postseason campaigns in 2003 and 1995. For the first time in a generation, it’s the Browns that have the upper hand in this rivalry—a change that could mark a turning point for Pittsburgh.
Rewind the clock to early December, and the Steelers were 11-0, the last unbeaten team in the NFL. They went on to finish the regular season 1-4, then got handed one of the most lopsided losses in playoff history to a rival that they’d previously owned for decades. A team that we thought was really good turned out to be pretty bad—and Pittsburgh will head into the offseason needing to answer all kinds of questions.
The biggest question is the one under center: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had one of his worst seasons in 2020. He ranked 21st in the league in adjusted net yards per attempt, 22nd in QBR, and 25th in Pro Football Focus’s passing grade. He looked downright washed in games, rarely pushing the ball deep or making throws into tight windows. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Roethlisberger’s average time to throw this season was 2.3 seconds—the quickest time in the league. That isn’t a problem on its own, but this season confirmed that the old Roethlisberger who used to wait in the pocket to make big plays—as well as the one who once helmed the league’s best offense with Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown—is long gone.
Roethlisberger carries a cap hit of $41 million next season, and many Steelers fans are probably rooting for him to retire so the team can use that money elsewhere. Roethlisberger has openly hinted at retirement before, including just a few weeks ago when he said “If I’m not playing good enough football, I need to hang it up.” In January 2017, after the Steelers lost to the Patriots in the AFC championship game, he said he would “consider all options” that offseason. In October of that year, after a five-interception game, he said, “Maybe I don’t have it anymore.”
Should Roethlisberger leave, there is no obvious path to finding a replacement. Backup Mason Rudolph showed that he is almost surely not a long-term answer during an extended stint under center last season, and Pittsburgh won’t be able to snag any highly touted QB prospects with the 24th pick in April’s draft. The Steelers don’t have anywhere close to enough to trade for Deshaun Watson (don’t even think about it), and that leaves quarterbacks like the Jets’ Sam Darnold or Eagles’ Carson Wentz as reclamation projects. If Steelers fans are hoping for a highly drafted first-round rookie, they’ll probably have to wait until 2022. But that may not be such a bad path to go down for a franchise that needs to start thinking about its long-term future anyways.
With or without Roethlisberger, the offense will likely see a major overhaul this offseason. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, whose lackadaisical game scripts have earned him the ire of Steelers fans, may not return to the team. Fichtner has been with the franchise since 2007 as a wide receivers and quarterbacks coach, and was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2018. Pittsburgh finished this season 22nd in offensive DVOA, including 30th in rushing—something that’s hard to imagine for this franchise. In the Steelers’ Week 16 win over the Colts, Indy’s defense was calling out Pittsburgh’s plays in the first half. It wasn’t until the second half, when Roethlisberger deviated from Fichtner’s plan and began calling plays himself in a no-huddle offense, that the Steelers finally came alive.
if you want to know why the Steelers offense looked better in the 2nd half, it’s because in the 1st half, pre-snap the Colts were calling out OC Randy Fichtner’s terrible, predictable plays...— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 28, 2020
so Ben called his own plays that were not part of Fichtner’s game plan in the 2nd half pic.twitter.com/QEEwGIC5Bb
Meanwhile, key offensive players in wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner, and tackle Alejandro Villanueva are unrestricted free agents. Smith-Schuster, who in three years saw his reputation as a fun-loving breath of fresh air sour into that of a TikTok-dancing braggart, likely won’t have a home with the Steelers after the emergence of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. Though Smith-Schuster recorded nine touchdowns this season, a career high, he had only 831 receiving yards and failed to become a star wideout, which seemed inevitable when he had 1,426 yards in 2018. Conner also had a down year, recording 721 rushing yards and six touchdowns in yet another injury-riddled campaign. But the University of Pittsburgh product is a local hero who shouldn’t command a big contract from anyone else—it’d be easy to see the Steelers retaining him. Villanueva, who made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and 2018, will see his deal expire, too.
Defensively, Bud Dupree is the biggest name to hit free agency. The sixth-year edge rusher entered this season on the franchise tag, and when he suffered a torn ACL in Week 12, it changed the Steelers’ entire defense—and, ultimately, their season. Playing across from T.J. Watt, Dupree recorded eight sacks and 15 QB hits in 11 games. It’s likely he’ll command too big of a deal in free agency for the Steelers to bring him back. Third-round rookie Alex Highsmith has filled in for Dupree this season, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Steelers move forward with him and let Dupree walk.
Free agency will bring tough decisions for the franchise. The Steelers are projected to be $21 million over the cap in 2021, meaning they have almost no wiggle room to help bolster this roster (again, Roethlisberger retiring would probably be good for the franchise). Only five teams have a larger projected cap number than Pittsburgh next season.
The Steelers have a long road ahead, and they’re not even sure who will be tasked with retooling the roster. Longtime general manager Kevin Colbert, who was the director of football operations from 2000 to 2010 before taking the GM title, will see his contract expire after the 2021 NFL draft. The Lions have reportedly been trying to lure Colbert to Detroit, though it’s unclear whether he would have any interest in that job, or even in leaving the team he’s been with for two decades.
Perhaps Roethlisberger will come back, Colbert will remain in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers will find a way—as so many teams do—to juggle their various salary commitments in free agency. But with the way the team wrapped up this season, it’s worth asking one last question: What would be the point? After Sunday’s playoff loss, it looks like the Steelers need to begin a new era.