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The Steelers Are Entering QB Purgatory

In signing Mitchell Trubisky, Pittsburgh is punting on any other veteran QB that may be available—and may be passing on a rookie signal-caller in the draft as well. Where does that leave the franchise?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Steelers have escaped Quarterback Hell and entered Quarterback Purgatory, which might be even worse.

Pittsburgh’s reported two-year deal with Mitchell Trubisky gives the team a new starter under center after Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement this offseason. The signing helps the team avoid settling for unpromising backups Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins—but it’s hard to see Trubisky offering much more than that.

Perhaps Trubisky, who was Josh Allen’s backup in Buffalo last season after four mediocre seasons helming the Bears, will shock everyone and become the Steelers’ long-needed solution. Perhaps he won’t. What’s clear is that Pittsburgh’s decision is a byproduct of being a QB-needy team in a stale QB market. With Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Carson Wentz (I guess) each unavailable, there weren’t many enticing ways for Pittsburgh to upgrade under center. Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, and Marcus Mariota wouldn’t move the needle enough. Deshaun Watson faces 22 civil lawsuits stemming from reports of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. (Last week, a grand jury did not find enough evidence to charge Watson with a crime.) San Francisco appears willing to trade Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason, but adding him would require parting with assets. The Steelers also own the no. 20 pick in the draft, though this signing may indicate that the team is not infatuated by the prospects they expect to be available at that spot. Of those lackluster options, Pittsburgh determined that signing Trubisky made the most sense.

The Steelers and Trubisky are an odd fit on several levels. Mike Tomlin has coached Pittsburgh—one of the NFL’s most iconic franchises—into the playoffs in 10 of his first 15 seasons with the club, including the past two seasons. The Steelers have never endured a losing season with Tomlin at the helm. There is certainty in Pittsburgh factoring into the playoff race every year, but there is plenty of unknown surrounding Trubisky. After quarterbacking the Bears to a postseason appearance in his second season, he regressed during each of his final two years in Chicago. He lost his starting job to Nick Foles in 2020 (despite Chicago’s 3-0 start), then reclaimed it down the stretch. But the Bears felt they had seen enough. Trubisky spent the 2021 season holding a clipboard in Buffalo and learning from former Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. It’s impossible to expect an Allen-like leap in production from Trubisky, but Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada will likely be grateful for any skill or knowledge Trubisky picked up from the Allen-Daboll duo in the past year.

There’s enough evidence to suggest that Trubisky is not a franchise QB, but he might be better than the cheeky “Biscuit” moniker implies. When Trubisky resumed starting for the Bears at the end of the 2020 season, a report suggested that in “the eyes of some NFL executives” he was worthy of an extension in Chicago. Yet no executives backed up that sentiment with their wallets last offseason. Trubisky signed a one-year deal with the Bills, joining a team that, he said, “care[d] about how you’re progressing as a person and as a player.” He appeared in six games last season, exclusively in garbage time, and there wasn’t much to glean from his play. Trubisky’s 2020 level of play would be a small upgrade over what the Steelers received from Roethlisberger in 2021. Trubisky averaged a paltry 5.1 completed air yards per attempt and ranked 20th among passers in EPA per play (0.12) in 2020. Roethlisberger averaged 4.4 completed air yards per attempt and tallied a negative 0.02 EPA per play in 2021. At least Trubisky offers intriguing mobility behind center. Regardless, it’s outlandish to assume Trubisky will near the level of quarterback play that the Steelers are accustomed to enjoying.

Pittsburgh spent a majority of Roethlisberger’s career with arguably the AFC North’s best quarterback, but now finds itself looking up at each of its three competitors—not only behind center, but as an overall roster. Last season, the Steelers finished 24th overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings (25th offense; 14th defense), down from eighth overall (22nd offense; first defense) in 2020. Pittsburgh boasts the 10th-most cap space and seven draft picks, but in terms of roster strength, they are a bit more than a quarterback away from being an elite contender. In the era of teams successfully making aggressive quarterback decisions to fuel Super Bowl runs, though, it still felt underwhelming that Pittsburgh didn’t emerge as a significant player for the top quarterbacks available this offseason.

“We will never narrow it down to one position. Never have, never will,” Steelers GM Kevin Colbert told reporters at the NFL combine earlier this month. “Quarterback is obviously a huge position in any given season, especially this year with our Hall of Fame quarterback calling it a career. So, is it different this year? Yes. But is it going to change how we approach things? No.”

Pittsburgh’s approach to this offseason may also say something about the quarterbacks in the 2022 draft. The 20th overall pick isn’t usually considered an optimal position to potentially select a franchise QB, but for what’s largely perceived as a down class like this one, it could be. Last week, The Ringer’s Danny Kelly projected the Steelers to draft Pitt signal-caller Kenny Pickett; he was only the third QB projected to come off the board (Kelly had Malik Willis to Seattle at no. 9 and Matt Corral to New Orleans at no. 18). Pittsburgh’s addition of Trubisky doesn’t necessarily preclude the team from picking a rookie passer, though it does make it less likely. And for what it’s worth, Colbert seemed optimistic about this year’s group at the combine.

“I think it’s a quality [QB] class,” Colbert said of the 2022 crop. “It might not be the number of players at that position that there have been in the past but it’s certainly good quality and there’s going to be starting NFL quarterbacks coming out of this class for sure.”

Maybe the Steelers are still intent on using the draft to find a new starter. Or maybe they’re waiting to see if next year’s crop will provide a better chance. The problem for the Steelers is that, based on the results of Tomlin’s tenure, it’s likely that they won’t ever be in the position to select a premier passer; teams either have to be outright bad or make aggressive trades to do that, neither of which fits the Steelers’ style. Unless Trubisky proves to be anything more than a below-average starter, they might be stuck in the middle of the pack for the next two years. If that’s the case, maybe QB Purgatory is the real QB Hell after all.