Make no mistake about it, the Pittsburgh Steelers are currently on a slippery slope.
After limping out to a surprising 0-2 start, the typically solid Steelers — who will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the rest of the season due to a devastating elbow injury — are potentially one loss, and certainly one more quarterback injury, away from the dreaded season from hell.
You know, the year where everything goes wrong for a contender, starting with an injury to a star player, and they somehow end up with a franchise-changing high pick.
It most famously happened in the NBA in the 1996-97 season, when star center David Robinson was limited to six games due to back and foot injuries, the Spurs won the lottery and drafted Tim Duncan. It also happened in the NFL in 2011, when Peyton Manning missed the whole season with a neck injury and the Colts landed another franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck during the ensuing draft.
So yes, it’s not a stretch to say the Steelers — who are now tasking second-year pro Mason Rudolph with leading them out of football hell, as Tony D’Amato would say — are on the precipice of disaster without Roethlisberger, all of which makes their all-in, chips-in-the-center-of-the-table trade for Miami Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick late Monday night surprising.
An optimist would call the trade bold. A realist would call it risky. A pessimist might call it dumb.
None of this has anything to do with Fitzpatrick, a fine player who was wasting away on the worst NFL roster seen since the winless 2008 Lions. The 22-year-old is an intriguing versatile talent and former first-round pick, the kind of player the tanking Dolphins should be building around.
Only, the second-year pro didn’t like the way he was being used — at strong safety, a position even his mother agreed he didn’t feel comfortable at — and the Dolphins opted to trade him and add to their treasure trove of draft picks, bringing their total first-round bounty in 2020 to three in their attempt to improve the odds of drafting a franchise quarterback. Good for them.
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Fitzpatrick will now bolster a position of need for the Steelers, who lack deep cover talent at safety (a big-time problem in today’s pass-heavy NFL) and took an additional hit when current starter Sean Davis suffered a torn labrum Sunday (but still expects to keep playing).
Yet, it all comes at a cost because the decision to trade a first-round pick that could be immensely valuable — while in the process, outbidding bonafide playoff teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, who made an aggressive offer for Fitzpatrick, a source told Yahoo Sports, but were ultimately felled by their likely placement at the end of the draft’s first round — speaks to the faith they have in the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Rudolph, a third-round pick in 2018.
Rudolph didn’t look bad in his first regular-season NFL action Sunday in relief of Roethlisberger. In one half, he completed 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. (The pick wasn’t his fault, as the ball bounced off the hands of receiver Donte Moncrief and into a defender’s waiting grasp.)
But by setting themselves up to go without a first-round pick for the first time since 1967 — dead serious — the Steelers better be right about Rudolph, and he better not get hurt.
Rudolph will be playing behind one of the league’s most experienced and cohesive lines. He is particularly good at selling play-action and he loves to throw downfield. It’s possible for the Steelers to successfully get away from the pass-heavy lean they’ve undertaken with Roethlisberger and recommit to a running game that has been unacceptably dormant through the first two weeks of the season.
And hey, maybe Rudolph’s insertion into the starting lineup will also be a good thing for second-year receiver James Washington, a second-round pick a year ago who thrived in a productive battery together with Rudolph at Oklahoma State but has yet to put it all together on the pro level.
However, if the Steelers are wrong about Rudolph, the chances of Pittsburgh avoiding the season from hell — one that includes their first losing year since 2003, when they went 6-10 under the great Bill Cowher — go way down. And that’s why the trade is also a double-down bet on current coach Mike Tomlin who, for all the criticism he has taken from Steelers fans, has never finished worse than 8-8 in his previous 12 seasons as head coach.
With a typical respectable Tomlin season, the Steelers’ 2020 pick will fall anywhere from the middle to the end of the first round and they’ll win the trade, since Pittsburgh would be unlikely to find anyone as good as Fitzpatrick, the 11th overall pick a year ago, at that spot.
Anything short of that will be a disaster because it means Rudolph didn’t work and Pittsburgh will need to find another young quarterback to groom for the future, even though the 37-year-old Roethlisberger is intent on coming back. A top-10 pick, which they’d end up with for sure following a season from hell, would have been a good place to start, especially since they already shipped their third-round selection to Denver in their draft-day trade up for linebacker Devin Bush.
So, we’ll see. Just know that the Steelers’ fate — and whether the optimist, realist or pessimist will end up being right in the end — rests almost entirely in the hands of Rudolph, who could do his bosses a solid by justifying their faith in him with his play over the next 14 games.
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