For as long as anyone could remember, the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t curving to the trends in the NFL when it came to guaranteed money in contract extensions. Eventually, they recognized that special players require special measures, forking over $80 million in guarantees to T.J. Watt earlier this month.
When the offseason comes, it will be time to follow suit — by expending some valuable draft picks to fix the quarterback position.
If there’s any franchise situated to make a quick turn into the Super Bowl lane (a la Tampa Bay in 2020) it’s the Steelers. And if there’s any veteran quarterback who can make that happen (a la Tom Brady with those Buccaneers), it’s Aaron Rodgers. The same Rodgers whom Pittsburgh faces Sunday when the Steelers visit the Green Bay Packers. And the same Rodgers who still has 14 regular-season games and the playoffs to think about his future, which reportedly rests in the quarterback’s hands when this season ends.
Also, the same Rodgers who had this to say of Pittsburgh during his weekly appearance on "The Pat McAfee Show" on Tuesday:
“It’s a great blue-collar town. There’s a lot of great people that live there. It’s got a lot of history, that city. … I have a ton of respect for Mike [Tomlin]. I think he’s a fantastic coach. I love the way that he leads. I love the way he talks after the games. He always seems to keep things really even-keeled. It looks like he’s somebody that the players love playing for him. They’ve had a great defense. It’s been a part of Pittsburgh, the franchise, for a long, long time, is [the] great defense.”
Here’s the thing about many of the appearances that Rodgers makes with McAfee: More often than not, the questions McAfee throws often come in the form of an alley-oop that Rodgers seems to know is coming and wants to dunk.
All of this makes me believe that as Rodgers prepares for the Steelers this week, he’s keenly aware of three important points.
No. 1: The Steelers need a new quarterback this offseason.
No. 2: The roster is fairly loaded and needs only some tweaks.
No. 3: Much like Brady and Tampa Bay, the right quarterback and right tweaks can pay off huge in 2022.
Indeed, there’s a fair argument that Pittsburgh’s situation right now very closely mirrors what Tampa Bay was going through in 2019 with Jameis Winston. There was copious skill position talent, significant playmaking on defense and a top-tier head coach who was revered in his locker room. But the team lacked two key components: An elite starting quarterback and some serious offensive line investment. Pittsburgh is very much in that same boat. And like Tampa, if it could remedy them in this coming offseason, things could turn on a dime.
Of course, just because Rodgers is lathering up the Pittsburgh fan base with his love and saying affectionate things about Tomlin and the Steelers' defense doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s winking at them about the coming offseason. He’s just as likely to be goosing people in the Packers' organization as he is to be legitimately sending a “pick up the phone” vibe to another team. But that said, everyone knows where Rodgers started this season with the Packers, especially every NFL team that is going to be one great veteran away from competing for a Super Bowl in 2022. All that matters is whether the Steelers think he might have been flirting with them on his friendly media platform with McAfee.
As an aside — and this is a bit of a deep cut theory — it was very interesting that Rodgers spoke about his respect for Tomlin through the prism of loving “the way he talks after the games” and always keeping things “really even-keeled.” When I heard that, all I could think of was Packers coach Matt LaFleur saying out loud after the Week 1 drubbing by New Orleans that the Saints “absolutely embarrassed us.” Those words were repeated to Rodgers later, drawing this response from the quarterback: “I’ll let him use those words and I’ll use ‘It’s just one game.’”
When Rodgers said that, it felt like he thought there was an overreaction to the Saints loss. And it was worth wondering how thrilled he could be when LaFleur used the phrase “embarrassed,” which is heavy-handed after a season-opening defeat. Certainly, it's not in the keeping things “even-keeled" category. Maybe the Tomlin affection was meant to be a mild poke from Rodgers, who is the kind of smart guy to know exactly what he’s saying and exactly how to say it.
That doesn’t mean Rodgers has any kind of rift with LaFleur, who was deep into the quarterback’s corner this offseason. And it doesn’t really mean he wants to go play for Tomlin. But if you’re the Steelers and you see a quarterback who could flip you into a Super Bowl contender in 2022, it’s worth exploring, particularly when you don’t hear any regrets from Tampa Bay about signing Brady and then engaging in a swath of maneuvers that handed the quarterback considerable organizational power — from trading for Rob Gronkowski, drafting an offensive tackle in the first round, signing Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette, and ultimately shaping the offense to Brady’s strengths.
In many ways, the reason Tampa Bay’s gamble on Brady worked was because the braintrust went completely all-in on him from the standpoint of the surrounding build. It helped that the defense caught fire down the stretch, but even that doesn’t erase the reality that last season’s Lombardi Trophy doesn’t reside in Tampa Bay without the total push the organization engaged in when it came to the quarterback.
It’s fair to question whether Pittsburgh could ever do that for Rodgers, especially given that pursuing him comes with a price that Brady didn’t — in the form of trade compensation. Unlike Brady, the Steelers would have to surrender valuable draft picks to peel him off the Packers' roster. That compensation could escalate if the Packers have a successful season, which might negate Rodgers’ interest in leaving.
Given its track record of how it has done contracts and historically built its team through the draft, it seems unlikely that the Steelers would make the big splash in a Rodgers pursuit. It’s not the type of organization that would surrender the picks and control that would be required to maximize the gamble. Then again, Tampa Bay seemed like a very unlikely landing spot for Brady when his free agency first began — and we all know how that has turned out.
Few thought the Buccaneers would be capable of reeling in Brady. And surely few think the Steelers could put together a plan that would net Rodgers. But Pittsburgh has proven to be an elite organization — and those are the type that can make the unlikely happen.
Plus the Steelers showed the ability to learn a new lesson: That special players require special measures.