5 for Friday: Rooney confident Steelers will take next step

Continuity and patience have been the backbone of the Steelers for the past 50-plus years. They've had three head coaches and just 10 losing seasons, three of those coming in Chuck Noll's first three years as head coach.

So, it doesn't come as a surprise offensive coordinator Matt Canada is returning in 2023 for a third season as the team's offensive coordinator.

Team president Art Rooney II was asked about that decision at his season-ending press conference Thursday. His answer had everything to do with that same patience his father, Dan, showed with Noll in his first three seasons when the Steelers went a combined 12-30.

Dan Rooney trusted the process then, much the same way Art Rooney II is trusting the process now. There was progress made from 1969 through 1971, as the Steelers improved from 1-13 to 5-9 to 6-8.

In much the same way, there was progress made with the Steelers offense in 2022, particularly from rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett as the season wore on.

"The progression of Kenny, I think, was obvious, and good to see, and hopefully something that we'll continue to build on next year," Rooney said.

And in this case, moving on to a new offensive coordinator could have set Pickett back, maybe not to square one, but certainly a few steps by forcing him to learn a new offense. There also would be a learning curve with a new coordinator learning new personnel.

"I think we like to see the improvement. With a rookie quarterback, they seem to work well together," Rooney said of Pickett and Canada. "They built a good working relationship. To sort of start over again with a new offensive coordinator could wind up back in the same situation, again, where the first half of the season, you're breaking in a new coordinator. So, we just felt like there's enough there to build on that we want to continue to keep that group together."

To Rooney's point, there was tangible evidence the offense was much better in the second half of the 2022 season than it was in the first, as the team scored nearly a touchdown more per game during its 7-2 finish than it had over a 2-6 season. The running game produced 50 more yards rushing per game. The Steelers led the league in third-down conversion percentage over that period. Pickett threw one interception over the final eight games.

But more improvement is needed – and expected.

With a second-year quarterback surrounded by a young group of skill position players and offensive linemen, the expectation is that those players will continue to get better.

"Let's put it this way: I think we have a lot of good young players on offense who hopefully will take another step next year," Rooney said. "That's what we'll be looking for."

• There seems to be some misunderstanding regarding who is handling the Steelers' offseason prep for the NFL Draft and free agency.

The Steelers aren't changing the way they run things in terms of the power structure simply because Omar Khan has replaced Kevin Colbert as the team's general manager following the latter's retirement. All personnel decisions are made by Rooney with input from Khan and head coach Mike Tomlin. Rooney has the final say. But a consensus will be reached.

That's the way things have been and the way they'll continue to be.

But that doesn't mean Khan and assistant GM Andy Weidl don't have different ways of approaching the draft and free agency in terms of grades and things like that, much the same way Colbert's grading system was different than that of his predecessor, Tom Donahoe.

"I think we're seeing changes already in the way Omar and Andy are preparing for the Draft," Rooney said. "I think those guys have their own ways of doing things that are a little different from Kevin. Everybody's a little different. Certainly, we'll see some changes in the approach to the Draft. Just some of the things we're doing already this time of year are different. Having said that, Kevin had a pretty successful run. So, there are a lot of different ways to get it done, right? I like the way Omar is going about it so far."

One thing that hasn't and won't change is the decision-making process. The Steelers will still come to a consensus among Rooney, Tomlin and Khan when it comes to making draft picks or free agent decisions. The information might be presented in a slightly different fashion, but the decisions will be made the same way they always have been handled.

Build through the draft, try to keep your own and supplement in free agency, where needed.

"I think that the way we've done it, we give ourselves a chance to be competitive every year," Rooney said. "And that means you have a chance to get into the tournament and have a chance to win it. So, I'm not saying that we wouldn't work hard if we take some chances if we thought we had something that we really could build on. But I don't see anything changing dramatically in that regard."

• None of that means the Steelers won't make out-of-the-box moves if they feel they can improve the team.

They've made moves in recent years that haven't been the norm in Pittsburgh, such as trading up in the 2019 draft to get Devin Bush, trading a future first-round draft pick to acquire safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and sending Chase Claypool to the Bears for a 2023 second-round draft pick at the trade deadline this season.

Those decisions aren't made lightly. But they're always made with the big picture and winning in mind.

"It was a tough decision. Yeah, it was," Rooney said of the decision to trade Claypool to the Bears. "We obviously drafted Chase high and had high hopes for him. But we were at a point where, weighing all the positives and negatives of it, it seemed to make sense. So, we pulled the trigger on it."

As things turned out, the pick the Steelers got in return is the first selection of the second round in the upcoming 2023 draft.

"We traded for Minkah a couple years ago, which we didn't do very often. We traded Chase this year. So, I don't know. Is there a trend here?" Rooney said. "We just try to do things that improve our roster whenever we can, and I wouldn't want to predict too much that we'll do this, that or the other thing in the future. We're just going to try to do what we can to make the team the best team we can put on the field."

• Three of the four teams in the conference championship games this weekend will start quarterbacks working on their rookie contracts, though that wasn't necessarily the play with the 49ers, who had been starting veteran Jimmy Garoppolo.

But just because Patrick Mahomes is the only quarterback playing this weekend who has gotten a second contract doesn't mean that having a cheap quarterback is the only way to win.

"I would be hesitant to say that just because you have a veteran quarterback you can't compete well," Rooney said. "You just kind of build the best roster you can with what you have. The fact that you have a quarterback on a rookie deal doesn't hurt. But in terms of talking about that as the direction the league's going in, that's what you need, to have a quarterback on a rookie deal, I'm not going to say that's what you need. I mean, you need a good quarterback, whether he's a rookie or veteran."

To Rooney's point, simply having a cheap quarterback as the shortcut to winning isn't the issue. Having a good young quarterback on a cheap (ie. rookie) deal allows a team to spend its money elsewhere – at least until that rookie deal runs out.

That will be the situation in which the Bengals will find themselves after this season. 

Joe Burrow is finishing up his third season as Cincinnati's quarterback. There's already talk the team will look to work on an extension with him this offseason.

It gets expensive. But it's also a nice problem to have and incredibly worth the cost.

If Pickett turns into what the Steelers feel he can be and the time comes to give him a second contract, they won't hesitate to do so simply because some other teams have made it to the conference championship with quarterbacks on rookie deals.

• There are a lot of salary cap numbers floating around on the internet right now. But none of them are anything close to official.

With so many comings and goings at this time of the season and the cap not having officially been set yet – that won't happen until a couple of weeks before free agency begins March 15 – it's all just speculation at this point.

So, when Rooney says, "I've heard some numbers. I think we have an idea, but there is still

some work to be done in the League office on that," he's not obfuscating.

There have been estimations in the past that have been much lower than the actual number. There have been other times when the estimations are dead on. And there have been times when it's been high.

That's what estimations are.

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