Labriola On

Task of finding a 'franchise QB' begins

As the advertising tagline goes, inquiring minds want to know, and the inquiring minds gathered at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Tuesday for Coach Mike Tomlin's final weekly news conference wanted to know a lot of things. Not surprisingly, at the top of that list were the status of offensive coordinator Matt Canada and how the Steelers plan to replace Ben Roethlisberger.

By just about every statistical measurement, the Steelers offense regressed in terms of performance from 2020 to 2021, with a notable exception being its league rank in rushing, where the unit improved marginally from 32nd in the NFL in 2020 to 29th in the NFL in 2021. And so it was no surprise that the first question posed to Tomlin asked for his assessment of the 2021 version of the Steelers offense and the job Canada did with the unit.

"I'm optimistic about Matt and what he's capable of doing," said Tomlin. "I acknowledge that we took a step back (offensively). There are some obvious tangible reasons why that occurred. I'm not going to get into all of that. I'm not going to seek comfort in that. We've got to be better. We intend to be, and that's going to require a lot of planning and then work, both players and coaches."

And no one would argue that an important step toward realizing the challenge of being better offensively in 2022 will be tied directly to who will be the starting quarterback.

"You know, we are proceeding with the assumption (that Ben Roethlisberger will retire)," said Tomlin. "Both Mason (Rudolph) and Dwayne (Haskins) have had their moments, but they'll have to prove (they're ready to be an everyday starting quarterback in this league). And not only in the team development process, but through playing itself. There are guys starting who I wouldn't characterize as everyday starters, as you described in your question, and so they'll be given an opportunity to establish themselves, and there is going to be competition. There always is, and so they'll write that story, but both guys have positioned themselves to fight that fight with what they've done from a work standpoint and a professionalism standpoint."

As the Steelers enter their offseason, they have one quarterback under contract – Rudolph through the 2022 season for a reported $3 million. Haskins is a restricted free agent, and Joshua Dobbs, who was placed on the injured reserve list before the start of the 2021 regular season, can become an unrestricted free agent. Clearly, there are going to be additions to the depth chart at the position, if for no other reason that teams typically take four quarterbacks to training camp. Tomlin said he is open to those additions being either veteran free agents or draft picks.

"Right now, all options are on the table," said Tomlin, "but those decisions are interrelated based on our global needs, and the totality of those global needs. I enjoy working with Kevin (Colbert) this time of year because we speak plain English. You know, we have to improve our football team. There's two major ways to do it. You do it through free agency and you do it through the draft. And so we have to look at what's available to us in the draft, positionally. We have to look at what's available to us potentially in free agency, positionally. And then we kind of bring those two discussions together, and it gives us a path in which to go about addressing our needs. Having worked with Kevin for as long as I have, I'm sure that we'll remain in that mode. We're very comfortable in terms of identifying the things that we need to do and how we need to go about having those discussions and framing those discussions. And I'm excited about doing it."

Officially, the Steelers are just now beginning the process of identifying and/or finding their next starting quarterback, but the unofficial process, the rumors, the "reports" based on "sources" have been out there for weeks, and in some instances for months. Tomlin was asked about one of those, the report by FOX's Jay Glazer that Tomlin and the Steelers do not want to go with a rookie quarterback in 2022 and instead will explore the "HUGE market for veteran QBs who are available."

"I have not expressed that," said Tomlin. "I think it's prudent and appropriate to be open to all of the (possibilities). There are two core ways you improve your team at the quarterback position, or any position, or the totality of all the positions. You have to weigh what's available to you in the free agent market and the cost of acquiring it vs. what's available to you in the draft, and then determine what's the best mix for us. What's the best mix positionally that allows us potentially to put the strongest group on the field, not only in 2022, but just the foreseeable future. Those are the variables at play in terms of those discussions and decision-making. I'm open to all of (it)."

While Tomlin seemed to be sending the message that there would not be a change at offensive coordinator at this time, he made it clear he is not satisfied with any aspect of that unit's performance in 2021.

"I'm not expressing satisfaction with any component," said Tomlin. "I'm just acknowledging that (Canada) brings things to the table that are attractive, and we need to be better. And we will be, and that's a component of it as well. But I'm not acknowledging satisfaction with any component of what it is that we've done as I sit here today."

While Tomlin just completed his 15th season with the Steelers, which puts him third on the list of the NFL's longest-tenured coaches, one thing he never has had to do is find a franchise quarterback. He isn't shying away from the task.

"I'm excited about that challenge. Those of us who are competitors are," said Tomlin. "It's a challenge. It makes you uneasy. But I've learned to run to those challenges. I've learned to appreciate those challenges. The uncertainty surrounding them is inspiring to me in terms of producing work."