As collaborations go, it probably won't be remembered for re-shaping an industry the way Lennon & McCartney did, or improve the lives of millions like Salk & Sabin did, or do as much to make people of all ages smile as often as Ben & Jerry did. But in the world of professional football and on the topic of using the annual draft as the primary means of constructing rosters that allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to remain competitive for decades, the pairing of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin deserves to be recognized as a success.
With Steelers President Art Rooney II having announced Colbert will be stepping back from the full-time duties he has held as the head of the personnel department since 2000 following the upcoming draft, Colbert is closing in on the final NFL Draft of his career as the team's general manager. Because the actual picking of the players is the culmination of the entire offseason to this point, and with that process set to take place on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday later this week, this wasn't the time to reminisce. But still, the topic was broached during the final Colbert-Tomlin pre-draft news conference on Monday at Heinz Field.
"I've tried not to think about it, to be quite honest with you," said Tomlin about the last lap around this particular track with Colbert. "It went through my mind a little bit when we were traveling because we've just had such great times over the years traveling and gathering information, necessary information, to get to know the young men. But we've been up against it pretty good and hustling, so there haven't been a lot of those moments (to reminisce), but obviously it has been a pleasure to work alongside him and, you know, we'll see where the roads lead us."
Colbert wasn't about to go too far down the warm-and-fuzzy path, either, not with the culmination of all of the draft preparation work that began last August staring the team in the face.
"Listen, it's been a great process to work with Coach. You don't take those things for granted," said Colbert. "He loves this part of the process, and that always makes it an easier endeavor. It's fun to be out and watch him interact with these young men and their families, and the respect that he commands on the road, it's very impressive. And the information that he comes away with that I might have missed is very helpful. It's been a nice working relationship, but it's been more than that.
"You share the highs, you share the lows, and it's been great. But quite honestly, we haven't had the time to think about that now. I think that time will come whenever it comes, but right now we've got to get this thing right, and that's what we are focused on."
"This thing" will become the Steelers' 2022 draft class, which as of this moment figures to consist of seven players, assuming there are no trades that either involve the acquisition or the expenditure of picks. And for the first time since the Colbert-Tomlin collaboration began, "this thing" could involve the search for the team's next franchise quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger has retired, and the Steelers responded to that first by signing young veteran Mitch Trubisky to a two-year contract early in free agency and then by diligently and visibly doing all that was within their power to familiarize themselves with the quarterback prospects in this year's draft.
"Man, it's comprehensive," said Colbert about the process. "I mean, myself and the scouts, we got to see all these quarterbacks live at least two, sometimes three, sometimes seven times. We've seen them live, so you try to judge that based on how they appear in a game, in a stadium, on the sidelines talking to their teammates, talking to their coaches. We follow that up with those individual interviews, and Coach and his staff will ask them certain questions."
Added Tomlin, "That's why we laid out such a comprehensive process in an effort to gather as much information and get to know these guys as well as we could, because some of the things are not football related but personality related. Some people are introverted, extroverted, and settings such as this (news conference) are draining for them. So for us, it was, yes, getting to know them as players, but just as significant a component of it was getting to know them as young people as well."
One of the things that was impossible to learn about the quarterbacks in the upcoming draft, in Tomlin's view is the most significant element in a college player at the position becoming a success at the position in the NFL. And while there might have been some hints at this during the young man's college career, there is no way to learn anything definitively until the prospect is exposed to the demands at the NFL level.
"I think that (quarterback) is the ultimate competitor's position," said Tomlin. "Those who run to and not away from competition, those who embrace competition and the intensity of it, and the anxiety maybe associated with it, I think they have a leg up. Obviously, there are some pedigree-related things to the position, such as arm strength and accuracy. That's evident. Either it's present or it's not. The intangible quality associated with competition I think is something that's valuable.
"I enjoy the process of having heightened urgency for a position," added Tomlin. "Seemed like a year ago we chopped up the running backs in a similar way. I know that the process we've gone through in terms of getting to know the quarterback pool is getting some attention, but it's not an irregular process for us in terms of, you know, locking in and getting a feel for a certain pool within the pool, if you will."
It's maybe not irregular in terms of the process, but it's something different for the Steelers, a team that has been able to fill in the top line on its quarterback depth chart with the same name for each and every year Colbert and Tomlin have presided over a draft together. How that "something different" manifests itself at the end of the week will play out in due time.
"I know I feel good about the process," said Colbert. "Coach and I met more with that (quarterback) position than we have, and we spent time with them. Our offensive coaches spent more time with them in individual meetings. And look, quarterback is the most critical position in our sport, and we have to get that right. Could we add somebody (in the draft)? Yes. Could we start the season without adding anybody (in the draft)? Yes. And we'll see where it all goes."