It took a custodian at Nebraska for Mark Whipple to hear he was on a shortlist of potential “candidates” for the not-even-vacant Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator.
It’s hard to take a list like that seriously, even if your name is in it, and Whipple didn’t.
“I don’t really read anything,” Whipple told Heavy in an exclusive interview. “One of the custodians mentioned it at Nebraska, but that was the only time I’d heard it, so I took it really great salt.”
The shortlist only existed in the heads of Steelers fans and pundits. On January 18, Pittsburgh retained offensive coordinator Matt Canada and likely never intended to let him go with one year left on his contract.
Whipple wouldn’t speak to the subject as he’s “not on the inside.” Along with Bill Cowher, Whipple left the Steelers after the 2005 Super Bowl. He served as mentor and quarterbacks coach to a fresh-faced Ben Roethlisberger from 2004 to 2006.
But now he has the ear of another Steelers VIP: Roethlisberger’s successor Kenny Pickett. Whipple was Pickett’s offensive coordinator at Pitt from 2019 to 2021. The two talk and text often, including during Pickett’s 13-game span of starts. Whipple steers clear of offering his former quarterback advice, preferring instead to be a sounding board and a supportive figure.
“It’s more that [Pickett] has got somebody to bounce things off of,” Whipple said. “I know what Pittsburgh’s like and I know Kenny. I know where his head is.”
“He’s a competitor and got a talented guy, a mature guy. As I told him, I wished for him to get to the playoffs just because that’s another step, different level. I wanted that for him, but he’ll get there, he’s a worker.”
Uncertain Future for Kenny Pickett’s Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada in Pittsburgh
No one knows what’ll become of Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada when his contract expires after the 2023 season. As it typically does, Pittsburgh’s season will dictate Canada’s future.
While Mark Whipple isn’t privy to and wouldn’t comment specifically on the situation, if the Steelers were not to renew Canada’s contract, he knows Pickett would be just fine with a new coordinator.
“Kenny’s smart enough that that’s just a change of terminology,” he explained. “Sometimes that helps guys, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Whipple thinks that any coordinator coming into Pittsburgh would be happy to have a guy like Kenny Pickett to lead. He’d know. In 2019, he landed with the Pitt Panthers as Pickett’s second coordinator in three seasons.
Pickett, then 21, managed the adjustment between his first coordinator, Shawn Watson, and Whipple rather well.
In his first 18 games under Watson, he threw for 2,478 yards on 376 attempts (58% completion) for 12 touchdowns and six interceptions (College Football Sports Reference). He added 220 yards and three scores rushing. The concerns for Pickett needing to start over with a new coordinator in his formative years were eased after Whipple came along.
Pickett adapted quickly, throwing for 5,056 yards and 26 touchdowns in 21 games. 2020 was cut short by the COVID pandemic, so Pickett stuck around Pitt for an extra season, as did many student-athletes. And it produced stellar results for the senior: 334 completions on 497 attempts (67 percent) for 4,319 yards and a 42 to seven touchdown-to-interception ratio. Under the guidance of Whipple, Pickett led Pitts to an ACC championship in 2019 and put him in the conversation for the Heisman trophy (he finished second runner-up). His draft stock enjoyed a boost, as well.
But Pittsburgh isn’t Pitt, so it’ll be interesting to see if Pickett undergoes a coordinator change in year three. Whipple knows he has what it takes to excel.
“The way he goes about his business. You got a guy that’s gonna work hard and be a leader,” he said. “He’ll give everything he’s got, and he’ll have the players’ backs. And he’ll just get better and better the more he plays like the great competitors do. So that’s a good start for any coordinator.”
Steelers Staff Needs Pass-Focused Offensive Assistant
The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive identity became abundantly clear after Najee Harris emerged from the bye week healthy: They wanted to be a running team. It also helped that Pittsburgh struck gold with its undrafted free agent back Jaylen Warren. The two complemented each other well, combining for 1,413 yards and eight touchdowns.
Once Harris’ foot healed, the Steelers finally had their third ingredient of the 2022 season pie: A quarterback who protected the ball, a dominant defense and a solid ground game. The ability to have a strong, run-oriented team aided Kenny Pickett while he acclimated to the speed of the game and less pressure was on him to constantly move the ball. But with that, the Steelers rendered themselves one-dimensional or predictable as weekly opponents infamously repeated. When a team doesn’t or won’t take risks downfield or, more importantly, scheme to catch a receiver in stride, it’s difficult for an offense to pose a threat.
On the laundry list of things Pittsburgh needs to work on in the offseason is allowing Pickett more freedom to push the ball downfield. It’ll come more naturally as Pickett progresses, but a little help from a pass-oriented veteran offensive assistant won’t hurt.
Per Steelers team president Art Rooney II, it’s not out of the question.
“I wouldn’t take anything off the table,” Rooney told Steelers media on January 26. “We’re at that time of year where Mike’s evaluating coaches, we have coaches that are interviewing at other places. So, the coaching staff, there could still be changes to it. But I don’t really want to speculate on kind of where we might go.”