After ruling the AFC North for the better part of two decades, the Pittsburgh Steelers were bound to come back to Earth. It came as no surprise when it coincided with the retirement of future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger.
It’s the cycle of the NFL. Bottom-of-the-barrel teams will (eventually) be good again, and good teams will fall on hard times. Since it’s the Steelers with Mike Tomlin at the helm, the “hard” won’t last long, and Tomlin will, somehow, make the turnaround look easy.
But Tomlin’s team will have to go through the current Kings of the North in the Cincinnati Bengals, who went to the 2022 Super Bowl and are primed to return in 2023, it won’t be that easy. All it took was decades of turmoil and being bad enough to draft quarterback Joe Burrow first overall in the 2020 NFL draft.
Doug Whaley, the Steelers’ former pro personnel director, talked with 93.7 The Fan as to what sets the Bengals apart from Pittsburgh: the offense. He believes it’ll be a while before the Steelers can hang with the Bengals, which is not what fans want to hear. A faction is upset that it’s been six years since they’ve won a playoff game (a pre-Patrick Mahomes Kansas City Chiefs in 2017). Some of that faction is of the opinion that Kenny Pickett isn’t it.
Whaley, a one-time general manager candidate for the Steelers, pointed to Cincinnati being without several of its offensive linemen for multiple games this season and still marching into Buffalo and dominating.
“Joe Burrow had three of his starting offensive linemen out,” Whaley said. “If you took three of the starting offensive linemen off the Pittsburgh Steelers, would they be able to go into Buffalo, in that hostile environment, with everything surrounding that Buffalo team, and be able to blanket them like the Cincinnati Bengals? That’s all you have to say right there.”
With a patchwork offensive line, the Bengals handed it to the Buffalo Bills in their home stadium, knocking them out of the running for the AFC’s best.
In a passing-dominated league, Pittsburgh will have to go through Burrow for the better part of two decades. Whaley said the gap between Pickett and the Cincinnati QB is significant — at least right now.
“That’s how far that gap at quarterback is going to be as well,” he said. “I’m not saying that Kenny can’t strive and get better and get to that level, I’m just saying, you take a snapshot of that picture right now, that’s where you are. So I think there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Realistically, it could be two more seasons before Pittsburgh is even in the same conversation as Cincinnati. Whaley explained what he thinks it’ll take. “Get some starters this year [draft, free agency] and then really cement the middle and back end of the roster next year. By year three [of rebuilding] of this. This  was year one, year two next year and by year three you should be knocking on that divisional door.”
Tides Could Soon Turn for Steelers Resurgence in AFC North
The tides could turn sooner than that, though. Joe Burrow’s $9 million rookie deal will soon balloon into $44 million annually in the next season or two. That’s a vast chunk of money going to one player — much like Pittsburgh dealt with for years with Ben Roethlisberger.
The Philadelphia Eagles and general manager Howie Roseman formed a dream team this offseason and have their eyes on a second Super Bowl ring in five years. How were they able to do that? 1) Roseman is some kinda genius and 2) quarterback Jalen Hurts is still on his rookie deal.
Something tells me that the Bengals won’t be able to sustain this level of winning for much longer.