By Jeremy Hritz
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been fortunate over the past ten seasons to have a franchise quarterback that has kept them competitive, never finishing a season below 8-8, and always staying in the hunt for the playoffs. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and eventually, the magic that Ben Roethlisberger has brought to the Steelers and to the city of Pittsburgh will end.
And when that day comes, the Steelers had better be prepared.
Most Steelers fans remember the period of dreadful quarterback play that existed in between the careers of Terry Bradshaw and Roethlisberger, and it was an epoch characterized by mediocre teams on the outside looking in at the playoffs, or when the overall team was good enough to make the playoffs, average quarterback play doomed the Steelers in the end.
In a league that is dominated by elite quarterbacks, look no further than Sunday’s AFC Championship contest between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, not having one is the difference between being a contender and a one-and-done. Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers would be an average, if not a below-average team, and the organization would be wise to prepare for his departure in advance. In other words, the Steelers should have a succession plan.
Having a succession plan would be a proactive effort to ensure solid quarterback play to avoid a decline in play at the position. And while it doesn't guarantee success, it is a strategic and smart attempt to avoid a backslide. And there is nothing to lose. If it works out, you’re a genius, if it doesn't, the search for Roethlisberger’s replacement continues.
The most recognized example of succession planning in the NFL is the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers. While Brett Favre still had life in his game, the Packers drafted Rodgers 24th overall in the first round in 2005, and it paid off as Rodgers watched and learned the ropes for three years and then stepped in to become one of the best quarterbacks in the game, including winning a Super Bowl in his sixth year.
Roethlisberger still has five good years left, excluding a significant injury, and in three years, maybe even two, the Steelers would be wise to draft a potential successor. That would allow the new prospect the appropriate time to develop and become the QB of the Steelers future.
The quarterback position is too important to leave to chance, and as the league evolves, I expect more and more teams with franchise quarterbacks to utilize such an approach moving forward. While it may not always work out as expected because of the erratic nature of the draft, it is an intelligent approach to building for the future of a team.
It will be a sad, sad day when Ben plays his last down in a black and gold uniform, but having a young apprentice to graciously take the reins from the Pittsburgh legend can make the loss easier to manage.