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Mike Tomlin’s Job Now Is Fixing the Destructive Aura of Russell Wilson


If the Pittsburgh Steelers wanted to add competition to the quarterback room this offseason, they could have done so quietly. Allowing Russell Wilson to announce his intent to sign with the team for the veteran minimum just before midnight ET on Sunday, hours prior to the start of NFL free agency’s legal tampering period, signals a different motive altogether.

Sure, the Steelers said that they were interested in bringing in someone to push former first-round pick Kenny Pickett. It was unclear that they meant in front of a bus.

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Mike Tomlin is smart enough to know how the NFL works. He is smart enough to know what he can and cannot control. And he is smart enough to know that Wilson Inc. is not the kind of operation that sits on the bench, or takes idly to a role as a backup singer. Is Tomlin smart enough to fix the destructive aura that has followed Wilson over the past few years as well?

Sean Payton couldn’t fix Wilson. Now the job belongs to Mike Tomlin.

Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

As Wilson aggressively tries to resuscitate his career after being forced out from the Denver Broncos, he will begin the offseason training program in a full-court press for Pickett’s job, with years of experience in locker room politics, media finesse and big-game clout in his hip pocket. There is nothing about this maneuver that can be spun as friendly or supportive of Pickett.

When looking at it now, the move crystalizes what kind of tunnel vision NFL teams truly have. Pickett played football in the organization’s back yard. Despite the quarterback class of 2022 being a historical outlier in terms of its lack of talent, the team’s close ties with the Pitt program and access to Pickett made it seem like they knew something the rest of us did not.

When it became clear that was not the case, Pittsburgh did not change offensive coordinators. They passed on the quarterback free agent class of 2023, which included Derek Carr, Aaron Rodgers (in theory), Jarrett Stidham and Jacoby Brissett. They passed on the draft class of ’23, where the team ahead of the Indianapolis Colts at pick No. 3 (the Houston Texans) was clearly willing to deal out.

And now, the Steelers found themselves in such a position of discomfort that signing Wilson seemed like a relatively sensible maneuver.

Except that there is little that makes sense about the thought process leading up to this point. I get that we may slightly overrate Wilson’s decline because of our tendency to slip into narrative arcs—the stumbling hero is an intriguing watch—and because of the fact that Wilson is a bit of an acquired taste for some personally. He did throw 26 touchdown passes to eight interceptions last season. Pickett threw 13 total touchdowns over his two seasons as an NFL starter. Wilson is undoubtedly an improvement, but one that will necessitate the creation of an offense that relies solely on his strengths and accepts his tendency to eschew certain throws and miss designed shots in structure. There is no offense that houses both Wilson and Pickett comfortably under the same roof.

If the organization is willing to go through all of that trouble, why wouldn’t they give new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith a shot at designing an offense for Pickett? Or trading up into the quarterback-rich first round of this year’s draft and admitting their displeasure at the position in a more sensible way?

I hate to be the person who says that if coach X cannot fix a person no one can. Certainly Sean Payton has his limitations and it was clear from the moment he immediately snapped up Stidham in free agency in 2023. Even Payton was not as enamored with Wilson as Broncos general manager George Paton (who is now paying Wilson the equivalent of a super yacht to play for another team in the same conference). And, as we mention frequently enough to give ourselves a stomach illness, Wilson was provided chances to succeed in the Nathaniel Hackett offense the year before. The greatest hits tape of open wide receivers begging for the ball is longer than we might remember.

At this point, there seem to be a handful of realistic outcomes. I’ll admit that, among them, the possibility that Wilson plays well enough in Pittsburgh and, underneath the firm press of Tomlin’s thumb, manages to do so without causing any organizational distress.

But so, too, is what we have seen elsewhere. Wilson’s tenure in Seattle ended with the Seahawks willing to give him away despite having a competitive roster in a loaded NFC West that necessitated all the firepower the team could possibly amass. Wilson’s tenure in Denver ended with the Broncos willing to give him away despite the fact that Wilson’s contract would trigger nearly double the amount of dead money any team had ever taken on in NFL history…also in a loaded division that necessitates all the firepower (especially at quarterback) one can amass. The willingness to make those moves is not simply based on a decline in performance. There were quarterbacks who declined for years, often with worse statistics than Wilson, who were allowed to remain because they still created a net benefit for the organization.

Now, Tomlin is taking on the responsibility of figuring out what has gone so impossibly wrong. He’s already clipped the wings of his former first-round pick quarterback by signing Wilson. He has no other choice but to work on the rebrand for Wilson Inc. now. 

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