PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers tried to bring Kenny Pickett along slowly. Let their rookie quarterback learn quietly behind the scenes and out of the spotlight in an effort not to give him too much too soon.
So much for that.
The future arrived earlier than the Steelers planned when coach Mike Tomlin handed the keys to the franchise to Pickett at halftime of what became a loss to the New York Jets on Oct. 9.
Now Pickett finds himself thrust into a leadership position in a locker room in the midst of a generational shift, at least on offense. And he has to do it while trying to learn how to be an NFL quarterback on the fly.
The early results have been mixed. While Tomlin stressed Pickett looks very much “like a fish in water," the 24-year-old hasn't been immune to the growing pains that were going to be inevitable whenever he took over.
For every daring scramble and pass threaded into traffic there's been an interception, a wide-open receiver he's missed or a sack.
“It’s a process,” quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan said. “There are no shortcuts to it.”
Sullivan would know. He was the wide receivers coach for the New York Giants when Eli Manning arrived in 2004 and the offensive coordinator for Tampa Bay in 2013 when Mike Glennon went from third-round flyer to starter when the Buccaneers benched Josh Freeman.
Two semi-similar quarterbacks. Two very different career arcs. Manning became a two-time Super Bowl winner, while the well-traveled Glennon went 6-25 while hopscotching from one team to another.
The Steelers are ardent in their belief Pickett will follow the path of the former, not the latter. And even Manning lost six of his seven starts during that bumpy first season nearly two decades ago. The coaching staff has been effusive in its praise of the intangibles Pickett brings, confident the tangibles — namely wins and touchdowns — will come.
“A lot of quarterbacks that have gotten drafted in the first round have come in their first year and it has maybe not been as rosy as everybody has hoped and it’s turned out to be really good, right?” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “There’s statistical data to that. That doesn’t make it OK right now. We’re not all sitting here like, ‘Oh, it’s fine,’ and he’s not either.”
Canada said nobody is working harder than Pickett to figure things out as the Steelers prepare for a second half that starts on Nov. 13 against New Orleans. Maybe that's part of the issue. Pickett took his teammates to task following a loss in Philadelphia last week, saying he believes the Steelers need to study more to avoid the mistakes — formation penalties among the most noticeable — that seem to be repeating themselves on a weekly basis.
It's a tricky spot for a player with only a handful of games of NFL experience under his belt, a position Trubisky found himself in with Chicago in 2017, when he took over for — ironically — an ineffective Glennon less than six months after the Bears traded up to grab Trubisky with the second overall pick in the draft.
“You’re coming in and you’re just a rookie,” said Trubisky, who went 3-9 as a starter that season. “You don’t know much. You’re trying to do your job, but you’re also trying to lead 10 other guys on the field with you.”
Pickett's preference would be to lead by example than with his words. It's a formula that helped him craft a record-setting career while playing next door for the University of Pittsburgh. It's a luxury the NFL does not afford. He's the future face of the franchise, whether he wants to be or not.
“You have these older guys that you’re trying to lead, but you’re young and there’s still a lot of stuff that you’re trying to learn,” Trubisky said. “So there’s a balance. But I think he’s done a pretty good job of handling it so far.”
Pickett's maturity is one of the reasons the Steelers were so high on him as they plotted a way forward following Ben Roethlisberger's retirement. Pickett's selection with the 20th overall pick in the draft seemed like a storybook moment for a player who arrived at Pitt as a three-star recruit and seemingly willed himself into a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Only the call wasn't the end of a book, merely the end of a chapter. The early stages of the next one have proven turbulent. Even if it was expected, that doesn't mean it has been easy.
“I mean, everyone here in this building is frustrated, we ought to be frustrated with where we’re at,” Sullivan said. “But there’s a resolve and there’s a grit and determination and a fire to him that we like.”
Pickett's ability to get his teammates to play with the same urgency is an important part of his development process. Roethlisberger summoned it quickly while leading the Steelers to two Super Bowl wins in his first five seasons.
The comparisons between Pickett and his predecessor are inevitable. It's one of the reasons the Steelers initially wanted to put off Pickett's ascension as long as possible. Tomlin's surprising move to go to the rookie less than a month into the season sped the timetable considerably.
It's far too early to tell if Pickett will be able to live up to the external hype or the internal pressure of trying to win at the highest level. Whichever way it goes for him, it won't be for lack of trying.
“We're really pleased with his work ethic, his competitiveness, learning from his mistakes,” Sullivan said. “(He's) just got to just keep pitching and fighting and clawing forward.”
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