For a franchise that remains singularly focused on winning championships, Kenny Pickett's answer regarding what a playoff game would have done for his professional growth was probably music to Mike Tomlin's ears.
Pickett, fresh off of helping the Steelers win their fourth straight game to finish the year with a 9-8 record, offered a quote that spoke volumes about his competitive drive after the Steelers finished on the outside of the AFC playoffs.
"I don't even think it's just about my learning curve," Pickett said, via the Steelers' website. "I think it's about playing for a championship. That's what it's all about.
"We would have had an opportunity if we had that chance. When you don't take care of your own business, you don't control your own destiny."
Pickett and his teammates kept the faith until the very end. Despite a 2-6 start, they managed to avoid becoming Pittsburgh's first team to finish with a losing record in 19 years. In the process, Pittsburgh saw significant growth from their rookie quarterback, who won his last five starts in which he played more than two possessions. Two of his last three starts featured game-winning touchdown passes in the game's final minute.
"It's big," Pickett said of his development this past season. "I felt like the offense started to become my own the more I was playing in it, taking real ownership of it instead of just kind of playing catch-up when I got thrown in there a little bit earlier and I was just worried about executing the plays. And now I felt like I had everything at my disposal when I was coming to the line of scrimmage.
"I think I made a good jump there in the learning curve. I want to make that leap into Year 2 now."
Pickett's leap was enough to end any speculation about the Steelers' quarterback position for 2023. Tomlin, during his end-of-year press conference, acknowledged that the Steelers have indeed found Ben Roethlisberger's successor in Pickett, even if he isn't a fan of the term "franchise quarterback."
"I don't know what you guys mean by franchise quarterback," Tomlin said. "Is he our QB1? Yes. But there's a lot of silly responsibility that comes with that term. Everybody thinks they've got one, but not everybody has one and all of that. He's our starting quarterback."
Pickett started the season as the Steelers' third quarterback, behind veterans Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph. Pickett was elevated to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart going into the regular season. He watched the Steelers' first three games from the sideline before he was called into action at halftime of Pittsburgh's Week 4 game against the Jets.
Pickett gave Pittsburgh's offense an immediate spark upon taking the field. He scored two touchdowns against the Jets, but a costly interception allowed New York to rally for a four-point win. Pickett threw for 327 yards in Buffalo a week later, but the Steelers were on the wrong side of a 38-3 score. While a late interception overshadowed a solid effort by Pickett in Miami the following week, there weren't many positives to take away after Pickett was sacked six times in a blowout loss to the Eagles in Week 8, a loss that dropped the Steelers to 2-6 going into their bye.
The Steelers, and their young quarterback, looked like a different team after their Week 9 bye. Pittsburgh went 7-2 after the bye. The defense, energized by T.J. Watt's return, held seven of their last eight opponents to less than 20 points. Pickett, after throwing eight interceptions in his first five games, threw just one interception the remainder of the season. He also endured less punishment as the offensive line also saw considerable signs of growth as the season progressed.
"We always knew what we were capable of," Pickett said. "It was good to see it come true in front of our eyes. Just finding ways to win week in and week out, and no one really caring how it gets done, just find a way to get it done.
"That's what it's all about is getting wins. It was really good to see."
Pickett was one of several rookies who contributed largely to the Steelers' turnaround. George Pickens, along with making eye-raising catches on a routine basis, led Pittsburgh in touchdown receptions. Undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren served as a solid complement for Najee Harris while earning a role as Pittsburgh's third down back. Connor Heyward made several clutch plays that included his big third-down catch that set up Pittsburgh's final touchdown on Sunday. And while he missed time with an injury, defensive end DeMarvin Leal made his presence felt when given the opportunity.
As good as Pittsburgh's rookies were in 2022, Tomlin is anxious to see what the group can do in 2023.
"We've got some quality play from some young guys, which is exciting, but boy, there's a lot of meat on the bone, and we're excited about being a part of their process, too," Tomlin. "That's another component of our business model that we don't run away from, we run to, the development of players. To be a component of their growth and development is significant for us and for them."