The slow march of time is relentless, and it has finally come for the Pittsburgh Steelers' consistency at the quarterback position.
For 18 seasons, 12 playoff appearances and two Super Bowl titles, Ben Roethlisberger stood as the Steelers' unquestioned man behind center. Roethlisberger threw for 64,088 yards and 418 touchdowns during that time and -- with the exception of his 2019 season being derailed by an elbow injury -- never played fewer than 12 games in a season.
The future Hall of Famer's retirement at the end of last season has ushered in a new era of uncertainty at the position. But Mike Tomlin, himself a pillar of stability as the Steelers head coach since 2007, is eager to seek out the silver linings.
"First of all, the dude's talent. When you watch somebody do something at a certain level for so long, it messes up your perception of what's regular and what's not" Tomlin said on The Pivot podcast. "The dude's arm talent was so special for so long. When you see special stuff every day, you get used to it. I've enjoyed that comfort, we've all enjoyed that comfort. I'm excited about being uncomfortable.
"Yeah, we might not have the type of quarterback play that we've had, we might not have the special talent that we've had, but we got capable dudes. And we've got a team."
The Steelers have made the necessary moves to give themselves all-important options at the quarterback position heading into this long-uncharted territory. Pittsburgh signed free-agent QB Mitchell Trubisky to join fourth-year veteran Mason Rudolph, who started eight games for the team during that 2019 stretch with Roethlisberger injured.
The flashiest addition came in April, when Kevin Colbert kicked off his curtain call as the team's general manager by selecting QB Kenny Pickett with the No. 20 overall pick.
Pickett could very well begin a new streak of stability for Pittsburgh, but Tomlin's approach to filling the Big Ben-sized hole will be a teamwide one.
"There's going to be some new leadership here," Tomlin said. "Some of them you can anticipate, like [Najee Harris]. But make no mistake, we are not sitting around hoping any of it happens. We're thoughtfully constructing it."
Harris carried the ball 307 times for 1,200 yards and added another 467 yards on 74 receptions, scoring 10 total TDs during a stellar rookie season. His talent is undeniable.
Now, Tomlin has tabbed the next step in Harris' evolution as stacking leadership on top of output.
"That dude is a bell cow. He's gonna have to be a bell cow for us," Tomlin said. "If this train is going anywhere in 2022, he's going to be a major component of it, and he's capable. I ain't even talking about from a talent standpoint. We know that. I'm talking about he's capable from an intangibles standpoint. Bringing the best out in his teammates. Wearing the responsibility that comes with leading."
Regardless of who ends up winning the quarterback competition, it would seem that Tomlin's vision for the team's success moving forward is to mesh the established leadership of linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive end Cameron Heyward with Harris, the offense's new foundational leader.
Steelers faithful who find themselves apprehensive about the direction of the team should rest easy knowing Tomlin is excited by the challenge ahead. After all, he knows the path to victory well. He's yet to have a losing season as an NFL head coach.
"I'm looking forward to the anxiety associated with that uncertainty. To have to stand and deliver, to live out what we believe in. The standard is the standard. It's like McDonald's. You know what a No. 1 is. It don't matter where you go, what corner of the globe, a No. 1 is a No. 1, and that's what I want Pittsburgh Steelers football to be. So it doesn't matter who puts their hands underneath the center as far as I'm concerned. But, all that cool stuff being said -- It's scary, but exciting."