Russell Wilson and Wasted Quarterbacks
In the Seahawks chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac 2020 (now available!), we asked the question of whether or not Russell Wilson was being wasted in Seattle. The Seahawks have not returned to the NFC Championship Game since their Super Bowl loss to New England in the 2014 season. Given how good the quarterback has been for the past half-decade, shouldn't the franchise have more to show for it than a handful of wins in the wild-card round?
To find out, we looked for all quarterbacks who had amassed at least 500 combined passing and rushing DYAR for five years in a row. That number isn't anything special -- 17 quarterbacks had at least 500 DYAR in 2019 -- but to do it every year for half a decade is quite rare. Wilson, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees are the only quarterbacks to do it in each of the last five years; Matt Ryan is the only other quarterback to do it in each of the last four years.
We then narrowed our search to quarterbacks who were on the same team for those five seasons (since the whole point of having a franchise passer is that you can build around him rather than devoting resources to replacing him) but still failed to reach their conference's championship game. Turns out, Wilson's Seahawks are just the ninth team in the last three decades to have a quarterback play so well with so little postseason success. We ran a table of those nine quarterbacks in FOA 2020, but didn't have space to look at them in detail. So we're going to do that here, in chronological order. And that means starting right off with the biggest waste of a quarterback in the last 30 years.
Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins (1986-1991)
Years/Playoff Berths: 6/1
Playoff W-L: 1-1
Following a Super Bowl berth in 1984 and an AFC Championship Game loss to New England in 1985, Miami missed the playoffs five times in the next six seasons despite having a healthy Dan Marino in his prime. The Dolphins' only postseason appearance in this stretch was in 1990, when they went 12-4 but still had to settle for a wild-card berth because Jim Kelly's Buffalo Bills went 13-3. Marino threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally his team to a 17-16 win over Kansas City in the wild-card round, but the Dolphins fell to those Bills in Buffalo a week later by a score of 44-34.
That was the only year in this stretch when Miami won more than eight games or finished higher than third in the AFC East. In 1988, Marino finished first in DYAR and third in DVOA, but the Dolphins still finished fifth in a five-team division. Falling short of Kelly's Bills is one thing, but the Dolphins that year also finished behind Chris Chandler's Colts, Doug Flutie's Patriots, and Ken O'Brien's Jets.
Marino was, without question, the league's best quarterback in these six seasons. He never finished lower than seventh in either passing DYAR or DVOA, and his combined passing and rushing DYAR of 7,549 was over 2,000 more than the second-best quarterback (Warren Moon, whom we shall get to shortly). Unfortunately for Marino, Miami's defense was impossibly bad during this stretch. The 1990 team that made the playoffs ranked eighth in defensive DVOA, but otherwise in this stretch they finished next to last once and dead last four times, including three years in a row from 1987 to 1989. The 1987 defense was the fourth worst we have ever measured. According to PFR's Approximate Value metric, their top defensive player in this stretch was linebacker John Offerdahl, who somehow made it to five Pro Bowls despite missing 20 of 92 games. The Dolphins tried to add more talent to their defense, using first-round draft picks in 1987 and 1988 on edge rushers John Bosa and Eric Kumerow. Neither lasted more than three years in the NFL or produced more than 7.0 sacks. In 1993, Bosa married Kumerow's sister Cheryl, and their sons Joey and Nick each passed their father's career sack total in their rookie seasons. Kumerow never started a game in the NFL, but his son Jake has started a half-dozen so far as a wide receiver for the Packers. Also, the Kumerows and the younger Bosas are descendants of notorious Chicago mob boss Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo. None of this has anything to do with Marino and the Dolphins, but damn it's fascinating.
In 1992, Marino was his usual spectacular self, finishing second in DYAR and fourth in DVOA, while the defense was perfectly mediocre, 14th in DVOA. That was good enough for an 11-5 record and an AFC East crown. Following a first-round bye, they destroyed the Chargers 31-0 to return to the AFC Championship Game. There, they were thumped 29-10 in a home loss to -- yes -- Jim Kelly's Bills. Surely, though, the worst was behind them, and with Marino at the helm through the end of the decade, they would be knocking on the door of the Super Bowl for years to come.
Warren Moon, Houston Oilers (1988-1992)
Years/Playoff Berths: 5/5
Playoff W-L: 2-5
Warren Moon's career at the University of Washington peaked in 1977, when he was Co-Player of the Year in the Pac-8 conference. He guided the Huskies to a 27-20 win over the Michigan Wolverines in the Rose Bowl, where he was named MVP after running for two touchdowns and throwing for another. Still, he was not one of the 14 quarterbacks selected in the 12-round NFL draft in 1978, and so he traveled north of the border to play for the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League, where he proceeded to win five Grey Cups in a row. He finally got a chance in the NFL in 1984 at age 28 when he joined the Houston Oilers. His first four years in Columbia blue were bumpy -- he went 19-38 as a starter, losing twice as many games as he won, and led the NFL with 77 interceptions over that span.
Things started to turn around in 1988. Moon missed five games in September and October, but still finished fifth in passing DYAR and second in DVOA behind only league MVP Boomer Esiason. The Oilers went 10-6 and beat the Browns 24-23 in the wild-card game before a 17-10 loss to Marino's nemesis, the Bills, kept them out of the AFC title game.
In 1989, new offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride brought the run 'n' shoot to Houston, and the Oilers went on a tear. Moon found himself running almost exclusively out of four-wideout sets against defenses that often didn't even bother to field a functional nickelback. He led the league in attempts, completions, and passing yards in both 1990 and 1991. No quarterback completed more passes from 1989 to 1992, while only Marino gained more yards and only Kelly threw for more touchdowns. No quarterback, not even Marino, produced more combined DYAR in those four seasons.
The Oilers made the playoffs every year from 1989 to 1992, but went just 1-4 in the postseason. In the 1989 wild-card game, Moon threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to give Houston a 23-16 lead before the Pittsburgh Steelers and a quarterback called -- this is true -- "Bubby" rallied for a 26-23 overtime win. Moon was injured and missed the 1990 wild-card game in Cincinnati, when the Bengals went up 34-0 before eventually winning 41-14. In 1991, the Oilers beat the Jets 17-10 in the wild-card game and took a 24-16 fourth-quarter lead in Denver before John Elway rallied the Broncos to a 26-24 win. Most notoriously, they opened a 35-3 lead in the third quarter of the 1992 wild-card game in Buffalo before backup quarterback Frank Reich (the current head coach of the Indianapolis Colts) rallied the Bills to a 41-38 overtime win.
The common theme in those losses was Moon producing a lead that his defense could not protect. Including the defeat to Buffalo to end the 1988 season, Moon's numbers in those playoff exits: 65.3% completion rate, 7.5 yards per pass, nine touchdowns, four interceptions, a passer rating of 95.7, and only six sacks.
Moon's streak ended the next year as he had only 304 passing DYAR and a negative DVOA. The Oilers still went 12-4 and made the playoffs; in the fourth quarter of the wild-card game, they took a 13-7 lead over Kansas City in the fourth quarter before Joe Montana rallied the Chiefs to a 28-20 win. Tired of blowing all these leads in the postseason, the Oilers traded Moon to the Vikings for third- and fourth-round picks. Under that name, they would never make the playoffs again -- the franchise didn't return to the postseason until 1999, when they were called the Titans and had moved to Memphis and then Nashville.
Moon would go on to start for five more seasons. In 1995 in Minnesota, he led the league with 377 completions; in 1997 with Seattle, he led the league with 245.2 yards per game at the age of 41. But he never did play in a conference championship game.
Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins (1994-1998)
Years/Playoff Berths: 5/4
Playoff W-L: 2-4
Surely, you can't be serious. Marino, again?!
Following the loss to Buffalo in the 1992 AFC Championship Game, Marino played only five games in 1993 before tearing his Achilles tendon. The Dolphins went 4-1 in those games but just 5-6 behind Scott Mitchell and Steve DeBerg and missed the playoffs.
Marino returned to the field the next year and was only slightly less dominant than he had been in the first half of his career, making the top three in passing DYAR in 1994, 1996, and 1997. (We often think of Marino as a 1980s quarterback, but he actually threw more passes in the 1990s.) The Dolphins defense had improved too, if only because they could not have been any worse. They were 12th in DVOA in 1994, then ranked in the 20s for three years in a row before leading the league in 1998. That was Jimmy Johnson's third year as Miami's head coach, and with defensive backs Brock Marion, Sam Madison, and Terrell Buckley; linebackers Zach Thomas and Robert Jones; and defensive linemen Tim Bowens, Daryl Gardener, and Jason Taylor, he had the pieces to replicate the success he had enjoyed in Miami many years before with the Hurricanes in college football.
The Dolphins made the playoffs four times from 1994 to 1998, once as division champions and three times as a wild card. Unfortunately, they only won two of those playoff games, and the four losses were painful. In the first, in the divisional round in San Diego in 1994, the Dolphins were shut out in the second half as a 21-6 halftime lead turned into a 22-21 loss. That was followed by:
- a 37-22 loss to (sigh) Jim Kelly's Bills in the wild-card round in 1995, in a game that Buffalo led 27-0 in the third quarter;
- a 17-3 loss to New England in the wild-card round in 1997;
- and a 38-3 loss to Denver in the divisional round in 1998, a game that started as a Dan Marino-John Elway duel and ended with Bubby Brister and Damon Huard trading kneeldowns.
That's an average of 12.3 points per game in four playoff losses, and there's the real tragedy of the second half of Marino's career: usually, his own poor performance was the reason his outstanding regular seasons went to waste. In those four losses, he completed less than 55% of his passes for under 6.0 yards per throw with more interceptions than touchdowns and a passer rating of 65.5.
In 1999, at age 38, Marino's performance dipped noticeably. He missed five games and threw 17 interceptions with only 12 touchdowns, finishing with only 259 DYAR and a negative DVOA. (Things would have looked even worse if not for Marino's superhuman ability to avoid sacks -- he had the lowest sack rate in the league for the tenth time in his career.) The Dolphins went 5-6 in Marino's starts but 4-1 behind Huard, but it was Marino taking snaps in the wild-card round and as Miami rallied and beat Seattle 20-17 in the Kingdome. Their reward for that win: a 62-7 curb-stomping by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round. Marino started the game 0-for-7 with an interception; by the time he completed his first pass, the Jaguars were already up 38-0. He was mercifully benched for Huard in the third quarter with the Jaguars up 48-7.
That was Marino's last game -- he and Johnson both retired after the season. The Dolphins tried to replace Marino by signing Jay Fiedler, who had come off the bench to throw for 172 yards and two touchdowns against them in the Jacksonville squash. Fiedler lasted a few years in Miami before giving way to a revolving door of short-term starters: Gus Frerotte, Joey Harrington, Cleo Lemon, the Chads (Pennington and Henne), and Matt Moore. Ryan Tannehill brought some stability to the position, if not a lot of success, before giving way to Jay Cutler and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Now (or, perhaps, in 2021), Tua Tagovailoa will get his chance, the 12th man to try to fill Marino's shoes.
Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers (1998-2005)
Years/Playoff Berths: 8/5
Playoff W-L: 2-5
Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996 and nearly won it again in 1997. The 1998 team went 11-5 and was knocked out in the wild-card round, losing to the San Francisco 49ers 30-27 (when Terrell Owens made "The Catch II"). That was Mike Holmgren's last year in Wisconsin; the following season he was head coach and general manager in Seattle. The Packers replaced Holmgren with Ray Rhodes, but he only lasted one year after the Packers went 8-8 in 1999, the worst record up to that point in the Favre era. Mike Sherman was hired in 2000, and for most of his tenure, the Packers were winners in the regular season, but not in the playoffs.
Sherman's first team stumbled to a 5-7 start but won their last four games to salvage a winning record, though they still missed the playoffs. The Packers then reeled off four straight seasons with double-digit wins, earning one wild-card berth and three division championships. However, they won only two playoff games, both in the wild-card round: a 25-15 win over San Francisco in 2001 and a 33-27 overtime win against Holmgren and the Seahawks in 2003 ("We want the ball and we're gonna score"). Meanwhile, they were on the wrong end of several postseason beatdowns, losing 45-17 to the Kurt Warner Rams in 2001, 27-7 to the Michael Vick Falcons (in Lambeau!) in 2002, and 31-17 to the Randy Moss Vikings in 2004. Only one of those losses was a nailbiter: a 20-17 overtime game against Donovan McNabb and the Eagles in 2003.
With scores like that, there's plenty of fault to go around, but a significant portion of blame can be laid at Favre's feet. Including the Owens game, Favre threw at least one interception in each of those five playoff losses, and at least two in four of them. He threw four interceptions against the Vikings, and six more against the Rams. All told, he completed 57% of his passes for a 6.7-yard average with eight touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and a passer rating of 57.4.
Everything in Green Bay went to hell in 2005. Favre threw a league-high 29 interceptions (although, being Brett Favre, he still made enough good plays to surpass 500 DYAR), the Packers went 4-12, and Sherman was subsequently fired. In 2006, with Mike McCarthy running the show, Favre's streak of 500-DYAR seasons was snapped as he completed a career-low 56% of his passes.
That was not the end for Favre, and certainly not for McCarthy. They would get back to the NFC title game in 2007, losing 23-20 to Eli Manning and the Giants in overtime (Favre threw two interceptions, one of which set up the winning field goal). That was Favre's last game in green and gold, but not his last NFC title game -- he got there again with Minnesota in 2009, losing 31-28 to Drew Brees and the Saints in overtime (Favre threw two more interceptions, one as the Packers had the ball in New Orleans territory in the final minute of regulation). Meanwhile, in Green Bay, McCarthy and the Packers would reach three more NFC Championship Games of their own, beating Chicago 21-14 in 2010, losing to Seattle 28-22 in overtime in 2014, and losing 44-21 to Atlanta in 2016.
Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts (1998-2002)
Years/Playoff Berths: 5/3
Playoff W-L: 0-3
OK, this one shouldn't take too long. Indianapolis went 3-13 in 1997, winning the first overall draft pick in 1998, a pick that they used to draft Peyton Manning. As a rookie, Manning led the NFL with 28 interceptions, but still finished with 702 combined DYAR. That was the last time he finished below 1,000 DYAR until 2011, when he missed the entire year with a neck injury, and then it didn't happen again until his final season in Denver in 2015.
As for the Colts, they went 3-13 in Manning's rookie year, but 13-3 in his second. That was good enough to win the AFC East and a first-round bye, but they fell to Steve McNair and the Titans 19-16 in the divisional round. A year later Indianapolis finished 10-6 and won a wild-card berth, but lost their first playoff game to Jay Fiedler and the Dolphins 23-17 in overtime.
In 2001, the Colts finished 29th in a 31-team league in defensive DVOA, including dead-last against the run. The Colts went 6-10, and head coach Jim Mora was fired after the season. Enter Tony Dungy, who raised the Indianapolis defense to 16th in 2002. The Colts went 10-6 and returned to the playoffs, but they were stomped by Chad Pennington's Jets 41-0.
Manning and the Colts finally reached the AFC Championship Game in 2003 … and 2006 … and 2010. Then Manning moved to Denver and made it to two more AFC title games in 2013 and 2015. In between, the Colts returned to the conference championship with Andrew Luck.
This was not really an example of a quarterback being wasted. This was a quarterback who was freakishly good early in his career, dragging a subpar team to playoff games that they were not nearly good enough to win. Once the Colts caught up to Manning, the victories started piling up in a hurry.
Matt Schaub, Houston Texans (2008-2012)
Years/Playoff Berths: 5/2
Playoff W-L: 2-2
In a list full of Super Bowl winners, MVPs, and record-setters, there is also Matt Schaub. The Atlanta Falcons drafted Schaub in the third round in 2004 to back up Michael Vick. He barely saw the field in three seasons in Atlanta, then signed with the Houston Texans in 2007. (The Falcons likely regretted letting Schaub leave when Vick's dogfighting ring was exposed a few months later, but then that disastrous season led to the acquisition of Matt Ryan in 2008, so it worked out for them in the long run.)
Schaub's first season in Texas had mixed results -- he finished in the middle of the pack in both DYAR and DVOA, but he only made 11 starts and only won four of them. That kicked off a string of five straight good-but-not-great seasons as Schaub ranked no worse than 12th in DYAR but no better than sixth. Unfortunately for Schaub, the Houston defense was horrendous-but-not-great, ranking 29th, 20th, and 31st in DVOA in 2008, 2009, and 2010; the Texans went 23-25 in those three years with zero playoff berths.
The defense ranked sixth and third the next two years (the 2011 drafting of J.J. Watt had more than a little to do with that) and suddenly the Texans had won back-to-back AFC South titles. Schaub missed the playoffs in 2011 with a Lisfranc injury; his backup, Matt Leinart, went down soon after with a fractured collarbone. Houston still beat Cincinnati 31-10 in the wild-card round behind third-stringer T.J. Yates (a strong argument that the Texans had been carrying Schaub, not the other way around) before losing 20-13 to the Ravens a week later. Schaub finally started in the playoffs in 2012 as Houston got another wild-card win over the Bengals, this time by a 19-13 margin, before the Patriots squashed them 41-28 in the divisional round.
The wheels fell off for Schaub in 2013. In only 10 games, he threw 14 interceptions, including four pick-sixes, and he lost his starting job to Case Keenum. He was done in Houston after that, but has lasted six years in the NFL since as a backup in Oakland, Baltimore, and even back in Atlanta. He threw for 460 yards in his only start for the Falcons last year -- coincidentally enough, against Russell Wilson's Seahawks.
In truth, the Texans didn't waste what they had in Matt Schaub. Quite the opposite -- by surrounding him with great weapons (Arian Foster and Andre Johnson led all players at their positions in total DYAR in various points of Schaub's regime) and a brilliant coach (that Gary Kubiak fella seems to know his way around a football field), they got the most out of him that could reasonably have been expected.
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (2010-2017)
Years/Playoff Berths: 8/4
Playoff W-L: 3-4
To some degree, it was inevitable that Drew Brees and the Saints would end up somewhere on this list. Brees has crossed the 500-DYAR threshold in each of his 14 seasons in New Orleans, the longest streak for any quarterback with any one team since 1985 (and that doesn't even count his last two years in San Diego, because he switched teams). Brees has been the most consistently excellent quarterback of the last 35 years -- with his longevity, it's almost unfair to expect the Saints to go without a drought here and there.
Still, after the Saints beat the Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV, it would have been hard to believe that it would be eight more years before they returned to the NFC Championship Game. For a while the Saints were dealing with fairly typical frustrations -- in 2010, 2011, and 2013, they won at least 11 games and made the playoffs, only to come up on the wrong end of some memorable postseason contests. There was the Marshawn Lynch Beastquake game in 2010, when the Saints lost 41-36 in the wild-card round in Seattle. There was the divisional-round loss to San Francisco in 2011 that saw four lead changes in the last five minutes, the last of those a 14-yard touchdown from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis that gave the 49ers a 36-32 win. Finally, the Saints lost again in Seattle, this time in the divisional round in 2013, when New Orleans couldn't capitalize on a last-minute touchdown and onside kick recovery in a 23-15 defeat.
What happened after that is hard to fathom. In the next three seasons, Brees finished fourth, sixth, and second in passing DYAR, yet the Saints went exactly 7-9 every year. This is what happens when your defense completely erodes. From 2012 to 2016, New Orleans finished last or next to last in defensive DVOA four times in five years. Their DVOA of 26.1% in 2015 is the second worst we have ever measured behind the 1986 Buccaneers, who only have them beat by about 0.05%. New Orleans had some legitimate talent on that side of the ball -- defensive linemen Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, and Tyeler Davison are still NFL starters, as are defensive backs Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Jenkins. But the Saints ran through a series of defensive coordinators (Steve Spagnuolo, Rob Ryan, and Dennis Allen) who each failed to put any of the pieces together.
It's impossible to say how much of this can be blamed on the notorious Bountygate scandal, but the punishment the league handed down on the franchise certainly didn't help. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams left the team following the 2011 season to take the same position with Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams, but he never got the chance to work there. The NFL discovered evidence that while working for New Orleans and other teams, Williams had been offering bonuses to his players for injuring their opponents. Williams was suspended for the 2012 season, as was Saints head coach Sean Payton. General manager Mickey Loomis and Payton assistant Joe Vitt were also suspended for part of the year. Further, the Saints had to forfeit their second-round draft selections in both 2012 and 2013. As noted earlier, the Saints still made the playoffs in 2013, but it's hard to look back at New Orleans' defensive collapse after Bountygate and assume the timing was coincidental.
In 2017, the defensive ship was finally righted thanks to one of the best draft classes in recent memory. With rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams in the secondary, the Saints improved to eighth in defensive DVOA. They went 11-5 and won the NFC South that year, and they would have gotten back to the NFC Championship Game if not for … well, you know. No matter -- they did reach the NFC Championship Game after going 13-3 in 2018, and they might have gone on to the Super Bowl if not for … well, you know.
In 2019, the Saints again went 13-3, but lost to the Vikings 26-20 in overtime in the wild-card round. Technically, this started a new streak of wasted Drew Brees seasons, though at age 41 it's doubtful he'll last long enough for it to reach any meaningful length.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (2011-2015)
Years/Playoff Berths: 5/3
Playoff W-L: 1-3
This is an odd stretch to examine, because the Steelers had everything they needed to get Ben Roethlisberger to his fourth Super Bowl: a game-breaking multi-purpose back, a Hall of Fame-caliber wide receiver, and a stout defense. They just never had all of those things at the same time.
In 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a great year. They went 12-4, ranked second in DVOA, and nearly beat the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. They went 12-4 again in 2011, but there were some cracks in the armor -- specifically, in a defense that fell from first overall the year before to seventh place. Worse, that 12-4 mark left them tied with the Baltimore, and their two defeats at the hands (wings?) of the Ravens rendered them a wild-card team and sent them to Denver in the playoffs. You know what happened there: they got Tebowed. With free safety Ryan Clark sitting out of the high-altitude contest due to his sickle cell trait (the last time he played in Denver, he nearly died), the Steelers found themselves vulnerable to the long bomb. Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow only completed 10 of his 21 passes that day, but those 10 completions gained 316 yards, the last of them a game-winning 80-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas in overtime.
After the season, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians left Pittsburgh for Indianapolis and apparently he took any semblance of a viable running attack with him. The Steelers had ranked sixth in rush offense DVOA in 2011, but they were next to last the next season and fourth worst in 2013. They tried out a whole slew of running backs in 2012 (Jonathan Dwyer! Isaac Redman! Rashard Mendenhall! Chris Rainey! Baron Vaun Batch, who really was an NFL running back and not a cookie-themed comic book villain!), but none of them had a DVOA any higher than -15.0%. They drafted Le'Veon Bell in the second round a year later, but he failed to turn things around right away; he led the Steelers with 860 yards on the ground, but his DVOA was just -7.0%. Meanwhile, the defense continued to slide, ranking 13th and 19th in DVOA in those two seasons. With zero help on the ground and a mediocre defensive unit, Roethlisberger deserves credit for carrying the Steelers to a pair of 8-8 records.
Bell exploded in 2014, rushing for 1,361 yards and ranking in the top 10 in both DYAR and DVOA. (Having a healthy Maurkice Pouncey likely helped -- the center missed 15 games of Bell's rookie year with a torn ACL and MCL.) He added another 854 yards as a receiver, leading all running backs in receiving DYAR. He wasn't the only superstar on Pittsburgh's roster either. In his fifth season, Antonio Brown made the leap from "good starter" to "best wide receiver in the world" -- he led the NFL in catches (129), receiving yards (1,698), and receiving DYAR (554, a number no wide receiver has matched since). In our Quick Reads Year in Review piece that season, Bell was the top running back, Brown was the top wide receiver, and Roethlisberger was the top passer (though Aaron Rodgers was the top quarterback if you included rushing data). The Steelers as a team were second in offensive DVOA behind Rodgers' Packers and should have been strong Super Bowl contenders … but the defense completely collapsed, ranking 30th in DVOA. The Steelers still went 11-5 and won an AFC North crown, but that division championship was tainted when they lost to the Ravens 30-17 in the wild-card game. It didn't help that Le'Veon Bell missed the game after hyperextending his knee against Cincinnati in Week 17. In his place, the trio of Josh Harris, Will Johnson, and Ben Tate (signed off the street, in his only game ever in a Steelers uniform) combined for 47 yards on 15 carries and 15 more yards on four catches.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau resigned after the season; his replacement, Keith Butler, got the defense back on track, up to 11th in DVOA. The offense suffered some serious personnel losses -- Pouncey missed the entire season with a broken leg; Bell missed two games due to suspension, then was lost for the year with a torn MCL against Cincinnati in Week 8 -- but still ranked seventh in DVOA. Roethlisberger also missed five starts, but the Steelers went 3-2 behind Landry Jones and Michael Vick. (That includes a win over Cleveland that Jones started, but left in the first quarter with a sprained ankle. A gimpy Roethlisberger, playing on a sprained foot, came off the bench to throw for 379 yards and three touchdowns.) Roethlisberger led the NFL that year with 328.2 passing yards per game.
When the regular season was over, the Steelers were 10-6, runners-up in the AFC North and the conference's second wild-card team. Their opponents in the postseason's first round: those Bengals, whose quarterback, Andy Dalton, was out for the year with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. What followed was -- as Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report called it -- "one of the dirtiest and ugliest contests in the modern era of the sport." The teams combined for a half-dozen turnovers and 18 penalties for 221 yards. Brawls were common on the field and on the sidelines; five players and two coaches were fined or suspended for fighting after the game. Roethlisberger was knocked out with a shoulder injury, though he returned to lead a winning field goal drive in the fourth quarter. The key play on that drive (and, indeed, Pittsburgh's season) was an incompletion to Brown that resulted in a personal foul penalty for a hit to the head on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict -- the same defender whose tackle had ended Bell's season months earlier. That penalty in turn led to more personal fouls on the Bengals, setting the Steelers up for a 35-yard field goal to win. It was a pyrrhic victory for the Steelers, though -- Brown was unable to play in the divisional round against Denver the next week. Without their top runner or receiver, the hamstrung Steelers fell to the Broncos 23-16.
Pittsburgh finally returned to the AFC Championship Game in 2016, losing to the New England Patriots 36-17. That was the peak for this era of the Steelers. A year later the Steelers were one-and-done in the playoffs, losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars 45-42 in the wild-card round. Bell missed the 2018 season after a contract dispute; Brown was gone after that year for, well, a lot of reasons. Roethlisberger missed 14 games in 2019 with an elbow injury, and with their trio of stars gone, naturally the defense soared to a third-place ranking, its best since that Super Bowl season in 2010.
And that's the story of the Steelers in the second half of Roethlisberger's career. Every time they solve one problem, another pops up. They have spent a decade now jumping out of the frying pan into the fire -- or, more accurately, from one pan into a bigger, hotter pan, followed by a pot of boiling water, an oven set on "high," and then finally a fire, which by that point doesn't seem like anything out of the ordinary. You could certainly argue that Pittsburgh has wasted Roethlisberger, but they seem like victims of bad timing more than anything else.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (2015-2019)
Years/Playoff Berths: 5/4
Playoff W-L: 3-4
We're not going to get too much into Russell Wilson's specifics because … well, because we want you to buy the book. What we can say is that Wilson's circumstances are unusual, but not unique -- better quarterbacks than him have been wasted more egregiously. The Seahawks may have gone five years (and counting) between NFC title game berths, but they have made the playoffs four times (with three wins); in the other year, they went 9-7. Moon's Oilers are the best comp for what Wilson's Seahawks have been lately: quality teams that lost in the playoffs despite good games from their quarterback (in Wilson's last four playoff losses, he has completed 64% of his passes for 8.1 yards per throw with seven touchdowns, four interceptions, and 14 sacks; he has added 159 yards and a touchdown as a rusher). The Oilers, in hindsight, made the quarterback the scapegoat and got rid of him too soon; the Seahawks won't be making the same mistake with Wilson.