You know what rules about the NHL trade deadline? It's in March. It's a month before the playoffs start. When their season is lost, an NHL team knows it can trade veteran players to contenders for assets to rebuild. The NFL, on the other hand, doesn't even wait until the halfway point of the season. There's a good reason why nothing ever happens on NFL deadline day: Every team thinks they're still in the hunt. And to an extent, they are. But one week after the Steelers may have had hopes and dreams of making the playoffs, the outlook is much more bleak. A 55-31 pummeling by the New England Patriots can do that.
So if the trade deadline were relevant in the NFL, the Steelers could start making moves to better position themselves for the future. Now, trades are inherently more difficult to make in football. You can trade for a first baseman and play him at first base on any team in baseball and he'll do the exact same thing. You can't trade for any given defensive end and expect him to perform the same in a 3-4 defense that he might in a 4-3. Football is too system-dependent to offer much flexibility, but that doesn't mean the Steelers couldn't have exploed trading:
1. Emmanuel Sanders
Sanders made a statement when he signed an offer sheet from the New England Patriots in the offseason. After being buried on the depth chart beneath Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, Sanders saw a chance to get top-2 playing time and make top-2 money as a wide receiver. The Steelers did match the offer sheet and haven't gotten any trouble from Sanders for doing so, but one would assume that when his contract expires at the end of this season, he'll test free agency. With the Steelers out of contention, it would have been great to move Sanders for a young player or a draft pick. Perhaps if Markus Wheaton were healthy, a deal could have transpired and Wheaton could have seen more playing time to help his development.
2. Ryan Clark
The problem with Ryan Clark is that he's been a whole bunch of not very good this season. The pending UFA probably wouldn't fetch a high price in a trade, but it's hard to see a lot of harm in letting Shamarko Thomas learn on the fly as opposed to watching Ryan Clark just get beaten around and then act like the team isn't awful. I'd guess that Clark won't be back anyway, either because he isn't good anymore or because he retires and takes the job at ESPN that's basically being held for him.
3. Ben Roethlisberger
Haha, okay, no, this isn't happening. But it's an idea that fans are kicking around, so I'll share my thoughts on it. Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers' franchise quarterback. That's something they haven't had since Terry Bradshaw, and franchise quarterbacks don't just grow on trees. Ben has the offense built around him here. He makes it work. This team, by and large, goes as Ben goes. Sure, he's a step slower now that he's on the wrong side of 30. He's still the best passer this franchise has ever known, and you don't part with that just because you might be able to get a first round pick and a couple of players for him. I'm not even sure how many teams would want to bring in Big Ben. Even with his off-the-field issues apparently behind him, it's hard to shake a bad reputation. And what team wants a quarterback whose style of play suggests he could fall off a cliff as soon as next year? No, Ben's value is at its highest right where he is: Under center in Pittsburgh.
4. Jerricho Cotchery
Trading Cotchery would be your prototypical NHL deadline deal: Struggling team deals pending-UFA veteran to a contender looking to solidify depth. His three-touchdown performance against New England would put his value at an all-time high, too. That said, moving Cotchery would effectively get rid of the team's only real veteran wide receiver. Yes, Antonio Brown is established, but he doesn't have the level of experience Cotchery does. I tend to value veteran depth guys as they relate to young players, and between Brown, Sanders, Wheaton, and heck, even Derek Moye, I think it's important to have a quality veteran teammate in their group like Cotchery.
5. Brett Keisel
Is this getting uncomfortable yet? I figured. Like Cotchery, I think Keisel's value to Cam Heyward and Ziggy Hood as a leader and teammate outweighs any potential return in a trade. That said, Keisel isn't getting any younger and if the Steelers need to rebuild, he'll be wasting his last few years grinding it out for a bad team. He's a great story as a 7th round draft pick who paid his dues on special teams, eventually replaced Kimo vonOelhoffen, and ultimately became a defensive captain on one of the best units in football. But that story may not have a happy ending, as the Steelers' front seven is really struggling these days and Brett Keisel shares as much responsibility for it as anyone. But I'd be surprised if Keisel isn't retained for the simple fact of being the veteran in a group of young, unaccomplished players.
Sadly, the NFL trade deadline doesn't afford us this kind of in-season change. Many players, not just in Pittsburgh but around the NFL, will stay with their struggling teams and switch uniforms for free in the spring. (Aside: Once upon a time the Chiefs traded Tony Gonzalez to the contending Falcons while they rebuilt. With the 2013 Chiefs undefeated and the Falcons struggling, did anyone not want to see the Falcons send him back to KC?)
Change is coming for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But we're going to have to wait until the offseason to see it.