Dec. 30—A look back at the 2021 Pitt football season is put in its best perspective by comparing it to 2020.

A year ago, Pitt football was plagued by a preseason All-American who opted out, another who quit in mid-season, a quarterback who missed two important games with an ankle injury, and, of course, the scourge of the coronavirus.

But this year Pitt — like many schools across the country — emphasized health, safety and vaccinations aimed at mitigating the effects of covid-19. Probably the most important developments of 2021 didn't occur in a stadium — although there were plenty of those — but under the supervision of doctors and nurses who administered the covid vaccine to nearly every member of the team, players and staff.

That allowed Pitt to put together its best football season in 40 years without interruption. Pitt won the ACC championship (the school's first conference title) and earned a berth in a major bowl, something Pitt fans hadn't seen in 17 years. Pitt ended the year by playing Michigan State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 30.

Of course, none of the success stories would have been written without a decision by quarterback Kenny Pickett to return when he could have ventured into the 2021 NFL Draft. Opposite Jaylen Twyman opting out before the '20 season and Paris Ford leaving the team midway through it, Pickett's return showed loyalty to and trust in a program that previously had been taking too-small strides under seven-year coach Pat Narduzzi. He had some injuries along the way, but he took nearly every snap of each of the first 13 games.

The season wasn't perfect. Pitt lost to mediocre teams Western Michigan and Miami, allowing a total of 82 points. Victories in those games — combined margin of defeat seven points — might have launched Pitt into a College Football Playoff semifinal game against Alabama.

That aside, Pickett was the catalyst who led the Panthers all season, setting several school passing records, including yardage (4,319 yards) and touchdowns (42). He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting — Pitt's first finalist since Larry Fitzgerald in 2003 — and was named an All-American, along with teammates Jordan Addison (the Biletnikoff winner) and long snapper Cal Adomitis.

Pitt finished second among Power 5 schools in scoring (an average of 43 points per game) and fourth in yardage gained (502.9), but it was defense that did the most damage to Wake Forest in the 45-21 victory in the ACC championship game on Dec. 4.Safety Erick Hallett was named the game's MVP.

The season was not without a couple other disappointments. Shortly after the championship game, three-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple departed for Nebraska and Pickett decided not to play in the Peach Bowl to safeguard his NFL future. He is a projected first-round draft choice.

Long before that, Pickett left an indelible impression on Pitt football and even in the NCAA rulebook. Days after the ACC championship was highlighted by Pickett's fake slide that led to a touchdown, the incredibly athletic move was outlawed by the NCAA.

Turnover hits Steelers roster

The Pittsburgh Steelers are an organization that prides itself on staying competitive every season. So once franchise icon Ben Roethlisberger agreed to a paycut to return in 2021, the Steelers certainly weren't going to acknowledge a "rebuild." Or even a "bridge year."

But be it by design or circumstance, the 2021 season marked the beginning of a new era — even with their old quarterback. Roethlisberger, 39, stuck around, but a cavalcade of other longtime veterans departed, and a host of young players took their places.

Four-fifths of the offensive line was replaced, with longtime starters departing via free agency (Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler), retirement (Maurkice Pouncey) or release (David DeCastro). Other players who moved on after long Steelers tenures included RB James Conner, LB Vince Williams, TE Vance McDonald and CB Mike Hilton.

The result was a youth movement that manifested itself in five rookies starting the season opener. The Steelers hadn't done that in any game in decades. Four rookies have started on offense — RB Najee Harris, TE Pat Freiermuth, C Kendrick Green and LT Dan Moore Jr. — with four other members of the draft class contributing to varying degrees.

Whether or not some of them are longterm pieces to build around remains in question. In particular, the new offensive linemen haven't improved that unit's results from last season, likely the biggest thing holding the Steelers back from better than what stands as a .500 season.

The free-agency departures combined with a shrinking salary cap resulted in a roster that lacked depth. When injuries or covid-19 made players unavailable, the Steelers turned to a host of players who'd recently been cut such as NT Montravius Adams, G John Leglue, DL Daniel Archibong and OLBs Taco Charlton, Derrek Tuska, Delontae Scott and John Simon.

The latter four were needed because the three-time Pro Bowler Melvin Ingram forced his way out, unhappy with his role as the top backup at outside linebacker. Dealt Nov. 1 to Kansas City for a sixth-round pick, Ingram and the Chiefs have thrived since — while the Steelers have dealt with injuries to starters T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith and a revolving door of temporary fill-ins.

Watt, though, has been a highlight of a mediocre season headed into its final two-game stretch. Watt passed the franchise record for sacks through only 12 games played and leads the NFL with 17 1/2 . There's a good chance he will be a finalist for NFL defensive player of the year for a third consecutive season. Can he finally claim the honor?

Roethlisberger's days as a Pro Bowler are over, and he indicated Wednesday this is likely his final season. His mobility has waned considerably, and most of his throws are short in an offense that has struggled under first-year coordinator Matt Canada.

But that doesn't mean "the old cowboy" didn't show some of his old magic in 2021. Big Ben guided late comebacks in victories against playoff-contending teams Buffalo, Cleveland, Baltimore and Tennessee. His fourth-quarter passer rating (110.9) ranks fifth in the NFL among starting quarterbacks.

If this indeed is Roethlisberger's final season, if it doesn't end with a playoff game, the Steelers have two shots remaining to send him out on a high note: against old rivals the Browns and Ravens.

Then, perhaps, the ushering in of a new era will begin in earnest.

Penguins endure bizarre 2021

As legendary broadcaster Mike Lange — who retired in August after more than four decades in the booth — might say, "you would have to be here to believe it" when trying to make sense of the Penguins' bizarre 2021.

In advance of the 2020-21 season — which was entirely orchestrated during 2021 — they assembled for a brief training camp in January, played in mostly empty venues and aptly dealt with the day-to-day hazards of covid-19.

All kind of ho-hum against the context of a global pandemic.

But things got weird pretty early into the season.

By the end of January, general manager Jim Rutherford, who guided the franchise to its two most recent Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017, resigned for reasons that remain unknown, at least publicly.

A few weeks later, the Penguins found his replacement in a long-time nemesis of the franchise, former Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall. Additionally, they brought on long-time NHL executive Brian Burke as president of hockey operations.

Despite the potential distractions of the front office maneuvers and enough injuries to fill a hospital, the Penguins claimed the NHL's temporary East Division and entered the playoffs with a first-round matchup against the New York Islanders.

But goaltender Tristan Jarry's considerable shortcomings were too much to overcome, and the Penguins were meekly eliminated in six games.

Things didn't exactly get better in the offseason. Quickly after the Penguins' season concluded, franchise center Evgeni Malkin underwent surgery on his right knee and is still recovering from injury. Then forwards Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev were jettisoned in roster maneuvers to relieve a stressed salary cap. Finally, Sidney Crosby, the team's other franchise center, had surgery on a chronically injured left wrist.

Even before the 2021-22 season opened, the Penguins began seeing their lineup get further depleted by players testing positive for covid-19, as well as ailments typical of the rigors of professional hockey.

Despite those impediments, the Penguins have carved out a 17-8-5 record, good enough for the top Wild Card seed in the NHL's restored Eastern Conference, albeit while the NHL went on hiatus in late December due to rising covid-19 cases among players.

To cap off a wildly abnormal year, incumbent ownership is in the final stages of selling a majority share of the franchise to Fenway Sports Group, an entity that owns, among other assets, the Boston Red Sox.

Blunders contribute to Pirates' 100-loss season

That the Pirates lost 101 games and it didn't come close to being the most ignominious thing about their season is telling.

They endured a pair of basepath blunders by rookies that were Little League mistakes magnified on the major league stage, a 10-game losing streak in June and a fire sale in July that left their lineup in shambles to start August. And, in a footnote to their follies, the Pirates were the only team in the major leagues that failed to sweep a series.

The most epic error was by first baseman Will Craig, who on May 27 allowed Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras to score from second on a routine grounder with a chaotic chase of Javier Baez down the first base line toward home plate instead of simply touching the bag.

"I'm going to end up on a blooper reel for the rest of my life, probably," said Craig, a 2016 first-round pick who was demoted to Triple-A Indianapolis and later signed to play in Korea.

Third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes, who missed the first two months of the season with a left hand/wrist injury, had a home run negated when he missed first base while watching his 346-foot shot off Walker Buehler sail inside the foul pole in right field on June 8.

"They're two plays I've never seen before," Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. "You stay in the game long enough, you see everything."

The Pirates were on the receiving end of a gaffe when they scored three runs on a Kevin Newman one-foot dribbler that New York Mets pitcher Tijuan Walker batted from fair territory toward their dugout. The Pirates blew a 6-0 first-inning lead, as Michael Conforto homered in the ninth.

It wasn't a season without some good moments. Second baseman Adam Frazier was leading the majors in hits when he was selected to start in the All-Star Game. The Pirates, however, sent Frazier to the San Diego Padres for prospects the week of the trade deadline, when they also dumped lefty starter Tyler Anderson, middle relievers Austin Davis and Clay Holmes and closer Richard Rodriguez.

Bryan Reynolds, who switched from left field to center and became a Gold Glove finalist, produced a bounce-back season in which he hit .302 with 24 home runs and 90 RBIs. Newman didn't commit and error through the first 76 games, finished with a .993 fielding percentage and was a Gold Glove finalist at shortstop.

Catcher Jacob Stallings, who won his first Gold Glove, delivered the highlight of the season when he hit a two-out, walk-off grand slam off Edwin Diaz as the Pirates rallied from a six-run deficit to beat the Mets on a night they honored their 1971 World Series champions July 17.

They also won a thriller against the Cincinnati Reds on Roberto Clemente Day, when Wilmer Difo raced from second and beat the throw from first on Colin Moran's grounder for a 5-4 win Sept. 15.

The season ended with a bang, as top prospect Oneil Cruz set a Statcast-era club record with a 118.2-mph single for his first major league hit in his debut and homered to right field in the ninth inning of the finale.

Fittingly, it was a loss that prevented the Pirates from a series sweep.

Staff writers Chris Adamski, Kevin Gorman and Seth Rorabaugh contributed.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at jdipaola@triblive.com or via Twitter .


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