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There were signs of a preemptive strike emanating from Pittsburgh this week, and if you weren’t looking closely, you might have missed it.
Following the devastating news Monday that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will miss the rest of the season with an elbow injury, Roethlisberger released a statement, noting that the Steelers “committed three years” to him and he fully intends to honor his contract and “reward them with championship level play.”
That’s all well and good, in addition to the fact he said he’d mentor his replacement, 2018 third-round pick Mason Rudolph, a man legendary Steelers coach Bill Cowher says the team will rally behind.
One of Roethlisberger’s most influential teammates, center Maurkice Pouncey, spoke in support of Big Ben, noting it’s still his team until he walks away, a sentiment many Steelers fans surely feel.
All of this makes it easy to dismiss any notion the Steelers might be moving on from their future Hall of Fame quarterback. But we know the NFL is a cutthroat league, and there’s a long history of teams separating from aging legends the moment a better option presents itself. Even Joe Montana, the former G.O.A.T. quarterback, got traded, while Peyton Manning, who has a statue in front of the Colts’ stadium, was released before he was ready.
The 37-year-old Roethlisberger has seen enough in his 16 NFL seasons to understand this dynamic. But while Montana and Manning had their spots usurped by younger, former No. 1 overall picks in Steve Young and Andrew Luck, the man filling in for Roethlisberger is a second-year pro who was taken in the third round last year and has thrown only 19 career passes, all of which came in the second half of a home loss to Seattle in Week 2.
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The best descriptor for Rudolph’s play — 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards, two touchdowns and an interception — this past Sunday: functional. He showed poise, often sliding or shifting away from pressure, especially on one of his touchdown throws to Vance McDonald. And he also has a knack for play-action, as his other touchdown came after faking a handoff with gusto to draw the linebackers in before delivering a strike behind them on a slant.
Yet, Rudolph’s accuracy was also off a few times, including on some deeper throws. Whether it was because of ball placement or miscommunication with receivers, it must be more consistent. What’s more, Rudolph also had a two-point conversion intercepted outright when he failed to spot a lurking safety under duress. In time, Rudolph should learn to see the field better — he’ll need to if he wants to replace a legend as soon as next season.
The good news for Pittsburgh is that barring an injury, it shouldn’t take long to get a good read on Rudolph’s upside. He has an experienced o-line in front of him and a stud running back to hand off to, and while the receiving corps has been underwhelming, No. 1 target JuJu Smith-Schuster is sensational. Besides, like the great Bill Parcells once said, if a dog’s got bite in this league, they’ll bite as a pup.
Now to be clear, nothing we saw from Rudolph on Sunday suggests a Patrick Mahomes-like revelation is coming. But the NFL remains the ultimate performance league, and if the Steelers rallied from their 0-2 start and refashion themselves as a run-first unit that capitalizes on Rudolph’s strengths — which are selling play-action plays, something rarely used under Roethlisberger, and pushing it downfield — it’s fair to wonder whether they’d make a change at QB1 in 2020.
Outside the Steelers doing the unlikely — since 1990 only 12 percent of 0-2 teams have rallied to make the playoffs — under Rudolph’s stewardship, there’s plenty of reason to believe Roethlisberger’s job is safe.
Not only would he cost $28 million in dead salary-cap money to release, the Steelers’ recent decision to deal their 2020 first-rounder to Miami for versatile safety Minkah Fitzpatrick means they won’t have the ammo to draft a premium long-term replacement for Roethlisberger next season in the event Rudolph turns out to be merely serviceable.
So in a weird way, while the trade was clearly a bet on Rudolph, it was also one on Big Ben, leaving him as an insurance policy of sorts — not that most in Pittsburgh would ever describe it that way.
Roethlisberger is a legend in western Pennsylvania, someone who has a history of embracing challenges and proving people wrong. He has stated he wants to play out his contract, which runs on for two more seasons after this one, but to do it, the onus is on him to come back better than he was this year, as the Steelers’ passing game stunk through the six quarters he played.
Yet, if NFL history is any indication, it will also require Rudolph — who just turned 24 this year — to prove incapable of being anything more than a solid starter during his 14-game audition. And no amount of preemptive strikes can change that.
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