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Potential re-boot quarterbacks who could be the backup answer for the Steelers

What if the Steelers signed and groomed Big Ben’s replacement, instead of drafting him straight out of college?

NFL: AFC Championship-Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This off-season is only a few weeks old, but it has already featured plenty of talk about what the Pittsburgh Steelers need to do at quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger’s recent throwing exhibition was a relief to most fans, but we all know how tenuous the body can be. Big Ben seemed impervious to “the big injury” for most of his career – playing with fractured bones, dislocated joints, damaged tendons and ligaments, and once a nose that was shattered “like cornflakes” (shudder). It’s been easy to assume that he might miss a game or two, but as long as he’s on the team, everything will eventually be okay.

That assumption is no longer comforting.

The salary cap doesn’t allow clubs to stockpile talent the way they used to, and so there are invariably places on the roster where the drop-off in skill from the ones to the twos is too steep to overcome. That fact burned the Steelers at the quarterback position in 2019, just like it burned them at inside linebacker in 2017, and at running back in the 2014 playoffs.

Now that we know Big Ben is mortal, there is a greater urgency to sorting out his backups, as well as his eventual successor. Some say the team should think short-term, acquiring a veteran who can win a few games in relief, but isn’t still looking for a long-term starting job (i.e. the Charlie Batch/Byron Leftwich model). Others favor developing a young player from the ground up — perhaps one who might be in the mix to take over when Ben hangs up the cleats (maybe even Mason Rudolph, who the front office insists they’re comfortable with).

I’m on record advocating for the first alternative, in 2020 at least — buying a year or two with Ben and a ready-right-now veteran while the front office figures out the future. But I want to explore a third possibility in this article.

Last week, esteemed football writer Peter King made a brief argument that I haven’t seen anyone else make. He claimed that the perfect landing spot for former Tampa Bay #1 overall pick, Jameis Winston, was Pittsburgh.

I think I really want the Steelers to sign Jameis Winston. Sit for a year, get him ready to conditionally succeed Ben Roethlisberger, and if the interceptions continue in 2021, he’s gone after one season. Risky, but the upside could be pretty great.

King’s logic intrigues me, but I’m less sanguine about this match. It seems to me like coming to Pittsburgh would be great for Winston, but I’m not sure it would be great for the Steelers. Winston is big-armed and confident, but he’s also a turnover machine. People around here gnashed their teeth when Roethlisberger threw 16 interceptions two years ago; Winston just threw 30. I don’t see any reason to assume Randy Fichtner is equipped to work out those kinks.

That said, the idea of signing a young-ish veteran with high potential but mixed production (so far), then sitting them behind Ben for two years, before eventually letting them take over long-term – that’s an interesting plan.

There is some precedent for this. Ryan Tannehill probably comes to mind when one thinks about veterans who never quite turned the corner for their first team, signed as a backup elsewhere, then inherited the job (and looked like an all-star doing it). I’d probably wait for Tannehill to get a full season starting in Tennessee before claiming a rebirth there (it’s still possible that his 2019 season will eventually resemble Tommy Maddox’s 2002 campaign – an exciting surprise that turned into a 6-10 mess once the team was fully his own). We could also point to Steve Young, who took a similar roundabout route to stardom. You might only know Young from his third act in San Francisco, but he started his pro career in the USFL, then played a couple of forgettable seasons on terrible squads for the Buccaneers, before signing on as a backup with the 49ers (where he eventually replaced, and statistically surpassed, Joe Montana).

But the historical marker I’m thinking about is Jim Plunkett.

Super Bowl XV - Oakland Raiders vs Philadelphia Eagles - January 25, 1981 Photo by Sylvia Allen/Getty Images

Plunkett is the only two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but doesn’t have a gold jacket. Raiders fans undoubtedly chalk his exclusion up to an anti-Al Davis bias – the same thing they say keeps Tom Flores and Cliff Branch out of the Hall. They might have a point (with Branch at least), but there is a difference with Plunkett: he had a whole career before coming to Oakland, and it was mediocre at best.

A former #1 overall choice by the New England Patriots, Plunkett’s career record there and in San Francisco was 34-52. Over his seven pre-Raider years, he connected on fewer than 50% of his passes, posted a negative-33 TD-to-INT ratio, and didn’t start a single playoff game. Plunkett certainly had plenty of talent but was in the wrong situations. By 1978, he was 31 and out of football; his career appeared to be finished. When the Raiders signed him to back up Ken Stabler the next year, he was 32 years old and certainly didn’t look like the future of the franchise. But Plunkett went on to win two Super Bowls there, amassed a 46-21 starting record over eight seasons (including 8-2 in the playoffs), and had all of his best years in silver and black. His Raider career wasn’t quite Steve Young’s, but two rings are hard to argue with. You could do a whole lot worse for a second-act.

I suspect this is a version of what King had in mind in suggesting Winston to Pittsburgh. And while I still don’t like Winston in black and gold (I personally think that, with the Steelers’ improving defense, the only thing that can stop them is a QB who turns the ball over), I do like the idea of grabbing a guy who might be ready to give you 7-10 good years right away, instead of hoping the game slows down for Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges, or rolling the dice in some future draft that you’ve found the next Big Ben and not the next Mark Malone.

Listing “players who haven’t worked out elsewhere, but might here” is invariably a kind of craps-shoot. You wouldn’t have guessed that Plunkett was on the cusp of stardom in 1979, or that Young would wind up in the Hall of Fame when the 49ers traded for him in 1987. And I don’t remember anyone predicting that Tannehill would lead the Titans to the doorstep of the Super Bowl when he signed on to back Marcus Mariota last summer. So, keeping in mind that this will almost certainly be debatable, let’s debate.

It seems to me that the criteria for this is that the candidate must be:

  • Talented (as evidenced by a stellar college career or some professional action);
  • Cheap (because he’s got to fit under the cap alongside Ben’s contract at first);
  • Low Ego (i.e willing to sign on for at least a year or two as a backup);
  • Young enough to get you 5-8 years as a starter at minimum.

With that in mind, here’s my wish-list:

Marcus Mariota

Tennessee Titans v New York Giants Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

Marcus Mariota is the classic “get him a fresh start” guy. Athletic, very talented, experienced but young (26), and by all accounts, a good teammate and leader — but never able to get over the hump in Tennessee. The stability and character of the Steelers organization would help him turn the corner, I suspect. (He’s played for three different head coaches already, in just five years in Nashville.) And with the Steelers refurbished defense, he wouldn’t be asked to carry the team on his back. His humility in ceding the controls to Tannehill this year tells me he’d be a patient guy sitting behind Ben for a year or two too. Mariota is probably my top choice.

Case Keenum

NFC Championship - Minnesota Vikings v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Case Keenum is a perennially underappreciated gun-slinger, which makes him a fun prospect. He’s also a sentimental favorite of mine (he quarterbacked University of Houston when I was a grad student there, so I saw him play a few times live). In his one season starting on a halfway decent team (Minnesota), Keenum hit on 67.6% of his passes for 22 scores and 7 picks. You can win with those kinds of numbers. I don’t think Case Keenum is the kind of guy you build your entire team around, the way the Steelers have built around Ben over the last 15 years, but he strikes me as a poor-man’s Matthew Stafford — which isn’t a bad thing at all. With a top-5 defense and an improved running game (important), I suspect you could win playoff games, maybe even a title, with him.

Tyrod Taylor

Buffalo Bills v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Tyrod Taylor isn’t going to win games by himself, but he is exceptionally good at protecting the football, and has had a better career than most realize. He’s got nearly a 3-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio, a starting record north of .500, and two seasons of rushing for over 500 yards (which no Steelers eclipsed in 2019). Taylor is not going to take over a game like we’ve so often seen with Big Ben, but he’s fully capable of putting up 300 yards, pitching a fourth quarter comeback, or (importantly) protecting a lead. If the Steelers made a real commitment to balance on offense (i.e. beefing up the run game), Taylor could be a excellent fit.

Blake Bortles

Jacksonville Jaguars v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

I know. I know. It’s Blake Bortles. But here’s the thing: Bortles is only 27. He’s already a backup in L.A. (and has accepted that role gracefully). And he once threw 4400 yards and 35 touchdowns in a season. No kidding. He’s also started three playoff games, but never thrown a postseason interception. Seriously. Look it up. Bortles’ Achilles heal appears to be completion percentage, but that’s often a joint effort — quarterback, receivers, and scheme are usually all guilty when too many passes hit the turf — so it’s hard to know how much of that comes from him and how much from the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s true he’s played on some bad Jags teams, but the Jags have been a messy organization for a while. Bortles certainly didn’t pull them out of the mire, but he also didn’t put them there in the first place. At the end of the day, he’s probably the closest analog to Plunkett on here

Josh Rosen
AJ McCarron
Paxton Lynch

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

I’ll group these guys together because they are all fairly young, once seemed full of promise, never really delivered, and yet still seem more-or-less untested. Rosen, in particular, has got to be the unluckiest quarterback prospect of the last 20 years; he deserves a break. McCarron was a hot name a couple years ago, but like Matt Flynn a few years before that, the whole thing added up to nothing. Lynch, meanwhile, has the benefit of already being a Steeler (though that didn’t get him onto the field last year). It’s hard to know what to make of any of these guys, but it wouldn’t be shocking if one or more of them turned his career around still.

Names I considered that didn’t make the cut:

Andy Dalton

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

If Ben retired tomorrow, Dalton would probably be my choice (among available QBs) to step in and replace him immediately. The Red Rifle takes a lot of heat in places like this because he’s a twice-a-year opponent, but he’s been remarkably reliable in Cincinnati for a long time, despite having to navigate a toxic locker room and spotty front office/coaching leadership. Dalton is almost certainly too old and experienced to sit for a couple of years though, and he’d be too expensive to sign as a backup.

Derek Carr

Pittsburgh Steelers v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

You can copy and paste much of the above paragraph down in this one. Carr is a good quarterback who’s been stuck on some spotty teams. Moreover, Jon Gruden appears totally willing to sell him out for a better prospect if someone comes along. As far as I’m concerned, he’d look great holding Ben’s clipboard for a couple years, then taking snaps for a decade. But my suspicion is that he’d be snapped up by a team with a starting spot available right now, long before the Steelers could even make a bid.

Teddy Bridgewater

Pittsburgh Steelers v Minnesota Vikings

If we’d have had this conversation two years ago, I’d have thrown Bridgewater into the mix. But after a couple years backing up Drew Brees (including a 5-0 record in relief this year), I don’t think Bridgewater is looking for another seat. He also probably priced himself out of the Steelers’ zip code this season.

Jameis Winston

NFL: AUG 09 Preseason - Buccaneers at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I already wrote him off above. Talented, but too many turnovers, too expensive, and probably won’t want to sit. (Plus, and I hate to say this, it’s only been in the last couple of years that you could read articles about Big Ben that didn’t make it a point to also mention off-field misconduct allegations. And that’s been really nice. I’d love it if the next Steelers quarterback didn’t bring that baggage right back into town on day 1.)

Jacoby Brissett

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Colts appear to want Philip Rivers as their man next year. Who knows if that deal will get done, but that probably frees up Brissett. The reason I didn’t bump him up the list is because I honestly have never understood the hype. He’s been fine in Indianapolis, I guess, but I just don’t see the potential for much more. I can’t really defend this; it’s just a feeling. If anyone wants to argue in the comments, feel free.

Nick Foles

Pittsburgh Steelers v St. Louis Rams Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Like Bridgewater, if we’d have had this conversation two or three years ago, I’d have thrown him out there based on his one sublime year in Philly (seriously: 27 touchdowns and 2 interceptions? Ridiculous). But ever since his relief job in the Eagles’ Super Bowl win, he’s been out of the Steelers’ price range. And I’m not sure he’s a full-season starter anyway.

Geno Smith
EJ Manuel
Colt McCoy
Mark Sanchez

2011 AFC Championship: New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers

I’ll group these guys together because there’s less to say about them too. Smith and Manuel once seemed promising, but really never did much of anything. Maybe there’s more to their stories than I know (after all, you might have said the same thing about Plunkett or Young), but I can’t make the argument. Meanwhile, I always liked McCoy. The story I’ve remember from his final college game — of McCoy coaching up his freshman replacement on the sidelines after being knocked out of the BCS title game (where he’d have had every right to be devastated and solitary) — just screams “high character leader” to me. But he’s never shown much at the pro level, and he’s probably too old for a fresh start now. Sanchez too (they’re both 33 already). The Sanchize might be a reliable backup in the Charlie Batch sense, but there’s no way he’d give you five to eight years at the helm after Ben retired.

So what do you think, Steelers Nation? Is this a logic the Steelers should employ — sign and redevelop, rather than roll the dice with the draft? Is Ben’s health solid enough to count on before starting to groom his successor? Or would they be smart to get the next starter on the team right now? Will Rudloph and Hodges grow from their experiences this past year enough to answer the call if needed next year? Can either of them be the long term answer? Will Lynch surprise everyone? Or is one of these guys above (or someone I missed) the solution?

We’ll find out soon enough about Ben, and about what comes after him too. What do you think it should look like?