It’s pretty easy to be wishy-washy on Mason Rudolph. In fact, wishy-washy is a compliment to him if you listen to most NFL analysts. For many, his die is cast as a dud. Such is the life of an NFL quarterback. Few positions get evaluated so quickly as all eyes are on the QB. It’s the beauty of the position – and the curse.
Let’s face it, Mason Rudolph dodged a bullet on draft day. Analysts, experts, and Steelers fans alike had mocked that a quarterback was a definite need, especially since Ben Roethlisberger still has to be a question mark coming off his surgery, cute video complete with beard shaving or not.
Steelers fans hope Roethlisberger rebounds and it is 2018 all over again. With him at the controls during his last season of play, he put up record numbers all around. His 675 passing attempts led the league.
But reality just dictates there is a very real possibility he will get injured again, even if it is just for a few games.
Well, the Steelers’ brass decided if that does indeed happen, it will be Mason Rudolph at the helm once more. As good of a story as it was that an undrafted man called “Duck” performed admirably under the circumstances, Devlin Hodges looks the part of a third stringer. And, when Cam Newton and Jameis Winston floated out there deep into the free agency period, the Steelers seemingly made no inquiry about either. In fact, they looked for nobody at quarterback.
Instead, they placed all their chips on Mason Rudolph. When you push all in, you’d better win. With the Steelers thought to be a playoff team, losing this gamble could bankrupt the Steelers chances if Roethlisberger misses even a few games to injuries.
Rudolph still has the pedigree and skills he showed off in college and the Steelers felt high on him when they picked him, even reportedly pegging him as a “first round talent.” The Steelers seem to believe giving him the hook after one partial, interrupted season starting is hasty.
Jared Goff, anyone? Left for dead after a bad career start, he righted the ship. Hey, one can hope.
If you look at his season last year, the coaching staff — I believe wrongly — put training wheels on him to a ridiculous degree. A player who was touted for deep ball throws was suddenly throwing 3 yards down field. I don’t recall a more conservative approach to an offense. Maybe Tim Tebow. Well, except for that one Tebow pass in the playoffs that haunts the Steelers.
Why did they go so conservative? Ask them, but it seems a combo of factors. First, the defense was top-notch and the team was playing not-to-screw-up. Understood, but that’s never a sustainable approach. Teams recognize this, of course, and it becomes a trudge to move the ball. Rudolph also was leading an offense with many moving pieces in addition to himself. James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, and Benny Snell Jr. all missed time. His best receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, obviously struggled through injury most of the season, and Dionte Johnson, while showing flashes of (shall I say it?) Antonio Brown at times, was still a rookie.
It wouldn’t have been an ideal situation even had Ben Roethlisberger been behind center. But, those could all be excuses and the reason could be he is just not that good. Thus, the wishy-washyness of trying to label him at this point in his career.
In watching his game versus the Baltimore Ravens recently on NFL Network, I was reminded he actually seemed to be settling into his role and things were opening up. Maybe the training wheels were about to come off, little by little.
Then the Ravens do what they do, and badly concussed Rudolph. I still see it as a cheap shot. He was out of the pocket and there was no need to go for his head other than just wanting to go for his head. What followed was the most comical handling of a scary head injury I ever witnessed. With what appeared to be no cart working at the stadium, Rudolph walked off the field with support — and with no facemask. Rudolph, obviously out of it, wobbled off the field with a dazed look which was clearly visible. If that sight is not a meme used by Baltimore fans to troll Rudolph for the rest of his career, then nothing is.
Anyway, this was bad timing for Rudolph. New quarterbacks need reps and consistency. Missing games due to a concussion isn’t good for any quarterback, yet alone a virtual rookie. I’ve seen Roethlisberger look mighty shaky after coming back from concussion, too. It’s not easy to come back and be sharp right away. It’s magnified when you’re still learning your role.
In that game versus the Ravens highly rated defense, Rudolph was arguably playing better against Baltimore than the eventual league MVP Lamar Jackson who struggled for his worst game of the season. The great ‘what-if’ is what would have happened if he could have continued to grow into the role instead of walking off the field looking like a stooge.
Now, he wasn’t setting the world on fire, but he was 13-20 for 131 and 1 TD when he left in the early third quarter. Most important, it was versus the Super Bowl contender Ravens, and he looked sharp under the circumstances. He looked poised to lead the upset, playing more aggressively while still protecting the ball.
What followed was missed time due to the concussion, not surprising shakiness upon his return, the Miles Garrett ugliness and his resulting suspension, then the dreamlike ‘Duck days’ and his heroic underdog story. All of this certainly allowed Rudolph no consistency in improving his craft after the Baltimore game. After sitting several games due to the coach’s decision, he made a brief return in Week 16 versus the Jets after the Duck was grounded. It looked like the time off did him good. He was looking sharp and confident. It was interesting to see how he’d finish the game.
Then he got hurt. End of his season. A rollercoaster analogy goes well here.
He finished the year with 13 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, and a 62.2% completion percentage on just 283 attempts. Not bad for a career start — historically — for a new quarterback. Where it goes from here is up for debate, for sure, but the Steelers decided on draft day and free agency that he would be their number two. So, we will all find out.
Fans have to hope the interruption for a severe concussion and the interruption due to the Miles Garrett fiasco derailed his progress, and his revolving cast of teammates played into his uneven growth in 2019 as well. It’s certainly possible. If Roethlisberger misses time, more answers will come and we will see if the Steelers made the right move. This should be a playoff-contending team and Rudolph will have to help keep it on course.
With all that being said — Ben, please stay healthy!