I was watching the Steelers first preseason matchup of 2021 with a few friends on Thursday night—a 16-3 victory over the Cowboys in the annual Hall of Fame Game at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio—when one of them said, “Wow, Ben has really slimmed down.”
The friend was talking about Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a man whose body-fat percentage is always being weighed on the scales of public opinion.
Other than Roethlisberger’s slimmed-down appearance as he stood on the sidelines in his team-issued street clothes, however, I can’t say that any of the quarterbacks who actually played for Pittsburgh in Thursday’s game did anything to stand out from the rest—good or bad.
This isn’t to say people didn’t walk away from the victory over Dallas with even stronger opinions about the three backup quarterbacks—again, both good and bad—because Twitter certainly told me they did.
But that doesn’t mean Mason Rudolph, who completed six of nine passes for 84 yards and lost a fumble on a jet-sweep that went awry, did anything to change his stock.
The same can be said for Dwayne Haskins, the man with the first-round pedigree (and not just the grade), who went eight of 13 for 54 yards against the Cowboys and did everything he could to personify a nickname he has earned early in his career—Captain Checkdown.
As for Josh Dobbs, the rocket scientist with the rocket arm and gobs of athletic ability? He may have made the throw of the night when he stood in the pocket and stared down an untouched blitzer—one who was about to level him—and completed a perfect out pass to receiver Tyler Simmons for a five-yard touchdown that put the game away late in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Dobbs, his other three completions weren’t nearly as noteworthy.
This isn’t to say they were bad, however.
None of the Steelers' backup quarterbacks were bad on Thursday. Again, though, none were good, either.
You might say it was the same-old Rudolph, a player who reached his ceiling two years ago and will never be anything more than a number two quarterback.
You could spin Haskins’ safe and conservative approach and insist that it was a sign of his willingness to take what the defense gives him rather than risk a more dangerous throw.
As for Dobbs, you might say he completed his touchdown pass against a defense comprised mostly of future real estate agents, accountants and sideline reporters. But if you are on Team (or Dream) Dobbs, you could also come away with the conclusion that a perfect pass in the face of an untouched blitzer is still impressive no matter the talent level of the untouched blitzer.
Preseason football lends itself to folks taking small sample sizes and making entire meals out of them—both good and yucky meals. It’s easy to see why. “Vanilla” best describes your average offensive game-plan during August football. Coaches are more worried about who looks good than what will work. They’re more concerned about the skill level of specific players than they are about the cohesion and rhythm of an entire unit.
It also doesn't help that few starters--All-Pro level or otherwise--are ever available to make these backup passers look good in the preseason.
I don’t know how any backup quarterback can truly thrive in that environment; what you’re often left with afterward is a reinforced opinion based on very little.
The Steelers’ backup quarterbacks have three more preseason games to truly stand out from the rest of the pack. Will one of them do that? Even if he does, will that be enough to overcome a negative opinion the fans may have of him? That doesn’t really matter, of course, but what if it’s a coach who has a negative opinion?
And you thought Twitter was hard on backup quarterbacks...