Mason Rudolph was drafted with an eye towards the eventual retirement of long-time Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But as much as fans wanted a true successor to Roethlisberger to be on the roster, they weren’t happy about Mason Rudolph, and don’t seem to be very happy about the prospect of him being given a real shot to be the Steelers quarterback in 2022.
Matt Canada was brought in as the quarterback coach in 2020 after the team was forced to play 2nd year quarterback Mason Rudolph and rookie camp phenom Devlin “Duck” Hodges and there were clear issues in those players’ readiness. Despite being the quarterback coach, Canada had his hands in the offensive design early on, adding plays to the run game and wrinkles throughout the whole offense.
When he was promoted to offensive coordinator, the move was frequently criticized as an inside promotion and more of the same instead of an outside hire, despite the fact that Canada was brought in from outside the organization the year before and brought with him a completely new offensive scheme.
Teryl Austin was brought in as a senior defensive assistant in 2019, and his influence on the defense showed up early on, as the team adapted to new safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and re-tooled their coverage schemes to fit his play style. Those coverage schemes were brand new to the Steelers, but show up on film in Detroit and Cincinnati when Austin was there. As the secondary play improved and the stats with it, people still frequently complained about “Keith Butler’s vanilla coverage schemes” even though the coverage had changed significantly and was nowhere close to being “vanilla”.
Two years later Austin is now reported to be promoted to the defensive coordinator job, and again, there is a lot of criticism for this being an inside hire instead of bringing in fresh blood.
On the other side of the coin, the Steelers are criticized when they have injuries at a position and don’t have starter quality backups ready to step in and play. When the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier to injury, they were completely unprepared to replace his talent on the field. Instead they went without an athletic inside linebacker for the end of the 2017 season and the entire 2018 season. In 2019 the Steelers brought in Mark Barron and drafted Devin Bush. Bush was a great addition, at least if you asked anyone before Week 6 of the 2020 season. After a strong 2019 and even better start to the 2020 season Bush was injured and his return in 2021 wasn’t what fans expected.
Of course that had a lot to do with the defensive line, that was unprepared to do without Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu. The defensive linemen left weren’t able to keep the Steelers inside linebackers free of blockers so they could run around and make plays. Instead, all of the inside linebackers got to provide evidence all season of why it is so effective to get offensive lineman to the second level where they can take on linebackers.
In 2019, when Ben Roethlisberger was hurt, the Steelers had Mason Rudolph, and while he wasn’t a great quarterback, he went 4-2 in his first 6 starts and had an 11-4 touchdown to interception ratio and a 93.0 passer rating before the infamous game against the Cleveland Browns. It worked out for the Steelers in that situation.
However, in 2021 when Mason Rudolph came in to start for Ben Roethlisberger and took over an offense without JuJu Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool and then lost Kevin Dotson and the run game with him, fans had seen enough of Mason Rudolph and were ready for someone else.
This all leads to the point of this article, and that is there are two basic approaches to the problem of players getting older, leaving in free agency or getting injured. The first is to have understudies developing behind the starters, to take over when that starter leaves. Successful examples of this approach can be seen on the Steelers right now in Alex Highsmith, who was drafted when the Steelers knew they were likely to lose Bud Dupree. Alex Highsmith, despite his not-stellar production, has escaped the scorn of Steelers nation so far, likely because the team is still dominating with their pass rush whether he gets sacks or not.
The second is to replace departing players as they leave, or after they have been gone. Diontae Johnson fits this example, as does Devin Bush and Najee Harris. Diontae Johnson was drafted right after Antonio Brown left the Steelers, Najee Harris was drafted after James Conner left and Devin Bush was drafted after a little over a year of not having Ryan Shazier.
The Steelers offensive line showcased both approaches this season, with Kevin Dotson being drafted in 2020 when they didn’t need him to start (except for filling in for injured players), Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner all being players the Steelers had brought in and developed to eventually start. Kendrick Green was drafted to start after Maurkice Pouncey retired and Trai Turner was brought in to replace David DeCastro. Dan Moore Jr. was brought in to be a backup and develop into a starter, but was forced into the starting job due to injuries to Banner and others.
So which is the right approach? There are plenty of examples of both approaches, While Aaron Rodgers is a popular example of drafting your future quarterback while the old one is still playing, there’s plenty of examples of quarterbacks drafted to be the future who never take that mantle. And while there are examples of going without a quarterback for a year to tank and get a top pick working out, Andrew Luck and Joe Burrow stand out as successes, there are plenty of examples of being bad to get the right quarterback turning into a constant, desperate run of trying to find a guy who can help you stop being so bad. Just ask the Cleveland Browns, the New York Jets, the Miami Dolphins, the Chicago Bears. . .
At the same time we can also look at coaches coming in and having immediate positive impact on a team at head coach, but also at offensive or defensive coordinator spots. But those transitions often have struggles as well. Todd Haley is the most recent coordinator to have come from outside the organization, and while his offense, alongside the emergence of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown as great players, took the unit from one that ranked in the bottom half of the league to a Top 10 and even a Top 5 offense (2015). His first year as coordinator the offense wasn’t much better at all. It took time for the team to adapt to the new coordinator.
Todd Haley’s offense was closer to Bruce Arians’ offense than Matt Canada’s offense was to Randy Fichtner’s offense, and while the team hasn’t shown improvement with all the turmoil on offense, we aren’t hearing about struggles adapting to the new system. Even Ben Roethlisberger, at 39 years old, didn’t bristle at the changes like he did the change to Todd Haley’s offense.
Perhaps that year with both Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada on the team helped? Maybe the transition to a Teryl Austin led defense will work better because a lot of the scheme concepts are already being used.
In the same way, we’ve seen free agents and draft picks struggle with the Steelers schemes in their first season with the team, but become much better in their second season, perhaps that familiarity has benefit. After all, knowing is half the battle.
The truth is there is no right way to do it. There is no right way to get a great quarterback. Both ways work, both ways fail. Sometimes high end free-agent signings don’t even work out. Philip Rivers going to the Indianapolis Colts was supposed to make them contenders, but all it got them was a Wild Card loss. Carson Wentz didn’t even get them that far, as they fell one game short of making the playoffs.
You can bring in a veteran quarterback and have success, San Francisco has made several playoff runs and a Super Bowl appearance with Jimmy Garoppolo, Kansas City did really well with Alex Smith, Kurt Warner took the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, Rich Gannon did the same for the Raiders a decade earlier.
You can draft a quarterback and have success, Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes are easy examples. For goodness sake, look what Ben Roethlisberger did for the Steelers when he was young.
But that doesn’t mean either method is THE method for success. When it comes down to it, the important thing is finding the right people and bringing them in however you can. If that is a trade, signing, or draft pick doesn’t matter. Cincinnati isn’t a good team because they took an early quarterback, they are a good team because they acquired a great quarterback with their top pick. Many teams take the same approach and end up with very different results.
That’s why it doesn’t matter if you have an in-house replacement or an outside signing, develop the next quarterback or sign them. The key is getting the right people, not using the right method to acquire them, and previous success doesn’t always project future results. Minkah Fitzpatrick wasn’t looked at very highly when the Steelers traded for him, but Teryl Austin was able to adapt the coverage schemes the Steelers used to fit him and allow his talent to show on the field and the defense has been better for it. Two men cast off from former teams for lack of success turning it around together.
And that’s the important part, finding not just the most talented players or coaches, but the ones that combine to make the best team. However, whenever and wherever you find them. And once you find the right combination, everyone will look at how you did it and say, “that’s the right way to do it.”