As has become his custom in recent years, Steelers president Art Rooney II addressed the media in the aftermath of the 2019 regular season, one in which Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for a second straight year.
Perhaps more so than in 2018, when the Steelers missed the postseason after squandering away a 2.5 game lead in the AFC North with six weeks to play, Art II was probably a little more understanding of last season’s failures, given the absence of his most precious resource–quarterback Ben Roethlisberger–for all but six quarters of the regular season.
- That Pittsburgh finished 8-8 instead of totally collapsing in the wake of Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury was commendable.
But this does not mean the quarterback play of the backups was stellar. In fact, one could describe the contributions of second-year man Mason Rudolph and rookie Devlin Hodges as workman-like on their best days and absolutely awful on their worst.
And maybe that’s why it may have been a bit of a surprise when Rooney said he was comfortable with the Steelers quarterback situation–specifically with Rudolph as his team’s backup–heading into 2020.
“As we sit here today, we are all comfortable with Mason being our backup,” said Rooney on January 15 via Steelers.com. ” Speaking of unusual seasons, he had an unusual season. He had to deal with some unusual circumstances, including injuries and everything else. I think it was an experience for him . . . the old story, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Hopefully it is that kind of situation for him. I think we are all pretty comfortable with Mason coming back as our backup and being a guy who can continue to develop.”
- Of course, the key phrase in that Rooney quote may be “As we sit here today,” because lots can happen between now and the start of training camp and the regular season.
But I wouldn’t count on it. In fact, I think Rooney was preparing the fans and the media for a free agency period that doesn’t include the signing of a veteran backup quarterback. And not necessarily because Art II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are “comfortable” with Rudolph.
- Being “comfortable with Roethlisberger, Rudolph and Hodges may just be their only option.
As always, the Steelers are right up against the salary cap, with not much room to work with. Also, with the current lack of a CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) beyond March of 2021 (March always marks the start of the NFL’s new calendar year), the team doesn’t have the ability to free up cap space by restructuring contracts.
As of now, all general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin can do to make room is cut veteran players. Will that free up much space? Probably not enough of it.
You might think that’s a shame what with such a stellar (and perhaps unprecedented) class of veteran quarterbacks on the verge of hitting the free agent market next month.
- But let’s be real.
Unless Roethlisberger says that he’s had enough and decides to retire before or around the start of unrestricted free agency, the Steelers wouldn’t even bother pursuing guys named Tom Brady, Philip Rivers or even Teddy Bridgewater. Heck, even someone like Ryan Tannehill would probably command the kind of salary that would eat up most of Pittsburgh’s cap space.
Why? Those guys are going to be looking for starting offers–offers they’ll no doubt receive from teams dying for better quality in an always quarterback deficient league.
And on top of that, any quarterback that seems good enough to be someone’s quality veteran backup is probably going to be deemed valuable enough to sign on as a starter somewhere.
- Perhaps they could bring in a veteran as insurance, but unless it’s one of the top guys out there, what are the odds he’d be much better than Rudolph?
Rooney knows this, as do his executives and coaches. Maybe Rooney is truly sincere in saying he’s comfortable with the quarterback situation, but if he’s not, why would he say that knowing he doesn’t have the financial resources to go after someone better than Rudolph? Saying it would just incite the fans. It would also make Rudolph look weak.
The days of looking over at the Steelers sideline and seeing names like Charlie Batch, Tommy Maddox and Byron Leftwich listening in as Roethlisberger and his coaches plan the next play are over.
- $30 million annual salaries for the starters pretty much ended those days.
$33 million is what Pittsburgh will pay Big Ben next season, and if you decide to go all out to keep your starter, you’re not going to be able to invest much in your backup, save a high-pedigreed draft choice.
Rudolph, who the Steelers picked in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, is that, and he has two more years remaining on his rookie deal.
The Steelers are likely going to head into 2020 hoping for two things when it comes to their quarterback position: A healthy Roethlisberger and an improved Rudolph.
- If they get 100 percent of the first thing, it doesn’t matter about the second.
If they can get 75 percent of the first thing, they just have to hope the second thing has improved enough to get them through a few games.
- If they get zero percent of the first thing, it may lead to another season without the playoffs.
These are the realities the Steelers are facing, and that’s why they may have no choice but to be comfortable with their quarterback situation.