As John Madden, the legendary former NFL coach and analyst liked to say, the backup quarterback is often the most popular player on a football team.
Mason Rudolph, in his first year as the Steelers starting quarterback, is now just beginning to find that out. Why? After his four-interception performance in a 21-7 loss to the Browns last Thursday night, fans are starting to clamor for Devlin Hodges, the rookie from Samford who is affectionately known as “Duck,” to be put into the lineup.
- “They need to give Duck a shot, just to see if he can give the offense a spark.”
Wow, that’s the kind of stuff that hasn’t been heard around these parts since just days before Ben Roethlisberger made his first-career start way back in 2004 and soon began playing at a Hall of Fame level.
Poor Mason Rudolph. Not only did the second-year man out of Oklahoma State barely get to enjoy a cup of coffee as the team’s newly-appointed backup quarterback after winning the job with a productive preseason, he couldn’t even make it to his eighth-career start before fans started calling for the other guy to start in his place.
- Such is life for a starting quarterback who hasn’t achieved “elite” or “franchise” status.
- Truth is, and a lot of fans won’t want to hear it, Mason Rudolph still might have that kind of potential.
Only problem is, he hasn’t shown it right away. In-fact, he really hasn’t even shown glimpses of that kind of potential up to this point. Why? It could be due to many factors, including a lack of talent at both running back and receiver.
You know, people like to compare Mason Rudolph’s first year as a starter with Ben Roethlisberger’s 15 years ago. But what fans may have forgotten is that Big Ben had Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and Plaxico Burress to throw to. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was handing the football off to Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis.
Try as you might, even on its best and healthiest day (receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson as well as running back James Conner may miss this Sunday’s game against the Bengals with injuries), you can’t compare this current group of skill-position players with the one from Roethlisberger’s rookie campaign.
Another reason may be because of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s conservative approach on offense with Rudolph at the helm. It was almost a running joke, early on, the way Mason Rudolph was attempting and completing passes that barely made it past the line of scrimmage.
Unfortunately, while the play-calling has gotten more aggressive, as Rudolph has gained more experience as a starter, the offensive production hasn’t improved much at all. Actually, it has regressed over the past few weeks.
Again, though, this current group of skill-position players, led by Smith-Schuster and Conner, has yet to prove it can be a force, especially compared to the ones previously headlined by Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Combine that with the injury factor and, oh yes, the surprising struggles of the offensive line, and it’s just so hard to evaluate Mason Rudolph’s performance so far.
- But while Mason Rudolph has yet to show glimpses of greatness, he hasn’t proven to be a disaster, either.
Before last Thursday’s dreadful performance, Rudolph had thrown 10 touchdown passes to just four interceptions, two of which were far from his fault and should have been caught. And even after last Thursday’s game, Rudolph’s quarterback rating in 2019 is 82.9.
That’s not exactly horrible. In-fact, one might say those are numbers you can build on. I’m obviously no expert on quarterback play, and I realize Mason Rudolph’s footwork, pocket presence and arm strength have all been questioned by those who know why more about those kinds of things than I do.
- But half the battle is not looking totally over-matched, and thus far, it’s hard to say the moment has been too big for Mason Rudolph.
Actually, you might say the exact opposite. You might say he’s shown great fight. In Rudolph’s third-career start against the Ravens at Heinz Field on October 6, he was knocked out cold, thanks to a vicious helmet-to-helmet shot by safety Earl Thomas. Rudolph had to be helped off the field, and he missed the following week’s game after being diagnosed with a concussion.
And, of course, at the end the Body Bag Game against the Browns, Rudolph helped create a national news story by starting a brawl with Browns’ defensive end Myles Garrett that eventually ended with Garrett smacking Rudolph over the head with his own helmet.
It’s a shame that the fight ended the way it did, and it’s really a shame that Mason Rudolph, 24, has been turned into a villain by many national pundits and fans, many of whom have implied, without any proof at all, that Mason Rudolph may have provoked Garrett’s dangerous act with some sort of racial slur.
- But the fight Mason Rudolph showed up until the bitter end of that brawl was admirable.
It demonstrated a frustration, not only with his performance, but with losing a game to a bitter AFC North rival. It showed me that Rudolph is fully committed to the Pittsburgh Steelers, to winning and to getting better as an NFL quarterback.
Dangerous head injuries, aside, Mason Rudolph is probably having the time of his life in 2019. Where he goes from here and how much more he improves is anyone’s guess.
But Mason Rudolph is fighting, and he’s fighting hard. At the very least, you have to love that part of his game.