At some point in the future, Ben Roethlisberger is no longer going to be the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The play of the 38-year-old future Hall of Famer down the stretch run of the 2020 season brought that very clearly into focus.
Roethlisberger insists he’s been relatively healthy, but he put up passer ratings in the 60s in back-to-back Steelers losses in Weeks 14 and 15, his play was not only not up to the level of play that he’s established throughout his career, but not even good enough to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.
At some point, whether it’s this offseason, next offseason or some other time, the Steelers are going to have to replace Roethlisberger and already the national media has been speculating about external options such as former Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins and New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold.
But one man has a head start on being the next player to be the staring quarterback in black and gold, if he can take advantage of the opportunity that has been presented to him.
Mason Rudolph filled in for Roethlisberger for most of the 2019 season, and his performance was, in Rudolph’s words, “good, bad and ugly.”
In eight starts sandwiched around a concussion and a late-season benching, Rudolph threw for 1,765 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions for an 82 passer rating. It was a performance that left many, Rudolph included, wanting from the former third-round pick out of Oklahoma State.
Since then, he’s had plenty of time to think about what went right, what went wrong, analyze and re-analyze the game time and attempt to implement changes in his game both physically and mentally to make sure that the next time he gets a chance, he’s more able to take advantage of it.
Unfortunately for Rudolph, that chance has been a long time coming. Backup quarterbacks in the NFL can usually count on getting plenty of reps in the preseason to show off their ability to the public and league at large, helping raise their profile even if they’re unable to unseat the man ahead of them on the depth chart.
This season, there was no training camp. While Roethlisberger’s health has been far from perfect this season, he’s yet to miss a significant stretch of time due to injury, meaning that Rudolph’s only playing time has been in mop-up duty, where he’s thrown a grand total of four passes this season.
If Rudolph has been a better quarterback throughout 2020 than he was in 2019, he and the Steelers players and coaches are the only ones that are aware of it, based on what Rudolph has been able to show in training camp and during practices this season.
Rudolph has tried to take advantage of those opportunities, he said on Friday, treating the extra reps he got in training camp an during Wednesdays when Roethlisberger is typically off as his game days.
“When you’re a backup quarterback in this league, every week you’re trying to take advantage of the reps you get in practice,” Rudolph said. “Wednesday’s is kind of my game day of the week, when Ben rests. I’ve tried to treat that day as well as every other day in practice, whether I’m getting reps or not, as development day and I think Coach [Matt] Canada and Coach Randy [Fichtner] have done a good job developing all the younger quarterbacks.”
The ultimate decision-makers of who will replace Roethlisberger reside inside that bubble, of course, but if Rudolph wants to show the Steelers fans and the rest of the league that he has a rightful claim to be the next starter in Pittsburgh, he will get one guaranteed chance to do so this Sunday in Cleveland.
There’s a lot going on in the lead up to this game, with Rudolph facing the Browns and Myles Garrett for the first time since Garrett assaulted him with his own helmet on the field in Cleveland last year and then accused Rudolph of racism.
It’s also a near-must-win game for the Browns, who seemed to be shoe-ins for an AFC Wild Card spot.
It adds up to a game that means a lot to a lot of people, if not necessarily to the Steelers’ end result for the 2020 season.
“I’d be lying if I said there’s won’t be any jitters, but I’m not going to be too hyped up,” Rudolph said. “I think you treat it like a day of work. like I said that that stuff gets out of your system early. But what an opportunity. Excited to be able to lead the team and play a meaningful game.