PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers have benched Kenny Pickett.
However you want to say it or parse it, Pickett was medically cleared to play last week in Seattle. He is healthy enough to play right now. Mason Rudolph will start against the Baltimore Ravens. Pickett will not.
What that means for this week, and presumably all the rest of the weeks in 2023 season that involve the Steelers, is that the team’s fate rests in the hands of its former third-string quarterback.
Rudolph is going to get to play until he has a bad game, and at this point, one bad game will probably end the Steelers’ season.
So what about what comes next? How will the way things have played out at the end of this season impact 2024? Will Pickett be the team’s starter going forward? Has Rudolph, who has played well in two opportunities, done enough, or could he do enough to get into the conversation for 2024?
Head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t seem interested in going down that road when he was asked about it during his press conference on Monday.
Asked if Rudolph is the most talented quarterback on his roster right now, Tomlin punted to the offseason.
“You know, I hadn’t analyzed it in that way,” Tomlin said.”I’m just looking at where we are and what we need to do this week. That’s probably more of an end of the year type analysis, man and we’re on a short week and we’re trying to put together a formula to win this game.”
Tomlin also acknowledged that when you bench a player that has been seen as a big part of the franchise’s future, the future has to be taken into account.
“I think you factor in all variables when you make decisions,” he said. “That’s just a component of decision-making.”
That’s not a lot of insight into what they’re thinking. But what do the Steelers’ actions say about what they think about their quarterback status heading into 2024?
THEY FIRED THE OC INSTEAD OF BENCHING THE QB
When things weren’t going great on offense at the midpoint of the 2023 season, the Steelers needed to make some big-picture changes. They had two experienced veteran backup quarterback options in Mitch Trubisky and Rudolph. Trubisky had played nearly as well as Pickett in 2022. Changing a quarterback is a whole lot easier than taking the drastic step of firing a coordinator, which the club hadn’t done since World War II.
The fact that the Steelers fired Matt Canada instead of benching Pickett strongly suggests that they at least suspected that Canada was the greater problem in the arrangement and they wanted to see what Pickett looked like without him.
They got one full game — a 400-yard offensive performance against the Cincinnati Bengals — before Pickett was lost to injury. It seems very likely that the Steelers desired a longer look at Pickett without Canada, and that they may want to see Pickett with whoever the team decides will be its next offensive coordinator.
DECISION DOWN TO THE WIRE
Tomlin waited until basically the last possible moment, at Monday’s press conference, to acknowledge that Pickett is healthy enough to play and that Rudolph is playing anyway.
There certainly seems like there was a significant effort by the team to avoid having to publicly bench their former first-round pick. If they felt that they were done with him as a prospect, and that they did not have any further desire to see him start for the team, there would have been no reason to that.
Compare how Tomlin handled Pickett’s benching to when Chuks Okorafor was sat down for Broderick Jones earlier this year.
NO COMMITMENT TO RUDOLPH
If the Steelers really thought that Rudolph was a contender to be the team’s starting quarterback in 2024, why not commit to him getting a block of games to prove it?
Even after Tomlin announced that he was benching Pickett for Rudolph on Monday, he refused to commit to Rudolph starting the rest of the games for the team this season.
“It depends on what happens this week to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said. “We’re more of a day-by-day, week-by-week outfit at this point. Hypotheticals and speculations is fruitless for us. We got so many tangible challenges and so much tangible work to do, we’re just not wasting a lot of time speculating and things of that nature.”
SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?
Pickett is under contract for 2024 and beyond. Trubisky is under contract for 2024, but at a rate that makes it unlikely he’ll be retained after his performance this season. Rudolph will be a free agent.
It seems likely the Steelers will want to at least give Pickett a chance to re-gain his starting role in 2024. It also seems likely, that with Trubisky’s misadventures nearly singlehandedly sinking the season, that they will want to secure better relief options going forward.
The new offensive coordinator will likely have a big say on the identity of that other option, and where it comes from, be it the draft, a trade or free agency. Rudolph has played well enough to earn a spot somewhere next season, but it’s not clear if the Steelers feel it should be here.
Two seasons after the Steelers entered the offseason with a quarterback vacuum, they have a different problem: three options to return, but none of them they feel good about.