The Pittsburgh Steelers have spent most of Ben Roethlisberger’s career with a pretty solid idea of what they had at the quarterback position behind him. Early in his career, of course, they had Tommy Maddox, who was the starter for the first two games of Roethlisberger’s rookie year, and then his backup for the next two seasons.
He was succeeded in the backup role by Charlie Batch in 2006, who had actually already been with the Steelers since 2002, and remained with the team through the 2012 season. While Batch was the primary reserve for most of that time, there was also the stints of Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon serving as the top backup.
When the team decided to ‘freshen up’ the quarterback room following the 2012 season by allowing the aging Batch and Leftwich to get on with their life’s work, they transitioned to Bruce Gradkowski as the team’s reserve, also drafting Landry Jones with the aspirations of him emerging in that role.
Gradkowski was Roethlisberger’s backup for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but he hardly had to play at all. Last season, it was Jones by default due to several injuries, and his results were quite mixed, even if he ended up with two game-winning drives on his resume.
In fact, there has perhaps never been a time in Roethlisberger’s tenure with the Steelers during which the backup quarterback position has been less stable and assured, at least heading into an offseason. Gradkowski was the presumed backup prior to his injuries, and that had been the norm.
Now the Steelers have Jones currently taking the number two snaps, and it is far from certain if he has the capability of taking the next step forward of really solidifying himself as a legitimate backup quarterback. With Gradkowski’s injuries, aging, and lack of playing time in recent years, he certainly has as many questions facing him.
It might almost lead one to believe that one of those ‘camp’ arm sort of quarterbacks that we have written about for so many years might finally have a chance, and this year that camp arm is Dustin Vaughan, who was an undrafted rookie in 2014 who made the Cowboys’ 53-man roster that year, but failed to do so in 2015 when they chose to carry only two quarterbacks—a decision they probably regretted.
Last year, there was Tajh Boyd. The year before, people were hungry to talk about Brendan Kay—briefly. In 2013, some wondered if John Parker Wilson would push for a roster spot after previously seeing time with the Falcons. Even back in 2012, with Batch and Leftwich still around, there was the Jerrod Johnson fan club.
No doubt Vaughan will have his supporters as well, even if his odds of beating out either Jones and Gradkowski would appear to be remote at this point, even if he is able to get a decent number of reps in practice. But it seems to be a more legitimate question to ask than I’m comfortable with, and that speaks to some real concerns about the quality of player that is waiting to line up under center if Roethlisberger goes down again this year.