The four-year tenure of quarterback Bruce Gradkowski with the Pittsburgh Steelers has certainly been an unusual one, and perhaps one of the odder ones that we have had for some time. But considering that it appears likely to be coming to an end in light of recent events, now would seem a fair time to reflect on the backup quarterback who is now assured to play just 10 snaps in his four-year stay in Pittsburgh.
Gradkowski, a Pittsburgh-area native, was originally signed by the Steelers during a time of transition for them in the quarterback room. They parted with long-time veterans Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich at the same time following the 2012 season, and wanted to flip the room.
They drafted Landry Jones in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft and envisioned him developing into Ben Roethlisberger’s longtime backup—no, not his successor. Gradkowski was signed earlier in that offseason with the understanding that it was their intention to draft a quarterback, and that the veteran would serve as the bridge until the draft pick is ready to assume the backup role.
That process took a while, perhaps longer than they anticipated, and that left Gradkowski as Roethlisberger’s backup for the 2013 and 2014 seasons—which, coincidentally, just so happened to be the two single healthiest seasons he has ever played in his 12-year career, by far. It is certainly an unusual coincidence that the period in which the Steelers acquired a bridge backup is the same period in which they basically would never have to use him.
Roethlisberger played every single snap of the 2013 season, and very nearly did so in the 2014 season as well. During an early blowout victory, he sat for the final drive of the game, and Gradkowski simply handed off the ball seven times as the Steelers worked to run out the clock.
Later that year, during the Wildcard game, Roethlisberger did get knocked out of the game—for three plays, though it probably should have been the game—during which Gradkowski inherited a third-and-21 scenario that he deftly converted with two pass plays, and then nearly threw a touchdown on his third and final snap.
Things took a pretty unfortunate turn on basically every front since then, however. Gradkowski dealt with shoulder soreness—or weakness, or something—during the 2015 offseason, and he even started training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform List, but he came back looking no worse for wear.
Then on a botched snap from an inexperienced center, he not only re-aggravated his shoulder, he also injured his finger, and both injuries required surgery that ended his season. Roethlisberger proceeded to have the most injury-plagued season of his career, missing time in seven or eight games, including four full games.
Gradkowski’s three-year contract expired after the season, but the Steelers did eventually bring him back, and he was going at least to serve as the third quarterback. But he suffered a significant hamstring injury in the first preseason game, and yesterday he was placed on injured reserve when the Steelers claimed Zach Mettenberger off waivers.
Mettenberger is only in his third year, and his rookie contract is still intact, so that means he is still under contract for the next two years. It would seem, in light of his unreliability from a health standpoint the past two years, as well as his age, that his tenure with the Steelers will end after this season, and perhaps his career as well.