If you’re looking for a historical precedent to get Landry Jones off the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’re going to have to search a while back. The fact of the matter is that as an organizational principle the team places a tremendous amount of value in having a veteran presence on the depth chart behind their starting quarterback, even if he is not the direct backup.
It’s never happened under Head Coach Mike Tomlin. It almost never happened even under Head Coach Bill Cowher. You would have to go all the way back to the 1996 season and 1990-1 seasons, the final years of Head Coach Chuck Noll’s career in Pittsburgh, to find the last times that they went into a regular season without a veteran backup.
In 1991, the Steelers entered the season with Bubby Brister as their starter and Neil O’Donnel, in his second season after never dressing during his rookie year, as his direct backup. Rick Strom, in his third season, was the third-string quarterback and had thrown 22 passes in his career up to that point, dressing for nine total games.
In 1996, the year after O’Donnell left in free agency, veteran backup Mike Tomczak took over at quarterback, with second-year Kordell Stewart and Jim Miller behind him. They had only thrown about 60 passes between the two of them by that point. But Stewart took over at quarterback in 1997 and Tomczak returned to the role of veteran backup, the 1996 season being a bridge year.
But even that overshadows the proposed pairing of rookie third-round draft pick Mason Rudolph and second-year fourth-rounder Joshua Dobbs, who only dressed for the season finale in 2017 because Ben Roethlisberger was held out of the game to rest. Neither of these quarterbacks have ever touched a football in a meaningful game.
And the more prominent of the two is a rookie, whereas O’Donnell was in his second season. If you truly want to go back to the last time the Steelers entered a season without a backup who had ever thrown an NFL pass, you would have to go back to 1980 with Cliff Stoudt and rookie Mark Malone, but Stoudt was already in his fourth season by then, previously as the third quarterback.
The point is that to keep Rudolph and Dobbs as the Steelers’ backup quarterbacks would be bucking some serious historical precedent dating back decades. It would be similar to the 1990 season, when O’Donnell was behind Strom on the depth chart beneath Brister. Between the two of them, only one NFL pass had ever been thrown.
The Steelers have relied upon the services of veteran quarterbacks on the depth chart since then, often acquiring them as unrestricted free agents, from Mike Tomczak and Kent Graham to Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, and Bruce Gradkowski. Batch personally lasted from 2002 to 2012.
Yet it was the season in which their veteran backup suffered an injury that proved to be their greatest fortune. Batch was injured in the 2004 preseason, making Roethlisberger the direct backup to Tommy Maddox as a rookie. We know how that played out.
The Steelers so desire the role of a veteran backup that instead of giving Jones the opportunity to back Roethlisberger heading into the 2014 season after Gradkowski was injured, they signed Mike Vick. Jones was effectively their fourth-stringer, yet that is the season in which he finally earned his keep, helping to lead comebacks against the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders.