I’ve spent the offseason wondering how the Pittsburgh Steelers would replace QB Mason Rudolph for the third-string spot. Evidently, their answer was…Mason Rudolph.
This is a situation where I got it wrong. Very, very wrong. All offseason, my belief was Rudolph would not return to Pittsburgh. That he was ready to move on, go somewhere else, look for a better opportunity. In the same breath, I thought the Steelers would want him back in the same role, third-string quarterback, but it felt like something would be more appealing in free agency.
The market has spoken. By saying nothing. Rudolph’s market evidently was church-mouse quiet, leading to his return to Pittsburgh. Sign me up for that. I’m good with the same quarterback room as last year: Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, and Rudolph.
Obviously, hopefully the room will get better and Pickett will make a second-year jump but there’s no question the Steelers valued the experience of their quarterback room last season. To the point where they opted against dealing Rudolph, knowing full well he was going to hit free agency in the offseason.
None of this pretends like Rudolph is a star. He’s the guy Steelers fans love to hate more than just about anyone. He earned some sympathizers last season after being demoted to third-string but even in his imminent re-signing, some fans are acting like Omar Khan just brought back Hannibal Lecter.
Good luck finding a better #3 than Rudolph. Until the news of him returning, the Steelers’ options looked bleak. A couple of tryout names and UDFA Tanner Morgan, who shouldn’t come anywhere close to seeing the field this season. Obviously, Rudolph seeing the field too means something has gone extremely wrong, him spending the whole year in street clothes is the goal, but having established veteran depth top to bottom is critical at the position.
Sixty-six quarterbacks threw a pass last season. Fifty-seven of them started at least one game. Quarterback is the most important position in sports and no team wants to be left standing in a game of musical chairs. That’s why Pittsburgh held onto Rudolph last year. Perhaps the worry is lessened a bit by Pickett’s play. He’s no longer a rookie the team hasn’t gotten a long look at, but all it takes is one injury to him to make the team thankful to retain Rudolph.
If Pickett goes down and Trubisky steps in, it means Rudolph is one snap away from seeing the field. That matters to coaches. If say Morgan was the team’s next option, the way you call a game becomes more conservative and protective of Trubisky because getting him hurt too means the Steelers are reliving 2019 all over again with a big wad of unknown stepping in. That’s not what a team that needs to make the playoffs this year should endure.
Rudolph returning is a surprise. He’s not going to transform the Steelers into contenders. But Mike Tomlin probably sleeps a little better at night knowing if disaster strikes and Rudolph has to step in, there won’t be panic. He knows them, they know him, and they can quickly pivot to a system and play calls that suit him the best.
It’s worth thinking about what happens beyond next season. Presumably, Rudolph will sign a one-year deal and Trubisky is set to become a free agent. After getting Rudolph wrong, I want to be careful of making any declarations about the future here. But it’s reasonable to believe Trubisky will go somewhere else when his deal is up which would open the door for Rudolph to re-sign as the team’s #2. A lot can and will happen in a year and the focus should be on now. The Steelers re-signing Rudolph is a good thing. He embodies the old adage: Better to have and not need than to need and not have.