I'll be the first to admit that my inner fanboy often gets the best of me. But then again, who doesn't get smitten with players they adore?
There are fans that would still love to see Hines Ward or Troy Polamalu suit up. Others still yell "Heaaaaaaath" at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoons, even though Heath Miller hung his cleats up several seasons ago. Still, more fans were so quick to forgive James Harrison.
Our passion gets the best of our rational thinking, and even in my attempts to root my judgments on the Steelers in reality, I can even be found guilty of the same.
Those of you who regularly listen to the Steel City Underground Podcast know I've been an ardent defender of Pittsburgh backup quarterback Landry Jones. It kind of started as a running joke. I thought that Jones was terrible through a few preseason appearances, but that all changed when the Steelers played five exhibition games in 2015. Jones took a large number of snaps at quarterback due to the extra game along with an injury to current veteran backup Bruce Gradkowski.
Not liking their situation with Jones backing up Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers placed Gradkowski on IR and signed Michael Vick to play behind Big Ben. Their thought process appeared to be that they'd prefer a veteran rather than an unproven talent as their emergency plan.
That plan, unfortunately, went into effect when Roethlisberger was hurt midway through that season. He would miss a handful of games after a low hit took him out of a game against the then St. Louis Rams. Vick came in and struggled, but head coach Mike Tomlin wouldn't replace him with Jones no matter what. That's when an injury saw Vick leave a game against the Arizona Cardinals. Vick hobbled off of the field and his status was unknown until three plays later, when the Steelers forced and recovered a fumble. The change of possession necessitated that Jones come off of the bench, and he did so: cold.
Completely cold. I'm talking, "you have two plays to warm up here in the 3rd quarter" cold.
The Steelers were down 10-6 at that time and couldn't move the ball. They ended up winning that game 25-13, and thus, the Landry Jones as backup quarterback era began in Pittsburgh. That era is as spotty as any backup in the NFL, littered with triumphs (149.3 QB rating in that Cardinals game) and tribulations (60.8 rating against the Chiefs that same season). Yet, it was enough for the Steelers to give Jones a vote of confidence by allowing him to start against the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns in 2016 (76.6 rating in a 27-16 loss to the Pats, 103.1 rating in an overtime win against the Browns) and once again in another win against Cleveland to close out the 2017 season (100.5 rating, 85.19 completion percentage).
Jones was given a contract extension before the beginning of the 2017 free agency period, but that didn't stop the Steelers from drafting Joshua Dobbs that same season... or bringing in Mason Rudolph in this year's draft. The two additions make for a crowded quarterback room, one which traditionally sees only three players make the 53-man roster. Some teams have kept only a single backup in the past. Tom Brady was seconded by only Jimmy Garropolo last season after the Patriots dealt Jacoby Brissett to the Colts. When Jimmy G was traded to the 49ers during the season, New England retained Brian Hoyer as Brady's lone insurance policy. Even the Colts had only kept one passer behind Peyton Manning for many years.
Entering training camp this season, the Steelers have more than two quarterbacks, and even more than their traditional three, who could all make the roster. But would they entertain the thought of keeping all four of the quarterbacks?
We know that Ben Roethlisberger is going nowhere soon. (He's said so himself.) The team didn't spend a third-round pick on Rudolph to release him months later. In fact, the same argument could be the reason they keep Dobbs too, after using a fourth-round selection on the former Tennessee Vols QB in 2017.
That would make some think that Jones is the odd man out, but I've debated whether the Steelers would risk having two unproven passers who have never thrown a pass in an NFL regular season game behind their franchise player. That also seems unlikely, especially when considering the team may not have turned the reigns over to Big Ben in 2005 if not for injuries to starter Tommy Maddox and backup Charlie Batch.
Since then, the organization has always kept a veteran presence on the depth chart, be it Batch, Gradkowski, Vick, or Byron Leftwich (who had two stints with the Steelers). Since drafting Roethlisberger, the team has only seen a situation like this with Jones and once prior, when they drafted Dennis Dixon in 2008. Leftwich was Ben's primary backup with Dixon assuming control of the team in 2010 with Roethlisberger suspended and Leftwich injured.
Dixon would wind up injured himself, hailing the return of Charlie Batch, who would remain, along with Leftwich, as the backups until Jones was drafted and Gradkowski was signed in 2013. Gradkowski remained the primary option for Ben until his own injury and even then, the team still wasn't sold with Jones as a backup and acquired Vick.
That leaves me to believe that Jones has the edge over Dobbs for a final spot... but that's also making the assumption of there being a "final spot". What I mean by that statement is that the Steelers could do something against the grain and roster four quarterbacks, rather than three, in 2018.
While rare, it's not an unheard of situation. The New York Jets kept Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Christian Hackenberg, and Bryce Petty during the 2016 season. However, the reason it's usually rare to see four quarterbacks on a depth chart is that means another position group is down one less of a player than usual to make room for the extra QB.
If there were any year the Steelers could pull this off, it would be 2018. Their secondary is not only deep with talent but also deep with versatility. This could allow them to roster one less cornerback or safety this season. While they could just as easily put Joshua Dobbs on their practice squad, to make room for another defensive back or linebacker, they would be playing with fire from the onset of doing so. Dobbs would have to clear waivers, with his former offensive coordinator Todd Haley, now with the quarterback-starved Cleveland Browns, having the first crack at claiming him.
Provided Dobbs would clear waivers (with no team claiming him) retaining him would be a weekly process. Another franchise would have to add them to their 53-man roster, but one injury somewhere around the league could create demand for the second-year pro. Even without an NFL game experience, Dobbs is a highly intelligent player who isn't new to the NFL.
That would count for something... something the Steelers may not want to risk losing. Therefore Pittsburgh could use 2018 as a trial period of finding out who Rudolph and Dobbs are as pro quarterbacks. The team already knows that Landry Jones isn't Roethlisberger's heir. That much can be figured out by just looking at the Steelers drafting a QB in each of the last two years.
What isn't known, is if one of those two quarterbacks could step in for Big Ben, and maintain the team's motto of "The Standard is The Standard". For that reason alone, there's a strong case to keep four quarterbacks this season.