Steelers “comfortable” QB situation closely mirrors team’s history with backups

It truly is an awkward offseason. With free agency and the NFL Draft right around the corner, I once again find myself in the position of voicing a counter argument to a small segment of Steelers Nation who feels that the team must address the quarterback position this year. This, despite several of the Steelers brass, from Team President Art Rooney II to General Manager Kevin Colbert and Head Coach Mike Tomlin, all endorsing their current depth chart and going as far as saying the word “comfortable” when describing their thoughts.

I’m not sure that some fans truly paid attention to what occurred this past season. The team lost their franchise, future Hall of Fame passer, Ben Roethlisberger, halfway through their second game before throwing a second-year and an undrafted rookie to the wolves, with each entering the field under not so ideal conditions.

However, none of that should reflect on the Steelers making any kneejerk reactions to replace the current quarterback hierarchy. Both Rudolph and Hodges gained valuable experienced, while the Steelers also added another semi-experienced but underdeveloped former first round draft pick to the roster in Paxton Lynch.

Lynch is a poster child for what could go wrong with investing a high draft pick on a quarterback that doesn’t pan out as expected. To have him on the roster, without any of the risk associated with that pick, is a feather in the cap of the Steelers heading into offseason workouts.

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What exactly do those fans want?

Ben Roethlisberger is returning. I understand the fear that he might not be who he once was, but he’s earned the right to prove that to us. If he succeeds, the team won’t be looking to replace him for several more seasons, which could go beyond Rudolph’s rookie contract: and possibly that of any quarterback this segment of fans would want drafted this year.

That would leave the Steelers still empty-handed in the near future, using a pick on a player who won’t play while other needs go unaddressed.

But that isn’t my sole reason for writing this article. No, that would be the rosy feelings that fans still have of other backups. Despite what some say or think, there’s no Philip Rivers or Tom Brady coming to Pittsburgh to play backup quarterback. And if those signal callers were still desired in the cities they made Hall of Fame careers out of, well, they’d still be there.

Then there’s the quips for getting a veteran QB. Regardless if it’s a journeyman or a draft pick, the results are likely to be the same: underwhelming, as they have been for the entire reign of Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.

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Early Backups

Tommy Maddox went 15-20-1 as a starter in Pittsburgh. His seasons, not including 9 pass attempts in 2001, were a consistent decline in pass completion percentage: 62.1, 57.4, 50.0 and 47.9. His TD:INT ratio also dipped from 20:16, 18:17, 1:2 and 2:4, as did his QB ratings (85.2, 75.3, 58.3, and 51.7).

Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon represent a veteran and a draft pick that were among the average passers behind Big Ben too.

Leftwich was added in 2008 after Charlie Batch broke his clavicle in the preseason. In relief duty, Leftwich completed 58.3% of his passes for 2 touchdowns and no interceptions that season. He would leave Pittsburgh and later return, with a total of 8 games played in: with one start. That rounds out to 53.1% of his throws being completed, for 617 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception while with the Steelers.

Dennis Dixon was selected in the 5th round of the 2008 NFL Draft. He’d get his first start by when injuries sidelined Ben and Batch before a November 2009 primetime game against the Ravens. Dixon would throw for a touchdown and run for another, completing 12 of his 26 passes. However, the overtime thriller ended on a Dixon interception which led to Baltimore’s game-winning field goal.

Leftwich was initially named the starter when Ben Roethlisberger was suspended the first four games of the 2010 season, but was sidelined with a knee injury in the final preseason game before tearing his meniscus in the second week of the regular season against the Titans. He was placed on Injured Reserve later that year, and would depart the team in 2012.

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Charlie Batch

Batch, who played for Pittsburgh from 2003-2012, owns a 6-3 record as a Steelers starter. He is often considered the benchmark for Steelers backup, but I’m not sure why.

When I really dug into Charlie’s individual games, it skewed my own memory of Steelers wins with Batch under center: because they were not exactly due to his stellar performances. It pains me to say this, but sometimes the Steelers won in spite of his mistakes, and mostly due to Pittsburgh having an amazing defense.

The bulk of his games played played out with few pass attempts and a mix of touchdowns to interceptions:

Charlie Batch Starts/Milestones

Win over Packers 11/2005

9/16 65 yards 0 TD / 1 INT 39.8 rating
(Troy Polamalu 77 yard fumble return)

Win over Browns 11/2005

13/19 150 yards 0 TD / 0 INT 92.0 rating
(Batch scores QB sneak – Ward catches 51-yard Randle El TD pass)

Win over Dolphins 9/2006

15/25 209 yards 3 TD / 0 INT 126.5 rating

*Loss to Ravens 12/2006

(Did not start – enters Q4 for Ben)
4/11 49 yards 0 TD / 0 INT 50.9 rating

Loss to Ravens 12/2007

16/31 218 yards 2 TD / 2 INT 69.0 rating

*Win over Titans 9/2010

(Did not start – enters Q2 for Dixon)
5/11 25 yards 0 TD / 0 INT 52.5 rating
(AB punt return for TD – 4 Reed FGs)

Win over Bucs 9/2010

12/17 186 yards 3 TD / 2 INT 106.5 rating

Loss to Ravens 10/2010

12/21 141 yards 0 TD / 1 INT 57.8 rating

Win over Rams 12/2011

9/24 91 yards 0 TD / 0 INT 49.1 rating

Loss to Browns 11/2012

20/34 199 yards 0 TD / 3 INT 38.7 rating

Win over Ravens 11/2012

25/36 276 yards 1 TD / 1 INT 89.6 rating

Here are Batch’s final career stats:

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Landry Jones

There was been a mix of good (entering the Cardinals game in ’15 and leading the Steelers to four scores and a win) and bad (three interceptions in a 2015 loss against KC that everyone would like to forget) in the career of Landry Jones. Despite what some seem to “remember”, Jones was no worse than Batch as a spot starter. In fact, both of their numbers as Steelers backups appear near identical, with each having their share of successes and failures.

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Mason Rudolph & Devlin Hodges

Which leads me to the current quarterbacks, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.

Rudolph 2019 Stats

Hodges 2019 Stats

If that looks familiar, it should: those numbers favorably compare with their predecessors, such as Charlie Batch and Landry Jones. You may even prefer the numbers Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges put up compared to anyone else listed in this article as well.

For brevity, I didn’t bother adding Michael Vick to this list, but he would finish his Steelers career 2-1 as a starter, with a 60.61% completion percentage and a 79.8 quarterback rating, but it sure was another painful time to watch the Steelers offense struggle to score points without Big Ben. Which goes to say: any quarterback, veteran or not, is going to struggle coming into games cold and with little preparation.

Batch, Rudolph and Hodges all had a great defense to carry them through games. I imagine if Batch had to play a full season, we would’ve seen a similar trend. (Ditto for Jones, though I can’t say if he would’ve led the Steelers to 8-8; he could’ve done better or worse, as an inconsistent quarterback himself.)

Final Thoughts

Yet, the main point isn’t to drag these backup quarterbacks through the mud. Their jobs are difficult and seldom does a replacement jump into the fold and carry a team. There was far worse backup quarterback play in the NFL last season, from Brian Hoyer in Indianapolis to Josh McCown in Philadelphia, or even rookies such as Daniel Jones in New York and Dwayne Haskins in Washington.

That’s why our expectations of a backup quarterback need to start falling inline with how backups play: in doing so, we’ll finally come to the realization that none of the names listed were particularly great quarterbacks during their time with the Steelers, and that the current crop of backups is at least on par, if not better, than those who came before them.

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