Mason Rudolph receives an unfair amount of criticism from Steelers Nation

The slow NFL offseason often leads to outrageous headlines – a prime example of which occurred earlier this week when Steelers backup quarterback Mason Rudolph joined an interview Zoom meeting with reporters. I knew as soon as I saw his name popup on the schedule that some ridiculous questions would be asked and some sound byte would be magnified ten-fold to maximize one’s blog or news site’s exposure.

One bit from the interview made “headlines”, as some “writers” around the internet cherrypicked Mason’s response about his future with the Steelers.

“That’s my goal, to be a starting quarterback in this league and for our team and I’m working towards that goal every single day,” Rudolph maintained after today’s OTA. “I can only control myself and the way I prepare and the way I approach and play in OTAs and in (training) camp. That’s on the forefront of my mind.

For whatever reason, some outlets amended that snippet, even paraphrasing, to help stoke the fires among fans and critics who have an axe to grind with the fourth-year pro and make Mason look foolish.

What is so wrong with any player striving to be the best they can be? Should Mason have just said he’s a bum and hopes to be traded or quit?

Of course not! Yet, there’s a segment of Steelers fans who are casually observing and making the wrong critiques of Mason’s career thus far.

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Where it all started

Almost immediately fans started to project their own thoughts on the second-year player when he was drafted. I believe some of those fans had a Landry Jones hangover, the adequate and inconsistent backup quarterback the Steelers drafted in 2013.

The fans also had a love affair with another mid-round quarterback drafted a year prior to Rudolph – Joshua Dobbs – the previous year’s backup who won the hearts of fans with some spectacular play during the previous preseason. Unable to replicate the same success the following year, Dobbs not only lost his backup job to Rudolph in 2019, but was sent to Jacksonville in a trade. Another preseason fan favorite, Devlin Hodges, was called up as the team’s third quarterback.

It’s almost as if fans disliked Rudolph simply because he wasn’t Dobbs (a rocket scientist) or Hodges (who has a cool nickname).

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Rudolph gets his opportunity

The best was yet to come, as Rudolph would ascned from backup to starter when Ben Roethlisberger would be sidelined for the entire 2019 season after exiting at halftime of a Week 2 encounter against the Seattle Seahawks.

During the span of games which followed, Mason appeared relatively limited – either by design or by ability. The Steelers offense was often criticized of being “dink and dunk”, that is, throwing short, quick passes while also abandoning their run game.

If that sounds familiar, it should, as recently canned offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was the architect of the mediocre offense that season too. The Steelers would start the season 0-3, with Rudolph incorrectly receiving most of the blame, despite throwing for 7 touchdowns to 2 interceptions with a combined QB rating of 102.5, in his first four games.

He was then knocked out of the Ravens game by Earl Thomas in the third quarter. Mason returned two games later to lead the Steelers on a three-game win streak; where he appeared more apprehensive, taking six sacks (to the three in the four games prior) and throwing 4:2 TD:INT with a 84.8 rating.

He was unceremoniously benched later in the season, following a traumatic series of events in a Thursday Night Football encounter with the Cleveland Browns. (More on that below.)

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Incidentally, fans have forgotten about who Rudolph did, or did not play with in 2019

One of those players was Donte Moncrief, the ill-fated wide receiver with butterfingers, who saw passes slip through his hands and into those of the other team. Fans remember those turnovers when it was Ben Roethlisberger throwing the passes in a primetime game against the Patriots, loyally defending their franchise quarterback’s ability, but have not made the same connection with Mason.

Rudolph also threw more in these three games, playing without some of his marquee pieces such as James Conner and Juju Smith-Schuster – each of whom along with Diontae Johnson, would exit the team’s next game on a short week, at Cleveland.

In that primetime game against the Browns Rudolph played with Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds and Tony Brooks-James as his top backs, plus Tevin Jones and Johnny Holton as his passing targets… Jones would be released shortly after this game for two poor drops (out of four targets) while Holton’s peak playing time (58%) would never be seen again after securing only a single reception of his seven targets.

Fans will only remember, however, the four picks Rudolph threw – and the game-ending altercation with Browns DE Myles Garrett. Nothing else.

Rudolph was benched the next week in Cincinnati, but would also be brought back in a must-win situation against the Jets, after Hodges’ struggles during the middle of a final three-game stretch. Rudolph would complete 70% of his passes for 129 yards and a touchdown against New York before breaking his collarbone, which ended his season, giving way to Hodges as the signal caller once again. The duck-calling favorite would finish with a 1:6 TD:INT ratio over those three games – saving his worst for last, taking 9 sacks with a 39.6 QB rating as the Steelers missed the postseason.

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Projecting other passers onto Rudolph

I feel the final stretch of games in 2019 have been unfairly projected onto Rudolph’s future aspirations to become an NFL starting quarterback. Especially when it wasn’t Mason on the field.

Some of those feelings should’ve been subsided in Week 17 of the 2020 season against the Browns.

Rudolph got the start while other starters were rested. He would go on to become the first quarterback not named Ben Roethlisberger, to throw for over 300 yards since November, 2003.

Not Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Michael Vick nor Landry Jones accomplished the feat last seen by Tommy Maddox in a loss to the Bengals. Despite that, the loss sent the Browns into the playoffs, where they’d embarrass the Steelers a week later: something I feel fans are unfairly projecting onto Rudolph as well. (If only he won that game, right?)

Looking around the league at other failed quarterbacks, both as starters and backups, I’m bewildered at how fans can be so lukewarm on Rudolph’s progress. Some have clamored to see Josh Dobbs, who had a miserable 2019 preseason where he threw zero TD passes and two picks against subpar competition while often running for his life as well instead of making decisive throws.

Dobbs couldn’t get a single snap of playing time in Jacksonville over the likes of their awful depth chart.

Others were begging for Paxton Lynch, a flamed-out former first round pick who is no longer in the NFL. (Perhaps because he was a first round pick? I’m not sure why…)

Fans should stop projecting the shortcomings of past backups onto Rudolph, and rather look at his career thus far through its own lens. A bad game here or there should not define a player’s career either. Fans see what they don’t like (Browns game, 4 picks) and hold onto that the same as they did with Landry Jones throwing four interceptions in a preseason game.

Yet they hold onto Dobbs playing against preseason competition, or are begging for Dwayne Haskins (another first-round reclamation project) to immediately supercede Rudolph as the team’s top option behind Roethlisberger. (That’s not to say Haskins can’t still flourish, but he’s already thrown fewer touchdowns and more interceptions than Rudolph thus far in his career – and with more starts and games played.)

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Final Thoughts

For all of these reasons above, I believe Mason Rudolph‘s good name should be cleared by Steelers fans. It’s entirely possible that he does not become the Steelers eventual successor to the future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger. However, it doesn’t mean that any of the quarterbacks drafted before, or since, will flourish to the same heights either.

With names such as Josh Rosen and the aforementioned Lynch already out of the league, finding a franchise quarterback has become somewhat of a lottery: there’s more losers than winners.

However, if you received a free ticket, would you play?

That’s how I view the Mason Rudolph situation, and when compared to others around the league, the Steelers could do much worse than give him an opportunity – after all, it took Big Ben until his 13th game to thrown for 300+ yards, something he would only do twice over the first two years of his career. (In other words, you’ve got to give quarterbacks a chance. Is that much to ask?)

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