Overreactions from Steelers Nation: The Quarterback Room

Welcome to my weekly edition of “Overreactions from Steelers Nation” a weekly column where I poke fun at fans, reporters, and so-called experts while trying to figure out if some of these hot takes are real – or just for attention.

I often preface this column by asking Steelers Nation if they can’t just enjoy what they’re watching. Apparently, that answer is no, given the last few weeks of ups and downs with the team.

To see how we’ve gotten here, I have to do a brief history lesson. Some fans wanted Ben Roethlisberger to retire, but for the team to draft someone to develop in his place: as a “Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers” scenario, if you will.

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The team did so, by selecting Mason Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. However, the fans didn’t like him when he played back in 2019 – under a set of unusual circumstances throughout the season – and quickly wrote him off after only eight starts.

Then came the “sign a veteran” or “draft a first-rounder” types after Roethlisberger had retired. Each set of fans had their wish granted when the team added Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett in 2022. In fact, the “retread” crowd had their wish granted twice, though most of us forget the Steelers acquired the late Dwayne Haskins, a former first-round pick of the Redskins, in 2021 as well.

The fallout of each path can be seen as we close on the 2023 season. Pickett, while managing to not lose games, hasn’t quite developed into much more than a manager at this point. Losing ground in his development due to concussions and injuries, the “play Trubisky” crowd was quickly silenced after a three-game losing streak that has positioned the Steelers with no better than a 25% chance of making the postseason with one game to go.

The only reason the team has a shot at making the playoffs now is due to the previously loathed Rudolph, who has strung together 567 yards of passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions over the last two games: games in which Pittsburgh has scored at least 30 points more on offense. A feat that hadn’t been seen since Roethlisberger left town.

It’s an odd dynamic as the local college hero, Pickett, has now replaced Rudolph’s role as the villain, so to speak. The naysayers of Rudolph are quietly being silenced, at least for now, into believing that maybe they had Mason’s story wrong all along.

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In 2019, the second-year quarterback hadn’t thrown a pass in an NFL game. One of his first went sailing off of the fingertips of Donte Moncrief, who most fans haven’t forgotten was a terrible receiver. His other offensive “weapons” that year included a rookie Diontae Johnson, Jaylen Samuels (who was second in receptions), James Washington, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner. However, most of those players missed significant time, making way for the likes of Nick Vannett (13 games), Ryan Switzer (9 games), Trey Edmunds (11 games), Deon Cain (6 games), Tevin Jones (5 games), Benny Snell (13 games), Kerrith Whyte (6 games), Tony Brooks-James (3 games) and even Johnny Holton (all 16 games).

It isn’t a wonder then, when given a full compliment of talented skill position players, that the result is different for Rudolph. But Rudolph’s success has opened the door to new criticism, namely towards Pickett. Suddenly, George Pickens looks like prime years Randy Moss with Rudolph at the helm of the offense. The running game is also a smoking gun, mowing over opponents for 315 yards over the last two games.

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But is it fair to critique Pickett so early? That used to be my question about Rudolph, but the former had eight starts (and ten appearances total) in 2019 as a benchmark. That wasn’t enough to evaluate, in my opinion – and also given the circumstances of an Earl Thomas-induced concussion, Myles Garrett Thursday Night fiasco in Cleveland or a broken collarbone in New York. Therefore, can we also say the same about Kenny Pickett who has had multiple concussion breaks, played with injured ribs, had tightrope surgery and didn’t participate as the presumed starter in his rookie training camp?

That question is a lot more difficult as Pickett has 24 starts under his belt, twice that of Rudolph, yet the former has five fewer touchdown passes than the latter with nearly 300 more pass attempts.

That has the anti-Pickett crowd swooning for a new option next year, as well as the fervor over the second-year pro saying he didn’t learn anything from the sidelines, and a hot rumor that he didn’t want to be the backup in Seattle last weekend.

I mean, what do you expect from a competitive person? Surely the “backup” rumors are only that, but I recall Roethlisberger having some fairly controversial soundbites over the years too. That isn’t any reason to hold things against Pickett.

Yet, the anti-Pickett crowd is using this as ammo to replace the Pitt product before he has a third year in the NFL: the “prove it” year that makes or breaks most pro quarterbacks.

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In most cases, this crowd isn’t pining for Rudolph as that option either. But they’ll gladly take another retread, such as Russell Wilson. Or another highly drafted QB who failed in their current surroundings, like Justin Fields. Or perhaps a shiny new rookie from the college ranks is the hot item of their desire.

They don’t learn their lesson, do they? We’ve already seen how this plays out. Wilson or Fields can easily be Trubisky version 2.0. A new rookie could be Pickett 2.0 – or worse – plus it could cost the Steelers in more ways (such as spending draft picks) to acquire a player who may not be better in the end run.

Instead, the best path forward is to give Rudolph another trial run on Saturday in Baltimore. Shutting down Pickett is wise, though we’ll have “what if” questions as to if he never got hurt in the first place. It would appear that Matt Canada was an awful choice as an offensive coordinator and Pickett only had one full game with a makeshift crew as the replacement OC.

Playing him now, after missing four straight games, probably hinders any further development than it helps it.

As for Rudolph, unless he turns into a pumpkin at midnight, the team should re-sign him. We saw what this offense could look like during the 2023 preseason, but only got a recent taste of that potential coming to fruition with Rudolph under center. In my opinion, he’s earned his shot. (And perhaps, sitting under Roethlisberger’s learning tree, as Rodgers did under Favre, may bear similar fruit?)

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2024 should be a two-man race for the starting position, with Pickett and Rudolph trading blows. The competition would be good for Pickett – not to mention a new offensive coordinator could prove the naysayers wrong.

A three-man dog and pony show did no one any good back in 2022 and should not be repeated.

If 2024 is a complete and total disaster, so be it: it would position the Steelers to go to the draft well again with a higher selection in 2025. And if ’24 isn’t a disaster, then the team may have found their signal-caller for the long haul.

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