Mason in 2022 Not Such a Bad Idea
By Jeremy Hritz
Last week, Mason Rudolph had an opportunity to address the media, and he made his affinity for the City of Pittsburgh very clear. Unsurprisingly, Rudolph wants to remain in the city and serve as the next starting quarterback for the Steelers following Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement. Rudolph said, “My goal is to be a starting quarterback in this league and for this team…. I’m not worried about ‘22 or anything like that. I’m trying to live in the moment and be the best I can be for my team.” Following these comments, you would have thought Rudolph condemned and cursed Steelers Nation based on their response on social media, as very few of the black and gold contingent were having any of it.
Whether it was his lack of ability to push the football down the field in his time as a starter, or the desire for the organization to draft a quarterback in the first round, there is a bias from Steelers fans that prohibits them from perceiving Rudolph as a viable option in 2022 should Roethlisberger retire. While he does not possess elite physical tools, nor has he put film out there that demonstrates consistency to string together productive games, what he has shown on film were average to slightly above average performances. It is also important to remember that this occurred in his second season, time has passed, and he has had more opportunites to grow and develop as a signal caller. Rudolph still has all of 2021 to learn under Roethlisberger and Matt Canada, so his improvement should not be discounted.
Don’t Ignore Rudolph’s Strengths
While Rudolph may not have exceptional physical gifts, there are many positives that should be kept in mind when considering him as a starter in 2022.
First, he is knowledgeable of the team, the organization, and the city. Rudolph understands the expectations for the team, knows the roster, their strengths and weaknesses, in addition to the offense and how to execute the plays. Drafting a quarterback in the first round or signing a free agent will require an adaptation period to learn the system and then cleanly call and execute the plays on the field. With Rudolph, this is not a concern, and the element of learning is eliminated as a barrier to success. Rudolph has been referred to as a film hound and a hard worker, so the intellectual side of the game should not prove to be a challenge for him, as it would for someone new to the system.
Rudolph also showed in his lone start in 2020, growth from his second to third year, nearly leading the Steelers to win against the Cleveland Browns in week 17. Against the Browns’ starters in hostile Cleveland territory, Rudolph went 22/39 for 315 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception. He also showed he could push the ball down the field with receptions of 41 and 47 yards from Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson , respectively. While a small sample size, this was a big game for Rudolph as the Browns were playing for the postseason, and he performed admirably, with no help from the running game (85 total yards). In 3 seasons, Rudolph has thrown for 2089 total yards and 15 touchdowns in limited action, all while he was in the early developmental stages of his career. Entering year four, we should expect to see a significant jump in the quality of his play, and then in 2022, his time will have arrived for his spotlight audition.
2022 Is an Opportunity, Not Forever
Giving Rudolph an opportunity in 2022 is just that, an opportunity, it does not mean he is the anointed starter forever. But when you have invested time, and a contract extension into a player as the Steelers have done, it is time to reap on that investment. With an elite defense, in addition to several offensive weapons, Rudolph does not need to carry the team in order for the Steelers to be successful. In fact, working within his strengths in the Canada offense will emphasize a team approach to the offense, which should relieve pressure on the signal caller taking over for Big Ben. It is evident the Steelers are prioritizing the running game. If the revamped offensive line can show it is effective, and if Najee Harris is the player we think he is, then Rudolph will need only to be a manager, and contribute a handful of big passing plays each game. This is doable, and this keeps the Steelers in contention in 2022.
Giving Rudolph the reins in 2022 also allows the Steelers flexibility in the first round in the draft in the event they want to add talent at a position other than quarterback. This could be a pick to bolster the offense even more, or to replenish the cornerback or safety positions on defense. Should Rudolph start in 2022 and fail, at least the Steelers will have their answer, and can move on with finding their guy in 2023, and with good draft positioning. While never their goal, picking in the top 10 in the draft, it would set them up for finding a highly talented franchise quarterback.
Something else to consider is the development and acclimation of Dwyane Haskins, especially if he somehow can move into the number 3 position at QB this year. If this is the case, and Rudolph plays poorly in 2022, he could then get an opportunity, and the Steelers can see what he is all about. Answers to both the Rudolph and the Haskins questions will really give the Steelers clarity in where they need to head in 2023, and it will let them know if they have their interim QB/QB of the future on the roster.
Continued Growth Is Key
Ultimately, I do believe Rudolph can lead the Steelers to 10-11 wins, and while I’m not sure he can carry a team, he can manage the game enough to lead them to the postseason. If Harris and the defense can create more of a global team concept to engender wins and displace pressure off of Rudolph for exclusively being responsible for the team’s success, this could be a model that could work.
We all know the Steelers are the model of consistency and stability, and there is no reason they won’t at least give Rudolph the opportunity. This is the reason they gave him the one-year extension because they believe there is something there, something that will be ready for primetime in 2022. And many times, when the organization makes a decision like this, the fan base questions it. But in many cases, we are glad they made it. Here’s hoping this is the case with Rudolph.
Rudolph shouldn’t be looked at to be the next Big Ben. It’s not a fair comparison. Judge Rudolph on what he has shown in years 2 and 3, and judge him based on the improvement (or lack thereof) he has shown. If he incrementally grows in between now and 2022, the Steelers should be in fine shape to contend.