By Jeremy Hritz
Steelers training camp is in full-throttle, and the quarterback room is abuzz with the practice performance of current 3rd string quarterback, Dwayne Haskins. Somewhere, in a parallel universe, a Steelers’ equivalent to Allen Iverson is rolling his eyes, but Haskins output thus far has captured the attention of his teammates and coaching staff, and the imagination and optimism of Steelers Nation. So much so, that discussion has now shifted to the possibility of Haskins supplanting Mason Rudolph as the backup to Ben Roethlisberger. While still very early in training camp and the team development process with 4 preseason contests to go, the potential of Haskins becoming QB2 is not as much as a stretch as one would think.
What Have You Done For Me Lately? – or – Not For Long
Rudolph is entering his 4th season with the Steelers, after being selected in the 3rd round of the 2018 draft, with some organization belief he could be the successor of Roethlisberger. In that time, he has had starting opportunities, specifically in 2019 due to Ben’s elbow injury, and showcased uneven performances. Last season, he had a fine showing in the last contest of the season against the Browns, reigniting the conversation that he could potentially be in line to take over, or at least audition for a year, as the Steelers starter once Roethlisberger retires. This sentiment was bolstered by Rudolph signing a 1-year deal back in April to ensure stability at the position should Roethlisberger retire at the end of 2021.
Despite all of that, the NFL is a what have you done for me lately entity, and Rudolph’s play in camp thus far has been less than what is expected from a 4th year signal caller with experience and knowledge of the team, personnel, and offense. Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot recently published a statistical breakdown of all QB’s performances in camp so far, and to confirm the narratives emerging out of the camp, Rudolph’s stat line does just that. Per Kozora, Rudolph is 38/52, 235 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, with an average of 6.2 yards per completion (0 completions of 20 yards or more). These numbers are pedestrian and strikingly in alignment with his career numbers, which have been characterized by either a weakness in successfully throwing deep, or simply an ability to achieve consistency. Sure, this is a small sample size, and yes, Juju Smith-Schuster dropped a long touchdown pass from Rudolph, but these numbers are consistent with what he has produced in the past.
While Rudolph’s numbers are not abysmal, they are not robust, or indicative of being anything more than a game-manager quarterback, not that there’s anything wrong with that, as history has shown championships can be won with such a QB. But the Steelers organization is always looking to improve, at every position, at every spot on the depth chart, and Haskins may provide such an upgrade.
Why Haskins As QB2 Isn’t Such a Stretch
First, Haskins has more starting experience as a QB than Rudolph, starting 13 contests to Rudolph’s 9, though his record in those games is not as successful as the current Steelers backup; however, the talent for the Washington Football Team in comparison to the Steelers does not match up. Haskins only won 4 of his starts, but he was thrust into competition as a rookie in week 4 of the 2019 season, hardly an ideal opportunity, and definitely not the ideal environment for a young quarterback. He also has the pedigree of being a first-round selection, possessing all of the physical tools necessary, including a car-wash avoidable arm, which is indicative of his potential.
Fast forward to training camp 2021, and Haskins has, statistically and observably, been the most productive of the Steelers quarterbacks, 36/54, 418 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions (Kozora). In addition, he has taken the most snaps of all of the Steelers QBs in camp, and has the highest total of completions 20 yards or more downfield with 6 (Kozora). And it is worth mentioning, he has demonstrated more mobility than expected, even taking a bootleg in for a score in the team’s seven shots period.
It’s not all positive with Haskins, however, and I don’t want to paint too much of a rosy picture, as his most recent practice was his least successful, throwing 2 interceptions, even though he also had some shining moments as well. And historically, in his starting contests in Washington, he wasn’t great, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, making many poor decisions, and not truly pushing the ball down the field with consistency. Yet these are all things to expected from a young quarterback.
Making Sense of It All
In totality, while prior to the start of camp, it would have been absurd to argue that Haskins could emerge as the QB2, his play has at least engendered such conversation, and while yes it is still very early, with 4 preseason games to be played, this is a story worthy of paying close attention to.
In comparing Haskins to Rudolph, he has more starting experience, more physical tools, and in the here and now, he has been the better quarterback at the outset of camp. Rudolph? His strengths rest in his experience and knowledge of the team and personnel, and what appears to be faith from the organization in his one-year extension; however, his play thus far in camp is not where it needs to be. Rudolph was even criticized by Mike Tomlin late last week for throwing short of the goalline, and Tomlin said after practice that he expects his veterans to make the appropriate decisions in situational football.
So Who Will Be QB2?
The backup quarterback spot is Rudolph’s to lose, and he is still in position to secure that spot for another year heading into 2021. But he has to be aware of the positive attention Haskins’ performances are garnering, and realize that he needs to elevate his play to show he is deserving of the spot. The major benefit of all of this is the competition this is breeding between the quarterbacks, as they battle for their livelihood and status on the team, and as Tomlin has said in the past, competition and adversity reveals the character of men, and we are watching that unfold at Heinz Field.
Haskins took reps as the #2 QB at the end of last week, serving as tangible evidence that the coaching staff is acknowledging his performance. You can be certain that this firmly caught Rudolph’s attention, and it will be interesting to see how he responds.
How will it end? If Haskins continues to play the way he has so far, especially in the exhibitions, the team will be hard-pressed to leave him in that 3rd spot. But Rudolph’s play will have an influence on the matter as well.
What a fun battle within the battle to watch starting Thursday night.