It's rare for an organization to stick true to their word at any point in the offseason, let alone the entire process.
So when Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert followed through on his word that the team felt comfortable in their current quarterback situation, it came as a surprise to a lot of people that cover/cheer the black and gold.
Whether it be the end of season press conference, the combine or free agency, Colbert (and head coach Mike Tomlin) held true that Mason Rudolph was still their guy. Amid speculation that the team was looking to add talent through the draft or free agency, Colbert recently doubled down on Pittsburgh's current quarterback situation:
"I can honestly say that we absolutely made no negotiation or offer to a veteran quarterback" said Colbert.
When it comes to Rudolph, Colbert didn't shy away from praising the Oklahoma State product:
Given 2019's success (or lack thereof), fans are reluctant to get excited about Pittsburgh's future with Rudolph at the helm. Despite an overwhelming amount of opposition, the Steelers front office remains adamant that Rudolph is capable of playing behind Roethlisberger.
Which provokes the question: Why the optimism around Rudolph?
When evaluating quarterback play last season, those questions are warranted. Rudolph's play down the stretch wasn't exactly promising. I did a film review on perhaps Rudolph's worst game on a football field, the infamous Thursday night in Cleveland that will be remembered by both sides for a long time.
What I got out of that film review wasn't good. Much like the other games he played in, his pocket-presence was all over the place, and the mistakes stuck out like a sore thumb.
Their very next game in Cincinnati, Rudolph was benched after a miserable performance that saw the Steelers trailing 7-3 at halftime. Devlin Hodges took control, leading Pittsburgh to a 16-10 victory. Hodges started the next four games before eventually being benched for Rudolph in week sixteen. Rudolph went 14/20 for 129 yards and 1 touchdown before being injured, ending his season.
The general quarterback play in 2019, whether it be Hodges or Rudolph, left little to be desired.
However, Tomlin and Colbert don't quite see it that way.
Rudolph spent his rookie season sitting behind Roethlisberger, having not played a meaningful snap. Fast-forward to week two of 2019, where a likely nervous Rudolph trotted on the field to replace an injured Roethlisberger.
From that moment until Earl Thomas launched himself to Rudolph's chin and concussed him, Rudolph played considerably well. Through that stretch of time (four weeks), Rudolph's numbers were as followed:
66.45% completion percentage
7-2 touchdown to interception ratio
99.65 passer rating
Sacked three times in four games
Although he held a 1-3 record over that span (including both games he entered/exited without completing a full game), his three losses were all against playoff teams: Baltimore, Seattle and San Francisco. His lone win? A 27-3 victory of Cincinnati that saw Rudolph go 24/28, 229 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Following his return, Rudolph led the Steelers to three straight wins before the disastrous primetime performance on Thursday night in Cleveland. While the three game win streak was more-so spurred by defensive heroics rather than Rudolph's modest performances during that stretch, the team still found success under his direction. The rest of the season was spent behind Hodges before eventually replacing him against the Jets before his shoulder injury.
Rudolph's 2019 campaign was essentially the definition of roller coaster: Up and down. There were instances where Rudolph didn't show any signs of inexperience, and other instances where he was simply trying to do too much. Should you remove the two week stretch starting in late November where Rudolph played his worst against the Browns and Bengals, his 2019 season could be considered successful. However, you can't simply hand-pick two games to remove from Rudolph's evaluation. This is professional football played at the highest level on this planet, not a salad bar where one can pick and choose what they like.
This brings us back to our original question: Why the optimism around Rudolph?
Tomlin and Colbert are big believers in development. When a rookie first comes in, special teams is almost a guarantee. Playing time may be sheltered until the player (such as we saw with Devin Bush) proves that they are simply too good to be held back. Now that Rudolph has in-game experience, the Steelers prefer a young, inexpensive quarterback that has knowledge of the system as opposed to outsiders... for the time being.
2019 is hard to truly gauge for any offensive player. When speaking on guys such as JuJu Smith-Schuster or James Conner, they often get a pass that involves dismal performances from every position group and little help from offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.
So from Tomlin and Colbert's point of view: Why was an inexperienced Rudolph the exception? Rudolph played just one game where he threw multiple interceptions, kept Pittsburgh in games they shouldn't have been in and dealt with more than most quarterbacks do in one season in terms of injuries, helmets to the head and racial allegations that may stick with him for the rest of his career.
Perhaps Tomlin liked the way Rudolph persevered through the ups and downs. Perhaps Colbert values the experience Rudolph gained and believes Rudolph played better than most that are able to type a 160 character tweet suggest. Perhaps both see a third-round pick that can benefit from the arrival of quarterbacks coach Matt Canada and valuable experience under his belt.
Or perhaps, they're under the wrong impressions. The team may feel comfortable with Rudolph simply due to the front office wanting to pour their financial investments in help for Roethlisberger, while also banking (hoping) Roethlisberger is able to stay healthy all through next season. Without Roethlisberger, there's no realistic expectation to plan a Super Bowl parade.
Only time will tell if sticking with Rudolph will be the right move. We may very well see a new quarterback arrive as soon as next season. For now, however, the Steelers are willing to roll the dice on Rudolph for 2020.