PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mason Rudolph understands the baggage he is carrying. Dwayne Haskins too.
The next seven months give both Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks a shot at losing weight. For the first time in nearly a generation, the starting gig in the city they play for is up for grabs after Ben Roethlisberger all but confirmed he was retiring after 18 seasons.
And the two players who will be the first to replace the likely future Hall of Famer – one (Haskins) a first-round pick in 2019 trying to recover from an embarrassing extinction, the professional career of the other (Rudolph) so far defined by a fight it ended with a blow to the head with his own helmet – understand the stakes.
“There are still question marks over my game,” Rudolph said Wednesday. “I want to play this role and I want to prove myself to my teammates, the guys I really care about.”
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin highlighted following a blowout first-round loss to Kansas City that ended a wildly uneven 9-7-1 season that “all options” are on the table as the Steelers attempt to forge a path forward without the player who spent nearly two decades as the face of one of the NFL’s most cohesive franchises.
Maybe, but Rudolph and Haskins will have every chance to prove they can handle starting full-time. Rudolph’s resume so far is spotty. He’s 5-4-1 as a replacement for Roethlisberger the past three seasons and his only extended appearance this season ended in a brutal 16 tie with then-winless Detroit in which he pitched for 242 yards with a touchdown and an interception while struggling with his accuracy.
At least he saw the pitch. Haskins did not take a picture during the regular season and spent game days on the sidelines in a sweatshirt after being rendered inactive. The 24-year-old insists it was experience he needed after his brief but tumultuous time in Washington, which cut him in December 2020 less than two years after taking him with the 15th pick to the total.
“Having to play early (in Washington), I never had the chance to learn the NFL game the way it should and the Steelers wanted to,” Haskins said. “It gave me the opportunity to understand the ‘Steelers Way’ and how they wanted their quarterbacks to operate.”
Although the way Tomlin asks his quarterbacks to operate in the future will be different from what was asked of Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh’s offense in his later seasons relied on short, quick throws designed to get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands in an effort to protect him behind a shaky offensive line.
The game has changed since Roethlisberger took over for an injured Tommy Maddox in Week 2 of the 2004 season. The Steelers play in a division that includes a quarterback who can do magic with his feet (Lamar Jackson of Baltimore) and another who can escape pressure when things fall apart (Joe Burrow of Cincinnati).
Whoever is behind Pittsburgh center in 2022 will need to be able to move. Maybe not with the speed of Jackson, but a facsimile of what Burrow does would go a long way to diversifying a playbook that at times felt woefully outdated under first-year coordinator Matt Canada.
Whether the problem is the game plan or the personnel that has dropped the Steelers to the bottom half of the league in nearly every major category this season is up for debate. Canada’s job, at least for now, looks secure after Tomlin appeared to offer tacit but lukewarm approval for giving him another chance to call the games.
Neither Haskins nor Rudolph will be confused with Jackson. Yet they also have more life in their legs than the 39-year-old Roethlisberger, a precious commodity considering the 2022 starting quarterback will play behind a line that could look a lot like the one that has had trouble protecting Roethlisberger this season.
Haskins spent most of the season leading the scouting team during practices, which meant he had to do the occasional impression for Burrow, Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers.
“(Tomlin) is looking for a guy who can move around in the pocket like young Ben (Roethlisberger) was,” Haskins said.
Yet the job also comes with more responsibility than just being able to kick it off and being able to make it work. Leadership is part of the equation, and both players have work to do on that front.
The scars from Rudolph’s infamous encounter with Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett in 2019 still run deep, part of a bumpy introduction to the NFL in which Rudolph was benched for the undrafted rookie free agent. Devlin Hodges then saw his season end with a shoulder injury.
“I think it’s the biggest adversity I’ve ever had in a season in my life,” Rudolph said. “It happened in the space of 10 weeks and I think I’m a better man for what happened to me that year. I’ve been toughened up. My skin has thickened.
Haskins thinks his too after Washington cut ties with him so quickly. There were concerns about his maturity at the time, concerns that he believes have eased during his year in Pittsburgh.
“I really feel like I can be a starter in this league,” said Haskins, who went 3-10 in Washington. “I got drafted for that reason. I really believe I have the talent for it. I believe I can play with the best of them. I really haven’t put it all together yet. And I know I have to do it if I want to put myself in a position to play.”
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