Fans are rightly divided about whether we’ve seen enough or not to know if Rudolph will make it in the NFL, either way this Sunday will prove one of the camps right
Let’s clear up a few housekeeping matters first, as it’s important to know where I stand on Mason Rudolph before reading through this article and taking away what you will:
- I really liked the use of the 3rd Round pick on Rudolph after the Steelers selected James Washington in the second round and quite frankly I’m surprised he was available that late given the run on half decent quarter backs each draft. I was disappointed in the way Ben treated the pick, as no one player is bigger than the Steelers as a franchise and Ben was childish – two Super Bowls or not is no excuse – he was 30+ years old and the wrong injury could mean retirement.
- In 2019, I was disappointed by as much of Rudolph’s play as I was excited (so many chances to throw it deep), so I’m no fan boy. However, Rudolph offered, and offers, so much more than Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges. I thought there was no excuse for the Steelers not putting him in halfway through the Bills game last year, being in the stands and seeing it live it was so apparent (another Fichtner mistake) that I was more cranky about that than the Steelers losing that game.
- I find it hard to believe Rudolph actually used a racial slur, guys like Mike Pouncey don’t go into bat for a racist, neither would Mike Tomlin.
- Also, I am an optimistic realist in life (many of you may know this from listening to the Steelers Touchdown Under podcasts and starting this weekend live YouTube show) not a romanticist or idealist.
Now that’s all out of the way, let’s kick this likely reader enrager of an article off…
Firstly, what does the ‘Terrell Edmunds’ treatment mean? What I am referring to with this statement is the sentiment that Edmunds has undelivered, underperformed and was unworthy of the Steelers’ 28th overall pick in 2018. There’s no doubt Edmunds’ high draft position has validated this perception (yes, I too think in other drafts we could have grabbed him in later rounds) as argued by other BTSC staff previously. Equally, it would be unfair to call Edmunds a flop or draft miss with the improvement he’s made over the course of the last two seasons, and the partnership he’s creating with Fitzpatrick.
So if Terrell Edmunds doesn’t deserve criticism for not being the clear answer straight out of the proverbial gate, does Mason Rudolph? When evaluating whether Rudolph has under-delivered it is important to remember that he was not a 1st or 2nd round draft pick, he was picked in the 76th pick in the 3rd round after Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson (for more perspective SB Nation’s Big Blue View wrote this pre-draft evaluation). These consensus top QBs in the draft (which admittedly Mason was one of for some pundits) were ‘off the board’ already, therefore we have to consider why the Steelers drafted Rudolph?
To find a potential heir to Ben without using a high round pick, and at a minimum secure a cost-effective backup option that was cheaper than retaining Landry Jones – especially at a time when the Steelers needed money for players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Remember, the Steelers were smart enough to snag Ben when he fell down the draft order, trade up to get Devin Bush and trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick, we can have faith they thought they’d at least get backup value from Rudolph – arm strength or not aside.
So why should Steelers fans spare Rudolph the ‘‘Terrell Edmunds” treatment and be excited or remotely optimistic about the much maligned Rudolph making his first start of his ‘second season’ (after redshirting his first year) in his 15th career game against the Browns?
Here’s three reasons…
Reason #1: Ben is even excited about seeing Rudolph play
Ben Roethlisberger is excited about seeing Rudolph play (of course he would be on some level considering he gets a week rest and doesn’t have to face Myles Garrett), which is a far-cry from his comments when the Steelers drafted Rudolph of:
“I was surprised when they took a quarterback because I thought that maybe in the third round, you can get some really good football players that can help this team now. And nothing against Mason, I think he’s a great football player … I just don’t know how backing up or being the third guy, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart, but helps us win now.”
To, now, saying this in Wednesday’s press conference:
“I know from talking to Mason he wants to go out and win this football game. This is an awesome opportunity for him to go out and show what he can do. I’ll be here for Mason, for Josh, whoever it may be. I never want to step on toes, but I’ll be available for questions, to help my input with coach Randy [Fichtner], coach [Matt] Canada, whoever it may be. I’ve already talked to Mason about that. That’s going to be my role this week to really try to do everything I can to be there to answer questions or to be of help to them to get them prepared for this game.
He’s physically gifted, we know that, he’s smart. We know he can make all the throws and do things, but even the ways that I have seen it are in-game. Mason has gotten to the point, especially in the last few weeks, where he is chiming in with thoughts and plays that, ‘Hey Ben, what about this, or what about this?’ I think that shows growth and maturity of a guy that understands the offense and kind of what we are trying to do on a week-to-week basis. I think that’s been really, really good.
“He knows the no-huddle package, there are some changes that we’ve made, but he’s aware of it. If we need to go to that mode, he doesn’t see in the same way that I do. I don’t see the game in the same way that he does. No quarterback sees the game the same way as another quarterback, obviously. If it comes down to running the no-huddle and him calling plays that he sees, then it might look similar to what I do, but it might look completely different, too. He might have a group of plays that he really likes that are completely different from mine. I’m sure if it comes to that, he knows it well enough that he could make it happen for sure.”
In short, Ben has more confidence in Rudolph than many of us might, is ready to give his input to help Rudolph out (let’s hope Fichtner just stays well out of the way), and Rudolph has felt so confident he’s actually been suggesting plays as this offense stalled in recent weeks. Also, as Ben has rightly pointed out, and is something we’ll need to remember in the years to come when Ben hangs the boots up, Rudolph is his own quarterback with individual comfortabilities and idiosyncrasies. Just as Ben isn’t a carbon copy of Terry Bradshaw, Rudolph, the next backup, or whoever is the heir apparent, will not likely be carbon copy of Big Ben.
Reason #2: An Air Raid offense is no NFL offense
At Oklahoma State, Rudolph played under an Air Raid-style offensive scheme developed by Head Coach Mike Gundy, which when he brought it in as the OC in the 1990s was described as “one of the first branches off of the air raid tree” (for more on what Mike Gundy has instilled and to see Rudolph executing this offense read more here).
For those that might be unfamiliar with an Air Raid Offense, essentially it is a simplistic scheme consisting of generally 15-25 plays and even simple verbiage of 5 words or less (even as littles as 8-10 at the high school level but K.T. Smith would be the resident BTSC expert here), which is generally attributed to Mike Leach and Hal Mumme who first instilled it at Iowa Wesleyan College and famously took it to Kentucky in the late 1990s. In fact, there’s suggestion its origins go back to former BYU Head Coach LaVell Edwards, with Steve Young playing under a pre-Air Raid offensive system.
The Air Raid offense is built upon allowing players to leverage their instincts as they experience more and their playmaking abilities by simplifying things under-center. Instead of requiring the quarterback to make pre-snap reads and call the offensive line’s blocking approach, which is how it works for most modern quarterbacks, the Center handles blocking assignments and there are option routes to take advantage of defensive player movements giving receivers flexibility to make plays so the quarterback throws to space. However, this does requires lots of reps to become fluent and effective (which is why Rudolph’s struggles to throw to James Washington last year are more perplexing).
In explaining the Air Raid further, Mumme stresses the importance of the quarterback’s eyes and feet being connected, for example ‘in a four verticals play, the quarterback takes a three-step drop from the shotgun. As he takes the first steep he should look to the Z receiver on a deep route, with the second step his eyes should move to the Y receiver on a crossing route and with the third step he should look to the H on an option pattern. If neither of these options work and the quarterback is forced to step into the pocket then he should look to a backside receiver on a curl flat route.’ With Mumme saying: “we just have one rule: Never pass up an open receiver, and never throw to a covered one”; and Leach “the defense is going to decide where the space is, on offense, you’re trying to create space. On defense, you’re trying to restrict space.”
Further, the Air Raid Offense uses a limited number of formations, shifts or motions, while the Steelers don’t use as much of these offensive tactics as other teams, they certainly use more than Oklahoma State does/did when Rudolph was there. The variance in formations and increased use of shifts or motions at the NFL level results in the defense changing their structures to combat these offensive tactics, which then impacts the quarterback who needs to make faster reads. This, as K.T. Smith has rightly pointed out to me, is the adjustment Rudolph has particularly struggled with at the NFL level. Plus with newer versions of the Air Raid (like Grundy’s that Rudolph led while at Oklahoma State) running heavily on RPOs – which we know the Steelers don’t run much of or struggle to run – Rudolph has had even more challenges to overcome in adjusting.
So what does all this mean when it comes to Rudolph’s quarterback skills and performance at the NFL level? Rudolph was always going to face a steep learning curve at the NFL level like any rookie quarterback does but perhaps more-so given the complexity of NFL offensive and defensive schemes compared to the offensive scheme he ran at the college level. With the NFL’s complexity requiring both more and faster reads, deeper offensive scheme and playbook understanding, and with what limited creativity and play-calling we’ve seen from Fichtner as OC, Rudolph was always going to be setup for failure when being thrust into the mix in Game 2 of 2019 after redshirting his rookie year. Let’s hope more Canada, more confidence and more acclimation to the NFL equals a better showing from Rudolph this Sunday.
Reason #3: No success comes without failure
As an optimistic realist, I see upside in the fact Mason has gotten a full season of practice snaps with the first team while being able to correct without being thrust into situational football. This follows a debut season typified by Rudolph being knocked out with a concussion by the Ravens in his third start, having the ups and downs of any rookie quarterback, being almost inconceivably bashed with a helmet in a divisional game by a thug and then when he sat it out to get his head right…he broke his collarbone after being stepped on by B.J. Finney against the Jets.
Yet despite these nightmare scenarios playing out, Rudolph has career numbers of:
- A 5-3 win record, from 8 starts in 14 games, with 80 passing first downs
- 179/287 passes completed (62.4%) for 1774 yards, average of 10 yards per completion
- 13TDs and 9INTs and being sacked 15 times, and one 4th Quarter comeback
Consider a world or dimension where only one or none of the above – apart from the regular rookie ups and downs – occurs. Is there some semblance of a possibility that Rudolph is seen as different player, writes a different narrative with his play, and there’s a different sentiment toward him amongst the fan base?
Regardless whether you feel we’ve seen enough of Mason Rudolph or need to see more, tomorrow he’s leading your Pittsburgh Steelers against the Cleveland Browns with the chance to sending them packing from the playoffs for the 19th year, and can exact revenge on Myles Garrett for physical and reputation abuse, and more importantly prove our concerns or fears about him wrong.
Will he improve or will he flop, and what are you most looking for from him in this game?