PITTSBURGH (AP)Mason Rudolph has spent four-plus seasons being whatever the Pittsburgh Steelers have asked him to be.
Never raising a fuss. Never saying the wrong thing.
Third-string quarterback. Backup to Ben Roethlisberger. Spot starter. Benched in favor of an undrafted free agent. Agreeing to a one-year extension in hopes of being Roethlisberger’s successor only to have the Steelers spend last spring signing one quarterback and drafting another.
The years change. Rudolph’s role too. His attitude, outwardly anyway, has not. So why start now?
Of course, Rudolph would love to get the nod if rookie Kenny Pickett isn’t cleared from the concussion protocol in time to play Sunday at Carolina. Rudolph has been down this road before, however. Several times in fact. So no, he’s not getting ahead of himself even after splitting first-team snaps with Mitch Trubisky during practice on Wednesday.
After spending the past three months watching from the sideline on game days after being made inactive, working with the ones (starters) was a pleasant break. And that’s it.
”It was good to get some reps again and shake the rust off and be out there with the guys,” Rudolph said. ”It was fun.”
Asked if he viewed Mike Tomlin’s declining to announce a starter between himself or Mitch Trubisky – who has served as the primary backup after Pickett took over at halftime of Week 4 – if Pickett can’t go as a token of respect, the ever-politically correct Rudolph demurred.
”I don’t read into it that much,” he said. ”I just hear the decision has not been made so I need to prepare like I’m going to be the guy.”
It’s what Rudolph has done since the day the Steelers selected him in the third round of the 2018 draft, a move that Roethlisberger did not exactly meet with open arms, saying at one point it wasn’t his job to show Rudolph the ropes.
It marked the start of an uneven journey in Pittsburgh. Rudolph went a respectable 5-3 as a starter in 2019 after Roethlisberger went down at halftime of Week 2 with a season-ending right elbow injury. Yet he was benched at one point in favor of undrafted rookie turned brief folk hero Devlin ”Duck” Hodges. When he got the starting job back, he was hurt almost immediately.
Playing time was hard to come by after Roethlisberger returned, though Rudolph didn’t exactly seize the moment last fall when he was given less than 24 hours’ notice that he would start against Detroit after Roethlisberger went into the COVID-19 protocol. The Steelers tied the then-winless Lions as Rudolph bobbled a golden opportunity to serve notice he was ready to be handed the reins upon Roethlisberger’s retirement.
Outgoing general manager Kevin Colbert said in February he was comfortable with the prospect of Rudolph being the starter in 2022 at the end of last season. That was before they signed Trubisky just hours into free agency and drafted the highly popular Pickett with the 20th pick in the draft.
What was deemed a three-man race for the starting gig when training camp began felt and looked like a two-man race for much of the summer, with Rudolph the odd one out.
He has made it a point to stay upbeat despite very obvious signs that he is not a part of Pittsburgh’s long-term future, taking advice he received from longtime NFL quarterback guru Tom Moore during his first training camp in 2018.
”He offered some encouragement, (saying) you don’t know when your opportunity is going to come, but you can always be ready for it,” Rudolph said. ”That’s all you can do. So that’s the way I’ve tried to approach this.”
Pickett was limited in practice on Wednesday and after sustaining a second concussion in the span of two months, the Steelers could decide to take things slow, particularly with any legitimate shot at the playoffs gone.
If he gets a shot, the 27-year-old Rudolph could get a chance to show 31 other teams he can still be a starter in the right spot, or at least the primary backup. He will be a free agent next spring, and given how quickly he fell to the bottom of the depth chart, staying in Pittsburgh appears to be remote no matter how well he may do if he plays.
All of that is out of Rudolph’s hands. He’s learned not to take anything for granted. Call it the residue of working on the scout team during his fifth season.
Maybe he’ll play. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll dress. Maybe he won’t. He’s not going to speculate. There’s no point.
”My only concern is obviously winning the game,” he said. ”If I get the nod (to start), let’s go win the game.”
NOTES: RB Najee Harris (hip), LB Myles Jack (groin), TE Pat Freiermuth (foot) and DT Larry Ogunjobi (toe), did not practice Wednesday. CB Cam Sutton (neck stinger) was limited.
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