Mason Rudolph’s unlikely renaissance has led the backup QB and the Steelers to Buffalo

The Associated Press - January 13, 2024 12:32 pm

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph speaks to reporters following an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 in Baltimore. The Steelers won 17-10. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Confidence always came easy to Mason Rudolph. Setting records wherever he happened to throw a football — be it growing up in South Carolina or at Oklahoma State — helped.

Then came 2019. And chaos. Ten wildly uneven games while filling in for the injured Ben Roethlisberger.

A concussion that left the indelible image of Rudolph being carried off the field on a stretcher with his facemask removed. A brawl with Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and all the madness that came after.

It was humbling to be sure. Yet nothing prepared Rudolph for what happened last spring when he became an unrestricted free agent and the phone didn’t ring.

The prospect of moving on with his life and pursuing a commercial real estate license became not some fuzzy far-off notion, but tangible. And for a brief period … seemingly unavoidable.

In those moments, the breezy self-assuredness that Rudolph has carried around like so much armor gave way to uncertainty.

An uncertainty that didn’t really leave even after the Steelers offered him a one-year deal to come back as the third stringer behind Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky.

Sure, Rudolph put on a brave face. Said the right things. Did the right things. Didn’t feel sorry for himself or let his pride get in the way of doing his job of directing the scout team during practice knowing on game days he was going to be the emergency third quarterback.

Internally, however, the struggle was real.

“We all have doubts,” Rudolph said. “I think all human beings do at times. And you know, when you don’t get a whole lot of interest through a free agency period and then you’re sitting at the three spot every single day of training camp through the season. It’s definitely a mental battle.”

One that Rudolph ultimately ended up winning. So much so that on Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, the player who has morphed from prospect to punchline to afterthought will start his first playoff game since his senior year of high school when the Steelers (10-7) face the Bills (11-6).

It’s an opportunity the 28-year-old Rudolph is grateful for, but not overwhelmed by. Maybe because he’s been trying to stave off elimination for years.

“Each game you get to play in the NFL is a freaking playoff game,” Rudolph said. “So, that’s the way I look at it. As a backup quarterback most of my career you’re very urgent. There’s a sense of urgency whenever you get to play, so that’s the approach.”

It’s worked so far. This time around anyway. The player who flip-flopped between promising and problematic during an eventful 2019 seems to have taken coach Mike Tomlin’s late-season mantra “scared money don’t make money” quite literally.

Rudolph has thrown for 719 yards and three touchdowns — all 61 yards or longer — without a pick during season-salvaging and perhaps career-resurrecting wins over Cincinnati, Seattle, and Baltimore. The offense has averaged 27 points a game since Tomlin turned to Rudolph in late December looking for a spark. The response has been better than anyone save for a few people inside the organization ever imagined.

George Pickens is getting the ball downfield and when he’s not, he’s become a model citizen. Diontae Johnson is looks like the burgeoning star he was becoming before a forgettable 2022 in which he failed to reach the end zone even once. The running game looks formidable because for the first time in a long time, defenses can no longer afford to crowd the line of scrimmage and dare the Steelers to throw.

Rudolph’s play has given the Steelers balance and hope in equal measure. It’s also the latest evidence of Tomlin’s belief in “football justice,” loosely translated as “karma.” Tomlin has invoked the phrase several times this season, mostly to describe Pickett’s growing pains. He could just as easily have ascribed it to a player he once had a first-round draft grade on, a player who has — for a brief moment anyway — rediscovered the “throw deep, ask questions later” swagger that made Tomlin and former general manager Kevin Colbert so high on him in the first place.

It’s telling of how Rudolph has handled everything that’s come his way over the past six years that the people enjoying it most have been the ones who have been along for the ride. Former teammates Maurkice Pouncey — who took matters into his own hands after Rudolph was slugged by Cleveland star Myles Garrett during that ugly scene against the Browns — and Alejandro Villanueva have been among the group that have celebrated this unlikely career renaissance.

They’re not the only ones.

The fans that booed during an ugly 16-all tie with then-winless Detroit in 2021 sang “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” on the eve of Christmas Eve after Pittsburgh put up 34 points against the Bengals. The Steelers’ fan shop now actually carries No. 2 jerseys (for a limited time). A local bakery has created a cupcake in his honor, asking him to guide the Steelers to the Super Bowl.

“He just feels like he can go out in any circumstance and provide what he needs to for the team,” interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner said. “And so I think that’s what you’ve been seeing is (Rudolph) just going and playing ball and having fun and has supreme confidence in himself.”

That confidence is now tinged with a dash — maybe more than a dash — of how the NFL world works.

In a perfect world, Rudolph would like to think he’s shown enough over the past month to prove to the Steelers and 31 other teams that he can be a difference-maker. The free-agent-to-be wants to have a shot at having a shot.

What happens at Highmark Stadium this weekend could go a long way toward tilting the arc of his life one way or the other. While he admitted to “occasionally” thinking about the big picture, he’s learned there’s no point in getting ahead of himself.

There was a time not so long ago he wondered if this moment would ever come again. Now that it’s unexpectedly here, he’s doing his best to enjoy it, no matter how long the odds.

“I’m not a gambler,” he said. “But we know we got a lot of confidence in ourselves.”

The guy behind center perhaps most of all.

 

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