How Mason Rudolph – who played not just to win, but for his career – came to be

PITTSBURGH – Who knows how much Mason Rudolph thought about the seriousness of the situation?

But there is no doubt that it crossed his mind. At 28 years old, he was brought back on a whim this offseason as the third-string quarterback and more than two years after his last start (and more than four years after the Myles Garrett incident), this could have been very good.

Getting the opportunity to start an NFL game as a third-string quarterback doesn't happen very often. For Rudolph to get a chance on Saturday night when the Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Cincinnati Bengals, Kenny Pickett had to sprain his ankle, and Mitch Trubisky had to fold in losses against the Patriots and Colts before Mike Tomlin reluctantly turned to Rudolph.

Imagine how crippled Rudolph would be, knowing that the Steelers would be eliminated from the playoffs with a loss, and knowing that if he played poorly, it's fair to wonder who in the world would give him another chance.

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As a free agent this offseason, Rudolph attracted limited interest before returning to the Steelers for a veteran minimum contract. I've seen how bad the situation is for midfielders in some teams these days.

When asked after the game if he thought this might be his last chance, Rudolph replied: “You never know.”

He added: “You have confidence in yourself as a player, but you kind of think: Am I going to move into commercial real estate next year, or am I going to play midfield?”

Rudolf smiled a little wryly, perhaps because his answer contained a lot more truth than he wanted. If he had played poorly against the Bengals, Rudolph's odds of starting another NFL game would be very long. Just look at the time it took him to get back into the lineup when Pickett and Trubisky were struggling on a daily basis.

If you don't think this is real, think again.

After an 86-yard touchdown pass to George Pickens on the second play from scrimmage, Rudolph looked into the stands to find where his parents were. He knew what was at stake, yet he performed flawlessly.

However, it may be individual.

Hell, Tomlin — who spoke after the win — won't even commit to Rudolph for next week's must-win game against the Seattle Seahawks. Pickett trained last week and could be out very well in time for Sunday's game.

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Tomlin was uncommitted even though Rudolph finished 17 of 27 for 290 yards, two touchdowns and a 124.4 passer rating as the Steelers offense scored 34 points, the most it has scored in a game since November 2021. Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati by 34 — and ranked 11th entering Without any wins by more than seven points this season.

“Very rewarding,” Rudolph said. “I'm grateful to be back on this team and grateful for the opportunity. … As hard as it is to sit and watch for two and a half years, you can go on autopilot or try to improve. … Call the play in the huddle, do the quick count, try to follow through, And emulate what you would do if you were there.Only as the years go by, your football IQ improves.

Now, that's a refreshing answer.

“I thought I had a good week of training, and I didn’t sleep — I don’t think I slept at all,” Rudolph said. “I think it was like Monday night in Tuesday practice just because it was like that — I haven't done a full day of reps in a while, so you're a little nervous and pretty hurt. … Just kind of nervous, like training camp has been the last few years. Before the first day, You'll get a little cut. Maybe it's more exciting than nerves.

If there were any nerves, they quickly dissipated on his first throw of the game, which hit Pickens in stride for 86 yards. It was just one of many good throws. He stretched the field like neither Pickett nor Trubisky did, hitting Pickens for throws of 44 and then 66 yards as well.

Rudolph was smooth with his reads, tracked his progressions, was accurate and made pretty much every throw, except for one Diontae Johnson error. This after Tomlin worried he might be rusty, citing that as the reason Rudolph didn't start against the Colts last week.

“I thought he did a really good job of not showing rust for someone who hasn't played a lot,” Tomlin said.

Rudolph deserved what he got against the Bengals.

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After being drafted in the third round, current quarterback Ben Roethlisberger almost immediately wondered why the team “wasted” selecting a quarterback. The frosty relationship continued until Roethlisberger retired after the 2021 season.

Rudolph had many experiences in his first few seasons that many might never get over — from not having a quarterback coach to being a third-string rookie (with his only snaps of the season coming via VR after practice) to being… Throwing him into a role as Roethlisberger's backup in Week 2 of the 2020 season. Then he was fired by Earl Thomas, the Garrett incident, the Dak Hodges phenomenon, the tie against the Lions, and then years of inactivity.

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“I'm happy for Mason,” center Mason Cole said. “If anyone deserves this, it's him.”

While he could have just given up, Rudolph kept his mouth shut and worked so that if the opportunity arose, he would be ready. All players say that, but Rudolph lived it.

Especially this week, with all the hype surrounding Pickens and his selfishness, this couldn't be a better message for the team. Forget the “the standard is the standard” or the one Tomlin said after the game, “Scared money doesn't make money.”

Rudolph is living proof that the old school way of doing things still works. Maybe that's why Steelers fans did a 180 on Rudolph. They chanted his name late in the Patriots game while he was standing on the sideline, and they started it again during the third quarter on Saturday.

“I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it or love it,” Rudolph said. “But it's my role week to week. I've been on the other side of it like I said, so I try not to do that, try to block it out and play the game.”

Upon hearing what was happening, Rudolf waved his hands and asked the more than 66,000 people to calm down. Someone below him probably flipped the bird because of the way they talked about him over the years. Pickens talked about keeping receipts from that week. If Rudolph did that, he'd have a bag full of them.

Alternatively, what did Rudolph like most about this experience? “I get paid and I don't just feel like I'm being exploited,” he said.

Now, the Steelers have someone to rally around. Teams have made the rounds before with much less talented players, but Tomlin's unwillingness to go for Rudolph just yet could be too late in the process. The Steelers have to beat Seattle and Baltimore and then hope to get some help in the playoffs.

“Shout out to Mason,” linebacker Alex Highsmith said. “He came out and did his job. He was working, and it showed. We all rallied around him, and he went out and did his job.”

The team gave the game ball to Rudolph, and rightly so.

However, if we view this story as a feel-good story, we may be looking at it wrong. Maybe we need to look deeper than that.

Rudolph could be what this team and this offense needs.

Dating back to his time at Oklahoma State, he's always been a good deep thrower, and when you have a player like Pickens, you can light up the scoreboard quickly. Tomlin talked all week about the need to score points. But when you have a quarterback who is afraid (Pickett) or unable (Trubisky) to throw the deep ball, you can't score points.

“The plays we called for, Mason let them rip,” Pickens said. “It's all up to the goalkeeper, and I feel like he was taking more shots personally. I was hoping he would give me a chance.”

Pickens caught four passes for 195 yards and two scores. He was unstoppable. This opened up the running game, and the offense clicked like it hadn't happened all year. The offensive line kept people off the ball, and the defense, despite its injuries, was solid.

Was it all because of Mason Rudolph? Well, what else was different? you tell me.

(Photo: Charles LeClair/USA Today)

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