There are two topics that never fail to energize Steelers fans: running the football, and their favorite team's quarterback situation. In his annual end-of-season media tour, Team President Art Rooney II addressed both of those topics, and the only certainty is that his answers didn't please everyone.
"In terms of this past season, just to give a little bit of a recap, I have to say it was probably one of the craziest seasons I've been around in over 50 years of being around football," said Rooney. "When you wind up having three different starting quarterbacks over the course of the year, and particularly one who earned his way on the roster after starting out as a tryout in rookie minicamp, it's an unusual season. We had some other key injuries throughout the year. I was proud of the way our guys kept fighting through all of the adversity. Unfortunately, we couldn't keep it going there in the last few weeks of the season, but at least we had our chance. Maybe with a little more stability at the quarterback position, we could have gone a little further."
The instability at quarterback was created when Ben Roethlisberger's right elbow allowed him to play only the first six quarters of the regular season. From there, it was Mason Rudolph as the starter until he was concussed in the fourth game of the season, a loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field. Then it was Devlin Hodges, the survivor of rookie minicamp, then back to Rudolph, then back to Hodges, then back to Rudolph until he was driven into the ground during the Jets game and sustained a rather serious injury to his left shoulder, and then back to Hodges to finish up the season.
If there would be a single statistic to illustrate how strange the Steelers season was with respect to their quarterback situation, there's this: of the three quarterbacks who started games for the Steelers in 2019: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, and Devlin Hodges, the only one who didn't lead the team to a victory was Roethlisberger.
Moving forward, it's fair to link the Steelers' prospects in 2020 to the health of Roethlisberger's right arm, and Rooney wasn't pessimistic at all when asked about his starting quarterback's prognosis at this stage of the rehabilitation.
"Everything we hear so far is positive, in particular Ben's attitude about things," said Rooney. "He seems to feel good about it. He really is still in the early stages of his rehab. He hasn't been able to do a whole lot yet, but that is going to start to ramp up here over the next couple of months, obviously. We are anxious to see his progress."
One estimate of when Roethlisberger might be throwing the football again is by OTAs, which typically begin at the end of May, but in the meantime, the NFL will open and progress through the first couple of phases of unrestricted free agency. And it would be during that time when the Steelers presumably would be looking at experienced quarterbacks to add to the depth chart behind Roethlisberger, but Rooney wasn't certain that was a necessary way to proceed.
"We are still kind of in the process of digesting the season and analyzing what we are doing, where we are going," said Rooney. "I think as we sit here today, we are all comfortable with Mason being our backup. Speaking of unusual seasons, he had an unusual season. He had to deal with some unusual circumstances, including injuries and everything else. I think it was an experience for him … (you know) the old story, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Hopefully it is that kind of situation for him. I think we are all pretty comfortable with Mason coming back as our backup and being a guy who can continue to develop."
And earlier in the day, the Steelers made a move designed to do more than simply hope that turns out to be the case. Following a 2019 season in which the Steelers didn't have a dedicated quarterbacks coach on Tomlin's staff of assistants, Matt Canada was hired to fill that void.
During his time at North Carolina State, Canada worked with current Colts' starter Jacoby Brissett, and when he was the offensive coordinator at Pitt in 2016, the Panthers averaged a school-record 42 points per game, led the nation in red zone touchdown percentage (82 percent) and posted a 43-42 upset victory at eventual national champion Clemson. Canada also was the offensive coordinator at LSU, and he served as the interim head coach at Maryland when the university dismissed D.J. Durkin in 2018.
"Mike and I both felt it was an opportunity we had … to add somebody on the staff who can help with the young quarterbacks," said Rooney. "So, we are happy somebody like Matt, who we knew from down the hall here (at Pitt was available). He was a known commodity for us, and we liked some of the work that he has done, so we are happy to have him on board."
A regular, and revealing, part of these sessions with the Steelers president comes when he offers "suggestions" as to what he believes the team needs to improve upon moving forward. In the past, Rooney has mentioned doing a better job of protecting Roethlisberger, and getting more pressure on the opposing quarterbacks, and last year it was how the defense needed to improve its "back end" in a way that would create more takeaways.
Not surprisingly, all of that happened. As for 2020, Rooney offered something specific.
"It is hard to analyze 2019 from the standpoint that we did have a lot of injuries and things," said Rooney. "We have talked about it before – I would like to see us be a team that can be more consistent running the football. I think that has to be a part of the game.
"I think we've seen in these playoffs that you can run the ball and be successful, no question about it," added Rooney. "On the other hand, there are teams that are passing the ball pretty well, too, so I'm not going to jump to too many conclusions about what we're seeing in these playoffs. It's an important component, I think, in terms of being able to play at the level we want to play in a place like Pittsburgh. I think running the ball is a factor – it should be."
As to who would be doing the bulk of the carrying of the football, Rooney wasn't prepared to anoint anyone, or rule anyone out, either.
"James (Conner) unfortunately had bad luck this year in terms of injuries," said Rooney, "but when he has been healthy, he has been a very productive player for us. So, we'd love to see him come back and be a healthy player over the course of a (full) season."