Steelers' new backup QB prepares in event of Roethlisberger injury
Bruce Gradkowski became the first Steelers quarterback this season to lead the team onto the field at Heinz Field.
Even if it was only June.
But he understands it could happen again in November. Or even January.
“That's true,” Gradkowski said. “In this game, you never know what is going to happen.”
With Ben Roethlisberger recovering from minor surgery on his right knee, Gradkowski took most of the snaps with the starters Thursday during the Steelers' only scheduled practice this offseason at Heinz Field.
For Gradkowski, a former Seton-La Salle star who is with his fifth team in seven seasons, it was a rare opportunity to run the starting offense. That won't happen much during training camp, not as long as there are no complications from the second right knee operation of Roethlisberger's career.
For the Steelers, it was a chance to further weigh the offseason decision they made to shed their two longtime backup quarterbacks, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch, and go younger with the 30-year-old Gradkowski and 24-year-old Landry Jones, a fourth-round draft pick from Oklahoma.
The oft-injured Leftwich, 33, had been with the Steelers for four of the previous five seasons, while Batch, 38, had been with them for 10 seasons. All three Steelers QBs started at least once last season.
“I don't know if there was a point where you felt this just wasn't working anymore,” quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner said. “They have given us some very good reps here. They have been great complements to Ben, to me and our offense.”
Fichtner said it was time to “freshen up the (quarterbacks) room.”
Gradkowski is glad they did it with another former Pittsburgh-area high school player, just like Batch was.
“It's a great opportunity to be here,” said Gradkowski, a Bengals backup the past two seasons. “Their goal is to win a championship. You can talk about that all you want at other places, but here it's a reality.”
Injuries also are a reality for NFL quarterbacks, as Roethlisberger was reminded last season when he missed three games because of a shoulder and upper chest injury. He has played a full 16-game season only once.
“As a backup, you have to prepare as the starter, even harder,” Gradkowski said.
“You know you aren't going to get those reps in practice. You just mentally have to be prepared, and when your time is called you try to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Gradkowski did that in 2009. He was thrust into the starting lineup while in Oakland and ended up throwing three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of a Raiders upset win at Heinz Field. The loss eventually cost of the Steelers a trip to the playoffs.
Still, Gradkowski has played in only 24 games the past six seasons, with just five games played and 26 passes thrown during the past two seasons. He has 21 touchdown passes and 24 interceptions in 37 career games, 13 with Tampa Bay as a rookie in 2006.
The Steelers, especially general manager Kevin Colbert, seem confident Gradkowski could play effectively as an emergency starter.
But what would happen if, like last season, both the starter and backup go down and a third starting QB is needed? Could Jones go on the road against a team like the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens and win as a spot starter like Batch did in late November?
“It may be time for Ben to give that experience to somebody else,” Fichtner said. “I am excited about coaching a young player in the room.”