Kevin Gorman: Steelers looking for luck from Duck, the ultimate underdog quarterback story
What a weird, wild season this has been for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who looked so hopeless after losing Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending elbow injury but are somehow positioned for the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs.
Now, the Steelers’ hopes are down to a Duck.
Nothing has been weirder or more fun this season than the rise of Devlin Hodges. His unbelievable story takes another twist on Sunday, when the rookie quarterback known as Duck will make his Heinz Field starting debut against the Cleveland Browns.
There hasn’t been this much excitement about a duck along the rivers since 2013, when the city was home to a 40-foot inflatable billed as the World’s Largest Rubber Duck.
Hodges has handled all of the attention with the charisma and confidence of a national champion duck caller more so than an undrafted free agent out of Samford who was first signed after a tryout, then after failing to make the cut out of training camp.
If Steelers fans embrace the Duck persona as much as Hodges has, we could be in for a treat. On the day Mike Tomlin named him the Steelers’ starter, Hodges posted a photo of himself and wide receiver James Washington after a duck-hunting trip.
— Devlin Hodges (@DevlinHodges10) November 26, 2019
Hodges even answered a question asking him to compare duck hunting to playing quarterback. As he danced out of the Steelers’ locker room on Friday, Hodges blew a duck call.
Pressure? It rolls off Hodges like water off …
Well, you get the idea.
“He appears pretty calm, but you never know. What’s that saying about ducks? They look calm on the surface but their feet are going a million miles an hour. That’s a good one,” Steelers right guard David DeCastro said, laughing at his own joke. “I’m excited for the opportunity for him. When you play quarterback, you’ve got to be that way.”
Going against the 2018 No. 1 overall draft pick in Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield — who went from walk-on to Heisman Trophy winner — hasn’t humbled Hodges. He’s embraced his underdog status.
Hodges has handled all of the attention with the same confident approach he takes to playing his position. He prepares like a starter — which he was for four years in college — but plays with the chip of an undrafted quarterback who has nothing to lose.
“That is something I have always been. I have always been calm, cool, collected,” Hodges said. “No one probably thought that I would ever be in this situation. There are just a select few in my corner that thought that. I am ready for the game. I am ready to go out there and have fun and get the win.”
Hodges has had his moments. He made his NFL debut after Mason Rudolph was knocked unconscious in the third quarter of the loss to Baltimore, completing 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards in leading the Steelers to touchdown and field-goal drives.
Hodges became the feel-good story for the Steelers, but offensive tackle Zach Banner was surprised to see how fans reacted to seeing Hodges in person when he joined Banner as a guest on his radio show on the South Side that week.
“I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t think people were taking him serious,” Banner said. “People were like, ‘Hey, Duck! Quack. Quack.’ And then he went out and won. That’s why I was real proud of him. He kept his composure and did what he needed to do and we got the hell out of L.A.”
The Steelers kept it simple when Hodges started against the Chargers, as he stuck to short passes in throwing for 124 yards and a touchdown in the 24-17 victory.
When Hodges replaced the ineffective Rudolph at Cincinnati last week, he quickly connected with Washington for a 79-yard touchdown and led the Steelers to a pair of fourth-quarter field goals in the 16-10 victory over the Bengals.
“You wouldn’t be able to tell he’s from a small school,” Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “It’s not like playing against big schools when he was at the small school. I think he plays with a sense of ease. I think he plays with a sense of rhythm. He’s been good when we asked him to be for us.”
Next, the Steelers need Duck to play well enough to beat the Browns in a rivalry renewed by the bad blood from the brawl in the final seconds of Cleveland’s 21-7 victory on Nov. 14. That incident should take a backseat to the playoff implications, as the loser faces long odds of qualifying for the postseason.
“I hope he has a good day and it can keep going,” DeCastro said. “It’s one of those things where it doesn’t really matter unless you play well, unless we get that win.”
But Pittsburgh loves its characters, especially quarterbacks with a nickname. Kordell Stewart started as Slash, Tommy Maddox as Tommy Gun and Ben Roethlisberger became Big Ben. Hodges could have Heinz Field quacking.
“If we don’t win, I don’t think those duck calls will be as loud,” said DeCastro, who doesn’t underestimate the quirky nature of Steelers fans at Heinz Field. “Banner’s getting louder cheers than any of us, so he’s more well-known than any lineman. Who knows what will catch on these days?”
Banner draws cheers every time he’s announced as an eligible receiver in jumbo packages, and he revels in that role. Is Banner ready for Duck to replace him as a crowd favorite?
“Absolutely not,” Banner said. “That will never happen.”
“First of all, that answer I gave you was serious,” Banner said. “But they like how he plays. Does that make sense? It’s not just, ‘Entertain us.’ It’s, ‘Go lead us to a win.’”
Now, for the weirdest, wildest chapter of this season: The Browns are favored over the Steelers, who have turned to the ultimate underdog by looking for luck from the Duck.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .