The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2012 season 8-8 due to some bad luck with their quarterback depth chart. Ben Roethlisberger exited with shoulder and rib injuries that sidelined him for three games. Backup Byron Leftwich lasted one game before injuring himself while diving into the end zone against the Baltimore Ravens. Finally, Charlie Batch proved incapable of leading the team, which forced Roethlisberger back in before he was fully healed.
After the season, Pittsburgh bid farewell to Leftwich and Batch and solidified its quarterback depth chart by signing former Cincinnati Bengal Bruce Gradkowski and drafting Oklahoma star Landry Jones in the fourth round.
So, the Steelers are younger now at the most important position. But are they better? Can they withstand another major injury to an aging Roethlisberger?
Here's a breakdown of where things stand and how they'll unfold.
Pittsburgh is fortunate to have one of the most dedicated, elite quarterbacks in the league in Roethlisberger. His value goes far beyond any traditional statistics because he doesn't play a traditional style of game.
He's a backyard player who succeeds and fails based on his ability to make something great out of a disaster.
Playing behind some of the worst offensive lines ever hasn't slowed him. Playing without elite receivers or an effective running game hasn't stopped him.
It would be foolish to write off the Steelers as long as he's under center. Roethlisberger's ability to make the players around him better simply by using his talent to augment theirs is why the Steelers have been able to contend nearly continuously through two head coaches, sweeping departures of talented offensive players and stretches of defensive and offensive struggles.
The key for Roethlisberger is to stay healthy enough to remain on the field. He can take a more serious pounding than most and can remain competitive with a host of ailments that would sideline a lesser man.
Pittsburgh was deep in contention last year before his injury stopped the team cold. If he can put together a healthy campaign, as he did in 2008 and 2010, Pittsburgh could find itself knocking on the door of a Super Bowl.
Gradkowski is the new Charlie Batch. He's started at various stops for various reasons with some minor successes to his credit. He isn't a career starter, however.
He's an excellent backup, and his dedication, work ethic and toughness make him a perfect understudy and also the perfect teacher for the rookie Jones.
As a competitor, he's Batch and Jeff Garcia rolled into one guy. Fiery and cerebral at the same time, he can win a game against a tough opponent simply with guile and savvy play.
The dropoff, however, is still rather significant. The problem in Pittsburgh has been that the backups can't play a significant chunk of time without having massive problems keeping the offense above water.
Fortunately, if Todd Haley is able to maximize the talents of backs Jonathan Dwyer, Le'Veon Bell and Isaac Redman, Gradkowski should be able to lean on the rushing attack when his number is called.
And given Roethlisberger's history, it will be called during this season at some point.
Gradkowski's build makes him an injury risk as well, and he lacks the mobility to be a miniature Roethlisberger.
That should be fine as long as the running game is solid and the offensive line holds up. If either of those things fail, Gradkowski's success will be very limited.
Those drawbacks are exactly why Pittsburgh has such high hopes for fourth-round choice Landry Jones. Jones has prototypical size and measurables. He's built more like Roethlisberger and has a similar (although raw) skill set to the Pittsburgh starter.
Kevin Colbert drew this up so that Jones would eventually unseat Gradkowski as Roethlisberger's second. That day, the team hopes, is closer than most people would believe.
The question with Jones is the same one asked of every passer out of a major college program: Can he translate to the next level?
Jones ran a pro-style scheme with the Sooners. That will give him some of a leg up in the competition. He won't be learning from scratch.
Landry Jones has no idea if Steelers see him as their future quarterback: Former (and possibly future) Steel... http://t.co/wbfpJRm2Bl5/10/2013, 10:18:04 PM
His arm is stronger than Gradkowski's by far, and his accuracy is acceptable. It could use some polish, but that's what being an understudy is all about when you're a rookie.
The plan is doubtlessly that Jones will become the number two guy during the season, and he could be the first guy in when Roethlisberger goes down if he plays up to his skills and shows that he really should have been a first-round choice.
Staying in school may have cost him a boatload of money, but he has a chance to recoup that if it also gives him a giant chip on his shoulder about being an underdog.
Pittsburgh, after all, thrives in the underdog role.
Pittsburgh is light years ahead of where the team stood a year ago as it fumbled around with Leftwich and Batch once again.
How far ahead it stays will be determined on the field this fall.
The plan has to be for Jones to jump into the number two spot as soon as possible. That could happen in camp and the preseason, or it could happen during the regular season.
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Landry Jones gives Pittsburgh Steelers upside and options, not necessarily a long-term starter http://t.co/Q0ylNUxaQj Pennsylvania Sports5/15/2013, 12:38:41 AM
If Jones is not ready for the leap, Gradkowski must be ready to roll. He will be, but his success will depend on his supporting cast living up to their own expectations. Jones and Roethlisberger have the talent to make those around them better. Gradkowski needs those around him to make him better.
How the backup battle plays out will not only determine the long-term success of the position (Jones could and should be the guy who is groomed as the eventual successor to Roethlisberger), but it will also chart the course for the success or failure of the 2013 season.
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