Steelers’ Mason Rudolph Labeled ‘Captain Checkdown’ by NFL Analysts

Mason Rudolph

Getty Pittsburgh Steelers backup QB Mason Rudolph.

If you’re skeptical that Pittsburgh Steelers backup QB Mason Rudolph has what it takes to be Ben Roethlisberger’s successor as the team’s starting quarterback, recent research conducted by Pro Football Focus (PFF) may lend support to your argument.

PFF recently looked at 2018-19 data and found that Rudolph had the second-highest checkdown rate of all NFL quarterbacks, doing so on 32 of 305 attempts for a rate of 10.5%. Only Blake Bortles—currently a free agent after spending last season as a backup for the Los Angeles Rams—checked down more often, at a rate of 13.3%.

Of course, checkdown passes are not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes checking down is a quarterback’s best option, enabling the offense to salvage something when little is available.

“The issues arise—and where the label ‘Captain Checkdown’ begins to be thrown around as a pejorative—when quarterbacks start to lean too heavily into the easy way out, eschewing difficult passes into tight coverage in favor of taking the safe but toothless option,” explains PFF writer Sam Monson.

Is Mason Rudolph Ben Roethlisberger’s Successor?

Of course, it’s too soon to dismiss Rudolph after only eight starts and ten appearances during his first two years in the NFL, and the PFF article doesn’t provide any insight into how long Rudolph waits, on average, before resorting to a checkdown, which would be helpful to know.

But the top-level checkdown numbers are not the only worrisome sign, as Rudolph’s stats weren’t great in 2019. He completed 176 of 283 passes (62.2%) with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions for a passer rating of 82.0.

More notably, Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin sometimes started undrafted rookie free agent Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges in favor of Rudolph, only turning back to Rudolph when Hodges’ late season struggles became untenable. That’s part of the reason why NFL analysts like Gil Brandt have called for the Steelers to consider free agent Cam Newton, calling the Steelers’ backup QB situation one of the biggest roster holes in the NFL.

Yet it’s clear that Tomlin and the Steelers plan to give Rudolph more time to prove whether he’s Roethlisberger’s successor. Part of the reason is that the Steelers don’t have the salary cap space to add a free agent quarterback of any consequence. Mostly that’s because they have so much invested in Roethlisberger, who counts $23,750,000 against the salary cap this year and $41,250,000 in 2021.

Meanwhile both Rudolph and Hodges are decidedly inexpensive, with Rudolph counting just $1,069,620 against the cap this year and Hodges a mere $675,000.

The QB with the Lowest Checkdown Rate in the NFL

In case you’re wondering, the quarterback with the lowest checkdown rate in the NFL over the past two seasons is Buffalo Bills starter Josh Allen, who checked down on only 20 of 880 attempts for a checkdown percentage of 2.3%. He also has the lowest checkdown rate on third down, doing so once in 245 attempts for a rate of 0.4%.

Roethlisberger had the second-lowest checkdown rate on third down, with just 2 checkdowns in 183 attempts for a rate of 1.1%.

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