PITTSBURGH (AP) — Soon after walking into the Pittsburgh Steelers’ locker room after an abbreviated and earlier-than-usual practice Thursday, Mason Rudolph joked with teammates about their plans for Thanksgiving dinner.
In the midst of a trying two-week stretch on and off the field, Rudolph chose to emphasize what he’s thankful for in his first public comments since losing his job as the starting quarterback.
“Blessed to have a great brotherhood here, a great team,” Rudolph said after doing scout-team work during a Steelers practice preparing for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
“A lot of guys who have been through adversity in their own right and their own situations and they know what that’s like, and they really rallied around me. And I think that speaks to the coaches, too.”
On Tuesday, coach Mike Tomlin told Rudolph that the Steelers would go with undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges to start against the Browns. Hodges came on in relief of an ineffective Rudolph during last Sunday’s game at Cincinnati. Hodges led a rally for a victory against the winless Bengals after Rudolph had thrown five interceptions over a five-quarter span.
After replacing the injured Ben Roethlisberger, Rudolph kept the Steelers’ season going in his first NFL regular-season action a year after he was drafted in the third round. But he’d led the offense to three offensive touchdowns over his past 3½ games.
Even with one of the league’s best defenses, that was not enough for Tomlin, who cited the “spark” Hodges provides and the turnovers Rudolph had in recent weeks in making his decision to sit Rudolph.
“You handle it with your attitude ... with a team first-attitude,” Rudolph said. “I can only control how I react and how hard I prepare, knowing that I am one play away. You support (Hodges), knowing that, hey, this is a crazy game and you have to be ready when your number is called. And I will be ready, for sure.”
The benching caps a two-week span in which Rudolph not only threw five interceptions but also has been at the center of NFL-wide attention after an altercation during the final seconds of a Nov. 14 loss at the Browns.
Cleveland’s Myles Garrett was suspended indefinitely for taking off Rudolph’s helmet and hitting Rudolph over the head with it, and the Browns’ Larry Ogunjobi was suspended for one game for shoving Rudolph to the ground from behind.
But some Browns fans and others have contended that Rudolph instigated the incident when he jawed with Garrett and grabbed at his helmet after Garrett drove him into the ground following a completed pass. Garrett accused Rudolph of using a racial slur during the sequence, something Rudolph vehemently denied.
"That specific allegation, yes, that affects my family and it's tough for them to see something so false be circulated about my family name,” Rudolph said. “That's tough. But Coach Tomlin talked about it well. When you're in the spotlight, you're going to expect those types of things to be said, but you've got to block it out and move on. That's what I've done and that's what I'll continue to do."
In announcing his decision, Tomlin stressed that it was not a reflection of the Steelers’ long-term opinion of Rudolph nor of the organization’s plans for his future. Rudolph said Tomlin expressed similar sentiments in their private chat.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichter said that he and Rudolph also had “a nice conversation.”
“Everything that we do in football, as in life, we can learn from,” Fichtner said. “If we choose to make it a positive, we will. If we choose to make it a negative, then I don’t know that anyone is going to grow.
“I know he is going to choose it to be a positive in some way. He showed great work (at practice). He was just like he always is, the first in the meeting and again, he will be the last to leave tonight.”