For Pittsburgh-native Bruce Gradkowski, the chance to run with the starters in Heinz Field is special, even if it happens in June.
But for the Steelers, his work represents a significant change after years of relying on an aging group of backup quarterbacks.
With Ben Roethlisberger on the mend from knee surgery, Gradkowski worked with the starters during a practice in the Steelers’ home stadium Thursday, preparing for an understudy role that history indicates will eventually be called on.
“As a backup, you have to prepare as the starter, even harder,” Gradkowski said, via Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “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.”
And that opportunity usually comes. Roethlisberger has only played all 16 games once in his nine-year career, putting the team in the hands of either veteran backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch in recent years.
But with Roethlisberger’s condition and the age of those two, the Steelers decided to get younger, signing Gradkowski away from the Bengals and using a fourth-round pick on Landry Jones.
Quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner said it was time to “freshen up the room.”
“I don’t know if there was a point where you felt this just wasn’t working anymore,” Fichtner said. “They [Leftwich and Batch] have given us some very good reps here. They have been great complements to Ben, to me and our offense.”
But they think they’ve upgraded, and Gradkowski feels the same way.
“It’s a great opportunity to be here,” said Gradkowski, who has played for the Bengals, Raiders, Browns and Buccaneers. “Their goal is to win a championship. You can talk about that all you want at other places, but here it’s a reality.”
And the reality is, at some point, it’s going to be his responsibility.