Bruce Gradkowski’s playing career, through no fault of his own, in a manner of speaking has come to somewhat of a screeching halt in Pittsburgh.
That doesn’t mean he’s eager to continue it anywhere else.
Entering the final weekend of his contract with the Steelers, Gradkowski told me after the season ended that he would welcome re-signing with his hometown team.
“Of course,” the Green Tree native and Seton-LaSalle alum said. “I love it here. This is my home.
“And of course the Rooneys and this organization; I mean, it’s the best in the league. And I have been around and I have seen it all, but this locker room and the coaches (don’t compare). It’s been an enjoyable three years for me, and I think there’s special things ahead.”
The Steelers’ face some decisions at quarterback – but they’re the kind of decisions (re: at backup) the vast majority of teams in the league would gladly trade for. Of course, they’re set at starter with Ben Roethlisberger. Yet with Big Ben having turned 34 this week, the organization has to at least be generally aware that, perhaps, his durability might not be what it once was. This is not an indictment on Roethlisberger – just an acknowledgement of the aging process of human beings, as well as of the four separate injuries that caused Roethlisberger to miss time (of varying lengths) last season.
So, what to do? Two of the three men on the roster behind Big Ben on the Steelers’ QB depth chart in 2015 are unrestricted free agents: Gradkowski and Mike Vick. Landry Jones (himself entering the final year of his contract) and Dustin Vaughan (a second-year player from West Texas A&M signed to a reserve/future contract in January) are the other quarterbacks on the roster currently.
Gradkowski, at the present time, would seem to have the best “backup” resume of the group. He has 20 NFL starts to his credit, more than half of which coming as a rookie in 2006 with Tampa Bay. He also started at least one game during stops with Cleveland and Oakland, and he at least got to throw 29 regular-season passes playing the 2011 and ’12 seasons in Cincinnati.
Then he came to Pittsburgh in 2013 on a three-year contract to serve as the top backup to Roethlisberger… only to sit idly while Big Ben had the two most healthy concurrent seasons of his career.
Then, this past season, with Roethlisberger under siege because of a myriad of ailments, Gradkowski himself could only offer support from the sidelines, as he spent all of the 2015 regular season on injured reserve.
“It was tough – of course I want to be out there physically playing, and that was tough this year because there’s nothing like being out there on the field with the guys,” Gradkowski said.
“But I tried to help Landry out as much as I could because it was his first opportunity to play and I have been in that position before so I wanted to help him as much as I could. Same with Mike, coming in with a different system and having to play real quick when he just got here. So anything I could help contribute to those guys, I tried to do.”
It’s far from certain that a player on IR will be visible around the Steelers facility throughout the season, or on the practice field or traveling with the team on road games. Gradkowski was all of those things in 2015. It was a common sight during games to see him as much a part of an in-game sideline strategy session with Roethlisberger as offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner.
“I just think you continue to build that relationship, that happens,” Gradkowski said when asked about the apparent confidence, comfort level and respect the coaching staff and Roethlisberger had for Gradkowski’s input. “Todd, Randy and Ben, we all collaborate, and I have learned a lot from Ben over the years. The guy has so much poise and composure during games and in the locker room and he’s been a great leader for us. It’s great to see it – he’s the best in the league and to be able to learn from someone and to help him in any way I can on a day-in and day-out basis, it’s been an honor.”
Gradkowski is just roughly 13 months younger than Roethlisberger (even if he has 149 fewer NFL starts). That doesn’t mean, he said, he still isn’t learning. Recognizing that the reality is that he’s closer to his playing career’s end than its beginning, Gradkowski admitted he “definitely enjoys” the coaching aspect and didn’t deny it could be part of his future.
“Going through (a year on IR), I got to see everything from a coach’s side, and I have enjoyed that,” he said. “I got to learn a lot and it also still kept me to be part of the group, because it’s tough not being able to contribute on the field physically. To be off the field trying to contribute mentally kept me in the game this year and I loved it and had a ball because I love these guys in the locker room. And to see all the adversity we have overcome this year and to make it to the divisional round – and of course we were short of our goal and what our expectations are – but I’m proud of the guys for what they have accomplished this year because it’s just a fun group, great coaches, great locker room.”
One that Gradkowski perhaps will remain part of in 2016 and beyond.