Revisiting Mason Rudolph: Contextualized Quarterbacking

Photo: © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know that Ben Roethlisberger has never started less than 11 games in a season? I didn't. For a guy that's injured all the time, he sure plays a lot.

In this, his age 37 season, Roethlisberger will lose the majority of a season to injury for the first time in his career, and the Steelers will get a long look at the young quarterback they drafted for just a misfortune: Oklahoma State alum Mason Rudolph. A less-heralded member of the storied 2018 quarterback class, Rudolph was subject to my Contextualized Quarterbacking charting, and was one of the more interesting data studies I had. Here, I review what the CQ told us about Rudolph's pro projection, and how we should expect the Steeler offense to cater to his strengths and maximize his potential success.

The 2018 (and 2019) Contextualized Quarterbacking portfolios can both be found here.

What Rudolph Is

A spread quarterback

When you hear "spread quarterback," what do you think of? A quarterback who can tuck and run? Exclusively shotgun alignments? An offense rife with bubble screens and nine balls?

To that I'd say: not necessarily, yeah, and no. Spread quarterbacks can and often do run, as their mobility adds to the threat of the horizontal stretch that all spread offenses attempt to impose on the defense. Spread systems are run almost exclusively from the shotgun -- or at the very least, the pistol -- to facilitate those quick passes to the boundary, as well as the zone read running game.

But spread offenses don't need rely on the quick game or the short game -- they just need to use it enough to force the defense to respect it, and accordingly achieve that horizontal stretch. The spread offense quite literally spreads you out, and in doing so, creates space to attack at all depths of the field.

Mike Gundy and Mason Rudolph? They attacked intermediate, and they attacked deep. No quarterback in the class had a greater percentage of his throws go into the intermediate area of the field (10-19 yard target depth), and Rudolph was Top-4 in target depth beyond 20 yards. The RPO game that Gundy ran with Rudolph looked to get receivers like current Steeler James Washington into the third level, not the second; isolate him against safeties and off-cover corners. Rudolph worked both outside and between the numbers on these long-riding RPO looks, these 3-step drops from the gun -- but that bread and butter was found 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

So you might see Rudolph's frame, immobility, and penchant to go deep and think he isn't a spread player; he is.

Comfortable around tight windows

You might also errantly think that spread quarterbacks -- of which we've established Rudolph is one -- enjoy massive throwing lanes that other quarterbacks don't in their respective systems. This is hogwash of the highest degree. There isn't an offensive philosophy in the world that doesn't want to create wide open lanes for its quarterback and receivers in the passing game -- those are notoriously easier to throw through than tight windows. The spread system accomplishes this via the horizontal spread, but that can look a lot of different ways

For Rudolph, that looks like a ton of quick-developing, quick closing windows between layers of the defense. Rudolph wasn't throwing slant routes as they uncovered right in front of his nose. He was dropping layered balls over linebackers and in front of safeties, squeezing deep comebacks between closing corners and the immovable sideline. Oklahoma State's system helped him other ways -- ensuring he got one-on-one looks, keeping him in the pocket -- but it trusted him to throw it into tight windows. Nobody attempted more tight window passes than Rudolph did, who threw into a tight window on 28% of his passes -- that's 7% more than the next drafted quarterback (Baker Mayfield) from the 2018 class.

That number isn't all scheme. Rudolph plays with a ton of trust in both his arm and his receivers -- and some of that trust is misplaced, as Rudolph also had the second-highest number of his passes thrown to interceptable locations among drafted QBs. Only Buffalo's Josh Allen was higher. So while Rudolph was trusted with tight window throws, he also created them, with some aggressive decisions and slow processing on rapidly-closing windows.

Which brings us into the things that Rudolph is decidedly not.

What Rudolph Isn't

Pinpoint accurate

The Contextualized Quarterbacking portfolio understand ball location on each individual throw in two separate ways: accuracy and placement. Accuracy is unaware of any situational context besides the location of the receiver and the ball: it is interested in whether or not a ball is catchable, and that's all. Placement, on the other hand, considers the context of each individual throw, taking into account defender location, player momentum, down and distance, game situation, and field position. It is more specific than accuracy.

Put another way, quarterbacks with good accuracy give their wide receivers a chance to make a play, and quarterbacks with good placement put their receivers in a spot where they can make a play. Rudolph is an accurate quarterback, but he isn't a placement quarterback -- the difference between his accuracy and placement scores is almost double that of a Lamar Jackson or Josh Rosen, two of the CQ's favorite passers.

This is not nearly a death knoll. His delta is roughly comparable to that of Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and Josh Allen. But what is concerning with Rudolph is the degree to which that drop-off, from general accuracy to pinpoint accuracy, expresses itself under messy contexts. When throwing "Beyond First Read" or "Under Pressure", Rudolph is able to get a catchable ball in play, but he's below his peers in terms of ball placement.

The only context under which Rudolph retains his unimpeded level of ball placement is, interestingly enough, that "Into Tight Window" context. That's where he's experienced and comfortable, which is good news for the Steelers.

Afraid

Rudolph don't give a hoot, man -- and I love that. I love that from a player without top-flight arm strength or escapability. Only 5% of Rudolph's throws came outside of the pocket, on my charting, yet he's out there playing like a gunslinger regardless. That mentality and approach isn't reserved for the physically exceptional.

Rudolph not only attacks tight window at a high clip, throws a high degree of interceptable balls -- he also was the most effective 3rd down quarterback among his peers in 2018, and only lost out to Lamar Jackson in 3rd and 5+ to go situations. Unlike many of the other quarterbacks who graded strong on the money down, such as Jackson and Mayfield, Rudolph rarely broke for a scramble (2.7% of his dropbacks) -- so this was almost entirely due to his arm.

Rudolph was willing to push the ball beyond the sticks and -- you'll notice a theme here -- give his receivers a chance to make a play. Sometimes, it was a pure arm punt that James Washington made look good on the stat sheet. But that's okay! Because Rudolph once again has Washington, and as a second-year player in his first career start, likely won't struggle with the typical young mistake of playing timid, balking at the teeth of the NFL defense, refusing to throw into coverage. Sure, he's going to make mistakes -- but he's also going to give your playmakers an opportunity to do just that: make plays.

What Rudolph Can Deliver

In the summary section of the Contextualized Quarterbacking profile on Rudolph, here's what I wrote:

Mason Rudolph presents an interesting evaluation and a tough riddle. He throws a very catchable football, but his ball placement is over-estimated, likely due to the wide-open nature of his offense. Well-built, Rudolph has a strong arm that can reach 60+ yards down the field, and his greatest strength is his downfield accuracy and placement—but again, one wonders the extent to which scheme/WRs assisted with those numbers. Surprising, perhaps, are Rudolph’s numbers beyond his first read, outside of the pocket, and even throwing into tight windows—there are signs of promise in all three, which indicate that Rudolph could indeed grow beyond his scheme. Rudolph’s struggles with ball placement, zip, and off-platform launches limit him as a creative passer, but he certainly has fringe starting potential in a vertical-based offense with a strong offensive line...Baltimore, Jacksonville, and Pittsburgh all could make sense. Any team, regardless of scheme, should see top-tier backup potential in Rudolph as well.

In that I liked Rudolph as a solid backup with fringe starting ability when he declared, and he has thrown 19 NFL passes between then and now, I remain unchanged in my opinion on Rudolph. Now, fringe starter ability is bad news for the team who rosters you: just ask Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Nick Foles how their careers are going. You might make money and worm your way into a starting gig or two, but you bounce around a lot, and can never seem to clear the hill.

Is that the future for Rudolph? Perhaps, but for now, the Steelers are oriented on the short-term, with a bold Minkah Fitzpatrick trade despite starting the season 0-2 and losing Roethlisberger to injury. They'll need to get Rudolph to the upper limit of his NFL projection, fast -- and that means letting him live and die on his roller-coaster. Rudolph must be trusted to make deep throws, even as he characteristically shorts them, and receivers like Washington, Donte Moncrief, Vance McDonald, and JuJu Smith-Schuster need to deliver with wins in contested situations. The middle of the field should be opened with seams and Bang-8 posts -- I like McDonald for that a lot -- and third-level RPO concepts must be incorporated to give Rudolph the time and space he needs to function.

The offense will move in fits and starts, relying on chunk plays and low-percentage, high-return throws. It may not be tenable long-term, but that's a different topic we'll be sure to tackle as we transition into the 2020 Draft season. For now, the Steelers are tied to Rudolph, and Rudolph requires a certain environment to thrive. But thrive he can, if you get it just right.