Published: 12:56 pm, Wed. Oct. 19th, 2016Updated: 12:50 pm
Landry Jones is a realist. Call it the byproduct of spending the last three-plus years fighting for a job and fending off repeated attempts by the Pittsburgh Steelers to find somebody better to back up Ben Roethlisberger.
So in a team meeting Wednesday, with the franchise quarterback resting at home while recovering from left knee surgery and a visit from the New England Patriots awaiting on Sunday, Jones felt it was time to send a message, albeit more than a little tongue in cheek.
“Any time THE Landry Jones graces us with his verbal leadership, we appreciate that,” linebacker Arthur Moats said with a laugh. “In all seriousness… we understand the ‘next man up motto’ doesn’t matter. Any position as you’ve seen this year, we’ve had those guys have success. It’s no different with Landry.”
Jones gets he’s not Roethlisberger. Then again, few are. That hardly means he expects offensive coordinator Todd Haley to delete half the playbook or the Steelers (4-2) to cower at the sight of Tom Brady.
From the day the Steelers took him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, Jones has believed he can be an NFL starting quarterback. That belief hasn’t wavered. Now in the final year of his rookie contract, Jones is well aware there’s possibly more at stake Sunday than one game in the standings. There’s a very real chance to prove to 31 other teams he can be a difference maker.
“Yeah, but that’s way on the back burner though,” Jones said Wednesday. “Right now, I’m on this team. I’m ready to go. I want to play and I want to play well. And I want to win the game. All of that stuff will take care of itself.”
Maybe, though it often doesn’t for second-string quarterbacks when tasked with trying to beat a Hall of Famer. The Patriots have rarely lost to backups on Brady’s watch. The list of newbies who have shaken Brady’s hand in triumph over the past 16 years is short.
Roethlisberger did it in 2004, though by Week 7 the rookie had already supplanted Tommy Maddox as the starter. Kevin Kolb did it in Week 2 in 2012 as Arizona pulled off an unlikely upset in Foxboro. Brock Osweiler did it while subbing for Peyton Manning last November, a performance that helped swing home-field advantage to the Broncos in the playoffs and Osweiler land a $72 million contract from Houston in the offseason.
Otherwise, backup quarterbacks have met the same fate as everyone else caught trying to outsmart Bill Belichick or keep up with Brady.
“They’re going to do what they do, but for each team there are little tweaks here and there,” Jones said. “I’m sure they’ll have something different for us.”
Jones, however, hopes the Steelers don’t do anything differently with him in the huddle instead of Roethlisberger. The leading passer in Big 12 history during his record-setting career at Oklahoma was intermittently effective in 2015, leading a second-half rally at Arizona and a winning drive against Oakland with Roethlisberger unavailable.
Yet Jones also did little in a loss at Kansas City in the one game he started and finished. He looked overmatched when thrown into last January’s wildcard game in Cincinnati while Roethlisberger was getting his sprained right shoulder worked on, throwing what appeared to be a season-ending pick before the Bengals went into a full meltdown.
The Steelers weren’t exactly impressed, resigning veteran Bruce Gradkowski to serve as Roethlisberger’s understudy in the spring. When Gradkowski went on injured reserve with a torn hamstring in August, Jones survived once again. He was OK if hardly spectacular during the preseason, playing extensively while Roethlisberger rested.
Now Roethlisberger is out — again — and Jones finds himself with perhaps his last best chance to show he belongs. Make no mistake, he’s going out there swinging. And there’s proof Pittsburgh can survive without Roethlisberger’s familiar No. 7: The Steelers are 11-9 when Roethlisberger hasn’t started since 2004.
“Coach Tomlin said something along the lines of, ‘gunfighters are going to get shot,’” Jones said. “For me, I have to go out there and cut it loose and play like that. (Rather) than trying to be too careful and try to just go out there and take every check down that I can.”
Having one of the best running back/receiver tandems in the league in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown should help. And Jones’ teammates insist they’ve got his back. Six other quarterbacks have come and gone since the spring of 2013, from the famous (Michael Vick) to the not-so-famous (Brendon Kay). Jones remains. Now he finds himself facing a “dude” he grew up watching.
The gap in inexperience and expectation on Sunday is nearly incalculable. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to bridge, at least not to Jones.
“You have to play smart,” Jones said. “But, you have to take what the defense gives you and try to be cautiously aggressive.”