Lost amid Michael Vick Watch on Tuesday was the news that Bruce Gradkowski’s season and perhaps his Steelers career could be over.
Gradkowski was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday two days after an errant snap caused two injuries. Gradkowski, who grew up in Green Tree and Dormont, injured a finger that required surgery. He also injured his right shoulder on the play, and coach Mike Tomlin told reporters yesterday that he might need additional surgery to repair his throwing shoulder.
Shoulder surgery is never good news for a quarterback, especially one in the final year of his contract. Gradkowski had been the backup to Ben Roethlisberger for the past two seasons. The Steelers signed Vick to a one-year deal to be the backup this season and are expected to keep Landry Jones as their No. 3 quarterback.
Gradkowski’s future will be determined by his health and what the coaches think of Jones’ development. Gradkowski, 32, had problems with his shoulder going back to the spring. He opened training camp on the PUP list with the hope that rest, not surgery, would cure the discomfort.
That game plan did not work and now surgery is required to fix it. But Gradkowski’s shoulder is only part of the equation. The Steelers did not believe Jones was ready to be a No. 2 quarterback this season, but he did improve this summer.
The question now is whether the Steelers believe Jones can ascend to that role next summer.
When Gradkowski came off the PUP list a couple of weeks ago he took stock of his career and reflected on his NFL journey.
“I’m very thankful to be playing this game, going into my 10th year,” he said. “I’m just trying to enjoy it. There is nothing like being out here with the guys and trying to get ready for the season. It’s truly a blessing. I try to thank God every day. I never would have imagined I’d be going into my 10th year in the NFL. I just want to take advantage of that and have fun while I’m playing. Who knows how long I’ll play? You have to take advantage of that.”
Now Gradkowski will spend his 10th NFL season on injured reserve and his future is unclear. If Gradkowski is done with the Steelers, he played in two games for his hometown black and gold. The only time he got to throw passes for the Steelers was the playoff game against the Ravens in January. He was 2 for 3 for 22 yards.
The reports that Michael Vick is making a trip to the Steelers to possibly sign with them as a backup quarterback should be of no surprise.
Here is what I wrote in this space on July 30 when I suggested rather strongly that the Steelers sign Michael Vick back THEN:
It’s time for the Steelers to go get another backup quarterback. Now.
Bruce Gradkowski did not practice for most of the spring because he had a sore arm and he opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list for what the Steelers term “arm fatigue.’’ It is ironic that Gradkowski would have a tired arm because he has not thrown a pass in his two regular seasons with the Steelers.
The other day, Gradkowski was quoted as saying he thought it might be a few weeks before he starts practicing. In the meantime, the quarterbacks behind Ben Roethlisberger have been dreadful in the early goings of training camp, continuing their showing in the spring. It’s so bad that they have trouble handling shotgun snaps from center, dropping them and ruining yet another practice play. Wednesday was particularly bad for them.
Landry Jones and Taj Boyd cannot be the No. 2 quarterback. Quarterbacks-to-wide receivers-toquarterbacks Devin Gardner and Tyler Murphy should not be taking snaps at all. Murphy wears No. 16 and the Steelers probably wish the man who used to wear that number at quarterback was back in that position, Charlie Batch, instead of preparing to broadcast games for them on KDKA-TV.
But there is one quarterback out there available. He has a little age on him and he carries some old baggage. His name is Michael Vick, who turned 35 last month.
He comes from the same Tidewater area of Virginia as coach Mike Tomlin, who made inquiries about signing Vick after he was released from federal prison in 2009 after serving 21 months for his dog fighting conviction. The distractions, though, were considered too much for the Steelers and it was never seriously pursued. He signed with the Eagles that August.
Vick has since gone about working to rebuild his reputation. His teammates in Philadelphia voted him the winner of the Ed Block Courage Award. He has worked to try to get passed the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act in Congress.
He also long has had well-documented financial problems.
But he can still play football as the Steelers found out last November when he threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions in he New York Jets’ 20-13 upset victory against them. He also ran eight times for 39 yards in that game.
The Jets were Vick’s second team since his pre-jail days in Atlanta with the Falcons. He played five years for the Eagles and last season for the Jets, who did not try to re-sign him when he became an unrestricted free agent in March.
He’s been trying to find another job with an NFL team since then with no luck. Last week, he issued a video of himself through Twitter to remind all that he can still throw a football.
“I think that I’ve done a lot throughout the course of my career,’’ Vick told the NFL Network in June. “I’ve proved that I can win games and play with some consistency and be a leader. I think those are the qualities that you want in a quarterback.’’
The Steelers have one of those already in Ben Roethlisberger, who has not missed a regular-season snap to injury in the past two seasons. They are praying right now that he can do it for three in a row because the alternatives could be disastrous.
What they need right now is a quality backup, someone who can at least handle a snap from center and does not have a mysterious sore right arm. That first preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings will look more like the Hall of Shame game with anyone but Roethlisberger playing quarterback for the Steelers with Gradkowski out. And Mike Tomlin is not about to let Roethlisberger play much in that game.
Vick is by far the best free agent quarterback available. The Steelers are in desperate need to find one. Tomlin knows him. What could it hurt to sign him? Now.
--- Young players on the Steelers defense played well Sunday, including rookie linebacker Bud Dupree. He had a sack for 11 yards, had another taken away and just missed a third when Ian Wild was credited with one. Jarvis Jones had a sack, as did Shamarko Thomas, who was second on the team with five solo tackles.
Those were the first sacks of the summer for Dupree and Jones, which should hold down the rants of those who think they were wasted draft picks for, oh, five minutes or so.
--- Antwon Blake is making it very hard for the Steelers to keep someone else at cornerback. His play on the punt in the first quarter, downing the ball at the one, led to James Harrison’s sack and safety. He also led the team with six solo tackles. With Cortez Allen, William Gay and Brandon Boykin, the Steelers would seem to have room for two or three more cornerbacks. Those could be Blake, rookie Doran Grant and Kevin Fogg. They opened with six on the roster last season.
--- If they go with six corners, as they did last season, that would leave room for four or five safeties (they opened with five last season). After Shamarko Thomas, Mike Mitchell and Will Allen, that would leave Ross Ventrone, Ian Wild, Robert Golden and Gerod Holliman fighting for two or three spots.
--- But if they keep 11 defensive backs, that does not leave room for the 10 or so linebackers some figure they might keep. With 11 defensive backs on the opening day roster last season, they kept only eight linebackers – and one of them was not James Harrison.
With eight, here is how things will stack up: The four starters plus Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Sean Spence and Vince Williams. Where does that leave Anthony Chickillo, Terence Garvin and Howard Jones? Out unless they go to nine, then one of them can be added.
--- Landry Jones had his best game as a pro, albeit all in the preseason. He completed 10 of 19 passes for 172 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 96.8 passer rating. He looks to be competing for the No. 2 job, especially now with Bruce Gradkowski hurt. Although an injured finger on his left hand should not prevent Gradkowski from playing, it does give Jones a chance to open as the No. 2 quarterback.
--- Dri Archer does not look instinctive returning kickoffs and he has done little on offense. If he were not a third-round pick, he would not be a threat to make the team.
--- Shakim Phillips won’t make the 53-man roster but he has enough intriguing talent that he could make the practice squad.
--- DeAngelo Williams knows how to run and should be an adequate starter for the first two games of the season.
--- Maurkice Pouncey might be an ideal subject for the short-term injured reserve list, which is open to just one player per team. The rule stipulates that a player must be on IR for eight weeks. After six weeks, he can begin practicing but cannot play for eight weeks. He also must be on the final 53-man roster before he can go on IR. Pouncey’s injury will keep him out at least that long and once the surgeon goes in there to most likely put a plate on his broken fibula, they may find it more complicated and it will take longer for him to heal and, if possible, return this season.
--- Rookie Senquez Golson will open the season on the PUP and likely remain there. Since he did not practice all summer and then had shoulder surgery last week, it is unlikely he could come off that PUP list at midseason and play anyway.
--- And now, some Ask Ed:
--- YOU: Do you see the Steelers looking outside of the organization to fill in for Pouncey or are they all in on Cody Wallace? Evan Mathis has not played center (to my knowledge) but he's a pretty skilled interior lineman and pieces could be moved around. It doesn't seem like the Steelers' style but this injury really strains the depth and has to change the way that they feel about the line as a whole.
ED: They will go with Cody Wallace, although finding a backup for him would not be out of the question.
It may be of interest to remember that when Pouncey was hurt on that first series of 2013, Kelvin Beachum replaced him at center. Then they signed Fernando Velasco and he stepped right in and started the second game at center. When he was hurt near the end of the season, Wallace started at center the final four games.
--- YOU: Beachum to Center and AV at LT might be a better set than Wallace just filling in for Pouncey. I think KB has the "quick" and hand strength to play that position and fend off DT/NTs. Also, if he performs, his utility might set him up for the contract extension he wants for next year.
ED: As I mentioned, that is so two years ago. Beachum will stay at left tackle and Wallace will start. You don’t change two positions to repair one.
--- YOU: I know your not a doctor but in Pouncey's case, is the Fibula season ending. I'm not even sure if it's actual bone or cartilage. If he goes on the partial injured reserve or whatever they call it it will give him eleven weeks to recover (two more weeks preseason, bye week and eight games).
ED: And you know I am not a doctor, how? The fibula is a bone, not cartilage, and it depends how seriously that bone was broken, along with its effect on the ankle, to know how long it might take to heal.
--- YOU: When does a player acquire the injury prone tag that causes them to no longer worth the investment? I really like Pouncey and realize that these have been "bad luck" injuries. Sam Bradford had a couple bad luck ACL's and was found to be not worth the potential risk... At a certain point we are going to also have some decisions to make for cap purposes. Would this factor into that type of decision?
ED: Pouncey did not have a couple of bad-luck ACL injuries. He had torn ACL/MCL in 2013 and now a broken leg, both the result of players firing into the back of him. That does not make him injury prone.
Remember this name: Kevin Fogg. He is an unheralded cornerback from Liberty University, the school that sent the Steelers tight end Eric Green in the first round in 1990. At least he was unheralded until the spring when people began to notice him in OTAs with the Steelers.
He has taken that to another level in this training camp.
Fogg has been one of the best corners in camp. He not only stays with the receivers, he’s aggressive and has more interceptions than any other in camp. He had another yesterday and could have had two more. He also has the lone interception in their two preseason games.
A respected coach once told me that when a veteran teams goes to training camp, most of the roster is already picked, that maybe three or four spots are up for grab. Fogg looks to be one of those grabbing a roster spot on a defense open to players such as he.
Fogg, a Raleigh, N.C. native, went undrafted in 2013 and did not sign until mid-June with the Miami Dolphins. They cut him before the season and he went football jobless until last December, when the Steelers signed him to their practice squad. They re-signed him in January and he should make the 53-man roster this time.
A high school running back, he is only 5-10, 185, but he is stout enough to come up and make tackles as well as cover.
--- Onto some stuff:
--- If you read Ray Fittipaldo’s story on Cam Thomas Thursday you probably came to the conclusion that the Steelers have one too many nose tackles and not enough defensive ends. Thomas has been primarily at nose tackle this summer after opening last season at defensive end. That makes three: Steve McLendon, Daniel McCullers and Thomas. And behind starting ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt there are Matt Conrath, Ethan Hermer, joe Kruger, L.T. Walton and Niko Davis.
The Steelers, though, still list Cam Thomas as a defensive end, which may not mean anything other than that is where he will play if Tuitt or Heyward is hurt.
--- Thursday’s practice was the only one in this month-long training camp at Saint Vincent College disrupted by rain. Mike Tomlin delayed the start of practice one hour and it did not rain a drop in the penultimate drills in Latrobe.
--- The most competitive position at training camp? Punter, where incumbent Brad Wing is being seriously challenged by fellow Australian native Jordan Berry. I asked former Steelers punter Josh Miller, now on The Fan Morning Show (93.7 FM) in Pittsburgh which one he liked. He said, “Who is holding?” Miller said he could always tell when he had a team made when they had him do all the holding for the kicker.
The answer is, they are splitting the holding duties. In fact, when Garrett Hartley kicked his two field goals in Jacksonville, Berry held for both. That is because the coaches scheduled Wing to hold for Hartley in the first half and Berry in the second and both field goals came in the second half.
It may be too close to call right now, but Wing has the better game stats and the edge that goes with incumbency. He has punted six times for an average of 49.5 yards, a net of 35.2 and two inside the 20. Berry has punted seven times with a 45.4 average and 34.4 net with one inside the 20.
--- A few Ask Ed questions:
--- YOU: I was just curious how you not only see the Steelers stacking up in The AFC North this year, but the rest of the division as well?
ED: I see no reason why it would be any different than last season: Steelers, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland.
--- YOU: I saw where you posted Jones has done enough to stick as the #3 quarterback. Has he done enough to move up to the #2 quarterback even if Gradkowski was healthy?
ED: Bruce Gradkowski, as long as he is healthy, should remain No. 2 this season. However, I believe Landry Jones will get another long look Sunday as the second quarterback after Ben Roethlisberger.
--- YOU: Just finished reading your chat transcript. I’m amazed at some of the questions (ex: Ben on the decline, bring Troy back, team rough on Maddox). Your patience is amazing.
ED: Just call me Job.
We’re only 16 months removed from the 2014 draft and almost half of the Steelers draft class is gone. Sixth-round pick Jordan Zumwalt is the latest casualty. The second-year linebacker was waived yesterday when the Steelers signed journeyman linebacker L.J. Fort.
Zumwalt is the second member of the draft class to get cut this summer. The Steelers waived former seventh-round tight end Rob Blanchflower a couple of weeks ago.
The Steelers cut fifth-round Shaquille Richardson last summer and signed him to their practice squad, but he was released from the practice squad too early in the season. Wesley Johnson, another fifth-round pick, made the 53-man roster initially last year, but he was released early last fall and picked up by the New York Jets.
The remaining draft picks from 2014 are: Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Dri Archer, Martavis Bryant and Daniel McCullers.
The most accomplished of that group is Bryant, the speedy receiver who burst onto the scene in the second half of last season. He is expected to be a major part of the offense in his second season.
Shazier and Tuitt are penciled in as starters and Archer and McCullers are reserves.
For comparison’s sake, six of the nine draft picks from 2013 remain on the roster. Four of the nine remain from 2012.
*The Steelers liked Zumwalt enough to keep him on their injured reserve last season, but another injury this summer forced the Steelers to waive him yesterday. He didn’t have much of a shot to make the team anyway because of the depth the Steelers have at inside linebacker.
Zumwalt was released to make room for Fort because the Steelers need bodies for training camp. Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams are currently out with injuries and won’t play Sunday against the Packers.
Zumwalt played in both preseason games this summer, but he missed practice time with an undisclosed injury and was noticeably hobbled. I had an idea this spring that Zumwalt was not completely healed from offseason groin surgery. He was evasive about the injury and did not want to discuss how it was coming along. That usually happens when players are concerned about their future in the sport.
*Archer is a lock to make the team again this year, but if he doesn’t show something he could be the next player from the ’14 draft class to be shown the door.
*The Steelers are seeing how versatile Alejandro Villanueva can be this week, and that’s probably not a good sign for Mike Adams. Villanueva spent the first three weeks of cap at left tackle. This week they are trying him on the right side to make sure he feels comfortable there. They even installed a play for him on the goal line yesterday when he reported as a tackle eligible, then split out for a fade pattern.
If Villanueva is going to be the third tackle, he’ll be active on game days and he’ll have to be able to back up both left tackle Kelvin Beachum and right tackle Marcus Gilbert. And why not try to get the most out of a former college tight end and receiver in goal line packages?
The pass from Roethlisberger fell incomplete, but you can see the Steelers are thinking ahead in the event that Adams cannot return from back surgery. I asked Tomlin for an update on Adams earlier this week. He said he did not have one.
Adams was expected to miss four weeks, but it looks like he could start the season on the PUP list. If that’s the case he could not return until after the sixth game. Adams appears to have lost weight and walks gingerly around the Saint Vincent campus.
*Coach Mike Tomlin said he liked the “spirited” practice on Wednesday. He asked the players before practice to give a better effort than last Wednesday’s practice, which also came after a scheduled off day. The players got the message and heeded their coach’s advice.
Rookie outside linebacker might have been a little too spirited. He got into two fights with the offensive line. After the second one he was tossed out of a drill by Tomlin because he could not be calmed down.
While training camp fights are common it is uncommon for a player to act in the manner Dupree did. Veteran leaders such as James Harrison, Cameron Heyward and Antonio Brown were unsuccessful in getting through to Dupree.
A short time later Brown was visibly upset in another drill and had a confrontation with receivers coach Richard Mann. He had been complaining about not getting enough passes earlier in practice.
It’s that time of camp. Two more days at Saint Vincent before the Steelers break camp and return to the South Side. It’s probably a good thing for everyone.