As a host of “Movin’ the Chains” on SiriusXM’s NFL Radio, ex-Steelers quarterback Jim Miller will be keeping tabs on his former team when it reports to Saint Vincent College for training camp next month.
That may give Miller a severe case of Black and Gold deja vu.
Because just like Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022, Miller was also part of a three-man quarterback competition with the Steelers in 1996. Neil O’Donnell departed the team via free agency after the Super Bowl XXX loss to Dallas at the end of the 1995 season. That left Miller — entering his third year in the NFL — to battle for the starting job with veteran Mike Tomczak and second-year pro Kordell Stewart.
It was a job Miller eventually won, opening the regular season in Jacksonville. But he was benched in favor of Tomczak midway through that game. Tomczak started the remaining 15 games of the regular season as the Steelers won the AFC Central with a 10-6 record.
“I was a young quarterback. But it was a veteran team. I understand (Bill) Cowher’s reasoning why he did it,” Miller told me during a Friday appearance on 105.9 The X. “They just didn’t want to go through the growing pains because we had a boatload of injuries in Week 1 against Jacksonville — which we, unfortunately, lost in my first start as a quarterback.”
There was one major difference between the Steelers’ current circumstances and the situation that Miller was a part of in ’96. Back then, Cowher had a fallback solution to effectively divvy up the practice reps, while still using all three quarterbacks to help the team. He moved Stewart back to his “Slash” role where he debuted as a rookie.
In ’96, Stewart threw the ball 30 times during the regular season. But he also caught it 17 times and ran it on 39 occasions, accounting for eight touchdowns along the way.
No such option exists this year between Trubisky, Pickett and Rudolph.
That’s not the only reason why Miller thinks current head coach Mike Tomlin may have a more difficult time figuring out a way to fairly distribute practice reps among the three quarterbacks if he genuinely wants to get a look at how three operate with the other starting 10 players we offend.
“It’s more difficult today because you don’t have true two-a-days in training camp,” Miller said. “We legitimately had a morning and an afternoon practice. So you miss all those reps in the (second) practice. They are all gone now. That was typically a passing practice. Now you have to do it all in one practice.”
Miller said he thinks as time goes along in camp, Rudolph may see fewer snaps than the other two in team periods because he’s the only returning quarterback on the roster. So he’s the one most familiar with the offense and may just need reps in individual drills and throwing “routes against air” to stay sharp.
“Mason is a veteran. He has been around the block. He knows the offence. I think he’s the one who is going to have to do the mental reps more than anybody,” Miller said.
Another option that may present itself is if the Steelers find a trade partner who may want to give up an asset for Rudolph. But as Cowher recently said to Miller when he was a guest of Miller’s on Sirius XM, keeping all three and bringing Pickett along slowly may not be a bad idea.
“The speed of the game. That is a significant difference for a college player coming into the pro ranks from the college ranks,” Cowher told Miller. “Mason and Mitch have seen a lot more in the NFL. When you look at Kenny Pickett, keep it simple. Let him develop into it. When you let him get his confidence early, then you can grow with him.”
All that being said, the competition angle in Latrobe may be rendered moot if the Steelers commit to staying on the path that was consistently laid out during OTAs and minicamp. He had Trubisky working with the first team, followed by Rudolph with the second team and Pickett with the third.
If that pattern holds and it is Trubisky’s job to lose, Miller has faith that he will perform well in Pittsburgh. After Miller left the Steelers, he spent four seasons in Chicago and became their pregame and postgame analyst for Bears games in retirement. So he has watched Trubisky closely and sees room for growth beyond what Trubisky showed when he was a starter with the Bears and a backup in Buffalo.
“The contract says it all with Mitch. They want him to be the guy,” Miller said. “His teammates loved him (in Chicago). Mitch works extremely hard. He is a tough guy. He lays it out for his teammates. … Mitch led a team twice to the playoffs. He’s got a winning record.
“It was a rough go for him in Chicago. It wasn’t all his fault. He’s getting another opportunity. I think he’ll make the most of it.”
The biggest issue that Miller thinks Tomlin will face is communication with the QBs about plans for the future of the position.
“You’ve got to be open and honest with players. If you start ‘bs-ing’ players and start promising things that you can’t deliver, that’s not the way to do it,” Miller said.
As for the way ’96 went, Miller still has his own opinions about how things transpired.
“(Cowher) just wanted to steady the ship. And Mike had the ability to do that. Mike was a great teammate. He handled it tremendously,” Miller said. “But, for me, when you go through a year-long battle and I win the job … I think I deserved more than two quarters.”
That ’96 campaign ended with a 28-3 playoff loss to the New England Patriots. But at least the team won a playoff game 42-14 the previous week at Three Rivers Stadium against the Indianapolis Colts.
That’s something this franchise would love to do again for the first time in five years. Regardless of who the quarterback is.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.