PITTSBURGH — Bruce Gradkowski knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed to be the backup quarterback for the Steelers.
That’s why the Pittsburgh native took the gig.
“Their goal is to win a championship,” Gradkowski said. “You can talk about it all you want in those other places but here it’s a reality. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Perhaps a big one.
Gradkowski worked with the starters during organized team activities at Heinz Field on Thursday, filling in for Ben Roethlisberger, who is out until training camp after undergoing minor surgery on his right knee Wednesday.
Throwing in a helmet and shorts in the rain in front of a sea of empty yellow seats in June is not the same as the chaos that erupts on the same field during the regular season. But it’s a start for something that could become a reality sometime this fall.
While Roethlisberger remains one of the league’s elite players at his position, he’s not among the most durable.
The 31-year-old has started all 16 games just once in his nine-year career. He missed three games in 2012 with a broken rib that threatened to puncture his aorta.
The Steelers went 1-2 in his absence and faded to an 8-8 finish.
Roethlisberger’s knee is expected to be ready when training camp opens in July, but the experience Gradkowski will receive during next week’s minicamp could pay off at some point this season.
“That’s the rule,” Gradkowski said. “In this game you never know what’s going to happen. You just have to be prepared, work hard and just wait for your time.”
The 30-year-old Gradkowski’s time has come — and gone — in several other stops during his seven-year career. He is 6-14 as a starter in places like Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Oakland and Cincinnati.
His last real opportunity to compete for the top spot came in Oakland, where he played two middling seasons in 2009-10 trying to turn around a franchise that had been in reverse for the better part of a decade. One of his three victories with the Raiders came in a 27-24 upset of the Steelers on the road in 2009, a loss that helped send the Steelers tumbling out of the playoff picture.
Gradkowski threw three touchdown passes in the win, the high point of his professional career. He moved from Oakland to Cincinnati in 2011 but was beat out for the starting job by then-rookie Andy Dalton.
While mulling his future during the offseason he understood he could have gone to a place where he might have a chance to reach the top of the depth chart. It won’t happen in Pittsburgh — not with Roethlisberger in the middle of his prime and rookie Landry Jones perhaps Roethlisberger’s eventual successor — but that doesn’t mean Gradkowski can’t contribute.
Roethlisberger leaned heavily on veteran backups Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, neither of whom were brought back this spring. Now Roethlisberger finds himself the oldest guy in the quarterback room, with the well-traveled Gradkowski his understudy. It’s a different dynamic, but one Gradkowski expects to work.
“Ben’s the guy,” Gradkowski said. “He’ll find a way to make plays, he’ll find a way to win a game and that’s the ultimate goal. If I can learn anything from him I’m going to try and just keep growing as a player and see what happens.”