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Sunday's Hall of Fame Game is Make-or-Break Moment for Steelers' Landry Jones

Landry Jones

Landry Jones

Twenty years ago Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe had a philosophy of drafting a quarterback every year. All it really did was insure the Steelers would rotate their third-string quarterbacks or develop them for other teams.

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So Jim Miller, Alex Van Pelt and Anthony Wright all enjoyed success for other franchises; Mike Quinn and Pete Gonzalez got lost in a numbers game; Spence Fischer, Cornelius Benton and Andy Kelly (technically not drafted) learned they weren't good enough to play in the NFL, and the only quarterback who ever really made any kind of an impact with this strategy was Kordell Stewart. Still, it made watching preseason games fun. The battle for backup left tackle is only visible if some poor rookie allows a sack, but everyone can evaluate how well a quarterback plays.

This bit of obscure Steelers history comes to mind today because of the status of Landry Jones, who for the past two years has figuratively "held the clipboard" as Pittsburgh's third-string quarterback. He has yet to be so much as eligible for a single regular season game. In the preseason, however, Jones has twice been the Steelers' starting quarterback and figures to be so again in Sunday's Hall of Fame Game.

Ben Roethlisberger will not play and backup Bruce Gradkowski is on the Physically Unable to Perform List. The latter signal-caller didn't even throw his first pass of training camp until Thursday. That leaves Jones to play against the Minnesota Vikings, along with Tajh Boyd and Tyler Murphy and possibly Devin Gardner.

Unfortunately, Jones' performance the past two preseasons has been largely, as Myron Cope would say, "feh." Jones has lost both of his starts, even getting shutout last season in a 10-0 loss to Carolina and throwing three interceptions against the Panthers the year before. Whereas a quarterback wants to average seven yards a pass, Jones has barely averaged even five. He didn't throw a touchdown pass last summer and was sacked six times in limited play.

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There was even some talk show discussion about the Steelers claiming Connor Shaw off the Cleveland Browns practice squad and cutting Jones last season, and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin hasn't even officially named him the starter for Sunday, stating Jones will only see "significant action." So will just about every other third-stringer in the NFL in their team's first preseason game.

To be fair, it is said Jones has been somewhat impressive in camp. He isn't waiting for the play to develop, something that may have caused him to be sacked so often historically. He also is a fourth-round draft choice out of Oklahoma, which trumps Boyd's sixth-round selection with the New York Jets last season and the free agent status of Murphy and Gardner.

There is even a school of thought Jones may wind up becoming Roethlisberger's backup if Gradkowski can't heal. Granted, if Roethlisberger went down it would figure to be catastrophic, but at least Jones would have the familiarity of three seasons of practice with the Steelers.

But if there are no signs of progress from early preseason play, what is the motivation for keeping Jones on the roster? Three summers of slumping would eliminate any promises of potential. While Jones had a great career as a four-year starter at Oklahoma, Boyd had a great career at Clemson and averaged more yards per completion than Jones did with the Sooners. Boyd-to-Martavis Bryant was a tremendous passing combination at Clemson. Murphy played quarterback at Florida and Boston College but is listed on the depth chart as a wide receiver, though some reports have him taking a few "look-see" snaps behind center against Minnesota. Ideally, he could be something of a poor man's Antwaan Randle El, which would allow the Steelers to effectively gain a roster spot in place of a third-string quarterback. So would Gardner, who played quarterback at Michigan. Gardner worked out at quarterback in June but lately has been excelling as a receiver, catching a 50-yard bomb during a practice this week.

This weekend in Canton represents the finality of Jerome Bettis' professional football career with his enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. A poor game may produce the same result for Jones.

(Landry Jones photo courtesy of www.steelers.com)

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.