It’s not bad work if you can get it. Steelers backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski earned $1 million last season and never played in a game.
For only the second time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger took every offensive snap for the Steelers. That meant Gradkowski was a spectator the entire season for the first time in his eight-year career, which left him open to some good-natured ribbing from friends and family in the offseason.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘You have the best job. You’re a backup quarterback,’ ” Gradkowski said Thursday afternoon. “But they don’t understand. I walk away from a game and I’m mentally exhausted because I’m taking every rep with Ben. Each and every game, every play, I’m going through my head what Ben is doing and trying to be out there on the field with him. When people say that I’m like, ‘it’s not that easy.’ ”
After starting 20 games over the first five years of his career, Gradkowski has come to understand the backup role. He started 11 games in his 2006 rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then eight in a two-season span with the Oakland Raiders from 2009-10.
Gradkowski has not gained much experience the past three seasons. He played in four games with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011 and 2012 before signing with the Steelers last year.
“Last year was different,” said Gradkowski, who played at Seton La-Salle High School. “But you just take it one week at a time. Each week, you have to prepare like you’re going to play. It was a compliment to Ben and how hard he worked to keep his body healthy. Ultimately, that’s what you want. That’s a successful season for me and the team if the backup never plays. That’s how you want it.”
But staying sharp can be challenging. Gradkowski has not started a game since 2010. The last time he played in a game was the 2012 regular-season finale against the Baltimore Ravens.
“You have to go through the week preparing like you’re going to play,” he said. “That’s the hardest part. You’re not getting any reps and you have to prepare extra hard. Then, that week goes by and you don’t play and you have to do it again the next week.
“But, as a backup, when your time comes you have to be ready. That’s what the backup has to be able to do. He has to be able to go in, get the team through the game with no reps and get that win.”
Two players left practice with injuries. Rookie tight end Eric Waters sustained a lower-back injury in a drill where tight ends were blocking linebackers. Free-agent receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey appeared to sustain a head injury after a collision with rookie cornerback Shaquille Richardson in a drill against defensive backs.
Running back Le’Veon Bell and rookie receiver C.J. Goodwin were limited participants in practice. Bell, who sat out the previous two days with a tight hamstring, did not take part in team drills.
Mike Tomlin gave running back LeGarrette Blount a maintenance day. Tight ends Michael Palmer and Matt Spaeth also did not practice (maintenance days) and rookie tight end Rob Blanchflower missed again with a high-ankle sprain.
NFL officials attended practice and threw penalty flags when fouls were committed. They also will be at practice Friday night at Latrobe Memorial Stadium. … The Steelers worked extensively on the no-huddle offense for the first time in camp. … With free safety Mike Mitchell (groin) out, some younger safeties are taking advantage of the opportunity. Jordan Dangerfield, a free agent from Towson, and Shamarko Thomas stood out in practice Thursday.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.