Dwayne Haskins' road to quarterbacking redemption meets a point of relative significance this week with his first start since his nightmarish final outing with Washington.
The opponent is the same: the Carolina Panthers. But the outlook is much more promising for Haskins, now a backup quarterback for the Steelers with little immediate expectation to carry on his young shoulders. Instead of existing as a recent first-round pick who'd failed to live up to expectations, Haskins is seen as a developmental prospect with time to learn behind Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Mason Rudolph. The latter has taken the starting reps to this point in the preseason and will likely enter 2021 second on the depth chart behind the Steelers legend and ahead of a potential future option in Haskins.
When Haskins last started a game, he found himself with an opportunity to help Washington reach the playoffs. He instead completed 50 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions, leading to a 20-13 loss to Carolina and ultimately, his release from the club the following day.
"I feel like that game really just was tough for me more than anything," Haskins said Wednesday, via ESPN. "Probably the biggest thing for me going into this game is understanding and realizing that that's not who I am now, and that's not what I was trying to be when I was playing.
... "I'm looking forward to showcasing and doing things that I know I'm talented enough to do. And go out there and put it on film."
Haskins got off to a bit of a slow start in preseason action, looking slightly uncomfortable in Pittsburgh's offense when placing passes in correct spots, but completing 8 of 13 attempts for 54 yards in a win over Dallas in the Hall of Fame Game. A week later against the Eagles, Haskins looked much better, finishing 16-of-22 passing for 161 yards and leading a scoring drive capped by a 22-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Johnson.
Haskins displayed a better understanding of Pittsburgh's offense and got into a rhythm against Philadelphia, leading some to believe he might have a future with the Steelers. Following a brief appearance in Pittsburgh's third preseason game, Haskins will get his largest share of playing time against Carolina, offering him a chance to prove he has a place with the Steelers beyond 2021.
As a third-stringer aiming to move up the depth chart, Haskins knows he won't get a ton of these opportunities with a team looking to repeat as division champions. It's time to seize the moment.
"It's all a business," Haskins said of his few chances to run with Pittsburgh's starters. "You have to earn the right to have those type of reps. It's my first year here, so I think the opportunity I do get, I've got to do good stuff so I can get more.
"I don't have the expectation that I need to have varsity reps or I want to be with the ones and if I don't have it, I won't be happy. I don't feel that way at all. But when I do get those reps, I look at it as opportunity to show why they brought me here."
Friday is enticing for the Steelers, who know they have to start to determine how they'll proceed into an era that doesn't include Roethlisberger. That isn't guaranteed to begin with 2022, but it's not a transition they can afford to ignore.
"I'm just interested in seeing him play more," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Haskins. "This process is fair in that everybody gets an opportunity to show their skill set and we work hard to get to know them. He's new to us, and so the additional reps and exposure is good for him and for us to get to know him."
After struggling in Washington and seeing his time there end prematurely, Haskins is focused less on expectation and more on getting comfortable with his second NFL team. He's focused on ensuring he enjoys the journey, no matter where it leads.
"I feel like being here has allowed me to be myself and be able to go out there and have fun," Haskins said. "I feel like you see it in my play, you see it in how I operate, how I talk to my teammates. I feel like it's contagious."
"It's a combination of everything," Haskins continued. "Really just trusting myself, believing in myself and taking a lot of time to self-reflect on things. And, of course, being in a situation where people around you want to see you succeed. That's probably the biggest thing."
His biggest moment arrives Friday. We'll tune in to see if he embraces the opportunity and solidifies a future in Pittsburgh.