Pittsburgh Steelers  

 

Steelers have issues beyond naming Roethlisberger's replacement

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Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press
Mike Tomlin (left) will have to decide if Dennis Dixon (right) is ready to start for the suspended Ben Roethlisberger.


The uncharted and unpredictable football-related fallout of Ben Roethlisberger's suspension began at the end of a minicamp last weekend with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin proclaiming that no decision has been made about which quarterback will start in Roethlisberger's place for the first month or so of the season.

Byron Leftwich took the first-team snaps but Tomlin said that wasn't an indicator of the pecking order come the start of the season, when Roethlisberger begins his flexible six-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy stemming from a night of questionable judgment with a 20-year old female in March.

Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press
If Ben Roethlisberger sits six games, the Ravens would be the only team the Steelers face during the stretch that went to the playoffs last season.
Steelers' first six opponents for 2010
Week/Opponent 2009 record
1. Atlanta 9-7
2. at Tennessee 8-8
3. at Tampa Bay 3-13
4. Baltimore 9-7
5. Bye  
6. Cleveland 5-11
7. at Miami 7-9
Pittsburgh's 2010 schedule    

Until Tomlin names a starter, he better get used to the questions. The rest of the team too, including the replacement candidates, Leftwich, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch. This was just Round 1 and it probably was pretty harmless. It will get tired, though, even after a starter is named, and has played a game. Or two. Or four. Or six.

And because these are the Steelers, one of the NFL's most well-known and nationally-loved franchises, and because the guy who led things to this point is a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback and is highly popular, the focus is going to be even more intense -- and constant.

Dixon, Batch, Leftwich and all the other players want to get things back on track for a team that missed the playoffs last season -- one of Roethlisberger's best statistically. The coaches want to prove they can rally players through all of this adversity by focusing solely on football. The Rooney family, which runs the franchise, wants the talk to be about anything other than Roethlisberger.

That's not going to happen no matter what measures are put in place.

Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, somewhere, somehow, there will be a reference to how Roethlisberger's suspension affected the team. The Steelers rallied together because of it; they struggled without him on the field; the offense flourished more under Dixon, Leftwich or Batch; or it tanked because Roethlisberger was missing and chemistry was disrupted upon his return.

And don't make light of that last line.

Good or bad, folks are going to have to deal with the anticipation of Roethlisberger's arrival -- and his actual return after his suspension of four, five or six games (possibly more). Not just fans either. How will the quarterback group deal with another player -- not just someone off the street but the starter who could take one of their jobs -- back in the meeting rooms and on the practice field? How will the receivers, who won't be able to catch a pass from him while he is gone, get reacquainted? How will the coaches work Roethlisberger back in?

If Dixon, a young player the Steelers drafted to develop, actually grows as the starter and plays well, will the coaching staff pull him for the guy who's helped the team win two titles? If it does -- or doesn't -- how will players feel about the staff's decision? Should Leftwich or Batch regain lightning in a bottle, can they carry it through 16 games?

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Will Roethlisberger be ready when he does return? A month (at least) of not throwing to his receivers isn't like riding a bike when you hop back on the seat. What about his conditioning or focus? He could get in the best shape of his life (I'm guessing he will be as fit as ever) but we always hear that doesn't equate to football shape -- especially at the position he plays.

These may seem like mundane scenarios now, but they won't be down the line.

Nobody knows this better than Leftwich, whose presence back in the locker room after he left Pittsburgh for Tampa Bay as a free agent last offseason can't be understated whether or not he plays a down.

In 2007, Leftwich walked into a similar, although uglier, situation in Atlanta. Quarterback Michael Vick had been suspended for dogfighting and Joey Harrington and Chris Redman were the quarterbacks. Harrington had started and lost the first two games before Leftwich was signed after being released by the Jaguars. Bobby Petrino's coaching staff didn't really want Harrington to be quarterback and players gutted things out for him the way Raiders players (don't) run through walls for JaMarcus Russell.

Leftwich didn't come to town publicly clamoring to start. He could not have been more professional. However, his arrival unnerved some and caused optimism in others -- like Roethlisberger's could, although he's an incumbent and Leftwich was a newcomer. When he eventually was put into the starting lineup, a dismal season became more disjointed. Leftwich played well but got hurt, and Harrington had to be reinserted. Leftwich came back and got hurt again, and with the coaching staff getting fed up with Harrington -- Petrino actually quit -- Redman closed the season as the starter.

Leftwich witnessed the constant disruption. How every little thing, him being named a starter, him getting hurt, another player being disgruntled, whatever, spawned more issues than anyone imagined. Having dealt with it and knowing what's coming should brace Leftwich to help his teammates contend for what could come.

And to clarify, a lot of what happened in Atlanta doesn't come into play here. Particularly that Roethlisberger, unlike Vick, was not found to have done anything criminally wrong. Those aren't the parallels being drawn.

The disruption and that there will be points when a person or the team will be blindsided -- or at least caught off guard -- by this fallout is very real and highly probable. That happened weekly, if not more frequently, during those turbulent times with the Falcons three years ago. Pittsburgh has met its offseason issues head on, a process that typically results in better public and in-house reaction. How this quarterback situation plays out will take time, and because of it, intrigue and questions will be constant.

Arguments could be made that a lot of what might transpire with the Steelers could just as easily take place had Roethlisberger suffered an injury that would keep him off the playing field for a month. To some degree, that's right, especially reincorporating a player back into the fold. With injuries, though, players can be around their teammates in meetings, at practice and during all team functions. Roethlisberger can't do any of that during his suspension, which officially kicks in after the preseason.

He is allowed to return to offseason drills once he completes certain behavioral evaluations by professionals, a process he's already started. That could actually happen sooner, rather than later.

Once the suspension kicks in, though, he has to stay away.

And then the drama really begins.

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