QB situation looking familiar
by Bob Labriola

Hang around the NFL long enough, and things begin to repeat themselves. So it is with the Steelers and their situation at quarterback heading into the 2008 season, a situation
in many ways similar to the one they faced 13 summers ago.

In 1995, the Steelers were looking to defend a division championship with high hopes of contending for more. For that one season, they were set at quarterback, but beyond there were some unknowns, primarily because of unrestricted free agency.

Neil O’Donnell and Mike Tomczak both were in the final years of their contracts in 1995; Kordell Stewart was a rookie second-round draft choice; and Jim Miller was a second-year guy who simply had played too well throughout the preseason to be waived.

With unrestricted free agency pending for the veterans and with two talented, developing young players at a critical position, the Steelers entered that regular season with four quarterbacks on their roster. And remember, the whole Slash thing didn’t
develop until after the final rosters had been set and the Steelers went looking for somebody to help at wide receiver during practices because of an injury to Johnnie Barnes.

The team’s current situation at the position is somewhat different in some of the details, but it’s remarkably similar in how it looks to sort itself out.

The unknown this time comes from the ramifications of the broken right collarbone sustained by Charlie Batch in the preseason opener against the Eagles on Aug. 8.

Batch’s injury left him with two choices — let the normal healing process run its course, which would have meant 10 to 12 weeks and a certain spot on the injured reserve list, or have surgery and cut that time down to six weeks.

Batch opted for the surgery, and the Steelers went looking for a veteran backup quarterback.

It was immediately after the game against the Eagles that Coach Mike Tomlin said Batch would be out six weeks, that the Steelers would not place him on the injured reserve
list, and that the team would go looking for a veteran quarterback.

When Tomlin said all those things, the Steelers probably didn’t think they would be choosing between such talents as Byron Leftwich and Daunte Culpepper. Someone such as 35-year-old Kelly Holcomb seemed like a much more realistic possibility for a job that
never was going to offer even the slightest opportunity to compete for the starting job.

In fact, based on what Tomlin had said after the Eagles game, the Steelers seemed to
be offering only a three-week preseason showcase that the veteran could use to entice another team come final cuts on Aug. 30.

But such is the lure of the Steelers franchise among players around the league that both Leftwich and Culpepper were on a plane hours after Batch’s injury, and they willingly
made the trip simply to try out for the chance to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup. Remember, both of those guys had been the seventh overall pick of their respective NFL
draft classes, and they were coming to Latrobe to try out.

After a workout in which both Culpepper and Leftwich arrived very much in shape and then performed very well, the Steelers came to an agreement with Leftwich.

“He’s a young guy, had a great workout here, is very lean, looks to be in great shape,” said Tomlin. “He’s a smart guy, a been-there, done-that guy. He’s been a franchise
quarterback for a playoff-caliber team. We’re fortunate to be able to add a guy like him to the mix.”

Fortunate didn’t seem to come close to describing it after watching Leftwich’s first practice with the Steelers, but after the first two preseason games, that word also could
be used to describe getting Dennis Dixon last April with a fifth-round draft pick.

Early in training camp, Dixon drew a rebuke from Tomlin during a two-minute drill for forgetting that scrambling for a first down doesn’t stop the clock as it does in college.
But since that gaffe, Dixon was poised in his first preseason game and pretty productive in his second.

Dixon will have to improve his accuracy before he can become a quality NFL quarterback, but in his first preseason action he operated the offense in a mistake-free manner during the fourth quarter of a game in which the Steelers went from a 10-10 tie to a 16-10 win. Against the Bills, he flashed his big-play ability with a 47-yard touchdown run on a bootleg, and then on the game’s final drive he converted a third-and-23 and then a fourth-and-10 before his perfectly thrown game-winning Hail Mary was dropped in the end zone by Micah Rucker.

Clearly, Dixon is too good to risk trying to get him on the practice squad, because before that can happen a player must be exposed to the waiver process for 24 hours. Dixon
will be under contract for three seasons at the NFL minimum, and since there aren’t many bargains in professional sports it would be football malpractice to risk this one.

Again with the words, “bargain” is an apt description for getting a quarterback of Leftwich’s pedigree and being able to keep him for an entire season for the NFL minimum

In less than two weeks, the Steelers are going to have to cut their roster to 53 players, and it’s believed their plan will be to keep four quarterbacks, because Batch has meant so much to the franchise since arriving for the 2002 season, because Leftwich is the cheapest possible insurance policy, and because Dixon has too bright a future to risk even the shortest stint on the waiver wire.

That might be the plan, but planning to keep four quarterbacks is always a lot easier than finding spots for all of them.