Steelers’ new backup QB prepares in event of Roethlisberger injury
Steelers’ new backup QB prepares in event of Roethlisberger injury
By Alan Robinson
Published: Thursday, June 6, 2013
Steelers quarterback Bruce Gradkowski throws during OTAs on, May 30, at Steelers
The career statistics of new Steelers reserve quarterback Bruce Gradkowski:
Games started 20
Bruce Gradkowski became the first Steelers quarterback this season to lead the team onto the field at Heinz Field.
Even if it was only June.
But he understands it could happen again in November. Or even January.
“That's true,” Gradkowski said. “In this game, you never know what is going to happen.”
With Ben Roethlisberger recovering from minor surgery on his right knee, Gradkowski took most of the snaps with the starters Thursday during the Steelers' only scheduled practice this offseason at Heinz Field.
For Gradkowski, a former Seton-La Salle star who is with his fifth team in seven seasons, it was a rare opportunity to run the starting offense. That won't happen much during training camp, not as long as there are no complications from the second right knee operation of Roethlisberger's career.
For the Steelers, it was a chance to further weigh the offseason decision they made to shed their two longtime backup quarterbacks, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch, and go younger with the 30-year-old Gradkowski and 24-year-old Landry Jones, a fourth-round draft pick from Oklahoma.
The oft-injured Leftwich, 33, had been with the Steelers for four of the previous five seasons, while Batch, 38, had been with them for 10 seasons. All three Steelers QBs started at least once last season.
“I don't know if there was a point where you felt this just wasn't working anymore,” quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner said. “They have given us some very good reps here. They have been great complements to Ben, to me and our offense.”
Fichtner said it was time to “freshen up the (quarterbacks) room.”
Gradkowski is glad they did it with another former Pittsburgh-area high school player, just like Batch was.
“It's a great opportunity to be here,” said Gradkowski, a Bengals backup the past two seasons. “Their goal is to win a championship. You can talk about that all you want at other places, but here it's a reality.”
Injuries also are a reality for NFL quarterbacks, as Roethlisberger was reminded last season when he missed three games because of a shoulder and upper chest injury. He has played a full 16-game season only once.
“As a backup, you have to prepare as the starter, even harder,” Gradkowski said.
“You know you aren't going to get those reps in practice. You just mentally have to be prepared, and when your time is called you try to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Gradkowski did that in 2009. He was thrust into the starting lineup while in Oakland and ended up throwing three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of a Raiders upset win at Heinz Field. The loss eventually cost of the Steelers a trip to the playoffs.
Still, Gradkowski has played in only 24 games the past six seasons, with just five games played and 26 passes thrown during the past two seasons. He has 21 touchdown passes and 24 interceptions in 37 career games, 13 with Tampa Bay as a rookie in 2006.
The Steelers, especially general manager Kevin Colbert, seem confident Gradkowski could play effectively as an emergency starter.
But what would happen if, like last season, both the starter and backup go down and a third starting QB is needed? Could Jones go on the road against a team like the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens and win as a spot starter like Batch did in late November?
“It may be time for Ben to give that experience to somebody else,” Fichtner said. “I am excited about coaching a young player in the room.”
Steelers trainer reflects on Roethlisberger concussion
Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY Sports
June 8, 2013
PITTSBURGH – Attendees at a concussion conference heard an example Saturday of what it means to err on the side of caution in deciding whether a concussed athlete – even if its Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger going into a critical game – is ready to return to play.
Roethlisberger sustained a concussion during Pittsburgh's 27-24 overtime loss at the Kansas Chiefs on Nov. 22, 2009. Up next was a Sunday night game at the division rival Baltimore Ravens. The urgency for Roethlisberger to play was heightened by the fact his backup, Charlie Batch, had suffered a broken wrist against the Chiefs.
Roethlisberger passed his baseline concussion test early in the following week after his concussion. He told news reporters he'd passed "thousands of tests." He practiced Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
"By Thursday and Friday he was perking up big time," Steelers head athletic trainer John Norwig said Saturday in his address to the conference held by the Center for Sports Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
But after that Friday practice, Roethlisberger walked into the athletic training room.
"He said, 'John, I just don't feel right,' '' Norwig said. " ... So I had to go to the head coach (Mike Tomlin) and say, 'Hey, look, he's symptomatic. He can't play.' ''
Roethlisberger flew with the team to Baltimore on Saturday.
"That morning before we got on the plane, he goes, 'I still really don't feel right.' '' Norwig said. "So I knew we were really making a big decision.''
Steelers neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon didn't typically make road trips with the team in 2009 (he does now). But Maroon made that trip to Baltimore.
At the team dinner that Saturday night, Roethlisberger approached Norwig again.
"Our quarterback comes up and says, 'I'm feeling great. … I have no headaches. … I just ran up and down the hall a couple of times. I feel good,' '' Norwig said.
Norwig then briefed Maroon on the new development.
"I said, 'Hey, Joe, he says he feels good,' " Norwig said. "And Joe said, 'You know what our rule is. If you're not asymptomatic within 24 hours of the game, it doesn't matter. He's not playing.' ''
Roethlisberger was out of the game. Dennis Dixon started instead, and the Steelers lost to the Ravens 20-17 in overtime.
"It was the right thing to do. We lost the game. Maybe we'd have won. Who knows? It doesn't matter. We did the right thing. We erred on the side of caution,'' Norwig said.
Roethlisberger's non-participation sparked controversy when former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward questioned his toughness in a pregame interview before the Baltimore game. Ward later apologized on Facebook.
"I know Ben wanted to play this game but the docs told him he's down, and with that we trust our docs with their decisions," Ward wrote on Facebook. "We would never jeopardize anyone's health for a game of football. … One thing about Ben, he is a WINNER. We just wanted this game so badly."
The conference was titled "Emerging Frontiers in Concussion: Advancement in Assessment, Management and Rehabilitation."
Mark Lovell was the founding director of the sports concussion program at UPMC. He was one of the developers in the early 1990s of IMPACT baseline testing, now one tool in making return-to-play decisions in the NFL and other sports at all levels.
Lovell helped organize UPMC's first concussion conference in 1996. This weekend's meeting drew about 450 attendees.
"We had a hard time (in 1996) getting 100 people into a room to talk about concussions," Lovell said. "We certainly need more conferences like this moving forward. … I'm a big fan of people like we have in this room all sitting down and working together to try to figure this issue out."
The conference at a local hotel was open to news media – except during an hour segment in which two Steelers (guard Ramon Foster and fullback Will Johnson) discussed their concussions. Steelers President Art Rooney II also participated in that session.
Chuck Finder, UPMC spokesman, said the news media was kept out by agreement of the Steelers and UPMC due to "privacy concerns." During the session, attendees were asked not to record the comments, take photos or give accounts on social media of what was discussed.
UPMC is the sports medicine provider for the Steelers, the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, University of Pittsburgh athletics and the Pittsburgh Ballet.
"I think they wanted to make sure the players could talk candidly and in private, and this was meant for the professionals, not sort of for the media," Rooney said after the session.
He, too, welcomed the turnout.
"I think it's great that so many people are paying attention, trying to understand, trying to learn more about it," he said.
"The awareness that concussions need to be taken seriously, it's grown so much. And I think conferences like this, where people are trying to understand how to deal with it, I just think that we're making progress. Obviously, we have a long way to go yet. But I do think we're making progress."