Thursday January 20th, 2005

LATROBE, Pa. -- The Future, you might say, has come to pass for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

On the Steelers' training camp practice field Wednesday morning at St. Vincent College, rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger showed up wearing a No. 7 jersey on his back and a franchise's hopes and dreams on his broad shoulders.

Freshly signed and thrown right into things on the fifth day of Pittsburgh's preseason workouts, the Steelers' highest drafted quarterback in 34 years had the relieved look of a guy whose first big contract negotiation is behind him and his best days still ahead.

That's the plan at least in Pittsburgh, where the future may not be now, but you can certainly see it from here.

"It's quite an honor to be considered the future, but I haven't deserved it yet in my opinion,'' Roethlisberger said Wednesday, 15 minutes or so after putting the finishing touches on his first practice as the team's heir apparent quarterback. "My goal is to earn that title.''

For now, of course, veteran Tommy Maddox remains the present at quarterback for the Steelers. But Roethlisberger, the 11th overall pick out of Miami of Ohio, already has earned the largest signing bonus in franchise history, a cool $9 million that serves as the centerpiece of the six-year, $14.26 million deal (with maximum value of $40 million) he signed Tuesday. With that kind of money involved, opportunity is guaranteed to follow.

While it's not quite Big Ben's time in Pittsburgh, everywhere you looked Wednesday at Steelers camp there was a certain beginning of an era feel to things. The team's starting receivers, Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, talked excitedly about forming a working relationship with their new quarterback, and all eyes seemed glued on Roethlisberger for any early sign of greatness.

"He's definitely not afraid to stick it in there,'' Burress said. "He's going to throw the ball in traffic. He has a lot of confidence in his arm. But if I was that big, I'd have that much confidence too. We're all anxious to see how it's going to work out. The world's definitely going to get to see what he's got.''

But first things first. In Pittsburgh this season, the expectation is that Roethlisberger will serve an apprenticeship of sorts, watching and waiting while Maddox handles the task of trying to get the Steelers back into the playoffs after the disappointment of last season's slide to 6-10. You might see the rookie slipped into the fourth quarter of a lopsided game or two, just to get him some work, but barring injuries at the quarterback position, the fate of the 2004 Steelers largely rests in Maddox's hands.

The Steelers' blueprint for Roethlisberger is the Carson Palmer scenario in Cincinnati, where the Bengals last season kept their prized No. 1 overall pick on the bench, before declaring him this year's starter this spring without so much of a shot of competition being fired between him and veteran incumbent Jon Kitna.

We know what you're thinking. First off, when was the last time a Bengals quarterback situation was used as a road map to success for any other team? And secondly, we won't know how the Palmer experiment really turned outuntil he plays this season, will we?

It helps of course that Roethlisberger is fully on board with the Steelers' approach, even if it means 16 weeks of highly paid clipboard toting this year.

"I don't think it'll be easy, because I'm used to playing,'' he said. "But I'm going to view it as a redshirt year in college, and my redshirt year in college benefited me so much. It'll be tough, but it's also great because it takes the pressure off me coming in here.

"Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, those guys are probably going to be forced to play pretty much right away. I can kind of take my time and kind of feel the system out. There's no real rush. I think that's good for the organization as well as it is for me. You want to get out there and start playing, but you have to look at the long run, because I want to play in the league for a long time.''

Roethlisberger learned an early lesson in NFL patience on draft day. Projected by many to go in the top four, he instead lingered until Pittsburgh at No. 11, watching as Manning and Rivers took top billing with that unusual first-round trade between the Giants and Chargers.

The bottom line? While New York and San Diego took the two quarterbacks who were considered the most ready to play in the NFL right now, the Steelers had more time to play with and took a gamble on Roethlisberger's huge upside potential.

"I'm very happy where I'm at,'' said Roethlisberger, who left Miami after his stellar junior season. "When I look back at it now, everyone might say, 'Oh, you had to sit there and wait so long.' But I think I'm in the best situation.

"A lot of people have asked me, 'If you'd known you would last until 11, would you have still left?' But I consider this a dream come true and the opportunity of a lifetime. I'm jumping and I'm going to run with it.''

Like Marshall's Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich before him, Roethlisberger has had to contend with those who question the NFL viability of a first-round quarterback who played in the smaller Mid-American Conference. But more importantly to Roethlisberger is this: Pennington rode the bench for two years with the Jets and then had success in his third year. Leftwich replaced Mark Brunell early on last year in Jacksonville and enjoyed a decent rookie year, proving there's more than one way to skin this particular cat.

"Sometimes it's good to take your lumps, because you're going to take them at some point,'' Roethlisberger said. "Byron told me, 'Why not get them out of the way now instead of two years from now?' So there are pros and cons to both ways of doing things. But I'm not going to be a guy who's going to get mad if he's not playing. Whenever it's my time to play, it's my time to play.''

At 6-foot-5, 241 pounds, with a gun for an arm, Roethlisberger is an imposing physical specimen. But if size and arm strength always equated to playing great quarterback in the NFL, a guy by the name of Ryan Leaf would have been a smash success.

"Everybody gets excited seeing him throw,'' said Ward, the Steelers' Pro Bowl receiver. "But in our case Tommy right now gives us the best opportunity to go out and win ball games. You can't blow off a year in this league. I'm glad I don't have to make the decision, but right now Ben's not comfortable enough to go out and lead our team just yet. But when he's ready, he's going to get his opportunity.''

In Pittsburgh, The Future has most definitely arrived. Exactly what it holds will be apparent soon enough.

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