Make no mistake, Roethlisberger's NFL-mandated suspension of six games without pay, which can be reduced to four with good behavior, is a definite blow to Pittsburgh's bid to return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. There aren't too many lineups that can easily absorb the loss of a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But the announcement by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday is far from a death sentence that all but ends the Steelers 2010 season months before it begins.
All bets clearly are off if the Steelers throw up their hands and trade Roethlisberger, who was accused of but not charged with sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in a Georgia nightclub in March. But if he remains in Pittsburgh and completes what Goodell termed a "comprehensive behavioral evaluation by medical professionals," the reality is this:
Since he took over as the team's fulltime starter in Week 3 of his 2004 rookie season, Roethlisberger has missed eight starts due to either injury or designed inactivity. Pittsburgh is 4-4 in those games, getting wins from backups Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch, and losses by Maddox, Batch and 2008 draft pick Dennis Dixon. So history says Pittsburgh's season will neither dramatically swoon or succeed without No. 7 under center.
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And in a very shrewd move that could give the Steelers their best shot to survive the first month of the season without Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh on Tuesday traded for Big Ben's 2008 backup, Byron Leftwich, whose stellar work that year set him up for a starting opportunity in Tampa Bay in 2009.
Leftwich, acquired from the Bucs for a seventh-round pick in this year's draft, saw action in six games (including playoffs) for Pittsburgh that season, and wound up completing 21 of 37 passes for 303 yards, two touchdowns and a sterling 104.3 passer rating. His best work for the eventual Super Bowl champions came in a Week 9 win at Washington, when he replaced an injured Roethlisberger at halftime, taking a 10-6 Steelers lead and turning it into a 23-6 victory.
Leftwich gives Pittsburgh a veteran starting option who is very familiar with the Steelers offense and comfortable sliding back into a spotlight role on a team that had embraced him just two years ago. Leftwich, 30, knows what's expected of him in Pittsburgh, knows the locker room, and brings 49 career starts in the NFL and a 24-25 record to his potential month-long stint in the No. 1 job. That might just prove invaluable to the Steelers as they try to get past one of the ugliest chapters in their recent history without paying the price of an entire season sent swirling down the drain.
It's certainly not out of the question that Dixon, the third-year veteran who Pittsburgh drafted in the fifth round in 2008, might be the quarterback who emerges to bridge the gap created by Roethlisberger's suspension. After throwing just one pass as a rookie in the 2008 regular season, the former Oregon Duck opened some eyes with a fairly impressive first career start at Baltimore in Week 12 of last season, when both Roethlisberger (concussion) and veteran backup Batch were out with injuries.
Though the Steelers lost 20-17 in overtime that night, at the midpoint of a five-game late-season losing streak that doomed any chance they had to make the playoffs and repeat as Super Bowl champs, Dixon performed better than expected. He completed 12 of 26 passes for 145 yards, with one touchdown pass, one interception and a 24-yard touchdown run. It was his scoring run that gave Pittsburgh a three-point lead with less than seven minutes left in regulation, but the Steelers defense failed to protect the advantage and Dixon's overtime interception set up Baltimore's game-winning field goal.
The NFL schedule-maker also seems to have done the Steelers a bit of a favor in the season's first month, at least giving Pittsburgh a chance to endure Roethlisberger's absence. The Steelers open at home against Atlanta, travel to Tennessee and Tampa Bay in Weeks 2 and 3, and return home to face division rival Baltimore in Week 4. That's starting the season with three opponents that didn't make the playoffs in 2009 -- although both the Falcons and Titans were two of the league's better non-playoff teams by year's end -- before getting a stern challenge from the Ravens.
But that also means Pittsburgh's toughest game in the first month is at home, and one of its presumed easier games, at Tampa Bay, falls just before the test against the Ravens. Another potential godsend is that Pittsburgh has four consecutive Sunday 1 p.m. kickoffs to start the season, meaning no high-profile primetime game or nationally televised affair awaits Roethlisberger's replacement, where the pressure and the spotlight would be greater.
The Steelers' newly released schedule features five primetime games this season, but all of them fall between Weeks 8-16, a scenario which now seems to be anything but a coincidence.
Even in the unlikely event that Roethlisberger's suspension winds up lasting the maximum length of six games, Pittsburgh has a fifth-week bye, then plays host to the last-place Browns in Week 6, followed by a trip to Miami in Week 7. Only two of Pittsburgh's critical six division games could thus be affected by Roethlisberger's absence, and just one against a team projected to be a winner this year.
As has been his tendency throughout his four-year tenure, Goodell has spoken loud and clear to Roethlisberger. His punishment is no slap on the wrist, especially given that no criminal charges were ever filed.
But Pittsburgh's 2010 season will not necessarily be ruined by the Roethlisberger saga and its messy fallout. Starting today, the Steelers can at least see forward and know what they're dealing with in regards to their controversial starting quarterback. Picking up the pieces of an offseason unlike any other in Pittsburgh, the Steelers and Roethlisberger both now have a path to follow.