Leftwich vs. Dixon, Part 47

Dennis Dixon’s agent has some of the same questions three-quarters of the brain trust here at Steelers Lounge raised during Monday’s roundtable. Namely: why are the Steelers heading into training camp with Byron Leftwich as the starter? First, here’s what Jeff Sperbeck, Dixon’s agent, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s John Harris:

“I think Dennis should be given an opportunity to start,” Sperbeck said in a phone interview from California. “He’s been there going on three years. He knows the offense. He’s familiar with his teammates. He’s ready to go.

“I don’t understand why after Byron’s been gone a year, they would bring him back and start him ahead of Dennis. To me, it should have been Dennis’ job as the No. 1. He was No. 2 last year. Byron was not even in the picture.”

That’s right out of the “Agents Protecting Clients” handbook and unless this is high school and your dad’s the coach, none of what Sperbeck argues ever happens. Also worth considering: Dixon will be a restricted free agent after the 2010 season and labor issues aside, Sperbeck’s job is to get his client as much money as possible. That’s a lot easier to do when other teams have something other than preseason tape to go on.

At least one of Dixon’s teammates is on the bandwagon. Charlie Batch recently told a Florida radio station that, “I think watching him as he progressed over the last couple of years, he’s really going to be a talent — whether that’s with Pittsburgh or some other team.”

But players can say just about whatever they want without having to deal with the consequences. Coaches, on the other hand, are a conservative bunch and when given the choice between low-risk/low-payoff, and high-risk/high-payoff, they’re going the risk-averse route virtually every time.

And Steel City Insider‘s Jim Wexell’s comments confirm those doubts: ”On Leftwich vs. Dixon, Dixon makes too many mistakes. I doubt if training camp will polish him up enough to lift the confidence of the coaching staff. I agree with them that he’s not ready yet.”

Off the top of my head, the only instance of an NFL coach basically saying, “If this doesn’t work out, my ass if canned … but it’s in the best interest of the team and I’m willing to take that gamble,” is when Bill Belichick benched Drew Bledsoe for Tom Brady in 2001. But even the Evil Genius hedged; if Bledsoe hadn’t nearly died Brady might never have gotten that chance and we might be referring to him in the same hushed tones now reserved for dreamboats like Jesse Palmer.

So even before we get into the merits of whether Dixon actually deserves the starting gig, there’s the politics. Mike Tomlin’s not in danger of losing his job — he just signed an extension — but it’s a lot easier to explain why a veteran backup quarterback stumbled his way through four games than to have to deal with the heat that comes with a possible Dixon implosion and the subsequent four months of “THE SEASON WAS OVER IN SEPTEMBER WHEN DENNIS GOT THE NOD OVER BYRON” barrage from the torch and pitchfork crowd. And while I’m quite certain that Tomlin doesn’t make personnel decisions based on the fans and media, NFL coaches are notoriously by the book. But it’s July 23 and training camp is more than a week off. Maybe Tomlin’s going into camp open-minded, and if Dixon outplays Leftwich in Latrobe, he’ll earn the right to start the first four (to six) games of the season.

On Monday I argued that Dixon should be the front runner for the job because of his athleticism, his versatility, and, to round out the cliche trifecta, his upside (yep, that’s right, I’m busting out “upside”). Because we have nothing else to do, let’s get into specifics:

The knock on Dixon is that the Ravens game showed that he can’t read defenses. And maybe he still can’t, I don’t know. But there were rumors that during Ben’s rookie season, then-offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt only gave Ben half-field reads on passing plays. Assuming that’s true (and, honestly, I have no idea), Roethlisberger made out okay. Dixon’s not Big Ben, I know, but simplifying the offense for an inexperienced quarterback isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Tommy Maddux knew the playbook as well as anybody. He might have benefited from some simplification.

Also helping Ben in 2004: Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. The running game is probably one of the most divisive topics amongst Steelers fans these days. Partly because, historically, it’s been the Steelers way, but also because Bruce Arians and his freewheelin’ ways rubs some folks the wrong way. There’s plenty about Arians that frustrates the hell out of me, but I just can’t work up the mock outrage that had people lathered up before Tomlin announced BA was staying and we were all distracted by Big Ben’s Big Night in Millyvegas.

Did the Steelers need to run the ball more last year? Not unless that would have magically made up for the sudden collapse of the defense. I think everybody agrees that the short-yardage situation was a disaster and that phase of the running game has to get better. But a complete overhaul of the offensive philosophy just to say Pittsburgh now runs the ball a lot? That’s dumb … well, at least it was before Roethlisberger got the first month of the season off. Arians will now have to alter the game plan no matter who the quarterback is. Have Leftwich drop back enough and that fast-pitch wind-up will get him killed. And Dixon’s best chance at success will probably involve a healthy mix of runs, bootlegs and misdirections to set up the passing game.

Shorter version: the running game has suddenly become an issue because Ben won’t be the quarterback. And if we all concede that that’s true, Dixon seems better suited for that task than Leftwich.

But Dixon will get killed after one hit. He might. He’s listed at 209 pounds which means he’s probably closer to 180. Leftwich is around 250 but he has all the mobility of Casey Hampton in a phone booth. In my mind, it’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other when making the size vs. elusiveness argument.

Leftwich isn’t great, but he’s been good with the Steelers. That’s the thing: I like Leftwich and wrote in 2008 that he should have started while Ben was nursing injuries (The Redskins game immediately comes to mind — partially because Ben looked like crap in the first half before finally giving way to Byron, but also because the NFL later fined LaMarr Woodley for sacking Jason Campbell “in an intimidating manner”). But we know what he’s capable of: pass plays that require the ball to travel 80 yards in the air, fastballs over the middle, a lot of sacks, somewhere around a 50 percent completion percentage, and somebody who’ll manage the offense. Nothing fancy, but nothing Maddux-ian, either.

And despite Dixon’s overtime pick that set up the Ravens win during his only start last year, I think he can do all that the Steelers coaches expect from Leftwich, as well as a bunch of other stuff Leftwich could only manage after some Iron Man-type modifications. Not only that, it’s only a four-game seasons. Of course, that’s the same argument Leftwich supporters would make: “We need somebody who can man the controls, and make sure the Steelers are no worse than 2-2 when Ben returns.” Fine. Looking at the schedule, Pittsburgh opens up at home against the Falcons, travel to Tennessee and then Tampa Bay before the Ravens come to town in Week 4. The only “easy” game is the Bucs (although I was under the impression last season that the Browns, Chiefs and Raiders were easy games), and I could see either Leftwich or Dixon winning half the time. But for me, Dixon, because of his game-breaking ability, gives the Steelers the best chance to head into the Week 5 bye with a winning record. And if we’ve learned anything from the last few seasons, it’s that every game matters. I’m willing to take a flyer on Dixon because of what he can do and let the coaches find ways to manage his inexperience. (Because, really, if there’s anything we’ve learned through all this, it’s that Arians is a great tactician.)

Then again, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if Ben could keep his pants on in public. So whatever happens in September, it’s his fault. That said, whether it’s Byron or Dennis, if the Steelers somehow manage to go 4-0, guess what? When Ben returns, he’s still the starting quarterback. Let’s just go ahead and get that out of the way now.

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