SL Roundtable: Who Ya Got? Byron Leftwich vs. Dennis Dixon

Ben Roethlisberger will miss the first month of the season, maybe more, and here’s what we know: Byron Leftwich is his likely replacement and barring a Madduxian effort during training camp, nothing will change. But should it?

Ryan: In general, I’m not one of those guys who thinks a coach should play young guys just to see what they can do. Fans have this discussion anytime it looks like the Steelers will miss the playoffs and they’re tired of seeing the same old guys trotting onto the field.

That’s not to say I agree with every personnel decision a coach makes (For instance, I have no idea why it took nearly the entire 2003 season for Bill Cowher to realize that DeWayne Washington was a disaster and that Deshea Townsend, well, wasn’t; or how last year Mike Tomlin didn’t just go with 10 players instead of subjecting us to William Gay), just that I can’t get behind the “hey, let’s throw the rookie in there since the season’s lost!” argument because the NFL isn’t Little League.

Despite all that, I’d rather see Dennis Dixon start the season under center. I understand why Byron Leftwich appears to have the gig locked up — the Steelers can tread water for a month until Ben returns, Leftwich had success in the role in 2008, Leftwich has a lot of NFL starting experience, and so on — but here’s the thing: assuming Roethlisberger is only out for four games — and if we’re being honest, most of us would be content with a 2-2 start — I’m not convinced that Leftwich is better suited to deliver that than Dixon.

Obviously, Leftwich has a larger body of work to look back on and Dixon only has his uneven performance against the Ravens last year. But let’s be honest: Leftwich was dreadful virtually every time he saw the field in 2007 and 2009. Granted, he was in Atlanta and Tampa Bay, and only played in six games, but it was still hard to watch.

Yes, he seems more comfortable in Pittsburgh’s system (having playmakers around him doesn’t hurt), but he’s still going to compete a little more than half the passes he attempts, take some sacks, and more than that, take a beating. Dixon’s a different kind of player — he’s more in the Kordell Stewart mold without all the above-the-neck issues — but his style more resembles Roethlisberger’s than Leftwich’s does. With Byron you know what you’re getting. With Dixon, there’s a chance the Steelers could get a lot more. That’s all I’m saying.

JJ: When the offseason began, the Steelers were clearly in win-now mode. Every move Pittsburgh made (re-upping Casey Hampton, bringing back Larry Foote, signing Antwaan Randle El) was done with the idea of winning a Super Bowl this year. And if that meant sacrificing a little bit of the future, so be it.

But when Roethlisberger went bar-hopping and got suspended, all of that changed. The decision to give away Santonio Holmes made it clear that the Steelers are no longer focused entirely on winning a 2010 Super Bowl — the team was willing to sacrifice some short-term success for the bigger picture. Debate the intelligence of that move if you want, but there’s no argument that it will help Pittsburgh win games in 2010. Add in Willie Colon’s season-ending injury and the Steelers are no longer in a position to sell out future success for the chance to win a Super Bowl this year.

Unless Roethlisberger gets slapped with another lawsuit, he’s the Steelers’ quarterback for years to come and nothing Dixon or Leftwich do during the first four (or six) games is going to change that. But if Dixon plays well, he will have a good bit of trade value. If Leftwich plays well, he’ll still be a veteran backup quarterback.

In limited action as Michael Vick’s backup (161 total passes), Matt Schaub played well enough that the Falcons were able to trade Schaub and a first-round pick to the Texans to trade up two spots in the first round and pick up two second-round picks. Pittsburgh wouldn’t be likely to get as much for Dixon, but a solid four-to-six games would make him a valuable trade chip.

OK, I’m sometimes too focused on long-term success. So even if some Steelers fans couldn’t care less about whether playing Dixon now will help win more games in 2012, 2013 or beyond, let me point something else out. Unless the Steelers sign Flozell Adams or convince Anthony Munoz to find a time machine (and sign with the Steelers), whoever is starting at quarterback is going to be dodging plenty of pass rushers. Ben Roethlisberger has the ability to sidestep defensive ends with a hip wiggle. Dennis Dixon has the ability to slow down pass rushers with the occassional bootleg or spread option play. Byron Leftwich has a windup that takes slightly longer than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which makes it a lot harder to beat the rush.

I’m not yet convinced that Leftwich will help the Steelers win more games in 2010 than Dixon would, but that’s why we have the preseason to watch and argue this for another month and a half.

Adam: If the Steelers were coming into this season expecting to be terrible with no hope of competing for anything, I wouldn’t be opposed to Dennis Dixon getting the starts and developing his game for the future (actually, that’s probably the exact opposite of Ryan’s idea of not just throwing somebody out there for the hell of it because the team stinks).

But that’s not what’s going on here. This is a team that should — should! — be a contender in the AFC. They’re just one year removed from a Super Bowl, and even in a down, disappointing year, still managed to win more games than they lost and outscore their opponents by almost 50 points. Combine that with the fact they put the band back together this offseason and brought in a bunch of free agents (and Bryant McFadden via trade), it’s pretty clear this team expects to win. And should win.

With that in mind, those first four games are quite large (I think they’ll be fine if they 2-2 or better) and Leftwich, to me, is the best option at this point (this point being: before training camp and the preseason, where a lot can change). In fact, earlier this offseason when all of the Roethlisberger chaos was hitting the fan, I suggested that they should consider trading for Leftwich. He has experience in the system, he’s had success in the system, and he’s simply a better quarterback than Dixon at this point. I know he struggled in Tampa Bay and Atlanta, but those were two epic disaster situations. He was one of the sacrificial lambs that was taking over in the wake of the Michael Vick saga in Atlanta (and he really only started two games), and Tampa Bay was just a lousy football team.

Without seeing these two guys battle it out in camp, the only advantage I see to Dixon is his mobility, and, truth be told, that could be a plus given the state of the offensive line minus Willie Colon. Still … put me down in the Leftwich corner right now.

Ted: At this juncture, I have to agree with JJ and Ryan, and disagree with Adam’s point. Two weeks ago, though, my view was more in-line with Adam and would be again if the Steelers’ front office wised up and signed former Cowboys offensive tackle Flozell Adams to a free-agent contract.

Yes, the Steelers’ brass, players, and fans (including me) expected this to be a contending team, particularly after a stronger-than-normal effort in free agency and the hopeful return to health of defensive superstar Troy Polamalu, whose presence last season would have undoubtedly resulted in Pittsburgh being a playoff team and a legitimate threat to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

However, that was all before the suspension of Roethlisberger for 4-6 games (a timeframe where he cannot even practice with the team), coinciding with the moronic, free give-away of Pittsburgh’s top offensive playmaker – Santonio Holmes – to the Jets for virtually nothing in return. Those two disasters dropped the Steelers from one of the better teams in the NFL to one just hoping to sneak into the playoffs in a crowded and improved AFC Conference.

Unfortunately, though, the injury loss of starting right tackle Willie Colon is why few experts will project Pittsburgh to better its 9-7 record from a season ago. Colon was the only Steeler starting offensive lineman last season who was the among the top half of all starters at their respective line position in the league last season, with Steelers’ right guard Trai Essek and center Justin Hartwig among the worst of all starting NFL offensive linemen regardless of position. Colon was the star of an offensive line that has been below average for the last 4-5 years. Moreover, unlike receiver where second-year speedster Mike Wallace has a chance to be nearly as good as Holmes, the current candidates to replace Colon are nowhere near starting-caliber tackles in the NFL.

I loved the trade to acquire Leftwich for a seventh-round pick. He knows the Steelers’ offensive system, and adds depth, experience, stability and a big arm. If the Steelers had the same starting lineup as last season, with the excpetion of quarterback, then Leftwich should be the opening-day starter. But this now is a much worse and more limited Steeler offense without its top receiver and offensive lineman, in addition to the loss of its superstar quarterback for 4-6 games.

Due to his athleticism, Dennis Dixon can make things happen and keep plays alive. He would give the Steelers a better chance of creating big plays downfield on offense by avoiding sacks. More importantly, his escability would enable slow and aging wide receivers Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El enough time to get open. At this point of his career, Leftwich may be the slowest quarterback in the NFL.

Leftwich is a more sure bet to help the Steelers win at least one of its first four games than the inexperienced Dixon, but starting Dixon is their only chance to win all four and probably their best bet to go 3-1. Finally, starting Dixon early would enable the Steelers to find out if he is a viable, quality No. 2 quarterback for the long-term in Pittsburgh, a potential NFL starter who could fetch a second-round pick in trade value after 2010, or someone who needs to be replaced. Now is a perfect time to find out.

Adam: I like Dixon’s ability and potential, but I just don’t see him giving the Steelers a better shot at winning more games than Leftwich to start this season. Of course, a lot can change in training camp/preseason. If Dixon goes in and blows the doors off the place and outplays Leftwich, then by all means, start him. Sitting here today, however, I don’t see him outplaying Leftwich and winning the job.

I also understand the argument about playing Dixon and developing him as a future No. 2/trade bait (the Matt Schaub example) but I still see this team as a contender needing every game it can get at the start of the season. If Leftwich is the better player (and I think he will be) he has to be the starter.

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  • Randy Steele

    Are you guys being deliberately contrary for the sport of it?

    I can't imagine that you're seriously thinking about starting Dixon instead of Leftwich. So he can be groomed for a trade?! Come on! You're not serious!

    Has everyone forgotten what happened to Dixon (during his only start) in the second half against the Ravens?

    He couldn't read a defense. Any defense. And once the Ravens realized that, they started eating our offense alive. Now that the secret's out, every other D in the league will treat him the same way. And do you think Dixon's reading skills have gotten any better while he rode the pine for the rest of the season? Not likely. Essentially, he still a rookie.

    Another issue with Dixon is his physique. It's hard to believe this kid has the physical make-up to take an NFL-style beating, game after game. Of course, who knows? Maybe he's gotten bigger and stronger. Maybe he's really made of Kevlar. Or he might take one good hit and snap in half. Ouch!

    Don't get me wrong: I'm not a Dixon hater. Really, I'm rooting for the kid, but he shouldn't be a starter under these circumstances.

    Unless he's ready to flush the season, Tomlin must hand the ball to Lefty. He's our better chance to win–by far.

  • RoB D

    I guess I just don't see what Dixon is at this point. What I don't think he is at the moment is a legit candidate to start at QB in the NFL. Not even close.

    Leftwich is the Day 1 starter and it's not even a debate.

  • RoB D

    OK,,everything is a

    That's what these kind of forums are about..wink

  • Gretz

    I was afraid I was going crazy as the only one in favor of Byron.

  • ryan

    Gretz, you're still crazy. Regarding Dennis v. Byron: honestly, it's a half-dozen of one in my mind. I'm leaning towards Dixon because he's younger and has more upside. Two awful reasons, I know, but Ben drove me to this. If he could figure out how to leave his house and not assault somebody we would be talking about more important stuff. But we're not.

  • drinkingclub

    I would go with Dixon.

    Also, I don't really see the big deal in trading Holmes. He never had the break out, best receiver in the league type season that was expected. I think Wallace will probably put up similar numbers. Trading Holmes to another AFC team and for not much return I did not like, but the idea of trading Holmes I did not disagree with.

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  • Randy Steele

    In case you're curious, here's Jim Wexell's take on the situation:
    “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.”

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