So here’s the dilemma: Ben Roethlisberger can participate in training camp practices and preseason games, but once Sept. 12 rolls around, he’ll be like the rest of us, forced to watch the Steelers from his couch, at least for a month.
And Mike Tomlin has decided that the best course of action — at least during the first few days of camp — is to give Ben a lot of first-team reps, hope muscle memory kicks in, and on Oct. 17, lord willing, he’ll be under center against the Browns, and more importantly: effective.
Of course, there are only a handful of reps to go around, and what Ben or Byron Leftwich get, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch don’t. (Barring a run on injuries the likes of which no one has ever seen, I think we can agree that Chaz is a fourth-teamer until he’s officially hired onto the coaching staff.)
“We want to make sure that at the end of this thing that Ben has a productive camp,” Tomlin said. “But as we proceed at this juncture, our focus, of course, is who’s going to be playing quarterback for us the week of the opener. I like where the guys are right now.”
And that’s the thing: we can’t judge Tomlin’s long-term plan based on a few practices. And you want Ben to get reps because 2006 is a stark reminder of what happens when a) he doesn’t wear a helmet during waking hours, and b) he can’t practice because of a). But the trade-off is that Leftwich and Dixon get fewer opportunities with the first-teamers. Probably less of an issue for Byron — it’s pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get with him at this point in his career (and, thankfully, he appears much better when wearing black and gold instead of, say, pewter or red) — but Dixon would certainly benefit.
But despite my protestations, Tomlin appears to have the depth chart set: Ben with an asterisk, Byron, Dennis and Chaz. And as I have pointed out in great detail previously, I understand that: Leftwich is a veteran, comfortable in Pittsburgh’s system, and got hit by a car twice while playing street football growing up in DC, which will come in handy when he’s getting assaulted in the pocket next month. Dixon has one NFL start and looked equal parts brilliant and confused during the game, including the decisive overtime interception that gift-wrapped the win for the Ravens.
In a perfect world, Ben would share first-team snaps with Byron during camp, Byron would then hold down the fort for the first month of the season and the Steelers would head into their Week 5 bye no worse than 2-2. Roethsliberger would return against the Browns in Week 6, have the rust knocked off by halftime, and Pittsburgh could get back to the business of playoff football.
But these things rarely play out like you hope, and that’s my biggest fear: an injury, an arrest, an asteroid strike — anything — throws a monkey wrench into Tomlin’s plans and the next thing you know, Dixon’s under center in a regular-season game after having spent training camp on the sidelines throwing footballs into trash cans with Skippy.