THE STEELERS aren't big on change. The Rooneys—first Art, then son Dan and now grandson Art II—have run the team since its founding in 1933. Pittsburgh has had three coaches since the Vietnam War and has used the same training camp site, St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., for 43 years. Of the 84 players on the roster or injured list in mid-August, 79 were either Steelers last year, former Steelers back trying to win jobs, players trying to make their first NFL team or players off the street who had no other demand for their services. Of the five veteran free agents with significant pro experience whom Pittsburgh signed, only one, Flozell Adams, has a chance to start—and he's a 35-year-old stopgap who was picked up only because starting right tackle Willie Colon tore his right Achilles tendon in June.
We may never know how close Pittsburgh came to a sea change at quarterback this off-season, after Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault for the second time in eight months. The two-time Super Bowl winner was not charged in either incident, but his behavior led commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend him for six games at the start of this season. While the Steelers traded Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes to the Jets after his second violation of the NFL substance abuse policy, they gave Roethlisberger a final chance to stop being a lout. As part of his rehab effort, he moved his father and stepmother to the Pittsburgh suburbs for support and turned to former Steelers coach Bill Cowher and onetime running back Merril Hoge for guidance.
So what about rehabbing the 2010 Steelers? As Goodell mulled reducing Roethlisberger's suspension to four games—the likely scenario at week's end—Pittsburgh spent training camp deciding on a fill-in. Coach Mike Tomlin could choose between the experienced but slow-footed 30-year-old Byron Leftwich, a seven-year veteran with 49 career starts, or the quick and raw Dennis Dixon, 25, who's played in two NFL games in his two seasons. Tomlin seemed inclined to start Leftwich in the Sept. 12 opener against the Falcons, and Leftwich's beautiful 68-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace in a preseason win over the Giants certainly helped his cause. But Tomlin could make a change within the first month. Pittsburgh hosts the division rival Ravens in Week 4, and Dixon showed promise in his one start, an overtime loss at Baltimore last year. There's no doubt the aggressive Ravens pass rushers would rather set their sights on Leftwich than the slippery Dixon. "Whoever's in there," says Tomlin, "the expectations don't change. We have to win, and the players will respond."
Once the preseason ends, Roethlisberger cannot be on Steelers property, work out with teammates or have contact with the coaches. He'll stay in shape by using a personal trainer and doing football drills each day. "Whatever happens," he said in training camp, "I'm in the best shape of my life right now, and I'm going to stay that way. No doubt in my mind, I'll be ready to go when I get back."
If Goodell reduces the suspension, Roethlisberger could begin working with the team on Oct. 4, heading into Pittsburgh's bye; that would give him 13 days to prepare for a return against the Browns at Heinz Field. If the suspension isn't reduced, he'd be banned from contact with the Steelers until Oct. 25, just six days before perhaps their toughest game of the year, at New Orleans. Thirteen days to prepare for a division also-ran at home or six days to get ready for the champion Saints on the road. Goodell's call will absolutely be season-altering for the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has seen a different Roethlisberger this summer—far more fan-friendly, not as aloof in the locker room. As one of his friends says, "Ben just wasn't equipped to be a famous person. He didn't know how to handle it. Now you'll see more of a normal guy who just wants to play football." Veteran wideout Hines Ward, who has been bluntly critical of Roethlisberger at times, said the quarterback has been making "a valiant effort" to be a better teammate.
"He's determined to handle all things in his life better," says Art Rooney II, "and he's been doing a good job so far."
Can Roethlisberger turn his life around? For the sake of the Steelers, and his future in Pittsburgh, he'd better.
WITH 2009 STATS