Although they’re only one game into preseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers may have found a solution to surviving Ben Roethsliberger’s suspension, if they can avoid tripping over their own two feet.
Few, if any NFL teams have entered a season knowing that their starting signal caller will be absent for a defined period. When it became clear that Roger Goodell would don his Mr. Hyde persona in meting out Roethlisberger’s punishment the Steelers immediately brought back Bryon Leftwich.
Leftwich’s arrival left them with a quandary.
On the one hand they have an experienced, proven veteran NFL quarterback whose chief weakness is his lack of mobility. On the other, they have a talented upstart youngster in Dennis Dixon who is mobile, perhaps to a fault. Dixon is also green.
Mike Tomlin installed Leftwich as his de-facto starter upon his return. But Dennis Dixon’s perfect passer rating against Detroit electrified Steelers Nation, and that’s where the story gets interesting.
Jockeying for Second Fiddle
I did not see the game, but Dixon must have looked really good, as both reporters and fans have scrambled to assemble arguments advocating that Dixon, and not Leftwich, begin the season as the starter.
Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette, however, is not one of them. Collier, displaying his uncanny knack for wit, restored a bit of sanity to the conversation offering this:
“This is Pittsburgh baby. Only in Pittsburgh could you have a backup quarterback controversy. In the preseason. After one game.”
Fortunately, the man whose opinion counts the most agrees with Collier, as Mike Tomlin indicated to reporters:
“It was a nice start, guys, and that’s what it was. He was productive. Half of that production came in the fourth quarter, so we’re not going to get carried
Thankfully, Tomlin is not content to let Dixon’s ability wither on the pine.
The Dynamic Duo?
Dixon, it appears, will see the field. When asked if he might work Dixon into the game, Tomlin responded, “That’s why we’ve continually worked on a package (of plays) solely for him not only here in training camp but back in the spring at our place.”
Rotating more than one quarterback onto the field can be tricky business. It almost conjures up the old baseball saying, “I’ve heard its never been done before but that it usually doesn’t work.”
Except sometimes it can. The recent rise of the Wildcat and the Steelers more distant success with the “Slash” phenomenon offer proof.
Harnessing Dennis Dixon’s speed can give the Steelers an edge to make their offensive truly dynamic in Roethlisberger’s absence. Bruce Arians, like his boss, seems to embrace just that, explaining:
“When you play without Ben, you’re going to utilize all the players you have. He’ll have a package, and how he plays within that package will determine how
much he plays.”
That should seem to settle it. Except it doesn’t.
Déjà Vu Sur Le Numéro Dix
Following Dixon’s first start, Argentina’s esteemed Dr. Vallegos texted me saying, “Dixon me hace de acordar de Kordell.” In English, “Dixon reminds me of Kordell.” The comparison wasn’t a complement.
I explained that Dixon was starting with little more than a day’s notice and did well under the circumstances.
Dennis Dixon deserves judgment on his own merits, but comparisons to Kordell Stewart became all the more inevitable when he switched his jersey to Number 10.
And now, unfortunately, Bruce Arians seems intent on making the Kordell-Dixon/Dennis Stewart paradox a self-fulfilling prophecy. Asked about Dixon’s running ability, Arians was openly dismissive:
“If he’s your starter, you’re not going to expose him to running the football, because they’re going to break him up. That stuff, you can forget about that if he’s the starter. He wouldn’t last two ballgames.”
To keep true to context, these remarks preceded the Detroit game, but Ed Bouchette confirmed in a chat on Behind the Steel Curtain that Arians was unhappy that Dixon had run so much against the Lions.
The danger of developing at mobile quarterback like Dixon is that relying on their legs gives them an easy out over learning to read defenses. So prudence is warranted.
But Arians would also be prudent to heed a lesson from the Steelers own history.
Kordell Stewart suffered from his own short comings, but Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride’s attempts to transform him into a pocket passer did Stewart irreparable harm.
Arians would be advised to listen to the man in the mirror. Arians has refused, time and time again, to restrain Roethlisberger’s tendency to hold onto the ball too long in the hopes of netting the big play. The extra sacks, Arians explains are simply the price of doing business.
He needs to apply the same logic to Dixon. Put him on a leash, and you take away what makes Dennis Dixon dynamic.
During the off season I declared myself as an Arians’ agnostic. If Bruce Arians doesn’t damage Dixon’s development he’ll go a long way towards converting that agnosticism into faith.
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