The Great Debate

Pittsburgh's favorite August pastime isn't baseball, it's debating backup quarterbacks. This year's debate has a twist, since one of the candidates can't prove himself. Read Jim Wexell's opinion.

The scene was one of the more interesting scenes from Thursday night's game:

After Ben Roethlisberger had thrown his interception, he tried to get out of the way of Donte Whitner's interception return. Bills lineman Marcus Stroud helped by wrapping his arms around the Steelers' quarterback and shielding him from the collision that took place nearby.

Nice of ol' Marcus to think about everyone's safety at a time like that, because Pittsburgh fans just like to talk about backup quarterbacks, not deal with them.

And now we can do just that because there's a debate at hand. It's a strange debate at that, but is Byron Leftwich better than Charlie Batch would be?

Yes, strange, because the Steelers are pitting Leftwich against that shadow of Batch. But they'll need to make the decision on cutdown day whether to hold onto Leftwich or Batch.

Of course, there's no chance the Steelers will cut rookie No. 3 man Dennis Dixon, or keep four quarterbacks. Another option to cross off the list is putting Batch on Injured Reserve and ending his season. He's in the last year of his contract and would be of no use to the Steelers; he'd only waste cap space on IR.

If the Steelers do decide on Leftwich over Batch, they'd simply release Batch because they believe they could re-sign Batch later in the season if a crisis were to develop. The only risk is that Batch would be picked up by another team, but even then there's a good chance Batch would decline an offer and remain in town to tend to his many business and community interests.

At the beginning of the debate, just after Leftwich's workout at Latrobe Stadium, it seemed as if the Steelers had already made up their mind. Those who watched the workout raved that both Leftwich and Daunte Culpepper were better than Batch. Reporters heard the news and just assumed Leftwich would show up and show off.

Well, he did show up for that first practice in much better shape than at any previous time in his pro career, and he whistled the ball around the practice field harder than anyone since Tee Martin. The difference is that Leftwich didn't scare the nearby children by skipping bounce passes into the picnic areas.

But there was a problem that reporters tried to ignore: Few were catching Leftwich's passes. His flaws had been well documented: ankle injuries and a big wind-up. But what we seemed to forget is that Leftwich lacks a short game. It's not the big wind-up that hurt Leftwich as much as his lack of touch. Limas Sweed dropped one touchdown pass because he wasn't expecting Nolan Ryan to fog it up to him. Others had balls blister off their hands and into the waiting arms of deep safeties.

Thursday night, against the Buffalo Bills, Leftwich once again showed poise, command, a presence, just as he had in college and with Jacksonville. But once again, his passes lacked touch. He completed 5 of 11 for 41 yards. He wasn't intercepted, but one potential pick was dropped (and one disastrous fumble was overruled).

Is Leftwich better than what we remember of Batch? Well, Batch smiles a lot and helps Roethlisberger on the sideline, but his last regular-season start, the meaningless finale of the 2007 season, was a sloppy loss to the Baltimore Ravens. His previous start was the 2006 opener, a solid win over the Miami Dolphins.

It's been few and far between for Batch, who also has the curse of the china doll hanging over him. Those few starts have probably kept the injury-plagued Batch healthy of late, and that brings up another question for a guy who'll turn 34 in December: How long will it take him to get over this injury?

The answer may make this debate a moot one. And so might the rapid development of Dixon. He's 12 for 24 for 109 yards this preseason. He's averted the pass rush with dexterity, and even ripped off a 47-yard touchdown run. He hasn't been intercepted, and would've made his first touchdown pass a game-winner had Micah Rucker only held on to Thursday's Hail Mary.

From all sides, this debate seems silly. But this is Pittsburgh. If we're not debating backup quarterbacks, we're not enjoying the preseason.

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