Charlie Batch was once a franchise quarterback. From 1998 to 2001, he started 46 games for the Detroit Lions. As a rookie, he handed off to Barry Sanders. In Batch’s first full season as a starter, he led the hapless Lions to the playoffs; it would be their last postseason appearance until 2011.
Byron Leftwich was once a franchise quarterback. From 2003 to 2006, he started 44 games for the Jacksonville Jaguars. As a rookie, he took over as the starter for Mark Brunell, an original member of the Jags. At one time, Leftwich was considered Ben Roethlisberger’s equal: A big quarterback with big arm from the MAC, drafted early in the first round and destined for greatness.
Neither Batch nor Leftwich found long-term success as a starter. Now that they are on the same roster, no other team can boast of such depth and experience at the backup quarterback position. Batch joined the Steelers in 2003 and has started seven games for them, winning five. Leftwich first signed with the Steelers in 2008 and has only played two games in a Pittsburgh uniform, both relief appearances on Monday night, both wins.
One of them will take the reins of what was, until recently, a rapidly improving Steelers offense. Current franchise quarterback Roethlisberger went down on Monday night and is out indefinitely with shoulder and rib injuries – what, you didn’t hear about that yet? – and his absence comes at a pivotal point in the schedule. The Baltimore Ravens are on the docket twice in 15 days, starting Sunday. Sandwiched in between is a trip to Cleveland, which has all the makings of a classic trap game.
Todd Haley’s new offensive system seems ideal for a backup quarterback making a few spot starts. It leans heavily on the run game, it aims to monopolize the time of possession, and it calls mainly for short, quick passes. The offense should also be free from the tug-of-war between the no-huddle (preferred by Big Ben) and the traditional play calling (preferred by Haley).
So who should be under center when the Ravens visit Pittsburgh for the first installment of their bi-annual bloodbath?
Yeah, yeah, we know Leftwich has already been named the starter. But his erratic showing against an awful Chiefs defense didn’t exactly inspire confidence. He hasn’t won a start since October 8, 2006. DJ Gallo summed it up with the Steelers joke of the year so far, saying this on Monday night: “At the top of Todd Haley’s play card, it says, ‘DON’T RUN ANY OF THESE PLAYS WITH BYRON LEFTWICH.’”
Would coach Mike Tomlin hesitate to yank Leftwich early if he struggles? It’s hard to say, but Batch has a long track record of performing admirably when he’s called in from the bullpen. Still, he’s 38 years old, and the Ravens have a long track record of making life miserable for non-mobile quarterbacks.
Like Big Ben, Batch and Leftwich are still learning Todd Haley’s new offense. For some guidance as to who is grasping it better, perhaps we can look at their preseason stats.
Batch, C. 18/24, 186 yards, 1 TD, 3 sacks
Leftwich, B. 8/13, 119 yards, 3 TDs, 2 sacks
Well, that didn’t settle anything.
Batch has more recently delivered when pressed into real, regular-season action. He started last year against the Rams in Week 15 and threw for 208 yards in a win. The Steelers are 4-1 over the past two seasons without No. 7 in the lineup. Batch was the starter for three of those wins, with the other going to Dennis Dixon.
(And what ever happened to Dixon, you ask? In a move that reeks of gamesmanship, the Ravens yesterday signed Dixon to their practice squad. I would guess they will keep around until at least December 2.)
Leftwich may be the most injury-prone Steeler not named “Polamalu.” Last August was the first time since 2009 the he made it through the preseason unscathed. After taking just a few snaps on Monday night, he went down awkwardly on his head and seemed a little groggy for a short time after. It may be a mild upset if he gets through all four quarters of Sunday’s game: He hasn’t played that long since 2009.
Roethlisberger’s injury comes at a terrible time for the Steelers, who will be fighting for their playoff lives over the next handful of games. They still have no clear starting running back, and leading receiver Antonio Brown is out for at least another game. Ryan Clark may join his safety partner in street clothes. The only consolation is that the Ravens are nearly as banged up as they are.
The next few weeks will define the Steelers 2012 season, and they will have to forge ahead with two of the most accomplished and successful backup quarterbacks in the NFL. There’s no easy answer to who should play QB while Big Ben recovers, but here’s one for you, coach: Why not play them both?
Photo Credits: Associated Press