Published April 21, 2010
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger is on his own this time.
The Pittsburgh Steelers stood behind their quarterback when he wrecked his motorcycle while riding helmet-less in 2006, tsk-tsking his immaturity yet eagerly welcoming him to training camp a month later.
Coach Mike Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert lined up with Roethlisberger last year at a news conference when he angrily denied assaulting a Nevada hotel employee. The look in their eyes said: Ben's still our guy.
Nobody is standing with Roethlisberger now.
His teammates are publicly supporting him but, of course, that's what teammates do. But if Roethlisberger anticipated one of the most image-protective franchises in pro sports treating his six-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy as routine business, he got a surprise.
The Steelers are mad. They're out of patience. They're so determined to put Roethlisberger's off-field problems behind them, they spent time Wednesday weighing whether they'd trade their two-time Super Bowl winner if they got the right offer.
If Roethlisberger's pending behavioral evaluation and the knowledge he can't play until October don't scare him straight, the Steelers reason, perhaps the thought of being traded to a last-place team will do it.
"I agree and support the decision the commissioner made, the discipline for Ben Roethlisberger," Steelers president Art Rooney II said. "I commented last week that discipline was appropriate in this case and we were prepared to impose discipline if the commissioner felt it appropriate to go that way."
If Roethlisberger wants to go on playing, Rooney said, he must do it the NFL's way. The Steelers' way, too.
Because of the terms of the suspension, the Steelers might not see Roethlisberger again until training camp. When they do see him, it's obvious they expect to see a different man, not the one who was accused by a 20-year-old college student of sexually assaulting her in a Georgia nightclub last month. He does not face charges in that case.
"I know his intent here is to follow the program the commissioner sets out, and it's our hope and expectation that's what he's going to do," Rooney said.
The decision to discipline Roethlisberger occurred the day before the NFL draft begins. Normally, it's one of the busiest days all year in the Steelers' office, but this time the rush-rush wasn't entirely because of draft preparations.
There's a new quarterback to break in, albeit a familiar one: Byron Leftwich, reacquired the night before from Tampa. A backup in 2008, he is expected to compete with Dennis Dixon to start the four games, and perhaps the six, Roethlisberger will miss.
As Leftwich walked into the Steelers' cafeteria, a half-dozen fellow players shook his hand or gave him hugs.
"He was a pretty obvious choice to bring back," Rooney said.
Rooney's dad, Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, remains in town, too. The U.S. ambassador to Ireland and one of the NFL's most influential owners has been stuck in town because of the volcanic eruption in Iceland. The Roethlisberger crisis also might have persuaded him to stick around.
What the Steelers can't quantify is what effect Roethlisberger's absence will have on a team that is one season removed from winning its second Super Bowl in four years.
"You're going to have stumbling blocks," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "You've got to be able to stay together and move through it, because if you don't, you'll have the problems later on."
There are plenty enough championship pieces remaining from that team, including 18 starters, for the Steelers to contend again. The schedule appears to be accommodating — three of the first four games, those that Roethlisberger are certain to miss, are against non-playoff teams.
The Steelers' bye week falls after their fourth game, meaning Roethlisberger might have two weeks to practice before he plays, if his suspension is reduced.
There's nothing to suggest NFL schedule makers were aware of the length of Roethlisberger's suspension in advance. Still, the first of the Steelers' five prime-time games isn't until Oct. 31, or after he would be back.
Some teammates don't doubt he will be back, either, despite the enormity of the suspension. Or the animosity that exists among a Steelers fan base that is disgusted with his behavior — to some, a quarterback sack now means throwing Roethlisberger's No. 7 jersey into a trash can.
When news of Roethlisberger's suspension was flashed on the PNC Park scoreboard during the Brewers-Pirates game Wednesday night, many fans in the crowd cheered.
"I think if Ben has shown anything, it's that he's able to recover whenever he has been faced with adversity," safety Troy Polamalu said. "Everything is not always peachy. Not everybody has that unblemished image. If he has that repentance, the way he is going to have to have it to continue to live his life, this will be the great example of that."