PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger's first big gain of the season may occur weeks before he returns to the field.
His six-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy likely will be shortened to four games by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after the two meet in New York on Friday. The meeting will take place about 12 hours after the quarterback played two series in the Steelers' final preseason game, completing 4 of 6 passes for 39 yards against the Carolina Panthers in Pittsburgh.
The league plans to review Roethlisberger's behavior since he was accused of sexually assaulting a Georgia college student following a night of drinking in a Milledgeville, Ga., bar on March 5. Once it was determined six weeks later that Roethlisberger would not be charged by Georgia authorities, Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for the start of the season and ordered him to undergo an extensive evaluation.
If Roethlisberger followed the league's guidelines and stayed out of trouble, Goodell said he would consider cutting the suspension to four games. While Roethlisberger is likely to contend that his conduct has been exemplary and the penalty should be cut even further, perhaps to three games, NFL officials have emphasized that Goodell's initial ruling specified a punishment of at least four games.
Steelers president Art Rooney II is expected to accompany Roethlisberger to the meeting. Goodell's ruling was made in consultation with Rooney and the Steelers, who were angered by the two-time Super Bowl quarterback's behavior and would have punished him if the league hadn't.
Goodell's office has kept in frequent contact with the Steelers' ownership and is expected to announce shortly after the meeting whether the suspension will be shortened.
Roethlisberger was encouraged last month when Goodell said he was going "above and beyond" what the league asked him. The quarterback spent considerable time during training camp interacting with fans, working at charitable and youth functions and appearing at children's hospitals.
"I'm very encouraged by what he's doing," Goodell said at Steelers training camp Aug. 5. "He hasn't just done what he's been told to do, I think he's worked hard to really try to improve and focus on himself and understand what he's been through and what he's going to do differently going forward. I think that's a very positive thing."
Asked what the league still needs to see, Goodell said, "He's got to work through the program that's designed for him to help him. A lot of that is confidential, but he's done it and he's done it with enthusiasm. I think that's a good thing."
Steelers teammate Hines Ward said Goodell will quickly realize he's seeing a much different Roethlisberger from the one he did a few months ago. Roethlisberger has acknowledged getting caught up in the "Big Ben" persona of an entitled pro athlete who felt society owed him favors for being a sports celebrity.
"For many years, people didn't know what was really going on with Ben," Ward said. "He's opening up to guys, he's being more personal. I think he really understands the situation. He's definitely working on it. He knows you can't take football and all the things you've been blessed with for granted."
Steelers fans appear to have moved on, as illustrated during training camp when hundreds lined up to pose for pictures with him or get Roethlisberger's autograph.
There was no apparent reaction when Roethlisberger took the field for the first time on Thursday, his first game action in Pittsburgh since the March incident. The Steelers went three-and-out during his first series, and he led a field goal drive on the second before leaving.
Roethlisberger is the first player suspended by Goodell under the personal conduct policy who was not arrested, charged with or convicted of a crime. However, Goodell said in April the policy allows him to impose such a penalty when the NFL's integrity and reputation are at stake.
For now, the quarterback is not eligible to play again until Oct. 31 at New Orleans. But he could be back by the Oct. 17 home game against Cleveland if the punishment is cut to four games. The Steelers' bye occurs the previous week, so Roethlisberger would have two weeks of practice going into that game.
Roethlisberger cannot practice once his suspension begins Friday. He plans to work with a California-based quarterbacks coach, George Whitfield, and he'll throw to some free-agent receivers who are looking for work in the league.
Roethlisberger also is being sued in Nevada by a woman who says he sexually assaulted her there in 2008. No charges were brought in that case, and it did not figure in the NFL's suspension.
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York contributed to this story.