Published November 20, 2014
Ben Roethlisberger is understandably glad that his troubled offseason is behind him. He's about to find out if the Pittsburgh Steelers' fans are ready to forget about it, too.
Roethlisberger ditched the oversized SUV he normally drives and, perhaps trying to reshape his battered image, arrived at training camp on Friday in a subcompact convertible that barely held the quarterback and injured offensive lineman Willie Colon. Several other linemen also traveled from Pittsburgh in a caravan of tiny cars.
"It's good to be able to put a lot of things in the offseason behind you and move on and that's what this is about," said Roethlisberger, who is suspended for at least the first month of the season. "It's about doing that and getting ready to play football, because that's my No. 1 focus."
Even if the Steelers' No. 1 quarterback since 2004 will be No. 3 when practice starts Saturday.
While Roethlisberger can't play until Oct. 17 at the earliest, coach Mike Tomlin said Byron Leftwich will take the majority of the snaps in practice and backup Dennis Dixon will follow. Roethlisberger won't get nearly as much work as usual with the regulars, even though he will be the starter for most of the season.
"We're going to be somewhat non-rhythmic," Tomlin said. "We're going to make sure that at the end of this thing, Ben has had a productive camp. But our focus, of course, is who's going to be playing quarterback for us the week of the opener (Sept. 12 against Atlanta)."
Wide receiver Hines Ward said training camp always is about preparing for the start of the season, not worrying about what will happen well into the season. Roethlisberger was suspended for six games after being accused of, but not charged with, sexually assaulting a Georgia college student in March, but the Steelers expect NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to reduce the ban to four games before the season begins.
"He's going to be our biggest cheerleader right now," Ward said. "We, as a unit, we have to move on. We still have to see who our starting quarterback is, get our (practice) reps and go from there. Ben's still a part of this team. We've just got to hold down the ship until he gets back."
The estimated 5,000 or more fans who are expected to attend the team's first open-to-the-public practice Saturday no doubt won't be accustomed to watching Roethlisberger as a backup. Whether that affects their reception for him is uncertain.
When the sordid details of Roethlisberger's excursion to a Milledgeville, Ga., college bar with an entourage of friends were revealed by authorities, his popularity in Pittsburgh plummeted. Some angry fans shipped their children's No. 7 jerseys back to the team or burned them, and others said that while they would cheer the Steelers, they planned to boo Roethlisberger.
Training camp will provide the first indication whether the unhappy fans have softened their stance during the past 3½ months, or whether Roethlisberger must do more to win back his rooters.
Roethlisberger knows he will be booed on the road, but getting jeered at Heinz Field — in a city filled with some of the NFL's most passionate fans — undoubtedly would be unsettling.
"It's all about football right now and I'm focused on that, and winning a championship," Roethlisberger said in brief remarks to reporters. "That's what this year is about and that's what's starting (here) is about, winning a championship, That's kind if where I'm at with it."
If any of Roethlisberger's teammates remain unhappy that he's put a team that's won the Super Bowl twice in the past five seasons at a decided competitive disadvantage by getting suspended, they didn't say so.
Still, Tomlin acknowledged that no NFL team has had a training camp like this, knowing it must prepare not one but two starting quarterbacks — one for at least four games, the other for the rest of the season.
"It is irregular. It is unique," Tomlin said. "But such is life in the NFL. You're always presented with challenges to that end. We'll handle it thoughtfully, we'll communicate with all parties involved and we'll proceed."
Tomlin also said the newly acquired Flozell Adams will shift from left tackle, where he played 12 seasons with Dallas, to right tackle. Max Starks remains at left tackle, although he once played on the right side and Adams never has.
"We have an issue at one position and that's right tackle," Tomlin said. "I'm not going to make it an issue at two positions unless I have to."
No player had trouble completing the traditional camp-opening run test — including 325-pound nose tackle Casey Hampton, who couldn't finish the series of sprints in 2008.