PITTSBURGH (AP) — Wide receiver Hines Ward said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's six-game suspension is disappointing but justified, and it could leave the Pittsburgh Steelers in a precarious position when the season begins.
Because the Steelers already know Roethlisberger can't return until October, Ward said it's a cause for concern on a team that considers itself of Super Bowl quality despite missing the playoffs last season.
"I don't know how the season's going to go. That's what is uneasy, the uncertainty," Ward said Friday. "As of now we don't have a starting quarterback. It's kind of like quarterback by committee, and so the uncertainty of that issue plays on a lot of guys' minds. You don't know who your starting quarterback is."
Roethlisberger was suspended last week for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, a punishment resulting from a March 3 incident in which he was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in a Milledgeville, Ga., nightclub. He was not charged.
Ward wouldn't apologize for his teammate's actions, saying, "I think the suspension is justified — it is what it is. ... Is it disappointing? Yes."
Still, Ward believes Roethlisberger will quickly win back his teammates' confidence and respect once he returns. What worries Ward is what the Steelers will do without one of the NFL's proven big-game quarterbacks, even if it's for only a quarter of the season.
Roethlisberger is certain to miss games against the Falcons, Titans, Buccaneers and Ravens, and could sit out against the Browns and Dolphins. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could shorten the suspension to four games once Roethlisberger undergoes a league-mandated behavioral evaluation and any treatment that results from it.
"Life's all about trials and tribulations," Ward said as the Steelers began their mandatory three-day minicamp without Roethlisberger. "Everyone on this team has been through adversity at one period of time and that's what's so special about football. This is the one place you can come and get away from your problems, kind of leave all of that baggage at home. We'll welcome him with open arms. He's still our quarterback and he doesn't have to win over anybody."
Coach Mike Tomlin moved quickly to settle the who's-the-quarterback-for-now debate by inserting the newly returned Byron Leftwich with the starters. Dennis Dixon, who has started only one NFL game, ran with the second unit, and longtime backup Charlie Batch was next in line.
Dixon doesn't believe Tomlin will rotate the quarterbacks, even though the season doesn't begin for more than four months.
Leftwich was a backup when the Steelers won the Super Bowl during the 2008 season. He was reacquired in a trade with Tampa Bay week, hours after the Roethlisberger suspension was announced, and quickly signed a one-year extension through 2011.
Another question: How will Roethlisberger play once he returns from so long a layoff? Defensive lineman Casey Hampton is convinced the two-time Super Bowl winner won't have trouble finding his rhythm.
Despite being suspended, Roethlisberger can practice during training camp and play in preseason games once he passes the behavioral evaluation.
"I definitely know that if he comes in in shape and does what he's supposed he'll do, he'll win games for us. It's not a big deal," Hampton said. "I know Ben isn't a bad guy, he just made some mistakes."
Safety Troy Polamalu declined to answer when asked if Roethlisberger let his teammates down by getting into trouble, but also predicted the quarterback's comeback will be successful.
"I think there's a lot of great examples of guys that are really good guys, like Tom Brady, but there also are examples of what Ben is going to be able to do — to show how much he can turn his life around," Polamalu said. "He's going through a tough time by not being here."
In another sign of how unhappy Tomlin was with the Steelers' 9-7 record last season, he reinserted cornerback Bryant McFadden with the regulars ahead of returning starter William Gay. McFadden returned to Pittsburgh in a trade on Saturday after spending one season with Arizona.