The Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 12 loss to the Cleveland Browns can be blamed on a lot of things—those eight turnovers, with a fumble apiece for each of the team's running backs, and three interceptions thrown by third-string quarterback Charlie Batch, for one—but the real fault can actually be traced back to the spring and the team's decision-making when it comes to their quarterback position.
Rare is the season in which starter Ben Roethlisberger can complete all 16 games. His style of play—combined with some shaky offensive lines over the years—have directly resulted in shoulder, hand, foot, ankle, head and knee injuries during his tenure under center, with his most recent being a rib and shoulder injury that was potentially life-threatening and has caused him to miss the last two games.
Despite this being a recurrent pattern during Roethlisberger's tenure in Pittsburgh, the Steelers chose to virtually not address their depth at the position this offseason.
With both Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch headed into free agency during the offseason and the Steelers in a strained situation regarding the salary cap, it seemed like an inevitability that one would be let go, while free agent acquisition Jerrod Johnson or perhaps a draft pick would hold the No. 3 spot and be potentially developed into a serviceable successor to Roethlisberger.
Not so, however; though Johnson stuck around for a while, he was regarded as a practice squad candidate at best, and the Steelers chose to retain the services of both the injury-prone Leftwich (as Roethlisberger's primary backup) as well as the 37-year-old Batch. Once the regular season began, they cut ties with Johnson (who is now in the UFL) and put their full faith in their trio of 30-plus year old passers.
It's not as though the Steelers needed (or could find) a player of Roethlisberger's caliber to be his backup, and there is a benefit to the familiarity that both Leftwich and Batch had with the staff and locker room, but the switch in offensive coordinators from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley gave the Steelers a perfect opportunity to alter their philosophy when it comes to the quarterback position.
The Steelers were looking to the future when they hired Haley, seeing that the game had changed while their offense hadn't evolved in kind, and it would have helped them to also evolve how they handled Roethlisberger's backup. Both Batch and Leftwich had to learn the new system, so it wouldn't have made too much of a difference if they had brought in someone younger to be a legitimate option should Roethlisberger again get hurt. Instead, they dropped the ball.
It's possible the Steelers had only one quarterback in mind if they had wanted to go younger—Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, with whom head coach Mike Tomlin had a pre-draft dinner—and they didn't see any other option out there when Cousins was surprisingly snagged by the Washington Redskins in the fourth round after they sold the farm to draft Robert Griffin III second overall.
The Steelers actually facilitated the Redskins picking up Cousins, trading up with the team in the fourth round to pick up nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu, who currently sits on the practice squad and could be jobless once the legal process plays out on his drunk driving arrest. The pick would have much better been used on Cousins, and they could have done it.
Other options did exist, however, starting with the draft. Think of Ryan Lindley—the sixth-round Arizona Cardinals pickup is now their current starter, and though that's a less-than-ideal situation for both Lindley and Arizona, he proved good enough to be thrust into that role with the season well underway. The Steelers could have made a play for him. They could have also been a bit more aggressive in free agency.
In response to Leftwich's Week 11 rib injury, the Steelers picked up Brian Hoyer to serve as their backup to Batch. Hoyer, most recently of the New England Patriots, was thought to be a fairly hot free agent commodity, and though that didn't come to pass, the Steelers could have gotten a bargain on him prior to the start of minicamp. They would have been able to integrate him into their offensive system earlier on, giving him a real opportunity to compete with Batch for the No. 3 job and potentially putting the Steelers in a better situation than they are at present.
There's no advantage, really, in having a nearly 38-year-old third-string quarterback. The third-string job should be for young players who are a project worth developing, but somewhere along the way the Steelers forgot that this is a business. Batch is a leader in the Steelers locker room, in the Pittsburgh community and is highly respected by the franchise, but that shouldn't get in the way of building depth at the quarterback position in a way that helps the Steelers rather than harms them.
Batch is a liability, plain and simple, just as Leftwich is. It's understandable for the Steelers to choose to keep one of them, but both of them? It might just be the worst decision of the Tomlin era. The Steelers now sit at a crossroads at the quarterback position, and it's one that could have been avoided. Roethlisberger is clearly the team's most important player, but considering his injury history, his backups should be seen as nearly equally as vital to the Steelers' success.
Just as it's foolish for the Steelers to rush Roethlisberger back for their Week 13 meeting against the Baltimore Ravens—even with a win, the Steelers aren't going to leapfrog them in the division —and it puts Roethlisberger under unnecessary risk regardless of how badly he wants to play). It's foolish to put Hoyer in instead of Batch. But if the Steelers would have drafted a younger quarterback in April, or picked up Hoyer (or any other player) in free agency earlier on, they wouldn't be in this present unfortunate position.
Hopefully, the events over the last three games sends a wake-up call to the Steelers' coaching staff and front office that the backup quarterback position can no longer be an afterthought. It's the most-glaring mistake the team has made over the past 10 months and in the next six, fixing it needs to be a high priority. They cannot just sit back and hope that Roethlisberger can stay healthy for a full 16 games and leave it at that—this is a lesson they've learned, painfully, in their past two losses.
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