Is Dennis Dixon Ready To Be a Strong Backup?

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Is Dennis Dixon Ready To Be a Strong Backup?
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

I know where I 'm going to be on Sept. 10.  My room is reserved at my favorite hotel in Pittsburgh. Each warm, summer day is one day closer to watching the Steelers handle the Terrible Towel-trashing Tennessee Titans this autumn.  

I attended the season opener last year.  The overcast clouds formed a steel-blue ceiling high above Heinz Field.  The color saturated atmosphere glowed in such a way that I can spot a photo from that game, even without a Houston Texan in the frame.  It was gorgeous.  

Even more memorable was the way that the Steelers burst out of the gate and into the 2008 season.  With the exception of Mario Williams driving Roethlisberger shoulder-first into the ground, I had a picture perfect day.

Sept. 7, 2008, I made the decision to return to Pittsburgh to watch the season opener every year I am able.  What caught me by surprise this year was how truly excited I am for the 2009 preseason.

A plentiful number of football-starved fans will tune into the MNF preseason premier to watch the Steelers play the Cards.  The Super Bowl rematch will bring a first-rate story line to a "meaningless" game watched in past years mainly by faithful throngs of die-hard fans. 

I think that the preseason opener will live up to its hype, but I am equally excited to watch the Steelers face the 'Skins, Bills, and Panthers.

Incentive to watch the Steelers in the preseason comes from the opportunity to get a look at some of our rookies and to check in on the development of various second-year players.

There is no guy whom I want to see more than Dennis Dixon.  

With the departure of Byron Leftwich soon after the end of last season, and Batch starting to feel more like an assistant QB coach than a second-string backup, I am eager to see what Dixon has to offer.

When he was a quarterback at Oregon, Dixon showed a brilliance that deemed him worthy of Heisman buzz early in the 2007 season.  His dream was grounded when he tore his ACL in a game against Arizona.

Dixon's productivity as a starting QB in college ran the gamut, ranging from generously gifted to indecisive and immature.  

Dixon's career as a starter at Oregon began at the outset of his junior year in 2006. He started strong, leading his team to a praiseworthy 4-0 start.  A notable performance for Dixon among these games was when he lead his team to a 34-33 comeback over the Oklahoma Sooners.

Then everything fell apart.  

After defeating Arizona State, Dixon had a horrific performance against Cal.  The Bears schemed the slaughter by blitzing Dixon aggressively.  Dixon's tendency to lock on to a favorite receiver and hold onto the ball was exploited with devastating results.   Confusion reigned and Dixon lost his effectiveness, throwing three picks and sustaining two sacks.

The rest is history. The Ducks' defense and special teams also factored in to the shellacking, and the Ducks lost in a blow-out 45-24 loss.

The humiliating loss was to factor into Dixon throwing 11 picks in seven games, four of those ending in losses.  After the dismal performance, Dixon found himself sitting on the bench, watching Brady Leaf for the rest of the '06 season.

Another problem was that since he was a gifted, all-around athlete, Dixon dabbled in minor league baseball. Instead of increasing his career options, baseball decreased Dixon's focus on football, which held his best professional opportunity. 

When he regained his starter job in '07, under the guidance of a new offensive coordinator, the weaknesses he had displayed against Cal looked to be a thing of the past. Baseball was in his rear-view mirror, and he was looking ahead to his career in football.

Targeting one goal paid off for Dixon.

The second game of the season earned him Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week and USA Today National Player of the Week distinctions after he threw for three TDs and ran for another against Michigan.

In the Ducks' fifth game, revenge against Cal for the previous year's debacle looked almost certain when Dixon lead his team down the field, only to have his running back fumble the ball in the end zone in the closing seconds of the Ducks' first loss of the season.

The team rebounded, and Dixon continued to improve.  Dixon's performance showed the decisiveness he had lacked the previous year. Dixon was distributing the ball to more receivers, reading the field, and building his skills.  He was catching the attention of people who deemed him worthy to compete for the prestigious Heisman Trophy.

After defeating USC, while the Ducks were ranked second in the nation, Dixon appeared to be accelerating toward his goal.  

It was not to be. In a game against Arizona State, he kept the ball on an option.  The result of the play was an 11-yard gain ending with Dixon being brought down with a tackle around his legs.

Tests later revealed that Dennis had a 3/4 tear in his ACL.  He decided to wear a brace and soldier bravely through the remainder of his stellar season.  He had encountered adversity before and prevailed.  He rolled the dice.

In the next game against Arizona, sometime after running for a 39-yard touchdown, Dixon planted his leg wrong, and his knee buckled. He was out for the season.

Yet, the determination displayed by this young quarterback in the face of difficult situations continued though his Heisman dreams had dissolved.  

Instead of abdicating his march toward a career in the NFL, Dixon turned a website designed to promote his Heisman candidacy into a tool to be used for prospective NFL teams to keep tabs on his progress through rehabilitation. 

The insufficiency of a cohesive body of work in college coupled with the severity of the injury he sustained in college had Dixon fall to the fifth round, where he was selected 156th overall by the Steelers.

So here we are.  As the third-string quarterback, Dixon was inactive for the majority of last season.

On Dec. 28, 2008, against Cleveland in Heinz Field, Dixon completed his first NFL pass to Hines Ward, which incidentally was Ward's 800th career reception.

It sounds like an auspicious start for the young quarterback.  Unfortunately, as his performance in college demonstrates, it is hard to guess what we may see.

In college, Dixon's time on the bench coalesced with the guidance of the right offensive coordinator and he was able to rebound from a dismal season with staggering results. 

I know I am joined by many in hoping that The Steelers drafted a quarterback that builds on the success of the Dennis Dixon of the 2008 season at Oregon.

Many questions will remain unanswered until either Batch or Dixon is named the back-up quarterback for the Steelers.  If it turns out to be Dixon, we could have a very special talent in the No. 2 quarterback position.

I, for one, am awaiting the preseason with anticipation.  What will Dennis Dixon show us this August?  I hope the sweltering days of the preseason reveal that when the Steelers picked him, they got a scorcher of a versatile talent.  

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