Who is the second-best quarterback? It's controversial

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During what seemed like the fifth hour of Steelers-Lions the other night, while practicing the low art of deadline columnizing, I somehow allowed some information from the press box intercom to puncture my concentration.

Dennis Dixon's statistics for the evening had been compiled and, apparently, I was being alerted that the Steelers' third-string quarterback had completed six of seven passes for 128 yards and a touchdown, had run six times for 31 yards, and had a perfect passer rating of 158.3, or is it 153.8?

No matter, because the stats were still hanging in midair when I thought, "And off we go."

Quarterback controversy?

No, much too passe for this audience. This is Pittsburgh baby. Only in Pittsburgh could you have a backup quarterback controversy.

In the preseason.

After one game.

Let's not just dismiss an honored dramatic form though. Quarterback controversies have been part of this town since the invention of the incomplete pass. Pick your reference point -- Bradshaw or Gilliam, Malone or Woodley, Brister or O'Donnell, Tomczak or Stewart, Stewart or Maddox, Hohensee or Folmar.

Yes, even the Pittsburgh Gladiators had a quarterback controversy, and I remember being convinced and vociferous that Brendan Folmar was a better passer than Mike Hohensee on Hohensee's best day. Either that or the other way. But that's the way you do it. You pick your guy and you berate the other guy.

By Monday afternoon, not only was Byron Leftwich getting torched for his pedestrian 6-for-10 effort, but he was being described on the radio as grumpy. Wait, grumpy is a deal-breaker on who the starter is while No. 7 is away? Worse than that, it's not true. Leftwich is always pleasant and cooperative, sometimes even funny.

"I tell people," he's said on more than one occasion, "I'm not the slowest quarterback in the NFL; I'm just the slowest black quarterback in the NFL."

That's only not funny when he's standing behind the Steelers' starting offensive line, which will apparently need every one of the 26 days remaining before the season opener against Atlanta to coax itself into competence. But the more relative reservations regarding Leftwich remain that he hasn't won a single game as a starter in this league since Oct. 8, 2006, and that in three starts last year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he couldn't push the offense within 12 points of Dallas, the Giants, or Buffalo.

Yeah, Buffalo.

In 49 career starts, Leftwich is 24-25.

Dixon's resume is somehow considered more appealing, which would be at best curious if a resume actually existed. Five years younger and 40 pounds lighter than Leftwich, Dixon started one game in his two Steelers seasons, and lost that one when his 26th pass (12 of them complete) went straight to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger, who returned it 26 yards to set up the winning field goal.

The basic difference as of last weekend was that Dixon likes to run, which means he's going to get hurt, while Leftwich likes to stand in the pocket, which means he's going to get hurt.

You might also note that they are both Capricorns, because that's just about as relevant as any conclusions that can be drawn from Week 1 of the preseason.

But when Dixon ran for a 5.2 average Saturday night and hit Arnaz Battle with a 51-yard pass, ignited two touchdown drives and put up that perfect passer rating, that made him, of course, Steve Young.

Just like when Isaac Redman ripped off a 31-yard run in the second quarter, piled up 60 yards on 15 carries and pulled in a couple of passes for another 17 yards. That made him, of course, Jim Brown.

Just like when Antonio Brown took a short Dixon pass 68 yards to the end zone in the second half. That made him, of course, Jerry Rice.

These are standard preseason reactions, particularly among a fan base that has gone queasy over the extended absence of the franchise quarterback. Against that backdrop, it's probably poor form to point out that all of these nice individual accomplishments were executed against the Lions, who are dragging around an aura that suggests they haven't won since they opened at Christians back back back in the day.

But not much relief will come the Steelers' way this weekend, when Ben Roethlisberger finally makes an appearance somewhere on the other side of the coin toss. The Bruce Arians offense will still go into that third preseason game at Denver with significant problems, so I guess if there was ever a time when a backup, preseason quarterback controversy can be anything but a trivial pursuit, this is it.

For the moment then, I'm on the Dixon wagon. He's a tremendous athlete, having been drafted by the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves prior to the Steelers taking him, and his mobility might be better suited to the continuing O-line hijinks.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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