Ron Cook: It's clear -- Tomlin has mishandled Steelers QBs

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Steelers coach Mike Tomlin likes to use fancy words. This summer, "clarity" has been a popular choice for him, as in, "We're striving to find clarity with our quarterback position." There's only one problem. Tomlin doesn't appear to understand what the word means.

"We still don't know who's going to be our starting quarterback," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said Sunday night.

Nor do the rest of us.

There's only one fancy word that applies here: Ambiguity.

Shame on Tomlin. The way he handled his quarterbacks Sunday night against the Denver Broncos added to the confusion. He started Ben Roethlisberger and played him for a quarter even though he will miss at least the first four regular-season games because of his NFL-mandated suspension. He traded a seventh-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April for Byron Leftwich and gave him a one-year contract extension through 2011 with the intent of Leftwich being the starter in Roethlisberger's absence. Yet, he didn't play him against the Broncos until the third quarter and then with the second- and third-stringers, who were overrun by Broncos pass rushers and nearly got Leftwich killed. He gave Dennis Dixon way too many snaps with the first team even though he wouldn't have traded for Leftwich if he had any faith that Dixon could be the replacement starter for Roethlisberger.

Clarity?

What clarity?

Roethlisberger shouldn't have played against the Broncos. The snaps he took in that game don't figure to help him much when he comes back from his suspension, presumably for the home game against the Cleveland Browns Oct. 17. He's a franchise quarterback -- a two-time Super Bowl winner -- and is well on his way to being one of the best in NFL history. He had a marvelous training camp and looked good in the two exhibition games in which he played. He should be just fine after getting two weeks of practice before the game against the Browns.

Leftwich should have started and played the first half against the Broncos. He needed the work. He played just four series in the first exhibition game against the Detroit Lions, then three in the second game against the New York Giants. Putting him in with the reserves in the second half in Denver did nothing to get him ready for the opening game against the Atlanta Falcons Sept. 12. He's lucky he wasn't injured. He took a frightful beating behind that second-team line. At least Tomlin did something right that night, getting Leftwich out of the game fairly quickly. Give him credit for that.

Dixon showed against the Broncos that he's not quite ready to be the Steelers' starter. "He didn't play well," Tomlin conceded after Dixon was intercepted twice, one in the Broncos' end zone, the other returned 77 yards for a touchdown. It's OK to put in a package of plays for Dixon to take advantage of his mobility and use him as a change-of-pace quarterback in the first four games. But he can't be the man.

That has to be Leftwich. His experience will be more important to the Steelers in those first four games than Dixon's potential. He doesn't have to win the games, just not lose them. He is far less likely to make the big mistakes than Dixon.

It's a shame that Tomlin didn't do a better job of getting Leftwich ready.

It's too late now to worry about it. The first-stringers aren't expected to play much in the final exhibition game against the Carolina Panthers Thursday night at Heinz Field. Although Tomlin didn't reveal his plans for his quarterbacks when he met with the media Monday, there have been reports that Roethlisberger will start, presumably to get his first appearance in front of the home crowd since his night in Milledgeville, Ga., out of the way and to show everyone, at least symbolically, that he's still the Steelers' guy. That won't leave much time for Leftwich to play with the first team. A good guess is he hardly will play at all -- better, at this point, to keep him healthy for the Falcons.

Good luck to Leftwich being sharp in that opening game.

Blame Roethlisberger for this mess. That's fair. He put the Steelers in a terrible hole by getting himself in the jackpot in that college bar in Georgia.

But blame Tomlin, as well. So far, his search for quarterback clarity has failed miserably.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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