Cook: Batch shows his value again

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The plan this morning was to do a tribute to Charlie Batch. The time comes to say goodbye to every player. Popular Steelers Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke were released or forced to retire during the offseason. Batch's turn could come today. It's possible -- perhaps even likely -- he will be cut when the team gets down to the 53-man limit for the season opener Sept. 9 in Denver. The Steelers could go with just two quarterbacks -- Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich -- instead of the customary three. Fourth-stringer Jerrod Johnson is expected to go on the practice squad if for no other reason than the team needs three arms to practice.

But I can't do it.

I just can't write off Batch.

There's no such thing as an ultimate survivor in a sport that outlasts everyone, but he comes awfully close.

It's just too hard to imagine that Batch put on a Steelers uniform Thursday night for the final time. He played the first half in their 17-16 exhibition win against the Carolina Panthers and looked fairly sharp. His 37-yard touchdown pass to diving wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was a beauty, settling softly into Sanders' hands between defensive backs Josh Tomas and Reggie Smith.

At 37, after 14 NFL seasons, Batch still can play.

But that doesn't mean Batch won't be released today. Roster spots always are precious, but that seems to be especially true for the Steelers this summer because they have a number of injured players who must stay on the 53-man roster but might not or will not be ready early in the season. That list includes linebackers James Harrison, Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester, running back Rashard Mendenhall and guard David DeCastro. Because of those injuries, a backup or two who normally wouldn't make the team will be on the roster for the Denver game and perhaps beyond. One of those backups might get Batch's spot.

"Honestly, I don't know what's going to happen," Batch said. "That's out of my control. All I could do was go out and show I still can play in this league and move this offense. I feel like I did that tonight, by not missing a practice in training camp and by performing when I was given the opportunity."

A new NFL rule, announced Thursday, could help Batch. Each team will be able to put one player on an eight-week injured-reserve list and have him available to play in the second half of the season. That seems like the perfect spot for DeCastro, who had knee surgery Wednesday. He wouldn't count against the Steelers' 53-man limit on that list.

Whether that spot is enough to save Batch remains to be seen. What is certain is that his circumstances won't help him. He grew up in Homestead and came home to play for the Steelers in 2002. His roots are deep here. He's done amazing work with dozens and dozens of Pittsburgh young people with his Best of Batch Foundation. If he's cut, it's unlikely he would leave to play for another team even if one wants him. "That would be hard," he said. That means Batch would be just a phone call and a short car ride away should the Steelers need him if something happens to Roethlisberger.

It wouldn't be the first time Batch bailed out the team.

In the 2005 Super Bowl season, Batch started and won midseason games against Green Bay and Cleveland when Roethlisberger was out with a knee injury. He started the 2006 opener against the Miami Dolphins because Roethlisberger had an emergency appendectomy and threw three touchdown passes in a 28-17 win, including an 87-yarder to tight end Heath Miller. But he did his best relief work early in the 2010 season after he got virtually no reps with the offense in training camp and the preseason and appeared certain to be a roster cut.

"I was the odd man out," Batch said. "You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out."

That was the season Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games by the NFL. The Steelers' plan was to go with Leftwich and Dennis Dixon -- and cut Batch -- until Roethlisberger returned. But Leftwich's left knee was sprained in the final exhibition game. Batch served as Dixon's backup in the opener against Atlanta, then took over after Dixon had a knee injury at Tennessee early in the second game. Batch led the Steelers to a 19-11 win that day, then threw three touchdown passes as the starter in a 38-13 win at Tampa Bay in the third game. He had the Steelers in position to win the fourth game at home against Baltimore after leading a 13-play, 93-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers defense couldn't protect the lead in what became a 17-14 loss.

"The consummate team player," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called Batch during that stretch.

"Just a great pro," teammate Brett Keisel said. "To see him rise up like he did just shows the character of the man."

That character never was in question.

If this is it for Batch, he will have had some career. "I have no regrets," he said. "To play 14 years in the league and to come home and play for the hometown team ... I'm living the dream."

Batch is just 5-2 as the Steelers starting quarterback, but his value to the team always has been so much greater. His relationship with Roethlisberger is outstanding. Roethlisberger often goes to him during games just to ask him what he saw on a certain play or from a certain defense.

But even if Batch is released today, it doesn't mean he won't be back. The Steelers like having three quarterbacks on the active roster and could re-sign him once their injury situation stabilizes. Or, unfortunately, something could happen to Roethlisberger, who, you might have heard, plays a physical game.

The guess here?

Batch goes today but will be back.

I just don't think we've seen the last of him.

roncook


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