Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned to the Steelers Monday, received hugs from teammates and staff and dug back into what has been denied him the past month -- working at his job.
Roethlisberger finished serving his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy and went right to work.
"First off, it's good to be back here at the facility, especially with my teammates," Roethlisberger said in a six-minute news conference after usual team meetings in the afternoon. "It's good to see coaches and be around my teammates. I'm just excited to be back and get focused on football, focused on this year and try to get to Dallas."
Roethlisberger will practice for the first time today as the Steelers go through their off week with three days of workouts, then have off Friday, Saturday and Sunday. He will make his 2010 regular-season debut Oct. 17 against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field. The NFL granted a temporary roster exemption to the Steelers for Roethlisberger, although team officials were not told for how long.
His teammates kept their goal of playing in the Super Bowl in Dallas realistic by winning three of their four games without their starting quarterback, who led them to two Super Bowl victories in the previous five seasons. Dennis Dixon started at quarterback the first two games of the season, which they won. He sustained a season-ending knee injury in the second game, and 35-year-old Charlie Batch started the past two, which they split.
"I was their biggest supporter," said Roethlisberger, who was not permitted at the team's UPMC training facility, at Heinz Field or to talk football strategy with teammates or coaches during his suspension. "I was the No. 1 fan. I was rooting for them. Unfortunately, Dennis got hurt, you never like to see a guy get injured. I knew that Charlie would be able to come in and step up and do exactly what he did. That's what makes him the professional that he is. He's been playing great football, which I always knew that he could."
Roethlisberger said he worked out between 2 and 2 1/2 hours daily in the Pittsburgh area with a quarterbacks coach and receivers. He joked that he has no fingernails left from watching the Steelers' four games from home.
"I think there's a lot of great chemistry on this team right now. They're playing great football -- offense, defense, special teams -- from what I've been able to watch the games.
"I'm not coming in trying to be anything more than what I am. Just trying to be helpful, be a teammate, and do whatever I can to help this team win football games. I think they're off to a great start and I just want to come and contribute however I can to try to win football games."
Roethlisberger started three preseason games and looked as good as ever in those games and in training camp practices. He hopes to get up to speed quickly with the offense these next two weeks.
"If you look at it like that, I guess it's a good thing to have two weeks of practice to get out there," said Roethlisberger, who stood by himself at a news conference that was carried live on two television networks, ESPN News and the NFL Network. "My arm is ready; I'm not worried about my arm. I think the biggest thing is just refreshing my mind with the offense and getting the timing down with these guys. It seems Mike Wallace has gotten faster, so I have to get used to that again. But I'm just so excited to get out there tomorrow, get out on the football field."
Roethlisberger, who set a Steelers record by passing for 4,328 yards last season, was part of an NFL precedent. He was the first quarterback suspended for the first four games of the season without being charged with a crime or testing positive for any illegal substance. A college student accused Roethlisberger of sexual assault during a night of drinking in Milledgeville, Ga., that ended in the early hours of March 5. Later, she withdrew the accusations and after a lengthy investigation, Georgia authorities declined to charge Roethlisberger.
Nevertheless, after the NFL conducted its own investigation and review of what happened, commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for six games. He reduced it to four games after Roethlisberger complied with requirements that he undergo counseling and evaluation and follow a course laid out for him by Goodell.
Asked what he had learned the past four weeks, Roethlisberger replied that "I hate being away from football."
"Obviously, I love football and I miss that more than anything, but to be away from the guys, my brothers, my family, that was one of the hardest parts. That's what made coming here today so great. I think every single one of the guys came and gave me a big hug. I was just so happy to see them and I think they're happy to see me as well."
While they did win three of four games without him, they struggled mightily on offense in three games. They did not score a touchdown until overtime in a 15-9 opening win at home against Atlanta. They scored one touchdown on offense in a 19-11 victory at Tennessee. After a four-touchdown outburst on offense in a 38-13 victory at Tampa Bay, they bogged down again Sunday.
Rashard Mendenhall ran for two touchdowns but the Steelers were held to 210 total yards and could not make a first down in the final two minutes that would have sealed a victory in what became a 17-14 loss at home to Baltimore.
The Steelers have been outgained by opposing offenses, 289 yards per game to 269.5. They have been out-passed 226.8 yards per game to 133.5. The Steelers averaged 371.3 total yards last season, 259.3 yards passing with Roethlisberger starting all but one game.
"For me, getting back on the field will be the big test," Roethlisberger said. "That's what I'm most excited for, and getting back out because I think the people of Pittsburgh and Steelers fans around the world know that football is my passion and I want to get out there and show them that."
He was cordially received by fans at training camp and during two preseason games at Heinz Field, although he did not play in the first. He hopes that reception by the fans will continue Oct. 17.
"There's been a lot of very positive feedback from the fans. So I hope there's going to be some encouraging cheers and some good things."
"It's good to see coaches and be around my teammates. I'm just excited to be back and get focused on football, focused on this year ... "