Byron Is Back From The Dead

By Gerry Dulac
Updated: August 11, 2008

LATROBE, Pa. — After opening their preseason with a victory against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Steelers returned to training camp with a new quarterback, a new punter and a new nose tackle. Well, at least, a nose tackle who hasn’t been on the practice field the past two weeks.

The day began with two new quarterbacks in camp — veterans Byron Leftwich and Daunte Culpepper, each of whom passed physicals in the morning in Pittsburgh and came to Saint Vincent College afterward to work out individually for the coaching staff.

After much deliberation, the day ended with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin receiving a call on his cell phone on the practice field, telling him that Leftwich, 28, had agreed to a one-year, $645,000 contract that included a $40,000 signing bonus.

“He’s been a franchise quarterback for a playoff caliber team,” Tomlin said. “We’re fortunate to add a guy like him.”

Leftwich, a five-year starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars who spent last season with the Atlanta Falcons, was on the practice field Monday. Tomlin said he even hopes he can learn enough of the offense to play in Thursday night’s preseason game against the Buffalo Bills in Toronto.

“We have some familiarity there,” Tomlin said, noting that quarterback coach Ken Anderson was Leftwich’s position coach for three seasons with the Jaguars. “He had a great workout. He has a strong arm, he’s very lean and he’s a smart guy, a been-there, done-that guy. Hopefully we’ll have him up to snuff and have him participate as soon as Thursday night.”

The move to sign Leftwich, the seventh overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft, was necessitated when Charlie Batch, 33, broke his right collarbone on a busted play against the Eagles. Batch had surgery Monday to repair the damage and insert a plate in his clavicle. He is expected to be out six weeks.

If Batch did not have surgery, the recovery period would have been 10 to 12 weeks and he likely would have been placed on the injured reserve list.

“That would have been the option,” Batch said. “And I didn’t want to do that, not at all.”

Because he is a quarterback who relies on a throwing motion, Batch said a plate will be inserted to ensure his collarbone would remain the same length and would not “shorten” from scar-tissue buildup that occurs during a non-surgical recovery period.

He noted that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson did not have surgery when he broke his collarbone in college because he does not rely on his clavicle for a throwing motion.

“This is the best way to go about it and the fastest way,” Batch said.

To make room on the roster for Leftwich and punter Mitch Berger, who was signed to compete with Paul Ernster, the Steelers released wide receiver Gerran Walker and linebacker Anthony Trucks, two first-year free agents.

They did not have to clear room for the return of nose tackle Casey Hampton — only on the sidelines. He was taken off the physically unable to perform list and practiced for the first time since he reported to training camp 40 pounds overweight.

The Steelers decided to bring in Leftwich and Culpepper for workouts so the coaches had options on which quarterback they wanted to sign.

The choice was always Leftwich, but the process dragged through most of the day because he and his agent, Tom Condon, wanted some type of assurance of what will happen when Batch returns.

The Steelers were prepared to sign Culpepper, a former Pro Bowl quarterback and the seventh overall pick in the 1999 draft by the Minnesota Vikings, if they couldn’t come to an agreement with Leftwich.

As a vested veteran, Leftwich would have to be paid for the entire season if he is on the 53-man roster for the Sept. 7 season opener against the Houston Texans.

“We’re just going to go out and let their play talk,” Tomlin said. “We’ll evaluate based on what we see. Hopefully he goes out and plays well, and then those are good problems to have.”