LATROBE, Pa. — When he was younger, Byron Leftwich would take a quick scan down NFL rosters and start taking mental notes.
Better than that guy. And that one. And that one. That one too.
Call it youthful arrogance. Call it competitiveness. Whatever it was, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback had it in abundance.
“I would look at guys all over the league and I felt that I was truly better than them, guys that had starting jobs,” Leftwich said.
Lately, however, Leftwich has given up the practice. Go more than five years without winning a start and spend the last two sidelined by injuries like Leftwich has and you stop worrying about where you rank in the pecking order.
Oh, the 32-year-old still believes he can be effective at the top of the depth chart. He’s just not willing to give up a good gig to get it.
“If I get an opportunity to go and start somewhere one day, it’ll be great,” Leftwich said. “But at the same time I love knowing that if I do get a chance to play, I’m going to have a chance to be successful. That’s where I’m at in my career.”
A career that is a far cry from the one he envisioned coming out of Marshall nine years ago. The burly 6-foot-5, 245-pound Leftwich earned a starting spot right away in Jacksonville and appeared ready to become one of the league’s young guns along with Ben Roethlisberger.
It never happened. While Roethlisberger developed into a star, winning a pair of Super Bowl trophies and taking the Steelers to another, Leftwich’s career fizzled. The player who passed for at least 2,100 yards in each of his first three seasons has managed just 1,218 combined over his last five. He hasn’t won a game as a starter since October, 2006 even though his right arm remains one of the strongest in the NFL.
He’s not angry or bitter. Not anymore. There are worse jobs in the world than being the primary backup on a team with Super Bowl aspirations every year. Could he go somewhere else and try to help a rebuilding club get its footing? Probably. He’s not particularly interested at the moment.
“Look at the players around you,” he said. “There’s never been a good quarterback in this league with bad players around him. If you’ve got playmakers all over the field like we do, you’re going to be successful. I’ve just got to make sure I’m healthy and ready if called upon.”
And, for the first time in awhile, Leftwich insists he’s healthy. He missed all of 2011 when he broke his left arm while diving for yardage in an exhibition game last summer. The injury came on the heels of a knee injury he suffered in the final preseason game against Carolina in 2010 that prevented him from filling in while Roethlisberger served a four-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
He’s thrown all of seven passes in two years, though he looked like his usual steady self in a 24-23 loss to Philadelphia in the preseason opener last week.
Leftwich completed 3 of 5 passes for just 14 yards, one of them a 2-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders.
More significant — for both Leftwich and the Steelers (No. 7 in the AP Pro32) — was the shot to the head he absorbed from Philadelphia defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie late in the first quarter. Leftwich was scrambling out of danger when he flipped the ball away just before Rodgers-Cromartie launched himself skyward.
“It looked worse than it did,” Leftwich said. “It was a DB. I’d rather it be a DB rather than a lineman or a linebacker. I’m a pretty big guy myself. I feel like I can hold my own with certain types of things. To me that wasn’t that big a hit.”
Maybe, but the fact he took it and bounced back was the final step in a process that let Leftwich know he’s back and ready if Roethlisberger runs into health trouble. Roethlisberger missed one start last season with an ankle injury and was limited in several others. The now 30-year-old quarterback is dealing with a slightly torn right rotator cuff and a bruised ankle after a teammate ste pped on it during practice over the weekend.
Leftwich however knows it will take more than a bruise to keep Roethlisberger — whose tolerance for playing through pain is well-documented — off the field. If it happens, though, he’s ready.
“Injuries that come with the position,” Leftwich said. “Unfortunately for me it came back to back. I prepare myself the same way and just hope for the best.”
Leftwich expects to get extended playing time on Sunday against Indianapolis and believes he and Roethlisberger are starting to get a handle on new offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s versatile attack.
“It’s like learning a new language,” he said. “We’ve got the basics down now we need to see where we can go with it.”
NOTES: Steelers rookie linebacker Sean Spence tweaked his right ankle on Wednesday. Coach Mike Tomlin said he expects Spence to miss a couple days of practice … Running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are limited by leg injuries and their status for Sunday’s game is uncertain. Redman said he’s dealing with a groin problem and said he may need an MRI, though that was news to Tomli n.