Steelers camp report: Leftwich ready to lead offense

by | National Columnist

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LATROBE, Pa. -- Practice ends and Byron Leftwich sees a familiar face.

"How does it feel to be in football paradise?" he says.

Leftwich is the lightest he has ever been, the happiest he has ever been, and the most complete man he has ever been. He'll likely start the season as the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers some 6½ months after he became a father.

Dominic Leftwich waits for his father in a stroller at one end of the practice field. Leftwich joins him and soon a group of Steelers players gather around the Leftwich family. Everyone takes a turn holding Dominic. Dad beams.

"I've been in this league a long time now," the eighth-year player says. "This is the first place where you feel like family. This is where I want to spend the rest of my career. That's what I mean by football paradise. This is football paradise. There is no B.S. here like other places. People tell you the truth here. They don't lie to you. I don't ever want to leave."

And by "other places" Leftwich means the team that drafted him, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who released him in 2006.

"The Jaguars really f----- up that situation," he said. "We had a good group of players and the team let them all go. They let us all go. If they had been more patient, we could've done big things in Jacksonville."

Leftwich steals a deep breath and takes in the scene. Next to him is his son but all around him is his new baby: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Publicly, the Steelers maintain Dennis Dixon could win the starting quarterback job as the team waits for Ben Roethlisberger to serve his minimum four-game suspension for being a grotesque cad.

Privately is a different matter. The Steelers like Dixon's raw abilities but don't think he's ready to start (Dixon still has major problems picking up the blitz). Barring some sort of dramatic turn, the starting job is Leftwich's to lose.

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In effect, the Steelers now belong to Leftwich, who is a castoff from Jacksonville, Atlanta and Tampa Bay yet was always someone who deserved better.

Leftwich might be the player most critical to the Steelers' season. If Leftwich wins the job and can weather a tough season-opening stretch that includes games against Atlanta, Tennessee and Baltimore, the Steelers have a solid chance to make the postseason. If Leftwich implodes, the season could be a terrific struggle.

"My job is to be ready," he said. "I want to win games and it doesn't matter if I play one game or 16 games. I need to be ready."

Yet some of this must feel strange to Leftwich. When he was in Jacksonville, the city became legitimately divided about who should start -- Leftwich or David Garrard.

Now, there is some groundswell among the fan base for Dixon to start in Roethlisberger's absence. The coaching staff hasn't discouraged such thinking either and -- like with Garrard -- the mobility of Dixon is being used as a counter to Leftwich's rooted pocket presence.

But this is a different Leftwich from the one who played in Jacksonville. Leftwich makes better decisions and has more weapons in Pittsburgh than he ever did with the Jaguars.

Maybe for the first time in Leftwich's career, he's in a situation where he has a genuine chance to succeed.

One certainty is that Leftwich has become of the most respected players in the Steelers locker room. The chat with Leftwich is constantly interrupted by teammates simply wanting to say hello to Leftwich and his son.

Whether that translates into wins is another matter but it's a start.

One of the Steelers' assistants comes by. "Great practice," he says, "I see that rocket arm."

Leftwich lifts the arm of his son and says, "He's going to be throwing those out routes soon, coach."

"Yeah man," Leftwich says, "paradise."


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