NFL: Steelers' Roethlisberger back — but for how long?
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger will line up under center, take the snap and throw his first pass to a teammate since the Steelers ended the season Jan. 3.
There won't be any applause.
There likely won't be much reaction from his teammates, who have seen the highest-paid player in franchise history go through this routine countless times in games and practices since 2004.
There will be countless questions.
For the Steelers, the most pressing is this: Who will be taking snaps in September?
The Steelers return to the practice field Monday for the first time since their 9-7 record wasn't good enough to get them into the playoffs. Roethlisberger is expected to be among them, one week to the day since prosecutors decided not to charge him after a college student accused him of sexual assault.
While there won't be a criminal proceeding that could have disrupted the Steelers before, during or after the season, the fallout from Roethlisberger's latest off-the-field problem and its impact on a team that regularly contends for championships could be long-lasting.
First, Roethlisberger must try to win back his teammates' support — something team president Art Rooney II said probably can't be achieved in a day, a week or a month.
It's not just ownership that is running out of patience with an athlete who can't seem to dodge missteps, the very player — the high-priced quarterback and proven winner — who is most expected to be a leader.
"He's going to have to work very hard to rehabilitate his image," Rooney said. "There's no question that it's taken a hit and we've told him it's going to be a long journey back and he's going to have to be up to meeting the challenge."
Second, it is very likely Roethlisberger won't line up under center when the Steelers open the season. The question is whether he will be suspended by the NFL for four games, two games or one. Or if there will be counseling and rehabilitation involved. The punishment is likely to be determined by commissioner Roger Goodell next week, following this week's three-day draft.
By waiting for the NFL to work out a penalty for violating the league's personal conduct policy that is acceptable to the team, the options for appeal are far more limited than if the Steelers had acted themselves.
"There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle that probably prevent us from moving ahead on our own at this point," Rooney said.
No matter how many games Roethlisberger is out, the Steelers must prepare someone else to take his place — third-year quarterback Dennis Dixon, who has started only one game, or longtime backup Charlie Batch. That means more practice time for someone other than Roethlisberger and an altered routine during training camp.
"We don't necessarily have a backup plan at this time," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We'll let the process run its course and kind of make decisions from there."
If Roethlisberger is suspended, the Steelers would have to get him back to game speed quickly once he returned, and with a season already under way. That could mean longer in-season practices devoted to Roethlisberger getting the work he needs to be game-ready.
There is likely to be resentment in the locker room, too, whether it's stated or not, from teammates who are simply worn out with the Roethlisberger-created disruptions. This is the third time in four years it's happened, and even the most patient of players must be wondering when they will stop.
In 2006, Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle four months after winning the Super Bowl, and the Steelers subsequently missed the playoffs. Last year, he was accused of sexual assault in Nevada not long before training camp began — and, again, the Steelers missed the playoffs the season after winning the Super Bowl. That suit remains unresolved.
That's a pattern that Rooney hinted the Steelers can no longer follow.
"I don't want to get into hypotheticals about what we might do next," Rooney said. "The most important thing is that Ben stays committed to doing what he has to do to uphold his end of the bargain."
It starts Monday. When it ends, the Steelers can only begin to guess.