August 19, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Jerrod Johnson (8) looks to pass downfield against the Indianapolis Colts during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 26-24. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
The more sensible side of me says that I should just leave this alone. The issue is largely settled now and will probably just go away in a couple of days. But as a community I believe we would be better off if we talked this out, otherwise it'll just come up again.
When people make the case for JJ they mention that he is a great athlete, a Heisman candidate who got sidetracked by an injury. There was something familiar about that description and it took me a while to figure it out.
As far as I know, nobody is pining for the return of Dixon, though I think he is 'on the couch' at the moment. Please don't get me wrong, I am not in any way arguing in favor (or against) Dixon, just trying to make a point about what is the core argument surrounding the now thwarted love affair with Johnson; namely, our alleged need to train a replacement for Ben and instigate a youth movement at quarterback.
I believe the sentiment, insofar as it accurately reflects what people actually think is sound. (for others the reasons are probably less defensible and they are wise to not be as forthcoming about what they really think) The problem is that at the very least the timing is bad. Let me try to make the case for why.
It is simply too early for that. There is some understandable confusion in regard to the performance potential for quarterbacks and this is different generally than for most other positions on a team. There is something of a consensus that Ben is in the prime of his career (9th year) and that most likely he has, barring some catastrophic injury, a good five years left performing at the highest level and who knows how much longer operating at a reduced, but still highly effective way. Considering that Tom Brady is in his13th season, Drew Brees in his 12th and Peyton Manning in his 15th, and there is no discussion that I'm aware of that it is time to think about putting these players out to pasture now or in the foreseeable future. Indeed, Manning and Brees have signed multi-year contracts this year. By contrast, Charlie Batch is entering his 15th season, and the argument has been that he has been too old for at least five years. Byron Leftwich is in his 10th, and in some quarters he's too old too.
To be sure, on average the shelf life of a professional football player is short, under five years. But this can be somewhat misleading in the manner that statistics can often be misleading. Additionally, different positions have different demands. Quarterbacks and kickers last longer than running backs generally. Genes, lifestyle, whether you are starter or reserve and luck are part of the equation as well. But the bias against age is strong. (imagine what we would be saying about Ray Lewis for the last half a dozen years or so if he were a Steeler) For some in Steeler Nation every player once they reach the age of 30 is immediately suspect. Their performances are evaluated with our eyes not on them but firmly locked on to the calendar. The comments of some on Batch's performance this week are typical. Grudging respect followed by a string of 'yes, buts'. With the player whom we label as old its not just what have you done for me lately, its also what are you likely to do tomorrow or the next day. In the real world we would call this agism. Its difficult to figure what is more amazing, Charlie's performance or the obstinacy of those who year after year insist that he is washed up in obvious contradiction of the facts (ask Manny Sanders about his weak arm). The rebuttal is "Wait until next year." And, presumably, then we'll be sorry. Well, yeah. With this sort of argument time is on their side. Eventually, it will be true. If I were to say you're going to die, I would be right. But if I say you're going to die tomorrow, that's another matter entirely. If every day I keep insisting that you are going to die tomorrow then I descend to the level of the scraggily man walking around with a sandwich board saying that the end is near.
In that same spirit we insist that it is prudence to prepare for an outcome that is uncharacteristic of the current crop of elite quarterbacks; that is that Ben is getting old, will be washed up shortly and that preparing a replacement should be a priority. For the sake of argument let's say that Ben has five years left in a Pittsburgh uniform and then he leaves for performance or business reasons. Here's the problem; the type of player who could adequately replace Ben, a very good player or preferably a franchise quality quarterback will not need five years to develop. One difference between JJ and the other three quarterbacks in camp besides age and experience is that all three were on the field right out of college. The better quarterbacks; Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, RGIII, Andrew Luck, even Tim Tebow don't do lengthy apprenticeships. Those that do, like Aaron Rodgers, were probably constrained more by the fact that Favre simply wouldn't get out of the way. That would certainly be the case with anyone behind Ben.
More to the point, the idea that someone can develop into a high quality quarterback as a backup is questionable in the 21st Century NFL at best. Consider the story in Seattle this year at quarterback; or Dennis Dixon. Practice reps may be helpful, but game reps, quality game reps (not garbage time or preseason games), are the ones that count. Regardless of your opinion of Dixon, he had no chance to develop short of something happening to Ben. Even Ben's suspension, if he had not gotten injured was not enough of an opportunity to fully develop. This may be the principle reason he never became what many hoped he would be. It would also explain why he would want to get out of Pittsburgh.
This is the beauty of having Leftwich and Batch as backups. They are already fully developed as quarterbacks, all they need is work to keep their timing straight. This may be why Kevin Colbert said they are happy to have backups with experience as starters in the league. They are also wise enough at this stage of the game to put their egos in their pockets and embrace their roles. This something a young talent could not, and frankly should not do. If they are good enough to replace Ben in an emergency, they are probably good enough to start somewhere for somebody. I don't believe a quarterback controversy is something to wish for, but for some fans the primary motivation is not to be bored.
And what about this argument that you could get rid of Batch and bring him off the couch if needed. Well, that's forgetting that he was already on the couch. Leftwich and Batch were not under contract this off season. Both Johnson and Troy Smith were on the roster before Charlie and Byron were signed. What these folks proposed has already been done. The issue that some simply do not want to face is why the team felt that Smith and Johnson weren't adequate for their needs.
This begs a number of questions as to why you would pursue a strategy that runs counter to the team's philosophy and the business and performance realities of professional football? If JJ had been named to the roster he would have been the only player who did not meet the criteria of being a starter, a starter in waiting or a special teams contributor. It is not enough to be just a project. You have to be a project who can help the team win a championship this year, not five years, or even three down the road. Not only does the 'project' not have anything to offer in the immediate term, he replaces someone who does.
But let's also look at the goal of winning Super Bowls on a yearly basis from a practical business perspective as well as from the purely competitive perspective. The NFL has increasingly become a win now enterprise. Players and coaches don't have much time to get it done. Consider Andy Reid who is tied with Tomlin with highest winning percentage of current coaches whose job is on the line this year if he doesn't go deep into the playoffs, and I suspect, doesn't win the Sup[er Bowl. And does anyone doubt that one substandard season will have a segment of Steeler Nation asking for Tomlin's head? So why engage in a project that is likely not to show benefits until after the expiration of the current contracts of the head coach, general manager and most players?
A trade chip? Would the Colts have been better off trading a quality draft pick for a project, or tanking, getting a higher draft pick as a result and getting a top of the line quarterback after one season of pain? And if the trade is for a draft pick what is the guarantee that the pick will be a successful one. Or, looking at it another way, if they had a top ten draft pick this year wouldn't they have just picked David De Castro an hour earlier?
For so many of us this time of the year is like the Obama slogan; Hope and Change. As fans we can afford to be fanciful because if we're wrong it doesn't cost us our mortgages. Johnson is a talented guy with much potential. But from where I sit it simply is the wrong fit. And that is why he's no longer here.