By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
There's nothing quite as fulfilling as a happy homecoming, even if it's on the side of the enemy, even if it's coming off the bench instead of starting. And certainly, not much that happens during the course of a regular season could have exhilarated Byron Leftwich more than coming back to Washington on a Monday night and beating the team he cheered for as a child, the Redskins.
As a kid, his family members would sometimes turn off the TV rather than deal with the anxiety of watching Mark Moseley attempt a game-winning field goal. Leftwich would sneak into RFK Stadium to see his heroes. There was a guy, an usher, who would say, "If you run through the fence I can't chase you because I have to stay here." So Leftwich would run through the fence into the biggest crowd to disappear. The first time was against the Cowboys, and while he doesn't remember the year or exactly how old he was, he recalls it being terribly cold and the feeling of the stands shaking, "like bleachers at a basketball game."
Perhaps he'll remember this homecoming with the Steelers in much greater detail, since his 7-for-10, 179-yard passing performance led Pittsburgh to a 23-6 victory. It was Leftwich's 50-yard pass that set up the Steelers' second touchdown, the score that pushed them to a 16-6 lead, and his touchdown to Santonio Holmes that finished off the Redskins.
There were 44 tickets for family members and friends that Leftwich hunted down himself, with help from the Redskins. "Every one of them" should have been cheering for him and the Steelers, not the Redskins. A man who identified himself as Leftwich's "band coach in seventh and eighth grade" stood outside the postgame news conference his former snare drum student had with reporters.
It might not be exactly the way Leftwich dreamed it initially, back in grade school or high school when he was on his way to becoming a star in college and a first-round draft pick. At the end of a chat with a class at H.D. Woodson during his sophomore year of high school, Leftwich extended his right hand to introduce himself to a reporter and said with a charming sense of confidence: "I'm Byron Leftwich. I play quarterback for the football team and you're going to be writing about me someday."
So I am, again and quite happily.
Because Ben Roethlisberger suffered a shoulder injury in the first half, Coach Mike Tomlin told Leftwich at halftime that he was going to start the second half. "I told him, 'If I'm going in, I need to get warm; I don't need a halftime speech.' " And with that Leftwich left the locker room to stretch and throw.
Though he felt a little rusty and was beginning to cramp, Leftwich felt something else he hadn't felt in three seasons: healthy. "It's the healthiest I've been in three years," he said, adding, "I tried to play hurt and really got punished for it."
While the Steelers were putting Jason Campbell on his butt seven times in a game in which points were initially difficult to come by, it was Leftwich who found enough time to fire off a half-dozen critical pass completions that made the difference in the game, which might be of interest to election fanatics looking for a sign of things to come later tonight.
When the Redskins win their final home game before the presidential election, the incumbent party stays in office. When the Redskins lose their final home game before the election the incumbent party loses, except in 2004. Pretty simple, right? Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau discovered it's happened precisely that way 16 of 17 times since 1940. Anything close to that exact is more than a trend and is certainly politically unbiased.
We can presume that Steelers in a romp means Obama in a landslide. You don't want to argue with numbers that overwhelming, do you? "Congratulations, Barack," Leftwich said, smiling and revealing his own preference.
The Steelers left town with a victory, with Roethlisberger also smiling and not seriously hurt, and with the Redskins licking their wounds after what felt like a loss on the road. From the racket made and "Terrible Towels" being waved, Leftwich might have thought he was playing in Pittsburgh, since between 15,000 to 20,000 Steelers fans snapped up tickets and promptly took over FedEx Field in their black road jerseys. It really gets a little tiresome hearing how great Redskins fans are, only to see fans of the Cowboys or Steelers or Eagles commandeer FedEx Field. Really, they're a very average lot, at best.
Anyway, what a dreamy night it was for Leftwich, to be called upon to perform in front of his kinfolk and his friends from throughout the D.C. area, to finish the game with a 145.8 passer rating. For a while, those of us who have followed Leftwich's career and fretted over him since he was in high school wondered if he'd ever really get the chance to play on the big stage again. He had a good start to his career in Jacksonville before being dumped there. Things never worked out in Atlanta with the Falcons. He was 28 and looking for a team, hoping to find a new home, when the Steelers called. Certainly, they would know what to do with a 6-foot-5, completely immobile quarterback with a huge arm, with a heart that lets him stand in the pocket far too long sometimes. Roethlisberger and Leftwich might as well have been separated at birth.
Roethlisberger went to Miami (Ohio), Leftwich to Marshall; both were mid-major college quarterbacks whom scouts knew could play in the NFL even though they hadn't faced the greatest competition in college. While Big Ben is a better athlete, neither can run much, though both can slide around pretty well in the pocket and both can take a lick and get right back up. If (or when) Roethlisberger goes down for a few plays or a week or longer, the Steelers certainly wouldn't have to change a thing for Leftwich when he enters the ballgame.
Roethlisberger was beaming after the game, excited for a teammate who was a college rival. Leftwich said he, like everybody else, knows it's Big Ben's team, and added: "I told him, 'Ben, when you really get hurt let me know. I'm not running for my helmet if you're not hurt.' "
The Steelers extended training camp invitations to Leftwich and Daunte Culpepper and were more impressed with Leftwich, who immediately became one of the better backup quarterbacks in the game. Imagine how much better the Dallas Cowboys would feel right now if they had Leftwich.
"There's no stage or situation too big for Byron Leftwich," his coach, Mike Tomlin, said afterward. "He's a guy with franchise quarterback experience. He's got that ease and calm about him and his teammates see that every day. Depth is important. He had an opportunity to ante up and kick in."