Leftwich, 32, has been a journeyman backup since 2007. He hasn’t started a game since 2009. On Sunday, however, he will start for the Steelers. In prime time.
The opponent? Only the Steelers’ AFC North arch-nemesis, the Ravens. It’s the renewal of the NFL’s hottest rivalry in the 21st century, and – as usual – it’s a showdown rife with division-title ramifications.
Baltimore leads the AFC North with a 7-2 record. Pittsburgh is 6-3.
Leftwich is subbing for Roethlisberger, who on a crunching sack in Monday night’s victory over Kansas City suffered both throwing-shoulder and rib injuries. Big Ben’s status beyond this weekend is uncertain.
Since Maddox led the Steelers to that 34-15 win in 2003, Pittsburgh is 0-4 against Baltimore when Roethlisberger does not play, as Sports Illustrated’s Peter King pointed out on Monday.
But, hey Byron – no pressure.
“The butterflies will come around Sunday, but that is a good thing,” Leftwich said on Friday. “I am excited. We all understand the importance of this football game. We are going to do what we have to do and try to get one more point than them.”
That Leftwich is still sticking it out in the NFL is a credit to him.
In 2003, the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder from Marshall University in West Virginia was seen as a can’t-miss quarterback prospect. The Jags took him seventh overall.
But in three-plus seasons of starting in Jacksonville, Leftwich never put it all together. At the end of ’07 training camp the Jags let him go.
Leftwich played some for Atlanta in 2007, backed up Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh in 2008, then started the first three games for Tampa Bay in 2009 before hurting his throwing elbow.
He returned to the Steelers fold in 2010 and has barely seen the field. He backed up Big Ben in ’10, sat out all last year on injured/reserve after breaking his left arm in the pre-season, and resumed second-string duties this year.
Leftwich not only has not started since 2009, he hasn’t even thrown a touchdown pass since he was with the Bucs. Yet he said after Friday’s practice that he’s ready to go.
“I feel good,” Leftwich said. “I feel like I got more reps with the guys. I feel as though I am ready to roll. (Friday) was our last big (prep) day, and now it’s time to do what you have to do and get ready to roll Sunday night.”
Perhaps Leftwich’s biggest flaw, as critics have long pointed out, is his painfully long and slow delivery. But what an arm.
On my nine-team training-camps tour this past summer, Leftwich was by far the most impressive backup quarterback I saw throw. In both 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills, my notes indicate that Leftwich’s throws were highly accurate, and he wasted little time in both decision-making and in his delivery.
I didn’t see him really zip it, though, until one play in the red zone late in practice. Leftwich stepped into one touchdown throw, a slant, that was so ridiculously hard and accurate, it’d make most other NFL quarterbacks envious.
That afternoon I asked perennial all-pro safety Troy Polamalu about Roethlisberger’s red-hot day throwing day, and Polamalu went out of his way to praise Leftwich as well.
“Our quarterbacks are awesome right now,” Polamalu said. “It’s been really tough for us to get any turnovers on defence … They don’t give you many opportunities.”
What does that mean for Sunday night? Probably nothing.
This is Leftwich’s third career start against the Ravens. He was a Jaguar the other times, losing as a rookie but spearheading a 30-3 crushing in his third year.
Hurting Leftwich’s cause this time is the absence of wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has an ankle injury.
But running back Rashard Mendenhall is expected to be back from an Achilles injury. With the Steelers’ three top running backs – Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer – all healthy for the first time in who-knows-how-long, don’t expect the Steelers to ask too much of Leftwich.
These two teams play again in Baltimore in just two weeks. Leftwich might well be at the helm for that one, too.
Eat your heart out, Tommy Maddox.
The Byron Leftwich file:
SIZE: 6-foot-5, 250 pounds
DRAFTED: 7th overall in 2003
TEAMS: Jacksonville (2003-07), Atlanta (2007), Pittsburgh (2008), Tampa Bay (2009), Pittsburgh (2010-)
FIRST START: Sept. 28, 2003 for Jacksonville, a 24-20 loss to Houston.
FIRST WIN: Oct. 5, 2003, 27-21 over San Diego (and its QB Drew Brees).
VERSUS BALTIMORE: 1-1 (a 24-17 loss on Nov. 2, 2003, and a 30-3 win on Nov. 13, 2005).
LAST TOUCHDOWN PASS: For Tampa Bay, on Sept. 20, 2009, vs Buffalo.
LAST MONDAY NIGHT: 7-of-14 for 73 yards in second half and OT, after Ben Roethlisberger went down.
CAREER STATS: 921-of-1,566 (58.8%), for 10,333 yards, 58 TDs, 41 INTs.