Teammates stand behind Ben
Hines Ward said Ben Roethlisberger's six-game suspension is "justified" and that it is "disappointing" that the Steelers will be without their franchise quarterback for at least the first quarter of the 2010 season.
But the veteran receiver, who last season questioned whether Roethlisberger should have played a week after suffering a concussion, said he is standing behind the two-time Super Bowl winner.
"I will reach out to (Roethlisberger) to see how he's doing," Ward said Friday after the first of two minicamp practices. "Just get away and talk about life in general."
And when Roethlisberger returns after the suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for violating the league's personal conduct policy?
"We'll welcome him with open arms," Ward said. "He's still our quarterback, and he doesn't have to win over anybody."
The Steelers will have to win without Roethlisberger for a significant part of the upcoming season. Yesterday they stepped up the process of identifying who will serve as a stopgap until he returns.
Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch practiced against live defenses on a spectacular spring day -- and competed against one another for the first time since the Steelers traded for Leftwich almost two weeks ago. The three quarterbacks are vying for the job that is temporarily open with Roethlisberger banned from practice until training camp at the earliest.
The players again expressed support for Roethlisberger, voicing similar sentiments as they did April 19, when the team held its first offseason session. Echoing what director of football operations Kevin Colbert said last week, safety Troy Polamalu said Roethlisberger deserves the right to redeem himself after being accused of sexual assault twice since July.
"I think there's a lot of great examples of guys that are just really good guys, like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. But there also are examples of what Ben is going to be able to do, to show how much he can turn his life around," Polamalu said. "He's going through a tough time by not being here, but it's going to even be a better example of how he comes back, and I hope people appreciate that process."
The support Roethlisberger has received from his teammates provides a stark contrast to the backlash from fans. Team headquarters has been flooded with angry calls since details of Roethlisberger's early March birthday bar tour in Milledgeville, Ga., emerged.
Demands, however, for the team to get rid of Roethlisberger, who was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student, come across as shortsighted to at least one Steelers veteran.
"The same fans who are saying cut him will be the same fans cheering for him if he wins another Super Bowl. That's the way I look at it," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "I know Ben isn't a bad guy. He made some mistakes, but at the end of the day the guy hasn't been convicted of (anything). If the cops say he didn't do it, in my mind he didn't do it. He's only got to answer to one person, and that's God.
"At the end of the day, Ben wins games on Sundays. Anybody that can help us win is going to be welcomed back with open arms."
Roethlisberger's situation hasn't been a distraction, Ward said, but the length of the suspension -- which can be reduced to four games with good behavior -- is cause for concern.
"It's kind of like quarterback by committee (now), and so the uncertainty of that issue plays on a lot of guys' minds because you don't know who your starting quarterback is," Ward said. "But we're out here working, trying to build our foundation, and our motto hasn't changed."