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Dizzying week doesn't deter Steelers QB Dixon

| Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dennis Dixon's world is traveling at 100 mph.

The game is still football, but everything's considerably faster for the rookie quarterback this early in his NFL career.

"My head is spinning," Dixon said following a recent organized team activity at the Steelers' South Side facility. "That's what every rookie goes through."

Dixon was a surprise fifth-round draft pick for the Steelers, considering Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger signed a $102 million contract extension.

It's a minor miracle that Dixon -- once a Heisman Trophy front-runner at Oregon -- was drafted at all.

Four months prior to the draft, Dixon underwent surgery on a torn ACL in his left knee, an injury that left his draft status -- not to mention his pro career -- in jeopardy.

Only two months following surgery, Dixon attended the NFL Scouting Combine, where he walked without a noticeable limp. Although he didn't work out, Dixon wanted to let teams know he should be taken seriously as a potential draft pick.

"I was dedicated. I had tremendous facilities at Oregon. I was there day in and day out. I graduated already, so that was pretty much my job to rehab," said Dixon, who graduated in 3 1/2 years.

When he was healthy as a junior, Dixon struggled. He was bogged down in the offense and threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12). Everything changed when Chip Kelly took over as Oregon's offensive coordinator before Dixon's senior season.

Kelly broke down Dixon's game and then put it back together the same way. Kelly instilled Dixon with the understanding to effectively operate a major-college offense and the confidence to pull it off.

"He never had you guessing," Dixon said. "You always knew what was coming during practice. It made a tremendous difference. He threw everything out there possible. We were frustrated, but as the week went along, we got it."

As a senior, Dixon tossed 20 touchdown passes and only four interceptions before injuring his knee against Arizona State in November. Two weeks later, he hurt the same knee against Arizona, ending his college career.

"Some people think if you're athletic, you can't be intelligent, that it doesn't go hand-in-hand. But with Dennis, it really does. He's 6-foot-4, he's got an arm and he's one of the most intelligent players I've ever been around," said Kelly, who coached former Steelers fullback Dan Kreider at New Hampshire. "The reason he was a fifth-round draft pick is he didn't have a great junior year and didn't have a lot of hype going into the season. I heard people talk about him on draft day as a one-year wonder because he had a great senior year. The big thing with him is he got injured."

Dixon and his agent, Jeff Sperbeck, arranged a pre-draft workout. Sperbeck said it was important to reassure teams that drafting Dixon so soon after major knee surgery wouldn't be a gamble.

"Nobody in the draft process questioned his arm strength, vision, instincts, accuracy or running ability. He was considered a first-day quarterback prospect prior to his injury, which translates into a guy that can come in and play this season," Sperbeck said. "The only question for teams was how soon he was going to be able to contribute, based upon his knee injury."

Roethlisberger isn't going anywhere, but Batch (33) isn't getting any younger. When drafting Dixon, the Steelers were mindful that they would need to develop a future backup at some point.

"Dixon throws the ball good. He's poised in the backfield. He's just got to work on that quarterback-center exchange. He was probably in the shotgun all the time, so it's kind of tough for him," safety Tyrone Carter said of Dixon's early ball-handling mishaps with the Steelers. "But he's got a good arm; his confidence is up there. He isn't rushing, no happy feet. I think we got a steal with him. I love the way he throws the ball."

Most teams that draft quarterbacks do so with the idea of them sitting and learning for a year or two. Green Bay drafted Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks despite already having Brett Favre; both players were eventually traded. In time, Dixon could have trade value for the Steelers while developing into a solid backup.

As for the injury, Pro Bowl quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer came back from ACL surgery. John Elway played his entire career with no ACL in one knee.

"Injuries happen. It's how you do in the end," Dixon said. "Just know that you're being observed in the process of how you act and react. I'm all positive right now."

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