Harris: Roethlisberger's troubles give Steelers pause

John Harris
| Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert has been fond of saying that drafting a quarterback isn't in the team's plans.

You couldn't blame Colbert for having second thoughts.

Maybe the Steelers should consider selecting a quarterback in next month's NFL Draft, or signing a veteran signal-caller -- just in case.

Because when it comes to Ben Roethlisberger, you never know.

Of course, the second incident in less than a year linking Roethlisberger with a sexual assault may turn out to be a false alarm if an investigation by Georgia law enforcement officials exonerates him.

But that doesn't mean life should return to normal as Roethlisberger and the Steelers know it.

How much, the Steelers have to be asking, is enough?

Roethlisberger isn't just any quarterback. He's the Steelers' franchise quarterback who won a pair of Super Bowls in his first six NFL seasons. He signed a $102 million contract two years ago, making him the face of the franchise.

That means Roethlisberger is the Steelers' most important player by virtue of his mega-salary and the position he plays on the field.

When people think of the Steelers, they naturally think of Roethlisberger.

What some of them are thinking right now isn't pretty or nice.

A picture taken of Roethlisberger -- wearing a shirt emblazoned with the devil on the night he was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year old college student last week in Milledgeville, Ga. -- spoke a thousand words.

It was in stark contrast to the image Roethlisberger portrayed upon joining the Steelers as the No. 11 pick in the 2004 draft -- one of a humble young man from a good Midwestern family who points skyward after touchdown passes as a way of honoring his maker.

Yes, Roethlisberger is entitled to live the way he pleases and see who he wants socially.

It's his life, his business.

However, it stops being his exclusive business when those alleged indiscretions have a negative impact on the Steelers, who have made him exceedingly rich and famous.

"The allegations are the allegations. It's the fact of the matter of getting yourself in that situation where the allegations come out," said Pittsburgh-based agent Ralph Cindrich, who has represented hundreds of NFL players in a career spanning more than three decades, including Steelers linebacker James Farrior.

"In my view," Cindrich said as to what he thinks Roethlisberger's next step should be, "you drop what you're doing, you get over to the Steelers offices and you apologize to the Rooney family, the head coach and every one of your teammates."

It's trying times like these when the Steelers must consider if the hefty cost of doing business with Roethlisberger is worth it.

This must surely feel like deja vu to the Steelers' brass, who I'm certain had a serious heart-to-heart discussion with Roethlisberger last offseason after a woman charged him with sexual assault at a Lake Tahoe hotel and casino.

Roethlisberger strongly denied those allegations.

On Monday, Roethlisberger's new criminal defense lawyer, Edward T.M. Garland -- who defended Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens against murder charges in 2000 -- said Roethlisberger is innocent of all charges.

Even if Roethlisberger isn't charged by police, the Steelers should be concerned enough to examine their quarterback situation more closely.

Remember, the civil case against Roethlisberger in Nevada is still pending.

Are the Steelers thoroughly convinced that these two incidents are isolated -- or exhibit a disturbing pattern of behavior displayed by the highest-paid player in franchise history?

Has Dennis Dixon, who started one game in his first two seasons, shown enough to be considered a suitable replacement if legal problems derail Roethlisberger• How comfortable are the Steelers with Dixon leading the offense?

I'm all for the Steelers not rushing to judgment against Roethlisberger. But the NFL is a business, and, like it or not, the Steelers have to prepare for the unknown.

Sending a strong message of disapproval to Roethlisberger by acquiring another quarterback could be the best way to get his attention.

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