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Thursday April 24 2014
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A Class Ahead

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Shaun Suisham’s 42-yard field goal had split the uprights at M&T Bank Stadium just moments before the 38-year-old quarterback walked off the field, the last player to join his teammates in the Steelers locker room.

Charlie Batch had just pulled off the impossible. Forced into a starter’s role a week earlier due to injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich, Batch had thrown three interceptions and performed dismally in a loss to the woeful Cleveland Browns. Batch’s performance in Cleveland proved that he was on his last legs at best, and at worst – washed up. Everyone who watched the game saw it that way. Everyone, that is, except those closest to Charlie Batch.

“Charlie came in and played the game that we needed him to play today to win. It’s not surprising to us,” insisted linebacker James Harrison. “It may be to you, but not to us.”

The guy Batch was replacing wasn’t surprised either.

“He holds himself to a high standard, like we all do,” Roethlisberger said.

The Steelers had lost two consecutive games after Roethlisberger—in the midst of his best NFL season after guiding his team to four straight wins—was forced from the lineup following injuries to his shoulder and ribs in a Monday night victory over Kansas City. The skid was compounded by a floundering offense

Batch completely outplayed his Baltimore counterpart Joe Flacco, completing 69 percent of his passes for 276 yards and a touchdown. After a slow start, Batch was masterful in leading his team to two second half touchdowns. The first came in the third quarter with the Steelers down 13-6 after Batch himself threw the key downfield block on a Jonathan Dwyer 16-yard run. In the fourth quarter, with the Steelers trailing 20-13, Batch led the offense on the game-tying drive when he threw a touchdown strike to Heath Miller. Finally, he engineered a 12-play, 61-yard drive that chewed up 6:14 and culminated in Suisham’s game-winning kick as time expired. The win was not only thrilling, it kept the Steelers’ fading playoff hopes alive, if even for just another week.

And Batch was in charge the entire time.

“He was a general in the huddle. An offensive leader. A poised veteran guy who came in and got the job done,” gushed Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. “He’s a guy who has been around a long time and to see him come out and give us a win is a great thing. He definitely made some great calls, some great throws, and some great plays to will us a win down the stretch.”

The leadership, confidence and total sense of control Brown refers to was not a one-time thing. It’s precisely the reason Batch is not only still on the Steelers roster, but why his teammates believe so completely in him.Photo by Justin Berl

“Charlie is a guy who is starter-capable who doesn’t need a lot of practice reps and is able to mentally commandeer a practice and use it to his benefit,” explains Craig Wolfley, former Steelers offensive lineman and now a broadcaster for the team. “When he’s called upon in a game, he’s able to walk into any stadium, any quarter, and down and distance, any pressure situation and deliver the goods.”

Batch has delivered the goods indeed, winning 67 percent of his starts as a Steeler since joining the team in 2002. He’s completed 64.9 percent of his passes and tossed 9 touchdowns in those starts, winning games in Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Baltimore and losing just once at Heinz Field. Perhaps what’s most impressive about Batch’s numbers as a Steelers starter is that those nine games are spread across seven years – not exactly a prime situation to allow quarterback to get into a groove.

“The ability to call on the starter’s mindset, the confidence that you need to exude to others in a moment’s notice –that’s what’s so impressive,” says Wolfley. “Probably better than any back-up quarterback I’ve either been around or seen, he is able to instill that confidence instantly in the other men. It’s flipping the switch.

“I have been in the huddle with a quarterback who came in, in a pressure situation due to injury, and you get in the huddle and the guy is stuttering because he can’t get out the play-call,” Wolfley continues. “That’s not a comfortable position to be in when you’re one of the other 10 guys in the huddle.”

It’s been over a decade since Batch was last a regular starter in the NFL, but he has plenty of experience in the role.

His final season as the Detroit Lions starter in 2001 was a disaster. The Lions finished 2-14 and Batch lost all nine of his starts. They parted ways after the season, Detroit drafted Joey Harrington in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft and that was the end of Batch’s career as an NFL starter.

Before that ’01 season, though, Batch appeared to be developing into a solid quarterback. In his first three seasons under center, Batch posted a 19-18 record with 37 touchdowns and 28 interceptions.

Offensive lineman Jeff Hartings played with Batch for three seasons in Detroit—all of which while Batch was the Lions’ starting QB—and another five in Pittsburgh. Hartings watched as the raw rookie from Eastern Michigan was thrust into the starting lineup in just the team’s third game of the season. Batch struggled to overcome not only his inexperience, but also to gain the trust of veterans such as Barry Sanders, Johnny Morton and Herman Moore.

It was a process, but Batch eventually gained the respect of his older Detroit teammates.

“I felt like he was capable of being (Detroit’s) quarterback of the future,” recalls Hartings. “I didn’t necessarily feel like he had the greatest offensive line to protect him, and I think that was probably a bigger liability than actually him as a rookie quarterback.”

Barry Sanders shocked everyone with his sudden retirement after the ’98 season, the Lions stagnated, and ultimately the roof caved in during the 2001 season.

“He didn’t really have the opportunity to develop into the kind of quarterback he was capable of being as a starter,” says Hartings of Batch’s situation with the Lions. “He never had the coaching or the team around him to show the things he was capable of.”

Hartings left Detroit for the Steelers in 200Tom Pidgeon-Getty Images North America0, and the Batch that arrived in Pittsburgh a year later was at a crossroads in his career, signing with the Steelers as a clear back-up to Kordell Stewart.

“The fact that he was coming to Pittsburgh to be a back-up, I was very excited about it because it was like we were getting a guy who was good enough to be a starter on a lot of teams,” says Hartings.

While the Steelers may have been happy to welcome Batch as their back-up, it was a step backward for the former starter.

“You never get used to it because it changes every day,” Batch acknowledges. “My description is back-up and whether that’s the second back-up or the third back-up, if you’re number is called upon, you have to be ready to play because you never know how a season is going to play out.”

Wolfley feels that Batch’s ability to accept his role with perfect class and clarity—and with such humility—has been the key to his success off the bench.

“It’s humbling,” explains Wolfley. “You have to go from ‘the guy’ to the guy backing up the guy, so you have to check your ego at the door and park it. And that’s what Charlie’s been able to do masterfully. Not a lot of guys make that transition with that humility and the same sense of dedication.”

Hartings sees Batch’s value as extending well beyond his play on the field. He sees a lot of Batch’s work in Ben Roethlisberger’s development as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.

“Mentoring directly, and probably a lot more indirectly than Ben Roethlisberger realizes,” Hartings offers. “Mentoring Ben and helping him become the quarterback that he’s become and mentoring a lot of the younger guys on our football team.”

Despite’s Batch acceptance of his role—and his success in it—make no mistake, he still relishes every snap he’s able to take.

“I’m always excited,” Batch said before the game in Baltimore last month. “These opportunities don’t come often anymore and here I am, getting up there in years and when you have this opportunity you cherish it.”

His teammates understand exactly what Batch brings to the locker room, meeting room, and practice field. They also know what it means to him to be able to get into a game.

“I know how important it was to him,” said safety Ryan Clark about Batch’s start against the Ravens. ”Last week, our offense struggled and turned the ball over. There was a lot of pressure on him this week. It was awesome to have him on the field for the game-winning drive.”

That all played out as Suisham’s kick sailed through the uprights. Roethlisberger and Batch found one another on the sideline and embraced tightly, tears welling up in the old quarterbacks’ eyes.

The moment was captured by the cameras, replayed on ESPN and displayed on web sites and sports pages across the country.

Photo by Vincent Pugliese“You leave everything on the field,” Batch said simply. “The game is emotional.”

Hartings took it a step further.

“I was as happy after that Baltimore game as I’ve been after any game since I retired,” he relates. “What that team did, winning that game with their back to the wall, to what Charlie overcame – missing a couple open receivers early in the game… for him to come back in the second half and make those plays, I just think he showed what kind of person he is.”

It’s all starting to make sense. The Steelers have not made the playoffs the past two seasons. Those two years have seen the team part ways with players who were integral to a sustained run of success that resulted in a pair of Super Bowl championships.
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