Batch regaining magic

PITTSBURGH – Bill Cowher said it once, twice, three times. "How much and IF they play," he repeated, "will be based on the fact we are playing a game seven days later." Cowher was hinting that he won't play key starters ...

... in Thursday night's final preseason game. So, he was asked, will Ben Roethlisberger start against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field?

"The fact that we play seven days later," Cowher repeated with a broad grin, "will play a major part in some of the decisions we make in regards to this game."

It appears that Cowher intends to start Charlie Batch at quarterback. At least that's how Batch took it.

"I would assume that," Batch said. "But I don't know."

Either way, Batch expects to receive plenty of time and Cowher expects him to do well. And why not? Batch's fifth camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers has been his best. He's completed 64 percent of his passes, a stat he approached only one other time with the Steelers. In the 2002 camp Batch completed 60 percent of his passes.

"There's no question that with Charlie, this has been the best camp he's had since he's been here," Cowher said. "I feel very comfortable with him."

And, he with they.

"He's a lot more comfortable. I can see that," said running back Verron Haynes. "He's making some good reads and some great throws. He's always had the talent but he's just getting the opportunity and he's looking good."

Yes, Batch has always had the talent. After a record-setting career at Eastern Michigan, Batch started 12 games as a rookie with the Detroit Lions in 1998 and compiled a passer rating of 83.5 – the fifth-best rookie mark of all time. In 1999 he got the playoff-bound Lions off to a 6-2 start, but an injury shelved him down the stretch and the 8-8 Lions lost in the first round. Batch started 15 games in 2000 and he put up career highs in completions, attempts, yards, and touchdowns. The Lions finished 9-7 that season and haven't come close to matching that success since. Charlie Batch hasn't either, but six years later he looks like he's back to his old form.

"I do feel good," he said. "And I feel 10 times better than I did last year."

Last year Batch came in off a knee injury that wiped out his 2004 season. He had a solid camp (55 percent completions percentage, 74.8 passer rating) but was still third team behind Ben Roethlisberger and Tommy Maddox. But during the season, Batch stepped in to lead the Steelers to a win at Green Bay. The following week he led the Steelers to a halftime lead over Cleveland, but injured his hand and did not play again until he was called upon to mop up at Cleveland. By then, Batch had jumped past Maddox as the second-team quarterback and that's where he stands today. Haynes believes it's that job security that's helped the old Batch re-emerge.

"Less stress helps your play on the field," said Haynes, who's also gone from third to second team this camp. Haynes used himself to illustrate Batch's poise while under duress.

"When I let that guy go and he got sacked, he just said, ‘V, don't worry about it,'" Haynes said. "On the play a couple of guys ran the wrong route so he didn't have anybody to throw it to, so he came up to me and said, ‘If I had a receiver in there, it wouldn't have been your fault, so don't even worry about it.'

"He's just confident. You can tell it by his swagger. He's got it back. He's got it back."

Does he?

"It's been a while," Batch said. "Then again, I never came to camp completely healthy since I've been here. Right now I feel good."

Has job security helped?

"I think it's played a factor, but every year you have to go out and prove yourself. The longer you're in the league, the younger the guys are who are coming in. Those are the guys who are eventually going to take over my job, so if you stay around here long enough you learn to develop the proper mindset."

Batch wouldn't come right out and say he's playing as well as he did when he was the toast of Detroit.

"I'm smarter. You can say that. You can say that, even though it's a different scenario. In Detroit I was THE guy. Here, I'm not, although it can turn around. You're really only one play away from being the guy."

And it appears Batch is ready just in case.

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