TAMPA — As a backup for the Steelers, quarterback Byron Leftwich had to make quick reads.
Was Ben Roethlisberger's injury serious enough for him to grab his helmet and possibly start warming up?
"I'd look and see how he was doing, if I had to play, tell our rookie, Dennis Dixon, to get my helmet," Leftwich said, remembering the times someone banged up Big Ben. "I had a few false alarms. By the time he got back, I didn't usually need it."
Leftwich doesn't plan on standing on the sideline next season after signing a two-year, $7.5 million deal with the Bucs.
"I was told from Day 1 they want me to come in and compete, and that's the only way you want it," Leftwich, 29, said. "You don't want anything given to you. Once you have an opportunity to compete, I can live with any scenario at that point. It's all I can ask for. You want to go out there and know you've earned it.
"This is a great opportunity to be involved with a good organization and a good football team. From my standpoint, to play with guys like Antonio Bryant, K2 (Kellen Winslow Jr.), Earnest Graham, Jerramy Stevens — these type of guys — as a quarterback, it makes your job a whole lot easier. The situation is perfect for me, and I thought it would be a great opportunity."
Leftwich has spent the past week working out at One Buc Place, looking for a place to live in the bay area and trying to feel more at home in the new offense under coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski. His strong arm and ability to drive the football downfield make him a good fit for the new scheme.
"They have a little head start on me," Leftwich said, "so I'm trying to learn as quickly as I can."
Injuries plagued Leftwich's career as a four-year starter for Jacksonville. The former first-round pick out of Marshall was released after losing his job to David Garrard in 2007.
"The quickest way for people to forget you is through injury," Leftwich said. "Anytime you're not out there, it can easily be questioned. Hopefully, now that I'm healthy and I will be on a good football team with players around me, it comes down to just playing. And I've always believed in my ability."
But Leftwich had to be patient. He spent one forgettable season in Atlanta during the post-Michael Vick fiasco ("I give myself a mulligan for that year," he says) before landing a job as a backup for the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers.
He played well in relief of Roethlisberger, appearing in five games. He completed 21-of-36 passes for 303 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 104.3 passer rating.
"It's the most fun I've ever had playing the game of football," Leftwich said. "Understanding what it takes to win a Super Bowl. I've seen (it) and I know I'll know when we have a chance to win a Super Bowl and what it's like to be part of a Super Bowl-winning team. … I think I've gained so much that I matured as a quarterback and as a player."
A free agent since February, Leftwich didn't receive much interest until the Redskins invited him to throw two weeks ago. The Steelers also wanted him to return. But the chance to compete for a starting job was what prompted him to eventually sign with the Bucs.
"I knew wherever I went, I'd be with team that wanted me to be part of their organization," he said. "It didn't happen when I wanted it to, but I knew I had to be ready."
What Leftwich has learned is that any quarterback is only as good as the players around him, and he's excited about the cast the Bucs have assembled on offense.
"That's the whole thing," Leftwich said. "To go out there (with Pittsburgh) and see Heath Miller at tight end and Santonio Holmes on one side and Hines Ward or Nate Washington on the other and Willie Parker in the backfield, you realize you can't do this by yourself. … There's not a lot of teams that have the weapons this (Bucs) team has. It's an exciting time."