Sorting the Sunday Pile looks back at the NFL weekend that was. It's also an unofficial Mittens blog.
Ben Roethlisberger has started 82 games in his five-year career, winning close to 80 percent of them. Yet for most of the football-observing public not located in Western Pennsylvania, he's still nothing more than a game manager. A good quarterback who fell into a great situation and is just along for the ride.
That changed for good Sunday night.
You've no doubt seen the replays a few hundred times by now. With 157 seconds to go in Super Bowl XLIII, Roethlisberger and the Steelers started on their own 12-yard line. Needing a field goal to tie, Big Ben did what he does in such situations: He made plays that nobody else on the planet could make, impossibly avoiding pass rushers before inexplicably finding open receivers that, in retrospect, weren't all that open.
None were better covered than Santonio Holmes, who, with 42 seconds on the clock, found himself in the back corner of the end zone surrounded by three Cardinals defenders. Didn't matter to Roethlisberger. After taking the snap, moving right and then left to avoid pressure, Big Ben lofted a pass that, as Michael David Smith would tell me after the game, "looked like he was throwing it away." Instead, the ball just cleared the fingertips of a leaping Dominique Rogers-Cromartie before Holmes snatched it out of the air while simultaneously dragging both feet in bounds. Touchdown. Steelers 27, Cardinals 23. For all intents and purposes, ball game.
I'm not one for "instant history," but after David Tyree a year ago, Holmes' touchdown grab might've been the most clutch reception in Super Bowl history. The only thing more clutch than Holmes' catch? Roethlisberger.
Big Ben's professional career is chock full of late-game heroics, but this fact somehow escapes his detractors. Part of that has to do with his situation: Roethlisberger fell in the Steelers' lap after 10 other teams passed on him in the 2004 draft. Pittsburgh was coming off a 6-10 season, but returned basically the same personnel that won 10 games in '02, and 13 the year before.
Then-offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt kept it simple: use the run to set up the run. Run a little more, and on those rare occasions that a pass play is in order, give Roethlisberger easy reads and high-percentage opportunities. That's a slight exaggeration, but the plan worked flawlessly: Pittsburgh won 15 games and made it all the way to the conference championship game before running into Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
Unlike, say, Joey Harrington or David Carr, Big Ben didn't have to carry his team from Day 1. A strong running game, solid receivers and a stout defense made his job relatively straightforward: Stay out of the way and let your teammates do the heavy lifting.
Again, that's an oversimplification -- Roethlisberger certainly had his moments as a rookie. His tackle-breaking, making-something-out-of-nothing talents were evident in his very first NFL start against the Dolphins ... in hurricane-type conditions. He also lit up the undefeated Patriots in their regular-season matchup, and led an impressive game-winning drive against the Cowboys and Jaguars. Still, the perception remained: Big Ben, like Trent Dilfer, was the beneficiary of a great supporting cast. And that, more than any individual ability, had to do with his success.
Sometimes, though, perception skews reality. After the game, ESPN's Steve Young pointed out that nearly a third of the Steelers' wins this season were the result of a Roethlisberger fourth-quarter-comeback drive. During his career, Big Ben has accomplished the feat 19 times. Nineteen. There are quarterbacks currently in the Hall of Fame who can't make that claim. And not one of those 19 was more spectacular than his performance Sunday night.
Of course, the post-game talking heads immediately christened Roethlisberger an elite quarterback, lumping him in with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. I'm not sure Ben's at that point yet, but you know what? He doesn't have to be. His game isn't that of the traditional in-the-pocket passer. Ben's a maverick (more John Elway than John McCain ... obviously), whose game is all about, as he's said for two weeks now, "backyard football."
At times it can be frustrating, particularly for an offensive line that has taken a beating with fans and the media commensurate with the sacks Ben endured on 46 occasions, many his own doing. But those moments are fleeting. After a forgettable three-week stretch against the Giants, Redskins and Colts -- a stretch that had many people, myself included, calling for Byron Leftwich to replace Big Ben until he was healthy enough to resume his behind-the-line weekly beatdowns -- Roethlisberger seemed to magically flip a switch.
The hows and whys for the sudden turnaround? Who knows. And I'd guess Big Ben couldn't tell you, either. But Pittsburgh would win six of seven to end the regular season, and half those victories were courtesy of a Roethlisberger-led fourth-quarter comeback.
And then the Super Bowl happened. Apparently, it's habit-forming. Not bad for the best game manager in the history of tackle football.
Matt Cashore, US Presswire
Tony Ranze, AFP / Getty Images
Darryl Norenberg, WireImage
Phil Sandlin, AP
David J. Phillip, AP
Doug Mills, AP
Andy Hayt, Getty Images
Focus on Sport / Getty Images
Andy Lyons, Getty Images