By Joe Starkey
Thursday, September 7, 2006
Can the most successful third-year quarterback in NFL history -- a quarterback who loses a game about as often as he loses an appendix -- possibly be underrated?
Yes, and thank you for asking.
Actually, underappreciated might be the more appropriate term for Ben Roethlisberger, who will miss tonight's opener against the Miami Dolphins on account of his emergency appendectomy Sunday.
The Steelers will not crumble in his absence. Tommy Maddox doesn't live here anymore, so as long as Charlie Batch stays upright, the club should be able to survive even a couple of games without Big Ben.
At worst, they'll split.
But let's not kid ourselves. Roethlisberger is the Steelers' best player. He's the main reason the franchise snapped that pesky, 25-year Super Bowl drought, and he's the biggest key to winning it all again.
He's also one of the top five quarterbacks in football, and I'm not sure I'd rather have anyone else if I needed to win, say, a playoff game in Denver.
What's amazing is that so few people would agree with me.
What's even more amazing is that so many people still consider Roethlisberger to be more a function of the Steelers' system than anything else.
Take Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman -- aka Dr. Z -- who is very good but who deserves an 'F' for his recent assessment of Big Ben. The subject matter was active quarterbacks who might be first-ballot Hall of Famers. Dr. Z began with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Brett Favre and Roethlisberger.
So far, so good. But in differentiating between Palmer and Roethlisberger, the 'Z Man' writes, "I like Palmer's chances better. He seems to carry the team, whereas Roethlisberger, as effective as he is, is more a product of the system."
How many times have you heard that in the past two years? It's right up there with the line that goes, "The Steelers don't ask Roethlisberger to do too much."
Unless you include the part about them asking him to carry them to the Super Bowl, that is.
Remember, the Steelers' running game wasn't working all that well during the historic run through Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver. So, they put their trust in Roethlisberger. They came out passing in all three games, and all he did was ring up the fourth-best three-game playoff passer rating (125.8) in NFL history.
Behind some guys named Montana, Simms and Aikman.
It's true that the Steelers system fits Roethlisberger's talents, and that he's lucky to have so much talent around him. But couldn't the same be said of every great quarterback? The West Coast offense and throwing to Jerry Rice kind of fit Joe Montana's skill set, wouldn't you say?
What's also true of Roethlisberger is that he does some of his best work when "the system" breaks down.
Remember that touchdown pass just before the half in the AFC title game, the one where he scrambled away from pressure and lofted a ball just over 20 Broncos fingertips, to Hines Ward in the back of the end zone? That wasn't in the game plan. Neither was a similar, Elway-like scramble-and-chuck to Ward in the Super Bowl.
You know, the one where Roethlisberger straddled the line of scrimmage before heaving a cross-field cannon shot.
How many other quarterbacks make that play?
Roethlisberger is stunningly efficient, and it's not as if he dinks and dunks his way down the field. He led the NFL in two telling categories last season -- yards per attempt and touchdown percentage.
He obviously had a bad Super Bowl, but, like a pitcher without his best stuff, he battled and stayed in the game. Besides the big pass to Ward, he ran for a touchdown, threw a key block on the gadget-play touchdown and turned a broken play into a first down when the Steelers were running out the clock.
In other words, he found ways to help his team win the game, which is what a complete football player does. And which no quarterback in the NFL does better. Roethlisberger's career record stands at 27-4. Yeah, 27-4