2008 Season Outlook
Big Ben got a huge contract this winter, one that forbids him from participating in "hazardous activities." That's good, because a motorcycle crash is the only thing that has slowed his ascent to the fantasy elite. Like other top fantasy quarterbacks, what distinguishes Roethlisberger is his willingness to go down the field; his career 8.1 yards per attempt is the fourth-highest in NFL history. He set a career high with 32 touchdown passes in '07, completing 65.3 percent of his throws, good for seventh in the league. His temporary "pleas" for a big receiver notwithstanding, '08 looks like another year of improvement.
5 seasons in, Steelers leaning on Big Ben
When the four-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman realized he wouldn’t make it, who ran up to lend not only a helping hand but offer words of consolation? Not another defensive player, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
It’s a much-repeated scene only four days into the Steelers’ camp: Roethlisberger isn’t just running the offense, he’s leading it. The entire team, too.
“Absolutely,” said new center Justin Hartwig, citing the most visible example of what the Steelers think about Roethlisberger. “One million dollars is a lot of money.”
That’s $102 million to be precise, though the 26-year-old Roethlisberger probably won’t see all of it. A nice chunk of it, $36 million, is guaranteed, including the $25.5 million signing bonus.
Such a contract isn’t uncommon for NFL star quarterbacks, but it’s a huge commitment for a team that previously declined to devote nearly as much cash to a single player. But Roethlisberger already is the second-most accomplished quarterback in the 76-year-old franchise’s history to Terry Bradshaw, even though he is beginning only his fifth season on the job.
Coincidentally, it wasn’t until his fifth season in 1974 that Bradshaw, one of the greatest big-game quarterbacks in NFL history, fully secured a starting job and led the Steelers to the first of their four Super Bowl victories in six seasons. At the same stage of his career, Roethlisberger has won a Super Bowl and is averaging 11 victories per season.
“The guy keeps getting better,” Ward said. “And you know he’s going to keep getting better.”
Other than winning multiple Super Bowls, there isn’t much Roethlisberger hasn’t done since the Steelers drafted him No. 11 overall in 2004. He went 13-0 in 2004, by far the best record for an NFL rookie quarterback, won a Super Bowl the next season, then set Steelers’ single-season records with 32 touchdown passes and a 104.1 passer rating last season despite getting sacked 47 times.
After years of searching for a franchise quarterback, the Steelers didn’t want to lose this guy. That’s why it’s grown apparent that whatever Ben wants, Ben gets.
The Steelers tore up Roethlisberger’s rookie contract to give him the new deal in March. A month later, they gladly fulfilled his request for a tall receiver with downfield skills by drafting Limas Sweed of Texas in the second round.
“I wanted to stay here,” Roethlisberger said. “The day I came here, I wanted to be one of those guys who played their entire career for one team, like (John) Elway and (Dan) Marino. I love Pittsburgh and I wanted to stay here.”
If a quarterback in New York or Philadelphia, for example, recklessly went out and crashed his motorcycle without wearing a helmet, nearly killing himself and effectively dooming his team’s season months after winning a Super Bowl, it might have generated such fan anger that it could have ended his career in that city.
Yet after Roethlisberger’s June 2006 accident, the fans shrugged their shoulders and said, “Well, that’s stubborn Ben for you,” endured an underachieving season, then went back to cheering him as Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a 10-6 record and a division title last year.
Even with the new offensive toys the Steelers are giving him in Sweed and running back Rashard Mendenhall, their first-round pick, Roethlisberger will earn his money this season.
The offensive line, stripped of one of the best players in franchise history when Faneca signed with the Jets as a free agent, is a work in progress that may not come together until well into the season. Until then, Roethlisberger must rely on his versatility, scrambling ability and a no-huddle offense to avoid being sacked once per series.
“I ask Ben all the time what he thinks and he has all the confidence in the world in (the linemen),” said defensive end Brett Keisel, one of Roethlisberger’s best friends. “I don’t think they’re doing as much shuffling as they did last year and once they get that continuity down, they’ll be fine.”
The still-developing no-huddle offense, which Roethlisberger has run effectively but sporadically, allows him to direct the show on his own without listening to his helmet headset for plays.
“I know he’s itching to get out there and run that no-huddle and not have guys in his ears all the time,” Ward said.
To that, Roethlisberger said, “In high school and college, when things are going faster and I’m calling stuff, it always seems to work out better for me.”
Roethlisberger, like everyone associated with the Steelers, is eager to see how much better an already good quarterback can be. He is fifth all-time in NFL career passer rating, is 12-5 in games decided by six points or less, owns a 39-16 career record and has led 13 fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drives, yet still hasn’t played his 60th regular-season game.
“I want to continue to get better and grow,” Roethlisberger said. “I think we’ve got an explosive offense just waiting to get let out.”
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
After one day of training camp, it seems obvious the Steelers have a lot going against them. Casey Hampton is too fat. Troy Polamalu and Chris Kemoeatu are too lame. The offensive line could be too weak. The defensive line could be too old. The schedule is too tough. The Cleveland Browns could be too strong.
But the Steelers also have one very important thing going for them.
"It almost scares me how good he is, how into it he is and how good he's going to be," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was saying between camp practices yesterday.
Probably scares a few NFL defensive coordinators, too.
The Steelers are lucky to have an elite player at football's most crucial position, the best quarterback in the league not named Tom Brady. You might argue for Peyton Manning. The Steelers and I will take Ben Roethlisberger at this stage of their careers. That's why the Steelers gave him a $102 million contract in March, including a $25.2 million signing bonus. That's why I'm here to tell you this morning he is the one reason to like the Steelers' chances of holding off the Browns in the AFC North Division.
I'm thankful I have the easy part, not the money part.
Roethlisberger has done so much so quickly that it's easy to forget he's 26, starting his fifth season. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to go 13-0 in the regular season as a rookie in 2004. He led the Steelers to the Super Bowl in '05. Forget '06 because of his motorcycle accident, emergency appendectomy and concussion. He set franchise records last season with 32 touchdown passes and a 104.1 passer rating and made his first Pro Bowl.
"He's going to continue to grow as a quarterback," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He'll keep getting better and better."
Arians already has seen it on the practice fields at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. "It's the way he carries himself," he said. "It's a night-and-day difference now from where he was two years ago. Then, he was like, 'I've got to take care of myself. This stuff is hard.' Now, he's like, 'I've got most of it down. I can help the other guys.' "
In the team run test Sunday, Roethlisberger was the first to Hampton when Hampton clearly was struggling. (Unfortunately, he didn't kick The Big Snack in his fat behind for letting his coaches and teammates down). After the morning practice yesterday, he walked off the field with wide receiver Willie Reid, who had a couple of minor dust-ups with defensive players during drills. "You have to be smart," Roethlisberger could be heard telling Reid.
I'm thinking the Steelers bought a little leadership for that $102 million.
But let's be real here. The Rooneys paid the big money for big plays, touchdown passes and wins. There are reasons to think Roethlisberger will deliver on all fronts.
There are the new rookie additions -- running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed, the big target Roethlisberger coveted -- to an offense that includes the ultimate possession receiver in Ward, a budding big-play man in Santonio Holmes, a terrific tight end in Heath Miller and a healthy Willie Parker at running back.
"I think we have an explosive offense that's ready to take off," Roethlisberger said.
There is an underappreciated offensive line that's better than the 47 sacks the Steelers gave up last season, at least according to the poor fellow who was on the receiving end of all 47 and was lucky to walk away from the last game. "I'm excited for those guys so they can silence the critics who are talking bad about them," Roethlisberger said. "I have all the faith in the world that they'll protect me."
There is an apparent willingness on Arians' part to use a bit more of the no-huddle offense, much to Roethlisberger's delight.
"It's just always been that when things go faster and get crazy and I'm calling my own plays, things seem to work better for me," Roethlisberger said.
But mostly, there is Big Ben.
It's fair to think Roethlisberger's greatest improvement will show in the interceptions he doesn't throw and the sacks he doesn't take. Arians said that's nothing more than maturity.
"Ben has great confidence in his ability to make a play when it looks like it might not be there," he said. "I never want to take that away from him. But, at the same time, he'll get better knowing when it's OK to throw the darn thing away. Why take a hit that you don't have to? Why force something and throw that interception?"
Roethlisberger threw three picks in the first half of the playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, a big reason the Steelers trailed by 18 points going into the fourth quarter. It didn't matter that he played the position as well as you can play it in the second half, completing 17 of 23 passes for 188 yards, leading four consecutive scoring drives and putting the Steelers ahead late. They ended up losing, 31-29.
"I'm ashamed of the way I played," Roethlisberger said afterward.
The man didn't back off those words much this week.
"It's one of those things that you're disappointed because you let a lot of guys down. But you can't dwell on it because, if you do, you're not going to get better. You let it go. It's over. I'm moving on."
And taking the Steelers with him.
Make no mistake about this:
Big Ben is their best chance of going a long way.