Saturday, February 5, 2011

Superbowl XLV: Ben continues to play Big

Tomorrow night, if Ben Roethlisberger wins his third Superbowl, he will join elite company. He will have as many Superbowl rings as Troy Aikman and Tom Brady, two more than Peyton Manning, and three more than Dan Marino. Unbelievably, this is only Ben's seventh year in the league. He's 28 years old and at this rate could tie Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most rings by a quarterback in NFL history before celebrating his 30th birthday. All week leading up to this Superbowl, the talk has been about what Roethlisberger's legacy will be if he wins his third championship, if he belongs in the upper echelon of the great quarterbacks of all time. ESPN Radio show listeners have called in all across the country this week claiming he is overrated, wins because of a great defense and steady running game. The naysayers believe he's nothing more than a caretaker of the offense.

My generation has grown up with fantasy football statistics, rankings, and ratings; of EPSN polls and Madden video games. The fantasy player prizes the 400-yard regular season performances more than the gritty come from behind playoff win. Ben doesn't get any respect because he plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 70's quarterback for the Steelers, Terry Bradshaw witnessed the same scrutiny. Bradshaw, even with four Superbowl rings tied with Montana for the most ever is never put in the conversation as one of the best to play the position. When you play for the Steelers, there's a mystic that the team wins with ferocious defense and a great running attack. That might have been true during the steel curtain days of the 1970's, but the Steelers passing game has played a pivotal role in their latest Superbowl victory.

Just as the sky high steel mills have been replaced with research facilities and corporations, the Steelers offense in the 21st century has evolved. The longer Roethlisberger has been with the Steelers, the more the offense has shifted from the ground and pound mentality to a dynamic aerial attack. The Steelers offense is now at its best when Big Ben scrambles out of the pocket, dodges defenders, and makes a big play to Hines Ward, Heath Miller, or Mike Wallace down the field. The change came slowly and gradually, but it happened.  Each season, since Roethlisberger has been at the helm, his throwing attempts have gone from 300 his rookie season to over 500 last year. The more trust the coaching staff has had in him, the more the offense had become a passing one.

Don't get me wrong. Running is still a big part of the Steelers identity, but its not what makes them win. They will pound the rock to keep the defense honest, but when the offense needs a big game changing play, they call upon number seven. Roethlisberger has thrown for over 3,000 yards four times and last year for over 4,000. He also gets less respect for the way he looks when he plays the game. The school yard dump pass, the double pump-fake, and the unorthodox delivery doesn't have the flash of Brady or the precision of Manning. Ben looks more like an offensive lineman than a quarterback. But, what defines a great leader is how you react in crisis and Roethlisberger is the best when he needs to deliver.

When there is 1:30 left on the clock, no timeouts, and his offensive in pinned back at the 10 yard-line needing a touchdown, no one is better. Ben shows up for the big games and the big moments. He's 10-2 in the playoffs, while the great Peyton Manning is 9-10. Ben plays better when the weather is worse, on the road, and later in the year which tells me that when he runs into adversity, he faces it and beats it down. I'm the type of person who respects the guy that can ad-lib, wing it, and get the job done. I have more respect for the news reporter who is told to riff off the cuff for three minutes about a story more than the anchor who is reading straight off the teleprompter. Ben plays better in crisis, when the chips are stacked against him. As a fantasy football crazed society, we put too much emphasize on numbers, touchdown passes, and quarterback rating (although Ben's career QB rating is higher than Troy Aikman, John Elway, and Dan Marino who are all in the hall of fame).

Troy Aikman comparison: Even though the rules today help quarterbacks more than they did twenty years ago, I could argue that the great Troy Aikman was only a manager of the Cowboys. Troy Aikman was a no-brainier, first ballot hall of famer. In Aikman's eleven years with the Cowboys, he threw for over 19 touchdowns only once. Four times, he had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and had six seasons where he completed less than 60% of his passes. Aikman had arguably the best duo of weapons in NFL history in Michael Irvin and Emmit Smith.  Aikman had hall of fame offensive talent around him but didn't put up great passing numbers or throw for a million touchdowns. But, Aikman was great and a shoe in for the hall of fame no questions asked. In the realm of fantasy football the Matt Schaub's and Kyle Orton's of the world get regarded higher than a big Ben because they throw for 400 yards a game and are better fantasy players. But is Schaub and Orton even in the same stratosphere as Ben Roethlisberger? Getting too caught up in stats can skew someones greatness, but this weekend Roethlisberger gets another chance to prove that after only seven years, he is already a hall of famer.

The Comeback King

Roethlisberger set a NFL rookie record in 2004 with five comeback wins in the fourth quarter, and six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter/overtime (including one playoff game). Roethlisberger has the most comeback wins (19) and game-winning drives (25) through the first seven seasons of a player's career. 
Plain and simple this guy is tough, wins when it counts, and plays best when things are at there worst. In a big game, I will put my money on Mr. Clutch, Ben Roethlisberger to hoist the Lombardi trophy over his 6'5 260 pound shoulders. 

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