It’s here. Finally. Ben Roethlisberger, reinvented, has returned from exile and, sorta like Steve Austin, he’s “better, stronger, faster.”
And it’s not one of those things where we’re hoping Big Ben is the player he was before he was banished to the Western Pennsylvania suburbs for a month. I feel safe in saying that we all know he’s going to go off on the Browns like he’s Old Ben taking over a college bar. Too much? Maybe. But you get what I’m saying: Roethlisberger is cockroach-in-a-nuclear-blast resilient.
Unlike, say, Kordell, Big Ben isn’t distracted by the non-football-related noise. You could tell when Kordell was about to be overwhelmed by the situation. And it always ended badly. A non-Steelers example: Carson Palmer. That guy screams “I’M ABOUT TO FAIL SO EVERYBODY WATCH OUT!” We can blame his tailspin past mediocrity and into “historically awful Bengals QB” territory on getting Kimo’d, or the elbow injury from a few years ago, but whatever, the point remains: the guy is about as clutch as 2010 Jeff Reed.
Meanwhile, people have sometimes mistaken Ben’s laser focus for being dumb. Early in his career I was guilty of this. The rumors of half-field reads and a pared-down playbook during his rookie season, his alleged shitty work ethic, not to mention the weird stories of Ben’s broken toes following the 2004 playoffs (which Bill Cowher promptly refuted) didn’t help. You don’t find Peyton Manning in such circumstances. But here’s the deal: Ben’s not an idiot, at least not on the field. And of all the things we may not like about Ben the Human, Ben the Football Player is second-most important person on the Steelers roster (after Troy, feel free to argue) and one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
What might appear on the surface as stupid is actually Ben’s unique ability to compartmentalize the unimportant stuff. I suppose there’s a tipping point — if you’re Tiger Woods it’s double-digit mistresses and a nine-figure divorce settlement. But Roethlisberger never got that far, thankfully, and after four weeks of introspection and private workouts with his quarterbacks coach, Ben seems to agree with the rest of us: he was kind of a dick and he wants to change. But more than that, he missed football and spent his time away from the team getting better.
Look, we’re not talking about Kyle Boller working on his mechanics, or Alex Smith laying on his therapist’s couch getting mentally tough. This is a guy with two Super Bowl rings coming off the best season of his then-six-year career. And now, there’s a pretty good chance he’s better.
Before the season, I wrote about what we could expect from Roethlisberger when he assumed the starting duties. The news was encouraging. We’re intimately familiar with post-injury Big Ben, particularly the one we saw the first half of the 2006 season. But for the first time ever, the Steelers enter Week 6 and Ben hasn’t taken one hit. In fact, he’s the healthiest guy on the roster. Here’s what I said back on Sept. 1:
Unlike previous missed starts, though, this time is different. Ben’s on the sidelines for reasons wholly unrelated to injuries. … So perhaps the bounce-back period won’t be one game [which historically had been the case], but something much less than that. …
So, yes, there are plenty of questions about the quarterback position for the immediate future. But if some combination of Byron, Dennis and Chaz can keep the duct tape on the offense in September, the Steelers — as Peter King boldly predicts in SI (thanks, Eddie Mush!) — are Super Bowl contenders. (Okay, I’m not willing to go that far, but if Pittsburgh can squeak out a 2-2 start, then I’m riding shotgun on the playoff bandwagon.)
Pittsburgh easily cleared that last hurdle; 3-1 with a last-second loss to the Ravens. And as commenter Easy Like Sunday Morning noted in today’s daily thread, “The teams we’ve played so far are 14-5 (1-3 vs. us, 13-2 vs. the rest of their opponents). That’s 11 games over .500. By contrast, our 12 remaining opponents are 11 games under .500 at 23-34. Of those future opponents, 5 teams are at least .500 and have a 15-7 record. The other 7 are an awful 8-27. The bottom feeders include BUF and CAR, both 0-5, and CLE (twice) who have played better but are still 1-4.”
Now Pittsburgh’s franchise quarterback is back under center and an offense that was nonexistent for three of the first four weeks of 2010 should pick up where it left off in 2009. Or — and I can’t believe I’m about to write this — be even more balanced.