Ben Roethlisberger's toughness is legendary, mythic even, embodying the industrial-strength spirit of blue-collar Pittsburgh. Gritty "Big Ben" doesn't go down easily in the pocket, and he doesn't come out of the lineup easily, either.
No matter the injury, the Steelers quarterback seems to gut it out, suck it up and play through it.
There he was during warm-ups on Monday Night Football, grimacing and gimping with each dropback and follow-through. He moved with the grace of a petrified Frankenstein. His right ankle appeared atrophied compared to his injured left ankle, which was encased in a brace.
ESPN announcer Steve Young voiced the sentiment that most objective viewers surely had after watching Roethlisberger before the game.
"Looked awful. Can't play; can't play," Young said on the broadcast. "The guy's a stud, we understand that. If you ask him a question — 'You want to go?' — he'll go. But it became very clear to me that he can't play. He can't protect himself. He can't do anything that he'd like to do."
The only thing Roethlisberger could do was live up to his reputation. He played the entire game, throwing three picks, taking three sacks and losing a fumble.
Tough guy, right?
The answer was clear until we heard this startling admission regarding needles and painkillers. "There was no injection," Roethlisberger told reporters after the 49ers' 20-3 victory at Candlestick Park. "There was two Tylenols and two Advil."
Young and his fellow announcers had assumed that Roethlisberger, like other he-men throughout NFL history, would take something stronger than over-the-counter pills. They debated whether his painkilling shot would lose effectiveness because of the blackout and subsequent game delay. Tom Jackson speculated that Roethlisberger would take a second injection at halftime.
"We heard Steve Young and those guys say that before pre-game, 'Oh, he'll go shoot it up.' " Roethlisberger said. "No, we don't do that. They would never put me out there and endanger me or anybody on this team."
Either that, or Big Ben is scared of needles.
Coach Mike Tomlin opened himself to immediate second-guessing by starting a clearly hobbled Roethlisberger. The Steelers could have secured the No. 1 seed by sweeping their final three games, but the remaining contests would be crucial either way. Playing Roethlisberger Monday put him at risk of further injury and unavailability down the stretch.
"He was healthy enough to play," Tomlin told reporters. "We always like what Ben provides us, not only from the quality of play, but his leadership. This guy is a tremendous competitor. We appreciate his efforts. Obviously, we fell short tonight."
There's a difference between healthy enough to play and being able to play effectively. Roethlisberger is a terrible judge because he would try to play in a full-body cast. But he said the decision wasn't his.
"I was gonna play," he said. "I mean it wasn't my call — I'll go out and play at 5 percent. I don't care. I told coach 'It's your call. You make the call; you're the head coach.' "
Interesting. After playing so abysmally against San Francisco ("I was the best 49er tonight," he joked afterward), Mr. Tough Guy said he didn't demand to play. It was Tomlin's choice.
But Tomlin also was criticized for sticking with Roethlisberger so long. If Tomlin wanted to give him a look and see how it went instead of going with a backup, fine. But why not replace the ineffective Roethlisberger with Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon once the game was out of reach in the fourth quarter?
Trailing 13-3, Roethlisberger was sacked and lost a fumble with about 11 minutes left. San Francisco scored a few plays later to create the final margin with about nine minutes left.
Now down by three scores, the stationary quarterback served as target practice for the 49ers' pass rushers, who teed off with total disregard for the run. There was a sack with eight minutes left as the Steelers went three-and-out. There was another sack with four minutes left followed by an interception.
There would be no miraculous comeback, yet Tomlin — whom Roethlisberger claims made the call on playing because he's the head coach — didn't yank the one-legged quarterback.
Apparently, it was time for the tough-guy act again.
"When coach tried to get me out," Roethlisberger said, "I said, 'No, I'm not putting [Batch] in that situation and I'm not quitting on our guys. I started this thing. I'm going to finish it.'"
Weak. I've got to throw a flag.
If the decision to start was left to Tomlin, Roethlisberger shouldn't get to make the decision to be relieved. That's not toughness; that's selfishness. He didn't give his team its best chance to win.
He might have had a better shot if he took a needle.
Even wimps can suck down some aspirin.
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