- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

It was by far the worst performance of Ben Roethlisberger’s young career, pass after pass missing the intended target.

Fortunately for Roethlisberger, his target was the open window of a moving taxicab, the opposing quarterback was David Letterman and the occasion was an appearance on “The Late Show.”

Roethlisberger’s wayward throws on Letterman’s show are about the only things that have gone wrong for the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback this season.

Four months after being best known for the length of his last name, Roethlisberger is Pittsburgh’s newly adopted favorite son.

He is 8-0 as a starter. “Roethlisburgers” are being consumed all over town. Stores can’t keep his No. 7 jersey in stock. He has received marriage proposals from star-struck female fans.

“Big Ben” is the biggest thing to hit the Steel City since baby-faced Mario Lemieux became the Penguins 20 years ago.

If the rookie from Miami of Ohio doesn’t have a street named after him yet — as Lemieux does — it’s only because he hasn’t been in the league long enough to lead his team to a title.

He has, however, led the Steelers to back-to-back beatings of two teams among the favorites to win the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh beat the New England Patriots 34-20 on Oct. 31 and followed that victory with a 27-3 thrashing of the Philadelphia Eagles the next weekend.

Two more wins put the Steelers at 9-1 — tied with the Eagles and Patriots for the best record in the NFL — and inspired talk of a Super Bowl title returning to Pittsburgh for the first time since 1980.

“Any time you start having success, you’re going to get a lot of comparisons back to the ‘70s and Terry Bradshaw,” said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, referring to the Hall of Famer who quarterbacked Pittsburgh to four titles from 1974 to 1979. “There’s a lot of excitement because it’s a very passionate town.

“Ben has handled all the attention very well. He has kept a lot of things in perspective. He has been very grounded throughout this whole run that he’s made.”

Perhaps Pittsburgh has embraced Roethlisberger because he’s a blue-collar underdog, too.

Roethlisberger’s parents divorced when he was 2. His mother died in an auto accident six years later.

He wound up at Miami of Ohio instead of at a big-name program largely because he played receiver until his senior year at Findlay (Ohio) High School because the coach’s son had a grip on the quarterback job.

And despite a superb college career, Roethlisberger was generally ignored in the draft hype showered on fellow quarterbacks Eli Manning of Mississippi and Philip Rivers of N.C. State.

“Everyone goes through things growing up. I’m no different,” said Roethlisberger, the 11th pick. “Having the family background and the faith that I have definitely helped pave the way for me. A lot of things have added to the chip on my shoulder … and motivate you.”

The NFL is rarely kind to rookie quarterbacks. Witness the first-year quarterback ratings of greats John Elway (54.9) and Troy Aikman (55.7).

Many who go on to great careers — current Pro Bowl quarterbacks like Daunte Culpepper of the Minnesota Vikings, Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans and Tom Brady of the Patriots — barely got on the field as rookies.

But Roethlisberger is different.

With the Steelers’ ground game restored to its usual spot atop the NFL, Roethlisberger isn’t being asked to do as much as rookie quarterbacks on bad teams.

However, when called on, Roethlisberger has been more efficient than most veteran quarterbacks. His 68.8 completion percentage and 101.6 rating not only would be rookie records but rank second and sixth in the league.

Roethlisberger also plays well beyond his years in the clutch. His ratings in the fourth quarter (123.1) and on third down (115.3) rank second and third in the league.

“It looks to me like he can do about what he wants out there,” said Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, not a man prone to gushing about rookies. “He’s out of the pocket throwing 50-yard passes right on the money.

“He’s the best prospect I’ve seen in 10 or 15 years. I haven’t seen anybody come into the league like that [since] Dan Marino.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a two-time Super Bowl winner, was especially impressed by the 6-foot-5, 242-pound Roethlisberger’s toughness under fire.

“He’s a hard guy to get on the ground,” Belichick said. “People have had shots at him. He shrugs them off, and they just bounce right off of him. He just stands in there or runs through a potential tackle and gets out there and makes the play.”

Despite his success and all the plaudits, Roethlisberger isn’t motivated by any statistics other than wins and losses.

His childhood hero was Joe Montana, who quarterbacked San Francisco to four Super Bowl victories and whom he called “the ultimate winner.”

Asked about his performance so far, he talked about “the guys around me.” Asked to name his best play as a pro, Roethlisberger didn’t cite a scramble or a touchdown pass but rather handing off to running back Jerome Bettis.

“When you looked at Ben [in college], you saw a very good athlete for a kid that size,” Cowher said. “He’s got arm strength with a great feel for the game. He played in a wide-open offense.

“The feeling was that Eli and Philip may have been more prepared to play because of Ben’s level in the [Mid-American Conference]. I don’t think anybody would have expected this.”

Nor could they have.

Roethlisberger finally looked fallible Sunday in the Steelers’ 19-14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

He didn’t lead a touchdown drive until late in the third quarter. He was indecisive. He scrambled unnecessarily.

Still, he found a way to win.

“Ben’s very mature. He came in and soaked in all the information he could. … He has not been overwhelmed by anything. I’ve really liked his poise,” Cowher said. “He brought us back when we were down 10 points in the fourth quarter at Dallas. He has done a very good job managing the team.

“He has done a good job making plays when we’ve had to make plays, a good job making plays through his improvisation and his mobility. And I think the best is yet ahead of him.”

And that is a scary thought for the Steelers’ opponents.

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