Friday, October 22, 2004

The Pittsburgh Steelers and rookie Ben Roethlisberger could be adding a third chapter to the NFL’s list of unlikely stories involving quarterbacks in recent seasons.

In 1999, the St. Louis Rams lost quarterback Trent Green to a season-ending knee injury and replaced him with unknown backup Kurt Warner, who led the Rams to a Super Bowl victory. Two years later, the New England Patriot lost Drew Bledsoe and turned to untested Tom Brady.

The Steelers are 4-0 since Roethlisberger replaced the injured Tommy Maddox as they were being pounded by Baltimore in Week2 to fall to 1-1. Roethlisberger — the other quarterback in April’s NFL Draft — is thriving while the more highly touted Eli Manning and Philip Rivers ride the pine with the New York Giants and San Diego, respectively.

“Big Ben” is second to Indianapolis MVP Peyton Manning among AFC passers and is the first rookie quarterback to win his first four starts since the Giants’ Phil Simms 25 years ago.

Dallas coach Bill Parcells said Roethlisberger is the best rookie quarterback he has seen since cinch Hall of Famer Dan Marino made his debut with Miami in 1983. The numbers say Roethlisberger is even better than Marino, a Pittsburgh native and former Pitt star.

As a rookie, Marino completed 58 percent for 2,210 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions in 11 games (nine starts) for a 96.0 rating. Roethlisberger has completed 69 percent for 937 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions in five games (four starts) for a 100.1 rating. And Roethlisberger is at his best in the clutch. He leads the NFL in fourth-quarter rating (127.6) and the AFC on third down (114.8).

While Roethlisberger, 23, has received most of the attention, the Steelers also have benefited greatly from the addition of two wiser heads.

Running back Duce Staley, 29, has 582 yards on 126 carries, both more than he had all last year for Philadelphia, to lift Pittsburgh’s rushing game from 31st in 2003 to eighth.

And in his second tour as the team’s defensive coordinator, 67-year-old Dick LeBeau has the Steelers fifth overall and sixth against the pass, compared to ninth and 11th in 2003. Sacks and takeaways are both way up in LeBeau’s more aggressive scheme after Pittsburgh slipped to its lowest level in 2003 of coach Bill Cowher’s first 12 seasons. LeBeau has his linebackers dropping less often into coverage and has strong safety Troy Polamalu playing closer to the line of scrimmage to be more of a factor in run support.

Pittsburgh reached the second round of the playoffs (1996) and the AFC Championship game (2001) following its previous 5-1 starts under Cowher. These Steelers will have a better sense of how good they are when they play host to the Super Bowl champion Patriots and the NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles in their first two games after this weekend’s bye.

One No. 80 to another — Before trading for all-time leading receiver Jerry Rice on Tuesday, Seattle management called Steve Largent, the Seahawks’ lone Hall of Famer, and asked if he’d mind if Rice wore the No.80 the team retired in his honor in 1995. Rice, who thought he would have to switch numbers, was thrilled to receive Largent’s blessing.

“When he said that it sent chills through my body because I know what he has done for this city,” said Rice, who has nearly doubled Largent’s former NFL records. “You think about the Seattle Seahawks, you think about Steve Largent. And for him to just say without any hesitation that I could wear his jersey, that meant the world to me.”

Raider World? — Oakland has followed New England in establishing a Chinese section on its Web site, but the Raiders one-upped the Patriots in printing T-shirts sporting owner Al Davis’ “Just Win Baby” motto in Mandarin.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us to reach … one of the largest populations of Internet users in the world,” Raiders chief executive Amy Trask said. “The Raider Nation transcends languages, borders and cultures. This is the continuation of an ongoing effort to reach out to Raider fans around the world. has been an overwhelming success, and we expect Raiders in Chinese to set the standard for the league.”

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