Steelers’ Tomlin facing a dilemma with Roethlisberger: When is too late, too soon?

Joe Sargent

Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin faces a dilemma regarding Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but it isn’t what you may think.

As it stands right now, the Pittsburgh Steelers hold the No. 6 seed for the playoffs, and would face the Denver Broncos in Denver.

Of course, the Steelers have to make it to the playoffs for this to be an issue, and it looks like Ben Roethlisberger will have to make it back onto the field for them to make the playoffs.

And therein lays the dilemma in Tomlin’s choice.

The Steelers just lost second string quarterback Byron Leftwich to broken ribs after the loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Charlie Batch, the venerable 37 year old third string quarterback is scheduled to start against the Browns this Sunday, and the Steelers just announced signing the former New England Patriots understudy to Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, to back up Batch.

Despite Steeler Nation’s belief in the number of game changing players the Steelers have on offense; despite Tomlin’s "The Standard" mantra, it is quite obvious the fate of the Steelers rises and falls on the skills of Ben Roethlisberger. Not on whoever is left to back him up, and the franchise quarterback knows his teammates count on him.

Much has been said and written about Roethlisberger’s competitive nature, both on and off the field. His style of play commands the respect of the entire NFL. Players, coaches and owners, and sports journalists alike all respect him for his toughness, his ability to play through pain, and his ability to carry his team to victory on the field through his sheer will and determination not to lose.

Mike Tomlin, recognizing this in his quarterback, has been quoted as saying: "Guys like Ben, competitors, playing football is like breathing to them."

A common refrain from Roethlisberger himself is: "I'm a win at all costs guy".

He does not always do what’s best for his himself, if by sacrificing his body he can help his team win. Steeler Nation has seen this time and time again: Big Ben, hobbling onto the field earlier than expected, getting smashed to the ground only to rise up grimacing in pain to battle on. He’s done it so many times and with such great success, as evident by his two Super Bowl rings, that he doesn’t seem to think twice about it.

Roethlisberger has been quoted more than once saying: "I know I probably never will win the league MVP or passing title. That is not why I play the game. I try to win football games and championships."

Ben also has admitted on more than one occasion he likes to prove people wrong: "When there are doubters, it always fuels the fire a little bit. When people say you can’t do something, if you are a competitor, that drives you."

Ben Roethlisberger is the ideal quarterback, but not necessarily an ideal judge of his own limitations.

Steeler Nation hotly debated the wisdom of Roethlisberger playing Week 15 last year with a high ankle sprain suffered the week before against the Cleveland Browns when the 10-3 Steelers faced the San Francisco Forty-Niners. The debate raged for days despite the Steelers having a chance to take the AFCN crown from Baltimore who had lost its fourth game the night before.

Tomlin would not have started him if Roethlisberger himself didn’t feel he could play, but how often do you see Ben refuse a chance to get onto the field?

Before the playoff game against the Denver Broncos in Denver last year, FS Ryan Clark claimed to have worked out a plan with his doctors to allow him to play. Clark’s sickle cell trait is a not that uncommon; the doctors for both the player and the team worked Clark out, collected data and evaluated the results.

Yet Tomlin elected not to let Clark play. Clark was quoted as saying Tomlin explained his decision as simply as "……he wouldn’t have let his son play and so I’m not playing either".

For a multitude of reasons, the Clark decision is different than the dilemma Tomlin faces with Roethlisberger. Clark has already lost his gallbladder and spleen from playing in Denver; the susceptibility for further damage will always exist because the sickle trait will never go away. And Clark recognizes he is but one player on a defensive unit of 11.

Roethlisberger, and the entire Steelers organization, knows he is the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.

With so much riding on the season, a season full of such promise and a playoff spot seemingly within the grasp of the team, how much imploring from Roethlisberger and his doctors can Tomlin withstand before he is convinced to return his franchise quarterback to the field?

As Steeler Nation painfully recalls, Roethlisberger took a beating against the Niners, sacked three times and throwing three interceptions in a 20-3 loss. Three weeks later in Denver, he was still hobbled by the ankle and it showed in his performance, despite leading the Steelers back from a 14 point deficit to force the game into overtime.

Roethlisberger’s current injury has been diagnosed as a SC injury; a sprain to the sternoclavicular joint. The Steelers have not disclosed whether it is an anterior or posterior injury. However, the fact that he was rushed so quickly to the hospital and the team did report an injury to his ribs has led many to speculate that it is in fact a posterior SC injury, which poses a direct risk to his lungs or heart.

Because his type of injury is so rare, few doctors have seen it, and fewer have experience treating it. St. Louis Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola recently returned from a posterior SC injury after four weeks. Because of the interconnectedness of the clavicle and the sternum, any stress put on the shoulder, such as the motion of throwing a football, is transferred to the injured ribs and sternum as well.

Amendola doesn’t rely on his shoulder to win games. Nor does he face the prospect of being driven into the turf on every play by 250 pound rampaging defensive linemen, risking reinjuring an already weakened joint and ribs.

With an injury so rarely seen in football, and thus so little data with which to measure Roethlisberger’s recuperation by, how can Roethlisberger, Tomlin or the doctors know how soon is too soon? A season is on the line sure, but potentially so is the man’s life.

A broken bone can be X-rayed and its degree of healing completion measured. A dislocation however, can appear to be back in place and fully healed, but who really knows?

Look at LaMarr Woodley and his hamstrings. This type of injury happens all the time, and yet the recovery period varies greatly from player to player, and from incident to incident with the same player.

How many games in the past two years has Woodley tried to come back from a hamstring injury, but has been forced to return to the sidelines and miss the next game, two games, three?

Roethlisberger, Tomlin and the Steelers will certainly consult with the best medical doctors available, but this is fairly uncharted territory, without any standard means of measuring the risk. But if Ben say he’s ready to return like he did in San Francisco, how much weight will that carry with Tomlin given his quarterbacks propensity for last minute heroics?

And with the Steelers playoff chances riding on the arm of Batch, or newly signed Hoyer, how much pressure will Roethlisberger be putting on himself to once again rise to the occasion?

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