One of the most delicate issues an NFL head coach must deal with is what to do with an injured star player towards the end of the season when his team still has something to play for.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has been living in that world since the night his franchise quarterback suffered a high ankle sprain in a Thursday night game against the Cleveland Browns.
Just a couple of weekends ago, days before the Steelers were to take on the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football, what to do with Ben Roethlisberger may have been an easier decision. There were only three regular season games left to play, and the Steelers were on the wrong side of a tiebreaker with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. Despite their 10-4 record, the Steelers would still be a wild card team as long as Baltimore kept pace with the same record. And even if they did manage to catch the Ravens for the division, Pittsburgh wouldn't be guaranteed a bye because of another disadvantageous tiebreaker involving the AFC South champion Houston Texans. With a wild card playoff spot all but secure, and only ten days removed from the Thursday night game, nobody could have blamed Tomlin for resting Roethlisberger in the Monday night game. There were bigger fish to fry. A healthy Big Ben in a wild card scenario was certainly better than no Big Ben and a bye. I know I was strongly in-favor of keeping Roethlisberger safe and out of harm's way so he could be healthy and ready to go come playoff time.
But the Sunday before the game, in the span of about eight hours, things changed. The Texans and Ravens both lost, and suddenly, the Steelers controlled their own destiny for the number one seed in the playoffs. What would Tomlin do now that he had such an epic opportunity unexpectedly fall in his lap? Would he turn to the veteran back up Charlie Batch, or would he go with number 7, a player who has displayed the kind of toughness in his career that would suggest he'd be more than capable of playing at a high-level so soon after such a serious injury?
Tomlin went with option B. Roethlisberger was cleared to play, the quarterback said he could go, what else was the coach supposed to do? He owed it to his players and fans to give his team the clearest avenue to a championship. After all, it wasn't unprecedented for Roethlisberger to excel in-spite of an injury. We're talking about a man who helped lead the Steelers to a pivotal win in Baltimore last year after suffering a broken nose. We're talking about a quarterback who played a significant portion of the 2010 season with a broken bone in his foot. We're talking about a player who passed for five touchdowns in a game earlier this season after spraining his foot the week before.
Unfortunately, things didn't turn out so well for the Steelers that night. Roethlisberger wasn't exactly immobile, but he wasn't very sharp either. It was an ugly, 20-3, loss, and the team finished the week where it started--looking up at the Ravens in the AFC North.
Almost immediately, the second-guessers came out of the woodwork. Many fans and media-types were adamant that Tomlin should have gone with Batch, that he could have been the difference in the outcome of the game. However, I know as sure as God gave me pretty hazel eyes that if the Steelers lost by the exact same score with Charlie Batch under center for the entire game, people would have been up-in-arms the next day. They would have said that Tomlin dropped the ball by not going with his elite quarterback, injured or not. The Steelers had an opportunity to seize the top seed, and Tomlin didn't put his team in the best position to win. You might say I'm just speculating, but I can almost guarantee you that is what the reaction would have been.
The only thing I disagreed with was Roethlisberger playing the entire game against the 49ers. After the score became 20-3 with barely half a quarter left to play, Tomlin should have made Roethlisberger sit down. The way the '9ers pass rushers were teeing off at that point, I didn't think it was worth the risk. There's courageous, and then there's stupid, and Roethlisberger taking so much unnecessary punishment at the end of a game the Steelers had no chance of winning was a little too close to the latter for my tastes..
For the Christmas Eve game, Tomlin decided to go with Batch against the St. Louis Rams. If Roethlisberger could go in San Francisco, why couldn't he play the following game? This was something else that was a no-win situation for the coach. And Batch's efficient if unspectacular performance only further fueled the sentiment that Batch could have won the game in San Francisco the week before.
Word is that Roethlisberger will go this week in Cleveland, but the Steelers will have him on a bit of a pitch count, if you will. But with the Steelers needing help in the form of a Bengals win over the Ravens in order for a victory against the Browns to matter, it's probably another no-win situation for Tomlin.
How long does he let Roethlisberger play? What if both games are close, but Tomlin still takes Big Ben out, the Steelers go on to lose, and the Bengals beat the Ravens? Imagine the outrage Monday morning.
What if the Ravens win, and Roethlisberger aggravates his injury in what turns out to be a meaningless game, and the team is compromised for the playoffs?
Like I said, it's a no-win situation for Tomlin, and I'm glad I don't have to make these decisions.
It's much easier to speculate.