One of the familiar refrains regarding Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger over the past five years or so has been, “I give Big Ben about five more years before injuries start to take a toll, and he has to hang’em up.”
Here we are about five years after I started hearing those things about No. 7, and “they” are still giving him “five years.” (OK, maybe “three or four.”)
Obviously, I’m used to hearing that kind of stuff about Roethlisberger, but this past offseason, there was a lot of talk about him not being as fleet of foot as in years past: “Yeah, Ben can’t scramble like he used to. He’s lost a step or two.”
Big Ben can’t scramble like he used to?
It’s like someone in the ‘70s saying Frank Sinatra couldn’t sing like he used to, or someone in the ‘90s saying Michael Jackson couldn’t dance like he used to.
Say it isn’t so.
I mean, in Roethlisberger, we’re talking about the quintessential scrambler of his generation. This is the guy who gave us such hits as “Third and 28” in Super Bowl XL; “Ben to Santonio” (no, not the one that clinched Super Bowl XLIII. The one two weeks before, in the AFC Championship game against the Ravens, when Roethlisberger scrambled to his right, his left, his right again (all kinds of directions), before finding Santonio Holmes at the Baltimore 48 yard-line, who then proceeded to cut all the way across and then down the turf of Heinz Field for a magnificent 65-yard touchdown—I know what you were screaming while No. 7 was scrambling all over the place: “Throw it away! (2008 was the year of “Throw it away!”) You hold onto ball too damn long! They need to put Leftwich in there!”); and “Third and 18,” a play against the Bills in 2010 in-which he broke free from a sack, scrambled to his right, all the while looking downfield for a receiver (this is what Roethlisberger does at an almost lethal level), before he decided “screw it” and picked up important first down yardage on his own. (Did you see No. 99 also say “screw it” while in futile pursuit?)
Seriously, I’ve been watching football for a lot of years; I’ve never seen another quarterback who, much like a skilled punt-returner that finds open field after making a few guys miss, compels you to jump out of your seat after he breaks free from a potential sack and scrambles to his left or right with his arm cocked, looking to strike with a big play.
Speaking of that 2008 AFC Championship game, one of my favorite quotes of all time (and I wish I could find it, but I know I read it) came from an unnamed Ravens pass-rusher following Pittsburgh’s 23-14 victory who said, “It’s almost like he [Roethlisberger] wants you to beat your man.”
Anyway, all this gushing about No. 7’s scrambling ability was necessary to set up just how giddy I was Friday night when he finished off the Steelers first offensive series in the all-important third preseason game against the Saints in New Orleans by finding tight end Jesse James wide-open in the end zone for a five-yard touchdown pass.
It wasn’t the touchdown that had me rising out of my seat (I know, right? For a preseason game?); it was how Roethlisberger scrambled to his right, after his first option— Antonio Brown—was covered, put a move on a Saints defender, stepped up in the pocket and found James all alone in the end zone for the score.
Again, since it was preseason, that play was equal parts “Oh no, get down!” and equal parts “Yes!”
Preseason or not, the touchdown to James was the perfect example of what separates Roethlisberger from the rest of the pack of franchise quarterbacks. Also, it was a testament to his offseason weight loss (roughly 15 pounds), as he looked about as quick and elusive at age 34 as he did at age 23, when he avoided a few Seahawks defenders, had the presence of mind to stop just before the line of scrimmage and connected with Hines Ward on that aforementioned third and 28 play in Super Bowl XL.
That ‘backyard’ stuff has been a black mark against Roethlisberger his entire career even though, again, there are few quarterbacks in the NFL who can move around in the pocket like he does and find open receivers downfield.
This is probably why Roethlisberger is just now starting to get the respect he deserves, this despite being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL for the duration of his—soon-to-be—13-year NFL career.
As the Saints color analyst said following No 7’s touchdown to James: “This is what makes Roethlisberger so dangerous.”
It’s good to know Ben Roethlisberger still has his dangerous side, even if he only has about five years left, and he can’t scramble like he used to.