Stephen A. Smith is a contemptible lurch, but he’s no dummy. He knows full well that hotter takes lead to harsher pushback, which only further amplifies his exposure. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his take on Ben Roethlisberger’s self-deprecating remarks following a 5-interception game against Jacksonville was characteristically spicy.
“Go the hell home. Retire. Give it up. Walk away. Go home with the wife and kids, chill out and do what you gotta do,” Smith said on a segment of ESPN’s First Take, which is a TV program that will outlast cockroaches in the impending nuclear war. Such an irreverent statement deserves proper context. You see, Smith preceded the aforementioned declaration with this: “Why should anybody believe in you? You clearly don’t believe in yourself.”
And that, my friends, is downright thought-provoking.
There’s a scene in the movie Logan in which the titular character—the aptly named Logan—survives a carjacking at the hands of five or six gangbangers. “Survives” is putting is mildly. Okay, there’s a scene in the movie Logan in which Logan gruesomely revenge-murders five or six gangbangers. For Logan, this is customary—in his past life, he was an unkillable and uncompromising roughneck who had a penchant for carving enemies to pieces with his built-in claws, which were the result of an experiment in which his skeleton was replaced with an indestructible metal alloy. Appropriately, he carried the epithet “Wolverine.” But after the fight, it became clear that the attributes that made him so formidable—namely, his regenerative healing abilities—were significantly diminished. He looked older. It was at this point that you realized, after nearly two decades of feature-length films and cameo appearances, that this was probably it for the iconic action hero.
Ben Roethlisberger is weighing retirement. He said as much this past off-season when he refused to commit to playing beyond 2017. The fact he told reporters that he “might not have it anymore,” even in jest, only further reinforces that point and understandably terrifies a fanbase that doesn’t appreciate how lucky it’s been over the past decade and a half. And this is where Stephen A. has a point: if the most important player on the team is doubting his own abilities, it impacts everyone’s confidence.
The Steelers are an excellent football team, and the fact that a large contingent of the fanbase is totally losing its mind after a 3-2 start is insane to me. (For real, for those of you who don’t live in and around Pittsburgh, my only wish is that you could experience the general discourse around here. Our radio segments make First Take look like the Jim Lehrer NewsHour.) If you ignore Leonard Fournette’s 90-yard run in garbage time and the two defensive touchdowns in the Jaguars game, the Steelers defense allowed 236 total yards (95 passing yards and 3.9 yards per rush) and 10 total points. That’s winning football. The Steelers’ defense might not be the 2015 Denver Broncos, but if they perform as well as they’ve done thus far for the duration of the season (being sure to tighten up their run defense in the process), Ben doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns every week.
But the Steelers absolutely need Ben to be better than he’s been. They need him to be better this very week, in fact. Pittsburgh will travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs, who are currently the best team in the NFL. Kansas City’s offense has been wholly unstoppable, for one thing, which is underscored by their current standing at the top of the league in points scored. Alex Smith presents perhaps the first real test for Pittsburgh’s No. 1 pass defense, which is a sentence I never thought I’d be writing in a million years. Another major problem goes by the name of Kareem Hunt, who has amassed nearly 800 rushing and receiving yards and scored six touchdowns. Pittsburgh’s run defense, which has, at times, been imbued with an innate badness this season, cannot like its chances against Hunt, who may actually be the best running back they’ve faced this season. Fortunately, a good strategy for answering a great offense is by being even greater. And in this respect, Ben’s sterling record of success against Kansas City has not gone unnoticed.
In six regular season games against the Chiefs, Roethlisberger boasts a 5-1 record, a 72-percent completion percentage, a 118 QB rating, and a 13/3 touchdown/interception ratio. A winning formula, indeed. The last time Pittsburgh and Kansas City met in the regular season—which, coincidentally, was Week 6 of the 2016 season—Ben threw for 300 yards on the nose and tossed five touchdowns. The Steelers won 42-14.
Ben certainly could use another one of those games, and he’s certainly had his share of those games over the course of his career. He couldn’t ask for a better set of circumstances, frankly. He’s coming off the most statistically repugnant game of his professional career (though, it should be noted, he once threw for 86 yards in a 16-13 victory over Kansas City). He’s facing a team that’s virtually devoid of weakness, and playing them at their home stadium, no less (plus the fact that Ben traditionally struggles on the road, regardless of his opponent’s skill level). He’s faced a week of “hot takes” from puds like me and Stephen A (although there’s veracity to the narratives downplaying his abilities at age 35—everyone regresses eventually, it’s just a matter of time.)
Here’s what one of those games would do: First, it would instantly placate a nervous fanbase and do likewise for the Steelers players, coaches and executives. Second, it would restore some order to what has been an otherwise chaotic season (“Oh, so the Steelers really actually are still good? Who knew?”). Lastly, and most importantly, it would restore Ben’s confidence, hopefully enabling him to become regular Ben rather than the Ben who throws five interceptions in a game and is unable to complete a 20-yard pass to save his own life.
At the end of Logan, Logan does die, but dies admirably, having just saved the lives of a dozen or so mutant children. It was a fitting ending, in truth, as it permitted us to remember him for what he was across a dozen movies, five timelines and two dimensions. Athletes are rarely as lucky.
Jerome Bettis was lucky, retiring after a Super Bowl. Charles Woodson’s career came to a nice close. Tom Brady will probably be similarly lucky. Probably. Still, the list is short. Tony Romo’s job was stolen by a rookie and now he works with Jim Nantz. Peyton Manning is one of the five greatest quarterbacks of all time, and he limped to his finish line like a dying dog, buoyed only via the mastery of a generationally-talented defense.
If this season winds up being it for Ben—and it very well could be—I want him to go out demonstrating the prowess that has engendered his Hall of Fame credentials. On Sunday, if Ben torches the Kansas City Chiefs like he’s done in the past, it’ll be a career-defining moment; not comparable to his Super Bowls, his fourth-quarter comebacks or the broken-nose game, but a game that may be viewed as a turning point in what has been an underwhelming season.