Are we witnessing a brand-new Ben Roethlisberger? Or is it an old, long-lost friend, returned again?
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ longtime star quarterback spent the off-season contemplating retirement after the 2016 post-season campaign ended in disappointment, once again at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Following that defeat, Roethlisberger spoke publicly -- and emotionally — about the bitter disappointment of being so close to his fourth Super Bow appearance, only to have a lackluster team effort derail those chances.
Roethlisberger did all he was asked, and then some, in that game. But, once running back Le’Veon Bell went down with a leg injury, the one-dimensional offensive attack was unable to keep up with a New England offense that took advantage of the Steelers’ shortcomings in coverage. Roethlisberger felt, for better or worse, that others on the team had failed to give their best effort.
That’s when the retirement discussion began, and it didn’t end for several months.
Ultimately, though, the ultra-competitive quarterback chose to return in 2017. The same guy who guided the Steelers for 13 years will be back at the helm once again, much to the relief of fans and front-office personnel alike. The Ben Roethlisberger we are seeing since training camp started, though, may be a little different. Maybe even refreshed.
He’s always enjoyed laughing and joking with his teammates. But he seems looser in interviews. There’s a difference in how he is carrying himself at training camp. It’s as if he feels he’s now playing in bonus time as he prepares for his 14th NFL season. Maybe that’s a good thing.
The last time Roethlisberger finished a full, 16-game season was 2014 — the second consecutive season in which had managed the feat, but only the third time in his career. That was also Martavis Bryant’s rookie season. Those two details combined to make 2014 one of his best seasons, statistically speaking, but a loss to division rival Baltimore in the playoffs derailed an otherwise exceptional year.
Hopes were high in 2015, but a few injuries, and suspensions for both Bryant and Bell, brought him back to Earth. They slipped by the Cincinnati Bengals, another division rival, in the first round of the playoffs, after a spectacular meltdown by the Bengals in the final minute of the game. A week later, minus star receiver Antonio Brown and their top two running backs, they would bow out to the Denver Broncos, the eventual Super Bowl champs.
More injuries in 2016, plus a year-long suspension for Bryant and an inability to cover anyone in a Patriots uniform, brought Roethlisberger to the brink of saying goodbye to the game. But he’s back, and has a strangely relaxed air of determination about him. It’s not a now-or-never attitude; it’s a get-me-my-hat attitude.
If you don’t get the reference, allow me to explain.
When the Arizona Cardinals took the lead from the Steelers with less than two minutes to go in Super Bowl XLIII, Roethlisberger allegedly turned to the ball boy and said, “get me my hat.” Some say the reference meant, “get me my helmet, it’s time to go earn my paycheck.” Others contend it was supreme confidence, meaning, “get me my hat so I look good for the post-game interview after we win this thing.”
Either theory works. He proceeded to march the team down the field and, with seconds remaining, put a perfect pass into the tightest possible window, allowing receiver Santonio Holmes to make a toe-tapping catch as he fell across the sideline in the end zone, for the winning points. He believed in his teammates, and believed in himself, and willed the Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl win.
The air that emanates from Roethlisberger so far in training camp is hardly dissimilar from the confidence that oozed from his every pore that night in February of 2009, in Tampa, Florida. It’s as if his body language is simply saying, “it’s time to work. Put-up-or-shut-up time.” The clock is running out — no longer on a single game but, instead, on a storied career. There’s still time to win it all, though, and this may be the best team he’s ever had around him, top to bottom. Clearly, he knows that, and he just may be channeling Young Ben one more time.
Someone, please: get the man his hat.