When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft, fans were hopeful that he could be the final piece needed to complete the seemingly endless pursuit of "One for the Thumb."
Eight seasons and two Lombardi Trophies later, fans in Six-burgh are able to flash two thumbs up at the mention of their favorite football team, knowing both digits are represented in the ring column.
And, luckily Steelers Country, "One for the Pointer Finger, Index Finger, Middle Finger or Pinky" is an immediately attainable goal. After all, the franchise will return a talented roster in 2012, featuring a franchise quarterback that has already proven his championship pedigree, thus relegating that "Dan Marino monkey" that hangs on so many signal-callers' backs into the unspoken "Closet of Kordell."
While one has to take the good with the bad regarding the style of play from the never-say-die gunslinger, the pros far outweigh the cons.
For every unnecessary turnover or sack, there are two Houdini-style miracles, and the rest of his game (which is to say, the bulk of it) consists simply of great physical skills and aplomb at the most important position.
Opponents often describe sacking Roethlisberger as trying to chop down an oak tree.
All the while, No. 7 has been consistently chopping down defenses, among the league leaders in yards per pass, a statistic heavily correlated with winning and entertainment. And, one other small tidbit...
He's second in winning percentage among active quarterbacks, only trailing a man named... oh, trust me, you know who!
En route to two world championships and a career that is arguably developing toward Hall of Fame enshrinement, Roethlisberger has rewarded loyal Steelers fans with a number of breathtaking performances.
So, which are the top dozen? Please note that this is a countdown, above all else, of the quarterback's most impressive performances, regardless (well, at least somewhat) of when the game occurred.
In order, considerations include statistics (obviously), overall performance and game magnitude. In other words, playoff wins and championships are not automatically given top placement. This is a list of the finest 60-minute moments in the first half of an illustrious career.
Joe Montana. Eli Manning. Ben Roethlisberger.
What do these quarterbacks have in common?
They're an elite class of three, representing the only passers to lead their team to a Super Bowl-winning touchdown in the closing moments of the fourth quarter.
Fact: you cannot have a "Best of Big Ben" list without Super Bowl XLIII.
While neither Super Bowl made the actual countdown, Ben's greatest single career moment came in February 2009 against the Arizona Cardinals.
In "America's Game," he can be heard telling the team, "If they're going to score, that is how you want them to score. Fast."
With 2:30 remaining, the offense took a holding penalty on its first play. Big Ben responded, twice hitting eventual hero Santonio Holmes for a combined 27 yards to move the chains.
An historic drive culminated on a touchdown that seemed to defy spatial arrangement and physics. A perfectly placed pass, whether intentional or not, by Roethlisberger was snagged by the outstretched hands of Santonio Holmes, who kept both feet in bounds along the sideline, and...
Well, everybody remembers the play that brought a sixth Lombardi Trophy to the Steel City.
While Ben's final numbers didn't rank among his most elite game days ever (21-for-30, 256 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT), his ability in the clutch during the biggest moment of his professional life was a microcosm of his career in the fourth quarter.
When a play is needed, Ben mostly delivers, and this final drive represented his most "special delivery."
Three years later, Roethlisberger and Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt squared off again, mentor versus apprentice: round two!
Aided by a deep, record-setting 95-yard touchdown bomb to Mike Wallace, Big Ben once again trumped his former offensive coordinator.
In the rematch, a 32-20 Pittsburgh win, he threw for 361 yards, including a trio of touchdowns.
Ben wears No. 7 in honor of his childhood hero, John Elway.
That isn't the only thing they have in common!
No team has suffered more losses or been victimized more frustratingly by Ben's right arm than his AFC North rival, the Cleveland Browns.
It continued last season when, despite a low-offensive output, Ben hobbled to two wins against the Browns on a bum ankle.
Whether objectively or because of a perceived handicap, none of the passer's game against the Lake Erie football club made the countdown.
Instead, here's an exclusive list of Big Ben's top five games against a thoroughly defeated enemy:
No. 5: Heinz Field, 2004
Ben was already winning games, but this contest proved to be his "coming out" party, a game and performance that separated No. 7 from his predecessors. In a 16-for-21 performance that included a touchdown and interception, Ben opened eyes widely when he rolled to his right, nearly scampering all the way to the sideline before spotting Plaxico Burress deep.
Roethlisberger hurled the pass downfield while on the run. Prowess for throwing while scrambling? Check. And double check.
No. 4: Heinz Field, 2010
Six seasons later, the Browns returned for the first game of the '10 NFL season for Roethlisberger. A great game proved the perfect tonic for fans disenchanted with Ben's offseason conduct. In all, Roethlisberger completed 16-of-27 for 257 yards and three touchdowns (along with a critical early interception) in a 28-10 victory.
No. 3: Heinz Field, 2009
In his first-ever 400-yard performance, Roethlisberger found Hines Ward early, connecting over the middle on a 52-yard touchdown. Ward caught eight passes for 159 yards, while Ben finished with two touchdowns and 417 yards in a 27-14 win.
No. 2: Heinz Field, 2007
In the midst of a historic winning streak against their rival, 2007 may have marked the peak of Cleveland frustration against Big Ben.
He may not ever have his absolute best games against them, but his performance always seems to have that winning edge against the Browns.
Trailing 21-9 at halftime, Ben put the Black and Gold on his back and rallied the team to a 31-28 win.
Included in his second half heroics were two touchdown passes, as well as the finest run of his career—a 30-yard beauty that put Pittsburgh ahead for the first time in the game, 28-24.
No. 1: Cleveland Browns Stadium, 2007
He may not have had his finest completion percentage (12-of-23), a gluttony of yards (161) or the game of his life. But, from start to finish, anyone who watched knew the numbers weren't indicative of the performance as Big Ben riddled the Browns.
The Steelers led 17-0 when Ben finished the first quarter by spotting Santonio Holmes for a wide open 40-yard touchdown bomb. Then, two more touchdowns in the third quarter gave Roethlisberger four passing scores on the afternoon.
Pittsburgh won going away, 34-7, a contest that Roethlisberger served notice as being "over" right from the start.
In a 26-21 loss to the Steelers that snapped Pittsburgh's four-game losing streak to Jacksonville, Jaguars quarterback David Garrard took time after the game to honor the greatness he saw on the field of play:
I've never seen something like that before in that situation, with the game on the line, guys pulling him to the ground and he throws it 20 yards down the field, on the money. He joked to me after the game, '"I was really throwing it away." That was a great throw away.
Early in the contest, Rashean Mathis played his standard role as Steelers-killer, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger and following up with a long 72-yard touchdown return.
Immediately in a hole, Roethlisberger put together a career performance to get his team back into the game, giving them the lead before the pesky Jags retook the scoreboard edge.
Late in the fourth quarter, the "Men of Teal" led the Men of Steel, 21-20.
Big Ben lived up to his nickname.
On a key 3rd-and-8, Roethlisberger got off an accurate throw while falling backwards in the pocket, Jaguars draped about his back. Ward caught the 18-yard reception, and Garrard watched in amazement.
Finally, a perfect fade pass into the end zone found its target, and the Ward touchdown gave Pittsburgh a lead it would not relinquish.
In one of his guttier performances, Roethlisberger rebounded from his early disaster with aplomb, completing 26-of-41 for 309 yards and three scores.
To put it bluntly, things got frustrating enough for the Raiders that Richard Seymour decided to shove Big Ben to the ground.
Oakland exited the first quarter with a very temporary 3-0 lead. Then, No. 7 started putting up sevens!
After tying the game, a touchdown run by Ben gave the Steelers their first lead.
Then, with time winding down in the first half, a crisp touchdown lob down the left sideline to Emmanuel Sanders sent the Raiders—who had experienced a week of under-qualified hype and smoke-blowing—over the edge!
Seymour's open right hand smacked Roethlisberger, who fell to the ground.
Big Ben's response: fighting back in his own way.
The Steelers have never been easily intimidated, and their quarterback followed suit by making the Silver and Black pay for their disrespect.
Mike Wallace caught a perfectly-placed short pass over the middle, turning it up the right sideline with blazing speed for a 52-yard touchdown.
A screen to Isaac Redman capped scoring for the aggressive Steelers. Ben sent a clear message to the Raiders with his three touchdowns. Actually, it was more of a question:
Who da' man?!
Trailing 21-7 at halftime, the Steelers knew two things had to happen after intermission:
1) The defense had to make a couple of plays to tilt a mistake-ridden first half back in Pittsburgh's favor.
2) Ben Roethlisberger had to play his best football.
Thankfully for the Steel City, both goals panned out, and the Steelers enjoyed one of their greatest comebacks, winning 31-24.
Ray Rice fumbled.
Big Ben found Heath Miller for six.
Joe Flacco bumbled.
Big Ben found Hines Ward for six.
In stark contrast with his rivals, who were falling apart at the seams, Roethlisberger was tightening his laces, and he put his cleats into Baltimore in the final moments.
Tied at 24, facing 3rd-and-19 and risking possession by the Ravens in the final minute, Ben found Antonio Brown down the right sideline. The receiver made a magnificent catch, pinning the pigskin to his helmet before going out of bounds 58 yards later at the 1-yard line.
Roethlisberger's deep strike was decisive and on the money, and Brown's catch was epic, if overly dramatic.
A couple of Baltimore drops later, the Steelers won, and Roethlisberger (19-for-32, 226 yards, two touchdowns) celebrated with teammates!
Ben's control and ability to shake off first-half jitters were the catalyst for change in a game that improved Pittsburgh's postseason record against the Ravens to 3-0.
It was perceived as Pittsburgh mettle vs. Colts "Manning-liness."
It turned into Big Ben outclassing Peyton Manning at his own game, then the Steelers holding on for dear life.
In one of the NFL's great upsets, the Steelers won 21-18, and they came out of the gates with a devastatingly efficient passing attack.
Off the bat, Roethlisberger led the Steelers downfield, culminating their first offensive possession with a touchdown pass to Antwaan Randle El.
Next, Ben completed his scoring passes for the day, connecting with Heath Miller in front of coverage for a 14-0 lead.
The stunned RCA Dome crowd couldn't believe the clinic that was being shown by the OTHER team.
After a 2-for-9 start to the contest, Manning eventually settled down, though his woes would never fully disappear.
And, while those two scores, as well as his 14-for-24 and 197-yard performance, may not seem like much, Ben's control and early influence gave the Steelers a confidence that could not be overrated.
Despite his playmaking through the air in the first half, the Steelers only led 21-18 after a controversial series of fourth quarter events. When Peyton Manning was sacked late in the game by his own goal line, it appeared that the contest was over.
Jerome Bettis fumbled. Nick Harper picked up the pigskin and began running down the field. The Steelers, having fielded their goal-line unit, had no players back to tackle the returner.
Well, nobody except Big Ben.
And, as No. 7 looked over his shoulders while keeping his angle on Harper, little did he realize in the moment that he was about to make arguably the most important tackle ever.
In fact, today, it is remembered as "The Tackle."
When running back Richie Anderson sprang through the defense unimpeded for a 21-yard touchdown jaunt, it seemed as though it could be a long day in Texas.
However, Ben Roethlisberger was about to show a poise in Texas Stadium that exceeded his years, the type of aplomb that caused Bill Parcells to speak so highly of him earlier in the week:
He is the best rookie prospect I have seen in 10 or 15 years.
And so it was that Big Ben would prove the Big Tuna right, completing his first seven passes that included a beautiful connection on a comeback route to Plaxico Burress for the tying score.
Then, trailing 20-10 in the fourth quarter, Ben connected on his final dozen passes. He cut the deficit to 20-17 after a pump fake preceded a beautiful connection in the back of the end zone to Jerame Tuman.
Showing a maturity far beyond his years, No. 7 completed 21-of-25 passes, breaking Terry Bradshaw's record of the time for completion percentage in a game. Likewise, his two touchdown passes came with no turnovers, an incredible gift for ball protection from a "rookie."
After a critical Vinny Testeverde turnover, Jerome Bettis' touchdown run capped scoring, and the Steelers won 24-20.
The New England Patriots entered play on October 31, 2004 with an intimidating 21-game winning streak. The only thing scarier than their prowess for victory, besides the Halloween masks that dominated the Heinz Field stands, was the complete first quarter meltdown that ended their historic run.
When Ty Law fell to the turf injured, rookie Ben Roethlisberger decided to quickly take advantage. Releasing the ball deep over the middle just before oncoming rushers could reach him, Big Ben connected with Plaxico Burress on a diving touchdown reception.
Burress had beaten reserve corner Ben Gay, and the Steelers led 7-3.
Next, Joey Porter forced a Tom Brady fumble with relentless pursuit, and Roethlisberger and Burress decided to pick on the backup once again.
Ben floated a pass toward the front, left corner of the end zone, and Burress adjusted his route for a nifty route and catch that gave the Steelers a 14-3 lead.
Normally, the edge would seem commanding so early, but these were the defending champs in the midst of a dynasty...
Tom Brady's interception to Deshea Townsend ended an exhilarating first quarter, which ended with the disciplined Steelers leading the mistake-plagued Patriots, 21-3.
From there, the team could have easily just attempted to run out the clock, which it did to a degree. Duce Staley was supremely effective, averaging five yards per carry.
However, the ability to run was complemented by a confident and timely passing attack, and the Steelers used their dual strengths to dismantle the streak.
A confident Ben outclassed Tom Brady for a day, made more shocking by the fact that he was merely playing in his fifth game.
Volume statistics are not indicative of strong play, at least not exclusively, and this is proved by Ben's stat line in the monumental 34-20 win: 18-for-24, 196 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions.
Oh, and... a quarterback rating of 126.4!
It was a night when the San Diego defense was completely offensive, and No. 7 was quite prepared to take advantage before a torrent of Terrible Towels.
The offense ran for 177 yards. It passed for nearly 400 more, and the Black and Gold could seemingly do no wrong.
Ben was on fire, completing pass after pass, and finding Mewelde Moore and Heath Miller for first half scores.
After taking a 28-0 lead against San Diego, the Chargers surged back into the game. They scored four of five touchdowns in a 12 minute span.
Trailing only 35-28, cameras panned to the Chargers sideline, where LaDainian Tomlinson beat on his chest while yelling, "Heart!" out to his defense.
It made no difference, and the inspired running back's words ought to have just fallen on deaf ears.
On a night when the offense had 32 first downs, appeared virtually unstoppable and scored without mercy, they drove down to the game-winning field goal, quite predictably.
It was one of Big Ben's most deadly efficient nights ever, completing 26-of-33 passes for 333 yards and two touchdowns, all while avoiding any interceptions.
A great play-action attack was enabled by solid running, and Roethlisberger forewent a couple of scores in favor of the run...possibly preventing this stat line from ranking higher on the list.
However, nobody can argue that this was Ben at his most locked-in!
A great running game can set up a great passing game, and vice versa. A great illustration of this truism came against the Tennessee Titans in 2011.
With the play-action pass working like a charm, Ben Roethlisberger shredded a Titans defense that was ranked among the best in the game.
Hines Ward (twice), Heath Miller, and... David Johnson?... were on the receiving end of four Big Ben touchdown tosses.
However, the performance hit legendary status in the fourth quarter's final moments, when on play action with the Titans defense completely committed to stopping the run, Roethlisberger found Mike Wallace behind the secondary on a 40-yard scoring strike
For the second time in his career, Big Ben had thrown five touchdown passes, and his final strike ended all hopes for a Titans comeback, 38-17.
The mark against Ben Roethlisberger has been the same as it is for other quality players at various NFL positions: the fantasy football factor.
If you're not a tight end catching passes in the vain of a 200+ pound receiver, you are not considered among the game's elite, no matter the softness of your hands or ferocity of your blocks. (See: Heath Miller)
When he's been called upon to play fantasy quarterback, however, Ben has often responded with shining colors, and few performances have been as bright as his superiority over Tom Brady in an October 2011 showdown.
One thing is certain: Halloween + Pittsburgh = Doom for New England, as we also relived earlier on the list.
Against the league's worst pass defense, the buzz philosophy all over the Steel City headed toward a contest against an opponent who had so much success against the Steelers was: "A great offense is the best defense. Keep Tom Brady off the field with Ben's arm."
A critical Roethlisberger interception kept the score closer than the actual events, but No. 7 spent most of October 30 going pass-happy on the hapless New England secondary.
While Brady and crew had to fight hard to muster two touchdowns—one aided by the turnover/short field and another following a controversial penalty—Big Ben had no trouble.
Roethlisberger completed 36 of a gaudy 50 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns.
On a wet, wild Monday night in the Steel City, a national television audience witnessed:
*Hines Ward de-cleating Ed Reed.
*The Steelers dominating the Ravens, 38-7.
*And, a record performance by Ben Roethlisberger that may never be duplicated again in Black and Gold (Tom Brady tied his record in 2009).
On the evening, Roethlisberger fired five first-half touchdowns, marked by deadly efficiency and no mercy.
While the modern "Purple People Eaters" became the "Purple People Eaten" by Ben's throwing arm, the wet Heinz Field crowd "soaked in" the historic moment, made all the more impressive by the unyielding rain showers, boggy field and limited number of passing attempts.
In all, Ben completed 13 of 16 passes for 209 yards (13.9 YPC) and five touchdowns, proving it's not how many passes you have—it's how you use 'em!
Roethlisberger finished the record night with a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. The Steelers won their 12th straight Monday night home game.
After falling behind 24-3 in the AFC Championship game one year earlier, Ben Roethlisberger was poised and ready to turn the table at Invesco Field.
With a touchdown pass to Cedric Wilson already under his belt (in which he victimized Champ Bailey with a deadly pump fake), super-confident No. 7 led his offense to the line of scrimmage, leading 17-3 and wanting more. Killer instinct was setting in after a critical Jake Plummer interception late in the first half, and Big Ben was about to send the Mile High crowd into a "mile low" state of being.
Ben rolled left, trying to spot a receiver breaking free from coverage, and it seemed as though nobody was open. Or, at least, nobody was open for most quarterbacks. Ben was about to fire the perfect, indefensible pass.
He released a seemingly magnetized football that sailed narrowly over the hands of on-waiting Denver Broncos before floating perfectly into the waiting arms of Hines Ward, who appeared to be attracting the pigskin like a refrigerator door.
Struck with the pigskin between the 8 and the 6 of his jersey, Ward celebrated in the back of the end zone. Meanwhile, Ben the gunslinger pulled out his "mock pistols" firing them in a frenzied celebration that was in stark contrast to the surrounding arena.
After failing to reach the ultimate game a year earlier, Ben capped scoring against the Broncos to complete his finest "big game" performance to date (outside of the final drive of Super Bowl XLIII, arguably).
The 34-17 victory saw the sophomore complete 21-of-29 passes for 275 yards and two scores, riddling the Broncos with a 124.9 quarterback rating.
Big Ben was having a career game, and the Steelers were trying desperately to end a disastrous five-game losing streak that had effectively ended their hopes at a championship defense.
While chances were slim for a miracle playoff spot, Pittsburgh players clung to that belief as a fine Green Bay Packers team came to Heinz Field.
Red-hot quarterback Aaron Rodgers did not disappoint, scorching the Steelers secondary for 383 yards and three touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger was mutually enjoying the game of his life, leading his offense up and down the field in mesmerizing fashion, much to the chagrin of Charles Woodson and the Packers.
Nevertheless, Pittsburgh trailed 36-30 in the final minutes, and they faced third down with three seconds left from the Packers 19-yard line.
Ben, already having passed for a career-high 484 yards with two scores, had only one option to snap the three-game losing streak and keep the dream of a season alive: touchdown or bust.
Roethlisberger dropped back, looked for his chosen target and fired the football toward the left sideline of the end zone.
He would find a receiver that was soon to become a Pittsburgh Steelers favorite, No. 17, Mike Wallace.
No. 7 finished with 503 yards. If you're doing the math correctly, you can easily figure that his final throw was the stuff of legend.
It was the fitting end to a great game and a fitting conclusion to a list about a great player.