A big season could be looming on the horizon for Ben Roethlisberger. A career year.
Big Ben's numbers didn't tell the whole story last season. At first glance, they appear rather ordinary: 17 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and an 80.1 passer rating. Very mediocre in comparison to the rest of the league's passers.
But when you look closer, you see the incredible will and determination of Roethlisberger. Throughout the year, the defense kept the games close. But, it was Ben who won them.
Week after week, he put the offense squarely on his shoulders and carried them to victories. Five fourth quarter comebacks, including the Super Bowl XLIII heroics. The numbers will come. Maybe this year.
Growing up in the '80s, I remember all too well the comeback of Joe Montana's career after nearly being forced to retire in 1986 due to a serious back injury. In 1988, Montana was coming off three straight poor playoff performances; three straight early exits by the 49ers, including the previous season's debacle against the underdog Vikings, in which Montana was benched and replaced by Steve Young.
People were starting to talk about Montana being on the downside of his career, and maybe it was time for the Steve Young era to begin. How quickly they had forgotten.
Then Montana lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl XXIII title over Cincinnati. His signature moment was the 92 yard drive in the final moments, capped off by his game winning touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left. Montana was back on top.
He followed that up with an encore performance in 1989, his best season as a pro. I saw almost every one of his games that season and I can honestly say it was the greatest season by a quarterback I've ever seen.
All due respect to Tom Brady and his 50 touchdowns, but Montana was as close to perfect as you can be. He was like a surgeon with his precision passes, carving up opposing defenses.
Roethlisberger is at a similar point in his career. Last season, as the offensive line struggled to protect him, Big Ben played with numerous injuries. After all he had done for the franchise, there were still many fans calling for backup Byron Leftwich to take over the starting job. How quickly they have forgotten.
Roethlisberger led them on to Super Bowl XLIII, and won the game with his clutch 78 yard drive (88 yards if you count the holding penalty), capped off by his perfectly thrown pass to Santonio Holmes to win with 34 seconds left.
Now is the time for Ben's encore performance. His career year. The stars may be aligned for just such an occurrence.
The Steelers' schedule this year is favorable; they face the NFC North and the weak AFC West.
The young offensive line continues to improve and the return of Rashard Mendenhall should inject some life into a running game that was almost non-existent last season.
Limas Sweed has been impressive in mini camp and has been working hard and showing the dedication necessary to be a successful NFL receiver. I expect Sweed to have a bigger impact this season.
A lot of young receivers see a noticeable jump in their production their second season including Steeler greats Hines Ward and Lynn Swann, the latter collecting a Super Bowl MVP award.
If Big Ben can stay relatively healthy, we could see 30-plus touchdown passes and a more Roethlisberger-like quarterback rating in the high 90s. Look for a big year from Big Ben in 2009.