Ben Roethlisberger: A Changed Man, Trophy Number Seven in Sight for Number Seven
He was going to have time to reflect on his actions over the last few years; his penchant for hard partying, his somewhat flippant attitude towards the world at large, his tendency to find himself embroiled in situations that could have - should have - been avoided, the disappointment that he had caused his fans, teammates, and family
Alternately vilified and defended, Roethlisberger was watching his public image take a beating. His irresponsible behavior had resulted in not one, but two women leveling accusations of sexual abuse at him, and legions of fans were beginning to wonder if he was worth the accolades and praise they had previously lavished on him.
Financially he was taking a drubbing as well, with a four game suspension - and the associated salary loss that accompanied it - being handed down by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as punishment for his violation of the league's personal conduct policy. In a letter to Roethlisberger concerning his off-field incidents, Goodell admonished him, saying "In your six years in the NFL, you have first thrilled and now disappointed a great many people. I urge you to take full advantage of this opportunity to get your life and your career back on track."
It is extremely telling that Goodell's letter referenced Big Ben getting his life back on track before his career.
Will the Steelers bring home the hardware for a seventh time?
Even more telling was the Steelers owner, Art Rooney II, making a very public statement in support of the league's decision to suspend and evaluate his team's on-field leader, as well as reports that the Steelers were bandying Roethlisberger about on the market.
Quite a fall from grace for the team's two-time Super Bowl winning star quarterback.
Roethlisberger appeared to understand that he had put himself way out on a ledge; according to reports he broke down in a team meeting prior to the last game of the preseason.
As the regular season was about to begin under the untested leadership of third year quarterback Dennis Dixon, he had to wonder, was Dixon going to flounder? Or were the Pittsburgh Steelers skilled enough if the situation demanded - as it did with his suspension - to move on successfully without him?
More importantly, had he blown it? Had his lack of maturity cost him an opportunity that millions of young boys across the nation dreamed of?
Answering at least one of Ben's questions, Dixon - and after his injury veteran backup Charlie Batch -showed very quickly that yes, the Steelers just might have the skills necessary to do just fine, racking up a 3-1 record without no. 7 under center.
Roethlisberger returned to the lineup in week five appearing at least publicly to be contrite, focused, and ready to move forward.
His teammates, perhaps sensing that he had gotten a glimpse of his own football mortality and was prepared to make amends in whatever way he needed to, rallied around their quarterback as he began his season.
And what a season it was.
Pittsburgh finished the season at 12-4, securing the second seed and a week one bye in the AFC playoffs.
Hampered by his four game absence, Ben still managed 3,200 yards passing with a 266.7 yards per game average that ranked him sixth in the league. His passer rating of 97 makes him the third highest rated quarterback remaining in the playoffs, behind Aaron Rodgers and....
hang on a minute...
Make that the SECOND highest rated quarterback remaining in the playoffs.
His second half performance in the AFC Divisional round against the Baltimore Ravens - aided by a highly charged and hard-hitting defensive show - bordered on legendary, coming from 14 points behind to lead the Steelers to a 31-24 victory and a berth in the AFC championship game, which thanks to the Jets' victory over the top-seeded New England Patriots will be held in Pittsburgh this year.
All that remains for another trip to the big show is a redemption game against the New York Jets, who bested Large Benjamin and the Steelers in the regular season with some late-game heroics of their own.
But this isn't the regular season. This is playoff football.
And playoff football is something the Steelers - and Roethlisberger - are very familiar with, making 25 appearances in the post season since the 1970 merger, including 7 Super Bowl berths, with six of those resulting in victory.
Roethlisberger himself has led the Steelers to five of the Steelers' seven playoff appearances since the year 2000, winning two Super Bowl rings in the process.
In short, The Steelers know what it takes to get to the postseason, and they know what it takes to emerge victorious when the final whistle blows.
But while a third ring for himself and seventh trophy for his organization would be a fine end to a fine season for Big Ben, falling short of that goal would not diminish what he has accomplished.
More important, perhaps, is that Roethlisberger has played this season with more poise, more control, and more resolve than any other in his career. Not even a badly injured ankle and a severely broken nose - delivered at the hand of Baltimore's Haloti Ngata - could stop him in his quest for redemption, both on the field and off.
Instead of the brash, sometimes arrogant, occasionally flippant young man who lead the Steelers to their latest two titles, Roethlisberger is more mature, and shows a definite appreciation for the game that was lacking in his first six seasons.
Barring any further incidents, and if he can continue displaying the maturity and the appreciation for the game this season has taught him, Roethlisberger can chalk this season up as a success.
Sure would be nice to top it off with a parade though, wouldn't it?
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