• I'm not about to go all knee-jerk and mindlessly lump Ben Roethlisberger's June 2006 motorcycle accident together with the troubling news this week that he is being accused of rape in a civil suit filed by a woman in Nevada. It is not an apples-to-apples comparison by any stretch of the imagination. On the other hand, I think this much is undeniably true:
For the second time in four offseasons, the Steelers will open training camp as defending Super Bowl champions while a significant distraction unfolds in front of them -- for the team and its star quarterback. The matter of Roethlisberger's guilt or innocence regarding this week's disturbing headline appears to be far from knowing at this point, but for the Steelers, the task at hand is somewhat familiar. They must try to keep their focus squarely on the field in the hyper-competitive AFC, even while Roethlisberger faces looming questions, issues and challenges in the coming weeks that may divert his attention away from the Steelers season and his playing career.
It's instructive to note that the last time Pittsburgh had an offseason crisis to navigate with Roethlisberger, the Steelers at least had the benefit of having six weeks before they opened training camp and the defense of their NFL title. Roethlisberger suffered multiple injuries to his head and face when he crashed his motorcycle on June 12 near downtown Pittsburgh, requiring more than seven hours of surgery. Though paramedics at the scene later told him he nearly bled to death from a ruptured artery in his mouth, Big Ben recovered quickly enough to start the Steelers' final three preseason games that August.
With Pittsburgh reporting to training camp in Latrobe, Pa., next weekend, there's nowhere near enough time for this week's headlines to fade from the radar. Not even close. Though, on Thursday, Roethlisberger made his first public statement regarding the civil suit that claims he raped a Lake Tahoe casino hostess in July 2008, calling the allegations "reckless,'' he is sure to face more scrutiny as the Steelers return to work on a daily basis.
The Steelers and their fans can only hope that the 2006 regular season portends little of what might be in store for Roethlisberger and the club this year. That year, they endured their worst season together, going 8-8 and missing the playoffs in what turned out to be head coach Bill Cowher's 15th and final season on the job.
Roethlisberger finished 7-8 in his 15 starts that year after missing the opener to recover from an emergency appendectomy on Sept. 3. His painfully slow start resulted in a blizzard of turnovers as the Steelers went 1-6 in his first seven games of the season -- three more losses than he had as a starter in his first two seasons combined. Roethlisberger went on to record career-worst totals in interceptions (23), completion percentage (59.7), yards per passing attempt (7.5), and passer rating (75.4) as the Steelers became the latest champion to suffer a the post-Super Bowl letdown.
Time will tell us how Roethlisberger and the Steelers weather this unexpected storm. The legal issues involved are far from the kind of health issues Roethlisberger and the team faced three summers ago. But if things should get messy at some point for Big Ben and potentially affect his play, it would have to represent one of the last ways Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin could have foreseen the start of his team's title defense: With a challenge from within.
• So now we learn that Brett Favre is "anguished'' about whether he should come out of retirement for a second consecutive year, and that he's feeling conflicted about what to do as the Vikings prepare to open training camp in a matter of days.
Well, stop the presses.
As all of Minnesota is now learning, this is the dance of indecision that you sign up for when you make eyes at Favre. Conflicted is exactly the word I'd use to describe Favre for most of the past three or four years now. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The man truly doesn't know his own mind for longer than 15 minutes at a time, and that's the No. 1 source of exasperation for anyone trying to deal with him and his on-again, off-again playing career. He waffles about whether or not to have waffles for breakfast.
After months of doing everything possible to put himself into position to play this season in Minnesota -- even electing to have shoulder surgery when he despises any and all medical procedures -- Favre is still keeping the Vikings and their fans waiting, right down to the 11th hour. It's beyond pathetic. It's a joke that never really gets funny.
Favre seems to absolutely crave having others tell him how much he's needed, as Vikings stars, like Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen and Steve Hutchinson, have reportedly done via text and telephone in recent days. But the truth of the matter is Minnesota's players, as Allen and Bernard Berrian admitted, just want some resolution on the Favre issue so they know who they have at quarterback and can go to work on the 2009 season next week.
I suppose fate couldn't let the Favre flirtation with Minnesota end any other way other than No. 4 making the Vikings twist and turn and sweat out the final momentous decision forthcoming from Mississippi. The folks in Green Bay's front office have to be loving this particular spectacle about now. Been there, done that. Two or three times. Enjoy the ride, Minnesota.
• Yeah, sure, why not stretch the NFL draft over three days? There's just not enough fan interest in the league's seven-round April lottery as is. Better yet, let's just have one first-round pick a day for 32 days at some point in the offseason, televised in prime time, of course. That way we can dissect and chew on the first round's ramifications for more than an entire month.
Just wondering, but where does it end, the all-consuming, oxygen-sucking monster know as the NFL draft?
• If Michael Vick went into his much-anticipated Wednesday afternoon meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell expecting to hear that the league would have no more penalties to add to his 23-month sentence for a dog-fighting conviction, he really hasn't been paying attention.
Goodell has dropped numerous hints that the league was considering a suspension of some sort for Vick once his incarceration had ended, and Goodell repeatedly said that any further penalty would be decided independent of the fulfillment of Vick's sentence and his progress through the legal system.
That's why a conditional re-instatement for Vick followed by a short suspension at the beginning of the regular season sounds about right after what Goodell has been saying for months now.
But let's keep in mind one critical detail: At this point, no team has stepped forward and indicated it's interested in signing Vick and inviting him to training camp. Without a team to play for, Vick doesn't really doesn't have to sweat a potential four-game suspension, does he?
• Though nobody in the Baltimore organization can be 100 percent sure, the overwhelming consensus within the Ravens organization is that veteran receiver Derrick Mason will reverse his retirement decision at some point and return to the team. Mason needs some time to deal with a few issues, and the team is willing to give it to its leading receiver.
Despite the team's signing of free-agent receiver Drew Bennett to a one-year deal Friday, there's a strong belief within the building that it'll have Mason in uniform and ready to play come Week 1 of the regular season. Patience is the byword in Baltimore.