The Ben Roethlisberger Era dawned in Pittsburgh last Saturday night, 34 years to the month after the Steelers' last franchise quarterback debuted. The new kid is tall (6'5"), with close-cropped blond hair, a rifle for a right arm and leadership qualities his new mates have taken to--much like the last quarterback the team took high in the first round of the draft, Terry Bradshaw.
"I remember the first game Terry played at Three Rivers Stadium," Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said on Saturday after his team's 38--3 win over the Texans. "Terry had a knack for saying and doing the right thing. That's the way this kid is. Before the game Terry went to the blackboard in the locker room and wrote winners."
Bradshaw, of course, went on to win four Super Bowls. The 23-year-old Roethlisberger wasn't even born until 14 months after the Steelers' last championship, and he has never met Bradshaw. "But I know he was a great leader and a great quarterback," Roethlisberger said an hour after the Steelers made his first game in Pittsburgh memorable. "That's what I strive to be. I'm a win-at-all-costs guy. I dive headfirst for first downs. That's what I want my teammates to see."
What was most impressive for those seeing Roethlisberger for the first time was his poise. He completed 8 of 14 attempts for 132 yards, with one tipped interception. He repeatedly scrambled out of the pocket, threw on the run confidently and dived for one first down. Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 77 yards for a touchdown, 70 yards for a field goal and 67 yards for another touchdown.
On his first series, from the Houston 46, Roethlisberger saw no one open and rolled to his right. Finally, wideout Antwaan Randle El broke free deep, and Roethlisberger let fly. Even though his plant foot slipped, the pass was a dart, on the money for 38 yards to the Houston eight. The Heinz Field crowd roared while the Pittsburgh bench was wildly motioning for Roethlisberger to get to the huddle to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. But the kid just nodded and pointed to his ear, as if to say, "Relax. Just give me the next play." Two plays later Verron Haynes scored on a two-yard run. "Pretty nonplussed guy, isn't he?" said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "You hesitate to say too much now, to get too excited. But he's not fazed by anything we throw at him. He just makes plays."
Roethlisberger, the 11th selection in the April draft out of Miami (Ohio), will probably remain as the backup unless starter Tommy Maddox or the offense struggle. But he has already impressed his teammates. "He understands the dynamics of a football team," says running back Jerome Bettis, a 12year veteran. "If those other 10 guys on offense don't believe in you, you will fail [as a quarterback]. He's done a great job of getting to know us and being a good teammate."
One cautionary note: In his first season Bradshaw threw six touchdown passes and 24 interceptions for a team that finished 5--9. "Byron Leftwich [the Jaguars' second-year quarterback] told me, 'You're going to take your lumps whenever you get in there. Might as well take them as a rookie,'" Roethlisberger says. "But that's Coach [Bill] Cowher's call. I'm just here to do what he says."
The Jets are balking at the $20 million signing bonus quarterback Chad Pennington is seeking in negotiating a contract extension. New York will probably put the franchise tag on Pennington when his contract expires after this season and give him a one-year deal with a salary that matches the average pay of the top five quarterbacks in the league.... So why didn't the Dolphins get a badly needed running back when they traded holdout defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, the AFC sack leader in 2003? Miami sent Ogunleye to the Bears for wideout Marty Booker last Saturday and wanted 26-year-old Anthony Thomas, a 1,000-yard rusher in two of his three seasons with Chicago, included in the deal, but the Bears refused to give up Thomasandthrew in a third-round 2005 draft choice instead.