Roethlisberger now veteran QB
By Barry Wilner
PITTSBURGH — The quarterback saga for Sunday’s conference championship games goes far beyond Benny and the Jets.
Sure, Ben Roethlisberger towers over the AFC landscape with his overpowering arm, improvisational skills, outsized personality and a strong-willed comeback from off-field trouble. And, oh yeah, don’t forget his two Super Bowl rings — with a third within grasp in just his seventh NFL season.
“I know I probably never will win the league MVP or passing title,” he says. “That is not why I play the game. I try to win football games and championships.”
Also trying to win a championship, their first, are Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Chicago’s Jay Cutler and the New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez. To dismiss any of the other quarterbacks in the final four would be foolhardy.
No one is playing better than Rodgers, who has not only stepped out of Brett Favre’s shadow, he’s beginning to cast one of his own over Cheeseheads everywhere.
Cutler has toned down his wild wings act, morphing into the dependable quarterback the Bears need to complement their fierce defense. Cutler even equaled a record set by the great Otto Graham more than 50 years ago when he had two TDs passing and two more rushing against Seattle in the divisional round.
Sanchez? He’s already won twice as many postseason games as Joe Namath — all on the road.
Quite an eclectic group, although Sanchez questions if he belongs, even though a win Sunday gives him more road playoff victories than any quarterback. Ever.
“That kind of stuff is maybe something you’ll tell your grandkids about,” he says. “But for now, these wins are for us. It’s for the Jets. We all beat them.”
By far, Roethlisberger is the most accomplished of the remaining QBs. He also has the biggest black mark on his resume: Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for four games to start the 2010 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He was accused in March of the sexual assault of a 20-year-old college student, but a prosecutor in Georgia declined to bring charges.
Just when the fan base in Pittsburgh seemed ready to turn against him, Roethlisberger appears to have turned around his life. He even was given a media cooperation award that is named for Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr., and has been won by Dan Rooney, Rod Woodson, Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward. Roethlisberger called it “an awesome honor.”
How did he do it?
“Just be me,” he says with a shrug. “Anytime I can be around these guys and play the game I love, it’s an awesome thing and to have success as a team, it’s a great thing. We are a family and it’s a close group.”
It’s also a group close to an unprecedented seventh Super Bowl title. A third for Roethlisberger would place him in the company of Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw — the previous measuring stick for quarterbacks in the Steel City — along with Tom Brady.
The first QB to win Offensive Rookie of the Year (2004), Roethlisberger is, according to many opponents, just as difficult to deal with as the Bradys, Mannings and Breeses of the NFL.
“When things break down and it becomes backyard football, that’s when he’s most dangerous,” Jets safety Eric Smith says. “He extends plays like nobody else.
“And if you get a hold of him back there, you have to make sure you pin his arm, or else he’s still going to make a play.”
The Steelers went 3-1 during Roethlisberger’s suspension, but no one in Pittsburgh believes they’d be playing this weekend without him.
“He’s a winner,” says veteran receiver Hines Ward, the MVP of the 2006 Super Bowl win over Seattle. “Every time he steps into the huddle, the whole team knows we have a chance. As long as he is on that field, we have a great shot to win. As long as he is in our huddle, I am smiling.”
The smiles are just as wide for Green Bay’s receivers. Rodgers has a 134.5 passer rating — 158.3 is perfect — with six touchdowns and no interceptions in two playoff games. At least two likely TD passes were dropped.
“You know, the last couple weeks I’ve played the kind of football I think you need to play to win playoffs,” Rodgers says.
Unlike Roethlisberger, Cutler and Sanchez, Rodgers had an old-fashioned apprenticeship in the NFL, sitting behind Brett Favre for three seasons. And that meant sitting, because Favre never missed a start and hardly skipped a play.
Questions about how prepared Rodgers was to take over in 2008, when the Packers bitterly cut ties with Favre, were answered quickly. Favre had taken the Pack to the NFC title game in 2007 but Rodgers was viewed as the future, and this year — particularly in the last month — that decision looks brilliant.
“I think he’s definitely the quarterback we all hoped he would become,” coach Mike McCarthy says. “He was a young, talented quarterback, had a very bright future, and now we’re in Year 3 of his development, and he’s definitely developed into a special player. He does it the right way. He’ll break them down physically, mentally. He’s in a great rhythm right now. He’s playing his best football of his career at this point, and that’s what you want, especially this time of year. He’s definitely a big-time quarterback. He’s everything we hoped he’d be.”
Cutler can be that, too — at times. He was at his creative best last week against Seattle, and when he’s on his game, the Bears are a championship-quality bunch.
But he also can be obstinate, as he proved in his feud with equally inflexible Broncos coach Josh McDaniels in 2009, when Cutler forced his way out of Denver. When Cutler reverts to his my-way persona, it becomes counterproductive.
Then again, he’s a better quarterback than Rex Grossman, who led the Bears to the 2006 NFC title.
“Jay Cutler should be the quarterback of the Chicago Bears,” coach Lovie Smith says. “He’s a tough guy, comes to work each day. And quarterbacks now are normally the difference. You have some guys that blend in and are great, and then you have the QBs that need to make plays … he’s a playmaker.”
Sanchez is proving to be one, too.
A year ago, there was a sense the Jets protected him, letting their staunch defense and formidable running game and special teams carry them. This year, particularly last week at Foxborough, he’s developed into a key contributor.
Maybe even a Super Bowl quarterback.
“He’s just playing,” coach Rex Ryan says, “but he’s got such a grasp of our system now. He’s totally committed.
“A lot of times a guy can think he’s a good competitor, but when you get on the biggest stage, not so much. He’s such a huge competitor, but the bigger the stage, the more he wants to play and the more he looks into it as his time to shine.”
The Associated Press