By Jason Keidel
What the heck is wrong with Big Ben?
I know, it’s typical shock-jock stuff to overreact to one play or one game, to call for a player’s vocational scalp on a microscopic sample size. That’s especially true when the athlete in question is a quarterback who started in three Super Bowls, won two of them, and will stroll into the Hall of Fame five years after he retires.
Even still, you have to wonder what’s happened to the arm, body, and mind of Ben Roethlisberger.
Sunday’s game wasn’t just the worst of his career. It looked like he was William & Mary playing Alabama, at Tuscaloosa. No doubt the Jacksonville Jaguars are way better than we expected, but Roethlisberger made them look like the 1961 Packers, ’76 Steelers, or ’85 Bears.
In case you haven’t parsed the particulars, the Steelers’ QB threw five interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns. The Jaguars’ defense scored more than the Steelers’ (allegedly) nuclear offense, led by the gifted NFL trinity of Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown.
Even before this season started, Big Ben made haunting overtures toward retirement, pondering life after the NFL, with his widening family and circle of friends, and without the biblical grind of pro football. If memory serves, only Brett Favre has the spiritual reserves to retire every summer then come back to football with the youthful glee of a 22-year-old.
You don’t hear Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning talk wistfully about leaving the sport. And it will take the National Guard to pull Tom Brady from the gridiron. Yet Ben seemed very close to leaving the game that made him a star.
But Big Ben came back, presumably to lead a loaded roster to the Super Bowl, or at least until his Steelers played the Patriots, who have been nothing but Kryptonite since Brady took the snaps in New England. And while a 3-2 record isn’t a cinematic collapse, consider they lost to the onerous Bears and were just smashed by the Jaguars, at home. Sometimes it’s not just when or where you lose, but also how you lose.
And there’s a scent of hypocrisy to this. Roethlisberger isn’t just the highest-paid player on the team and the face of the franchise, he’s also become the conscience of the club. He’s called out coaches and players for all manner of malfeasance, from a lack of intelligence, or discipline or effort. Roethlisberger said the Steelers weren’t accountable after a loss to the Pats, called out Martavis Bryant last year, and called out Antonio Brown this year.
Which is acceptable, if not understandable, if he is leading by example.
But nothing that happened on Heinz Field Sunday suggests Big Ben is all-in. He looked indifferent, undisciplined, and just plain awful. And he looked defeated after the game. Not the kind of forlorn face that often follows an ugly loss, but an abject bewilderment that comes when you’re at a crossroads, an intersection of profession and family and desire.
During his caustic post-game presser, Roethlisberger said he wasn’t good enough, that maybe he doesn’t have it anymore. Only he knows if he was being serious or sardonic. But there was something troubling about his words, or how he said them.
If anyone has earned a mulligan in Pittsburgh, it’s Ben Roethlisberger. He’s played through pain, with mangled limbs and a rattled skull, has built a local iconic resume that rivals only that of Terry Bradshaw. And Big Ben did conclude his presser by saying you shouldn’t play if you have any doubt about your ability. Presumably, he’s asserting his unshakable confidence in his ability. So then he, the Steelers, and their fans should be on the same page. Thankfully for the Steelers, they play in the AFC North, where no team will dash out and moonwalk to the division title. And Pittsburgh does have two divisional wins (Browns, Ravens) in the first quarter of the season.
But life doesn’t get easier for Roethlisberger or the Steelers, as they next play the Kansas City Chiefs, at Arrowhead Stadium, a renowned NFL crucible for so many teams. At 5-0, the Chiefs are the NFL’s only undefeated team, and clearly the league’s best so far, having already smashed the Patriots on opening night.
Granted, the Steelers beat the Chiefs, in Kansas City, in the playoffs, last year. But the Chiefs are better now. And the Steelers seem to be worse, at least at quarterback.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.