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Inside the mind of Big Ben (cont.)

Posted: Monday June 12, 2006 9:54PM; Updated: Tuesday June 13, 2006 10:07AM
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Pittsburgh police are investigating the crash that put Roethlisberger in the hospital.
Pittsburgh police are investigating the crash that put Roethlisberger in the hospital.

Of course, it's tough watching film when your eyelids get in the way, as Roethlisberger admitted his did with regularity in those darkened meeting rooms at the Steelers' facility. "I nodded off more [in 2004]," he said sheepishly. "This year hasn't been quite so bad. I mean, I'm dozing in there, but I'm not totally asleep -- I can still hear Coach talking, you know?"

Uh, no, but please don't let the fact that I'm scribbling furiously distract you in any way.

I wondered if Roethlisberger preferred to study film in the comfort of his own home, as many quarterbacks do. (Manning even has his own basement-level "cave" for such purposes.) He shook his head. "When I leave the facility," he said, "I leave football there." Later Roethlisberger proceeded to insist that reading defenses was overrated as well.

"Right now I'm just at that point where I figure out what our guys are doing," he said. "Every play, there's a read to be made, and sometimes it's more than others. A lot of times the pre-snap read determines which way I'm going to go, and that's that."

And yet, Roethlisberger said, his football knowledge was much greater in comparison with what it had been a year earlier when, staring repeatedly at the plays on his wristband, he struggled in Pittsburgh's playoff games against the Jets and Patriots.

"I'm 10 times better now," he said. "I'm more confident, more comfortable and have such a better understanding of this offense."

Two days later I sat with Steelers coach Bill Cowher and asked him about his quarterback's study habits, or lack thereof. The coach sighed.

"Some of those things will come with time," he said. "You can't try to make a second-year player an eighth-year vet. You can't force-feed someone. That's how you let players develop. They've got to be the ones that want to do it, that take the initiative. It can't come from you."

Accentuating the positive, Cowher continued, "One thing he does better now than anything, he knows how to look safeties off. Remember in [the '04 AFC Championship Game], when Rodney Harrison fooled him early and picked him off? Ben learned from that. From watching Rodney he learned so much about how people read eyes, and the difference has been amazing. This year he can move and create windows with his eyes, and that's been the biggest difference in his play."

That improvement wasn't overly apparent in the Super Bowl. The game's signature throw, in fact, was delivered not by Big Ben but by wideout Antwaan Randle El, a former quarterback at Indiana, whose 43-yard strike to Ward on a trick play gave Pittsburgh its clinching touchdown.

Because he holds himself to such high standards, Roethlisberger, in the immediate aftermath of the Steelers' victory, was bummed when everyone around him was celebrating.

"Cheer up, dude," I said, standing over him. "This takes the pressure off."

He gazed at me quizzically.

"Look at all the quarterbacks who put up big numbers but don't win it all," I continued. "Guys like me always say, 'Yeah, he's got great stats, but he can't win the big one.' Well, you can throw for 5,000 yards some year, and we won't be able to use that against you. You've won the big one. So relax."

Roethlisberger smiled, for about two seconds, then resumed staring at his cleats until I gave up and walked away. Eventually, I imagine, he was able to let go of his personal disappointment and enjoy his team's collective triumph.

But with Big Ben, you can never be sure. The kid's a player, and I'm convinced he'll continue down the road to glory, this brutal setback notwithstanding.

Just don't expect him to take the route that MapQuest recommends.