Weekend of the QB: Big Ben, Favre, Cassel all shine in Week 12 wins
Brett Favre and the Jets are second-seed-in-the-AFC good
It's time for the Eagles to see what Kevin Kolb can do
The Fine 15, MVP Watch, 10 Things I Think I Think and more
It's a quarterback weekend. Roethlisberger leads, Favre slays, Cassel levitates, McNabb stews. The stories as I saw them, going back to my trip Thursday night to see the Steelers and Bengals at Heinz Field:
PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger, leader. It's not a role he's always had with the Steelers; the thing you've heard over the years is the veterans on the team were looking for Big Ben to be more of an active lead-by-example guy. That's something he's morphed into now, naturally, and it bodes very, very well for the Steelers.
One by one, as the offensive linemen left the locker room after the Steelers dumped the Bengals 27-10 on a pre-winter night, Roethlisberger said to them: "Ten o'clock tomorrow. Don't be late.'' One of the linemen said he didn't know if he'd be up on time and wondered if Ben could give him a wakeup call, to which Roethlisberger told him to be on time and he'd see him there.
"Where you going?'' I asked.
"Taking the linemen to Chicago,'' he said. "It's Justin's birthday [center Justin Hartwig], and one of our linemen is from there, and he said we'd have a great time. So we're going. It'll be fun. Be a chance to hang out with the guys on a couple of days off.''
Roethlisberger is growing into a hard-shelled guy who can play hurt and be the kind of player his teammates want to follow. Thursday's game was an interesting example of that. When Santonio Holmes was knocked out by defensive back Chris Crocker, Roethlisberger thought a couple of his teammates might try to exact revenge. He told them not to. "It wasn't a dirty hit,'' Roethlisberger said in the huddle, trying to quell the anger.
In the fourth quarter, with a 20-10 lead and 2:22 left, the smart thing was for Roethlisberger to not aggravate his early season separated shoulder by taking any risk. But there he was, scrambling for the insurance score and stretching his exposed shoulder over the goal line for the touchdown while being tackled. It's the kind of play the crowd loves, the wounded hero saying injury be damned, I'm throwing caution to the wind and playing the game I love, and playing it hard ... It's also the kind of play that, if the quarterback gets hurt, fans will harangue said quarterback for weeks for taking a needless risk.
"Heck no,'' he said after I asked if he had thought twice about exposing his shoulder to that risk. "I will never ... Casey Hampton said to me on the sidelines, 'What are you doing scoring? Why didn't you just go down at the one?' I said, 'Hamp, don't you know by now? That's my heart.' I'm a competitor. I want to get in the end zone. And I want to win. Period. I don't think about running the clock out. I don't think about saving myself. It'll take someone to bring me down. It's the competitive side. [Coach Mike Tomlin] tells me, 'Don't take a hit. Get down, slide.' You have to pick your battles. You have to know when to do it. In that situation, it's competition.''
Roethlisberger said his shoulder has given him no trouble for three-straight games. "This is three weeks -- two, three weeks in a row -- that I haven't reinjured it. As long as it keeps feeling better, and if we don't do anything major to it, it's going to keep feeling better. I'm not going to baby it. I'm OK.''
He needs to be. When the team convenes today after the mini-bye-week (Tomlin gave them three days off after the victory over Cincinnati), the Steelers will be looking at a brutal four-week stretch -- at New England, Dallas, at Baltimore, at Tennessee. Rub dirt on it, spit on it, whatever. That shoulder has the hopes of the Steelers riding on it.
"Like I'm 39,'' Favre said.
And he sounded weary -- weary but happy -- after the Jets manhandled the Titans 34-13, ruining Tennessee's hopes for a perfect season. "I never expected a game like this,'' he said. "When I put the film on to watch them last week, I said, "Holy crap, they're good. Really good. But it's the kind of win that means something, where there's a lot of hooting and hollering in the locker room after the game, and you say to yourself, 'This is fun. This is why I came back.'"
I told Favre it's pretty amazing that four months ago he seemed determined to play for Green Bay or Minnesota or no team, and look what's happened. "You're right,'' he said. "Who'da thunk it? Me, a New York Jet. I remember those days. I was not open to playing anywhere else, but for all the wrong reasons. For revenge, or whatever. And that was wrong. I knew what a change it would be, especially in New York. I was about to be 39, and New York wasn't a great fit. The media, coming off a 4-12 season, learning a new offense, the high expectations ... Did I really want to go through that?
"A change like that would have been tough on a 22-year-old. As a matter of fact, after I reached the agreement with the Jets, we were in the plane coming up to New Jersey and I thought, 'Oh no! What am I doing? I'm making a big mistake.'
"It might have been more than I was up for. But then [wife] Deanna said something to me that made sense. She said, 'Hey, whether you're here one year, two years, or five weeks, whatever, you've got to be committed.' And she was right. I owed it to the Jets to give them everything I had.
"And it's been great. It hasn't been all smooth, but I've enjoyed it. I'm having fun. Now, if we were 3-8 instead of 8-3, I know I'd be back on the farm next year and it'd be over. But I'm just going to play as hard as I can every week the rest of the way and we'll see how it goes.''
No promises about next year. He just doesn't know yet, and he's not allowing himself to think ahead. He did think ahead about one thing Sunday, though.
"There's a good chance we play the Titans again,'' he said. "These guys are good.''
So are the Jets. Maybe second-seed-in-the-AFC good.
"Wow,'' Cassel said from Miami after the Pats' 48-28 win. "That's pretty good.''
It's crazy and all-too-soon and slightly irreverent. But it is also unavoidable. Life is imitating art. The career path of Cassel is following Brady's. Brady's record after 11 games: 8-3. Cassel's: 7-4 -- and if the Pats had won the overtime coin flip a week ago Thursday, I bet those records would be the same. Brady's rating: 91.6. Cassel's: 90.5. Cassel leads Brady by 377 passing yards, thanks to Cassel's back-to-back 400-yard passing games. (Been on Mars? That's no misprint.) As for touchdowns, Brady leads Cassel by three.
It's hard to fathom what we're seeing. Brady, the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, has won three Super Bowls and will be a Hall of Famer on the first ballot. Cassel, the 230th pick in 2005, hasn't won anything big yet, but he has thrown for more yards than Brett Favre this season (2,615 to 2,461) and for a higher passer rating than Peyton Manning (90.5 to 87.2) and for more yards per pass attempt than Eli Manning. The Patriots' system works, and it works wonders.
This is what one AFC pro scout told me this week: "In training camp this year, there were times I thought the Patriots liked [current third-stringer] Matt Gutierrez better than Cassel. You could have traded for Cassel in camp this summer if you really wanted him. But you'd have had no reason to. The point is, the Patriots have done an amazing job of drafting and developing late-round and free-agent quarterbacks. Whatever their secret is, we should all be following it. I want to find out who their quarterback in the late rounds is next year and get him.''
Early in Brady's playing career, in 2001, the Patriots protected him, the same way they protected Cassel early this year. Then the wraps came off, and Cassel's getting more of the game plan from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "We continue to progress and to put more and more in the game plan,'' Cassel said. "Early on, I was more of a game-manager, but it's been a progression, and now, probably since the St. Louis game [in Week 8], I feel like they're showing more and more confidence in me every week.''
Brady's been in his ear, too. It hasn't just been McDaniels. "Everything I do in the games has to do with Tom's guidance,'' he said. "He took me under his wing when I was a punk rookie and he was a superstar. He's been great to me this year. I emulate him every day when I got out to practice or to play a game.''
The easiest way to get put off by the polite Cassel is to mention he's about to be a free-agent, and he's about to make a jillion dollars somewhere in 2009. He knows. He's not stupid. He just doesn't want to hear about it now.
"We'll see,'' he said. "I honestly don't think about it. I just want to keep playing, and let that take care of itself when the end of the year comes.'' Smart man.
Now for the bad news: Donovan McNabb looks awful. He's slow-footed, with severe accuracy issues (48-percent completions in his last 11 quarters), at the same time star running back Brian Westbrook is a shell of himself because of injuries, at the same time his best offensive lineman, guard Shawn Andrews, is out with a back injury, and at the same time his star tight end, L.J. Smith, is going through a Steve Sax-like slump catching the ball.
So Andy Reid pulled McNabb at halftime of the debacle in Baltimore. Heir Kevin Kolb was worse, and the Fox cameras caught McNabb clapping after a Kolb interception, though it was likely more of a "keep your head up'' kind of clapping. Just a weird scene. Whatever Reid decides to do Thanksgiving night against Arizona -- I'm guessing he'll go back to McNabb because Kolb looked so terrible, not because he thinks McNabb is going to turn it around -- the Eagles have to begin thinking about life after McNabb. It's in fairness to him and the team.
Can he still play? Maybe. Probably. But there's no guarantee he can ever be the same McNabb who played well (well, not consistently great) for eight years. If you think enough of a prospect to draft him as high as the Eagles picked Kolb (36th overall), you've got to give him a chance before he leaves in free-agency. If McNabb continued to play at a B to B-plus level, I'd say fine -- let Kolb go when he hits the market. But McNabb's been a C-minus quarterback this year, with an F the last three weeks.
As my colleague Don "Donnie Brasco" Banks points out so succinctly, "the Eagles owe No. 5 a cool $19.2 million over the next two years, and that's not veteran backup money." I'm hopeful McNabb will be allowed to ply his trade somewhere else in 2009. For now, as soon as the Eagles lose their seventh game, Kolb should be the quarterback for the rest of the season. It's time.