FOR THE past seven months, ever since that cold January night when the Steelers' surprising 2004 season expired a game short of the Super Bowl, one question has dominated the conversation across western Pennsylvania: Can Big Ben do it again?
In leading the Steelers to a conference-record 15 regular-season victories and an AFC Championship Game appearance, Ben Roethlisberger became an instant Steeltown sensation. It was the most impressive rookie campaign by a quarterback since Dan Marino's 21 years earlier. Now, to live up to his own lofty standards--not to mention those of Hall of Famer Marino, a Pittsburgh native who won NFL MVP honors and led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in his second season--Roethlisberger must provide a reasonable facsimile of 2004, minus the five postseason interceptions. If he does not come through, expect the term sophomore slump to be tossed around at Steelers games more often than coach Bill Cowher's headset after a dubious officiating call.
"I know that if we don't go 15-1 people are going to say it's a slump, so I don't worry about it," says Roethlisberger. "The bottom line is that I can have a better season [statistically] and we could still win fewer games than we did a year ago. What matters is that we win the ones that count."
This is as close as the Findlay, Ohio, native comes to soft-pedaling his own abilities. After replacing the injured Tommy Maddox in the second game last season, the self-assured, 6'5", 241-pound Roethlisberger won 14 consecutive regular-season starts plus a division playoff against the Jets before losing to the Patriots in the AFC title game. He broke Marino's rookie-season records for completion percentage (.664) and passer rating (98.1). Off the field he dated pro golfer Natalie Gulbis (the two have since broken up), schmoozed with wrestler-turned- actor The Rock and, against the wishes of his coach, cultivated the image of a renegade, helmet-shunning biker.
In the wake of Roethlisberger's sudden celebrity, it figures that people will wonder whether the young quarterback's head has grown too big for his helmet. "There's always a danger of being overconfident," says halfback Jerome Bettis, drawing on his own experience following a 1,429-yard campaign as a Los Angeles Rams rookie in 1993. "You lose track of the little things and stop doing the basics, and you forget the fact that a lot of others contributed to your success. Before my sophomore year I had a T-shirt made that said 2,000 or bust. Then I went out and barely got 1,000. That was a rude awakening."
Bettis believes Roethlisberger will avoid a similar drop-off because they play in a system that often places the quarterback in a subordinate role. Last season Pittsburgh relied largely on its hard-nosed ground game and a punishing, active defense that yielded the fewest yards in the league (258.4 per game). Each unit returns largely intact--though the offense will start the season without the injured Bettis and Duce Staley, who combined for 1,771 rushing yards in '04. "He deserves the glory," linebacker Joey Porter says of Roethlisberger, "but as much as Ben did for us last year, it was still what we did around him that was the key."
Conversely, Roethlisberger admits that his postseason struggles, particularly in the overtime victory over the Jets, may have been the result of trying to do too much. He has displayed more patience in his attempt to master the Pittsburgh offense, which Cowher has slowly opened up as his quarterback has grown more familiar with it. For now, however, the quarterback will continue to wear his conspicuous wristband--inscribed with numerous plays from the Steelers' playbook--ideally as a safety net and not a learning tool. "A year ago he was looking down and reading the wristband, and he probably didn't even know who was in the huddle with him," Cowher says. "Now he'll take one glance, recognize the play and make eye contact with his teammates as he reads it."
Complicating Roethlisberger's efforts to match last season's excellence will be the absence of his good friend Plaxico Burress, the talented 6'5" wideout who signed with the Giants as a free agent. Cowher, however, doesn't appear concerned. "Ben has set the bar very high," he says. "Even if he goes under the bar, he's still a very good quarterback."
To be considered a great one in his second season, he'll have to leap over that bar--and land in the Super Bowl. --M.S.