Mike Tomlin apparently began the week by giving Ben an ultimatum, “Practice or stay put on the pine.” This was the right move by Tomlin, and the fact that Ben has returned to practice rightly encourages the faithful in Steelers Nation.
For whatever its worth, Ed Bouchette reported that Ben was throwing well, hitting deep balls. Take that with a grain of salt, if Ben had been stinking up the joint and Bouchette even hinted at that, he’d lose his press credentials pronto.
Steelers fans can only hope that Ben's return to practice full time signals a return to the performance he exhibited during the first six games of the season.
Neither Ben, nor the Steelers coaches will admit that Ben’s lingering shoulder injury has anything to do with his poor play recently, but the numbers tell a different tale.
As Bob Smizk pointed out, and Steel Curtain Rising mentioned after the loss to the Colts, Ben three for nine scores and three picks in the first six games, and had followed up by throwing eight interceptions and one touchdown in the last three.
If Ben really looks like he’s not hampered by injury then what follows here is moot.
However, if Roethlisberger is struggling in practice because of the injury then there is a franchise precedent for sitting Ben, and it is one that a veteran like defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell would do well to remind Tomlin of.
Starting When He Should've Sat
The Steelers took the NFL by storm during Bill Cowher’s rookie season in 1992. This burst was fueled in no small part by smart play by quarterback Neil O’Donnell, (yeah, I’ve called him Kneel O’Dummel plenty of times myself, but bear with me.)
Going into December, the Steelers were 10-3 when O’Donnell went down with a knee injury. Reserve quarterback and former starter Bubby Brister stepped in. Prior Brister’s first start, Cowher was asked what would happen when Neil got better, and his response was clear:
“Neil’s our starter.”
(Although, in typical Cowheresque way, when asked “what if Bubby comes in and plays like Sammy Baugh?” he responded, “I don’t really remember how Sammy Baugh played, so I can’t really answer that question….)
Brister's play in his first two starts was disastrous, as the Steelers lost successive games to Chicago and Minnesota, although he did finish the season with a strong, and winning performance against Cleveland.
Cowher stuck to his refrain: “Neil’s our starter.”
The playoffs brought the Bills to Three Rivers Staidum.
O’Donnell started, but it became obvious early on that he was not ready to play. The Steelers crossed the 50 at least a half dozen times during the game, and only managed to score 3 points. Barry Foster racked up 100 yards, but the Steelers passing game was ineffective. The Bills went on to win that day, 24-3.
The BillsThey were simply the better team that year, and probably would have prevailed no matter who started. But O’Donnell simply wasn’t healthy enough to give Steelers a shot at winning so he shouldn't have played.
Iron Mike in Relief
By the 1994 season the Steelers had already established themselves as contenders. Ten games into the season, the Steelers were 7-3, but their offense was lack luster. The pressure on Neil O’Donnell was relentless, but Cowher stoutly backed his man.
In truth, Neil was part of the problem. He had Yancy Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings, and Charles Johnson at his disposal, but he kept insisting on trying to force the ball to Eric Green, despite the fact that Green had taken to skirting out of bounds when he didn’t need to.
At mid-season, in his Steelers Digest column “Coping” Myron Cope speculated that the Steelers had been concealing an injury to O’Donnell Neil, reminding readers that “you don’t have to list a player as long as he starts.”
Week eleven brought a showdown with Miami and a surprise. Mike Tomzack would start for the “injured O’Donnell.” The internet was in its infancy then, so perhaps this move had been hinted at during the week. But to the hard core Steelers fans in Waltham's Bambino's, this was a minor shock.
Tomzack started and won that game, and the game that followed against the Raiders.
The nature of O’Donnell’s injury was nebulous,* but two weeks later he was back in the starting lineup and began a stretch that would see him play his best football (unfortunately, that stretch ended with a thud in Super Bowl XXX.)
The Lesson Tomlin Should Take
There’s no question that Ben is nursing an injured shoulder. How serious it is, on one will say. Roethlisberger is obviously going to say that he is ready to play no matter what, and that is to his credit. But if he is, as Bruce Arians estimated last week, only 80% he should not play.
In one half against the Redskins, Byron Leftwich showed he is capable of guiding the Steelers offense.
But Ben Roethlisberger is a team leader.
Sitting Ben for a game, if he’s isn’t 100%, neither going to tarnish Ben’s standing in the eyes of his teammates, and nor disrupt the locker room.
Quite to the contrary, it could be the key that keeps the Steelers 2008 season on track.
*It always seemed like Neil's benching wasn't entirely due to injury, although Steelers Digest's Bob Labriola insisted much later that O'Donnell was in fact pretty banged up.
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