- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- His personal life might be under renovation -- the harshest critics would say it's in need of a total makeover -- but his professional life is as good as ever, maybe the best it has ever been. The juxtaposition made Ben Roethlisberger the perfect subject for Super Bowl media day, a 60-minute on-the-sofa probe where just about everything is open for discussion though there's no orderly procession to any of it.
Q: "Ben, how do you feel about Commissioner Roger Goodell saying none of your teammates supported you after your suspension for conduct detrimental to the NFL?"
Roethlisberger, having endured two Super Bowl media day events already in his career, knew what was coming. The smartest players have used the day to create or further their own agendas. The unprepared ones have been swallowed up like a bad comedian in a tough room. Big Ben, very candidly, is trying to rebuild his image in the wake of an accusation, though he was never charged, that he committed sexual assault and the subsequent NFL suspension. A misstep now could be disastrous, so Roethlisberger prepared for the session as if it was a game. He sought a strategy from Steelers owner Dan Rooney and Steeler-turned-ESPN broadcaster Merril Hoge, among others.
"I was trying to get advice," Roethlisberger said. "I couldn't approach it as, 'I'm going to do this myself.'"
So, with precious little fanfare and no drama to speak of, Roethlisberger took every question -- about Goodell's assertion, about the notion that many of his teammates didn't much like him, about any changes he's made to his personal life. He says he's calmer than he was, that he's stopped taking little things for granted.
"I'm counting my blessings, being thankful for every day, understanding that this could be the last time I'm standing before you guys the week of the Super Bowl I don't think it's time to reflect yet. In a football sense, when doubters and naysayers confront and challenge me to rise above I want to do that. And it's the same with being a better person People ask all the time, 'What do you want in your obituary?' I want somebody to say, 'He was a good person, a God-fearing person ' I want to be the best son I can be, a better Christian."
Certainly, don't forget, a better teammate, too. Roethlisberger said Tuesday, "There's a big group of guys I've been close to some others I wasn't as close to, but I've really worked harder to be." Hines Ward, who has been critical of Roethlisberger when he felt the need and supportive when he believed it was the right thing to do, said without mincing words that his quarterback had worked hard to "make a greater connection to all the guys on the team He put it upon himself to be a better teammate. And we embraced it."
Roethlisberger didn't bother with the stereotypical football player presentation, that he was guilty of nothing and therefore didn't need to change anything. He says flat out he's still in the process of changing. The Pittsburgh media, which has had its share of run-ins with Roethlisberger, voted him the most cooperative member of the Steelers.
"I apologized to them," he said, "for being difficult to work with That award meant a lot to me."
Probably, the farther you wander from Pittsburgh the more the conversation about Roethlisberger changes, from an obsession with his personal life to his status in the league -- to the question of whether he's a terrific quarterback benefiting from being on a team that always has a great defense and a power running game, or whether he's simply a great quarterback, an elite quarterback.
Since he led the Steelers to a second championship two years ago, I've made the case that if I had one game to win and my life was on the line, I'd want Roethlisberger to be my quarterback. Not Tom Brady, not Peyton Manning, who would be the choice for 99 percent of the people, but Roethlisberger, who throws for fewer yards and fewer touchdowns, takes more sacks and is never ever mentioned as the league's best quarterback.
All Roethlisberger does is make the plays that are there, create the ones that aren't, make a sometimes average line look superior, win in the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. I'll take Roethlisberger.
I talked to Warren Sapp, who has faced all three of them -- Roethlisberger, Brady, Manning. And when I told him my theory, he winced just a bit.
"The thing you have to remember," Sapp said, "is that Ben will let you hit him, while Brady and Peyton won't. You want 3½ seconds as a pass-rusher; they're getting rid of it in 2.8. Same with Aaron Rodgers. It's gone, off the back foot, out. Getting hit feeds a defense. It starts foaming at the mouth. Rodgers is thinking, 'I can't let that feeding frenzy start.' Aaron will let it go. He doesn't like getting hit. Ben? Your mouth is dripping because you're gonna get a chance to hit him
"But let me say this about Ben: I don't see him changing," Sapp continued. "I don't see Mike Tomlin or [offensive coordinator] Bruce Arians asking him to change. Ben's a monster in that pocket. He'll stand in there I put him up there with the original White Rhino, Daunte Culpepper, in terms of toughness to bring down. And Ben's wearing that glove and you can't knock the ball out of it; that glove is to Ben what Stickum was to Lester Hayes."
For the record, Roethlisberger isn't having it either, the notion that he would be the No. 1 quarterback taken in a game-for-your-life tournament.
"That's company I don't put myself in," he said Tuesday, "because they're too good I'm not pretty when I play the game. I just play the game to win it. I always say I'll probably never win the passing title, I'll never win the league MVP. It doesn't matter to me. I don't want to be the hero; I just want to win the game."
When it's mentioned that's the only thing that's important, winning the game, Roethlisberger realizes he's run out of room. He's being sacked by logic. If he wins a third Super Bowl, it's two more than Manning, and it pulls him even with Brady. Roethlisberger concedes it's becoming more difficult for him to make the case he doesn't belong.
"It's my way," he said, "of keeping me the underdog. It drives Coach Tomlin crazy because he wants me to put myself with those guys. I like to be the hunter, not the hunted."
Troy Aikman, probably considered higher on the quarterback totem pole than Roethlisberger, is calling the Super Bowl for Fox on Sunday. He has heard Roethlisberger's arguments that he's not among the elite.
"When Ben says, 'I don't have the numbers,' I point out that he threw for 4,300 yards last year," Aikman said. "He would have thrown for 4,000 this season had he played the whole year. He put up better numbers than I did. But people see the players around him; they see that defense and Dick LeBeau and that running game and the Steelers winning close games in the postseason without putting up big numbers To me, Ben's a big-time player who scares the hell out of people when they have to play him."
Byron Leftwich, Roethlisberger's friend and current backup, says, "I think Ben's playing better than I've ever seen him play."
Ward is even more dismissive of the notion that Roethlisberger somehow lags behind Brady and Manning. He said, "I know he's unorthodox, sitting back there holding the ball He did the same thing in college. He's not prototypical [But] yes, he has to be up there with those guys. When you measure a quarterback you look at wins and losses, what they did in the postseason, what they did in the Super Bowl. OK, he's 10-2 in the postseason, he's 2-0 in Super Bowls, he's 28 years old. I'm baffled. What else are we measuring? He's a winner, a proven winner. I don't care about the style or style points. I've won two Super Bowls with him and wouldn't want to have anybody else back there."
A third Super Bowl at 28 would make Roethlisberger have to really work to convince people he's not on the top rung of active quarterbacks. The day could come, sooner rather than later, when Roethlisberger's personal life and football life are in sync, each just where he wants it. His relationship with his teammates, whether or not you believe Goodell, probably is better now than at any time since his rookie season. If the Steelers win Sunday, Roethlisberger will have won three Super Bowls since Brady last won one. He'll have three times as many championships as Manning. He'll have surpassed John Elway, be tied with Aikman, and come within one of Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, both godlike figures in the history of professional football.
When somebody asked if the offseason will be Roethlisberger's true test, since that's when the absence of teammates seemed to allow him too much time to roam, Ward said, "Ben's fine. He went through a rough time. But he doesn't need structure all the time. Ben'll be fine. He's our brother. In the offseason, if he wants to come stay at my house, we'll make it work. Ben's gonna be all right."
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN, and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.
He's at the top of the football world, but that wouldn't help Ben Roethlisberger against the amateur psychoanalysts blitzing him at media day. So how'd he do? He passed, of course.